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Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

Set Reading from Textbook

Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, chapter 14

Additional Reading

Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the
Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2008)
Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural
Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983)
Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990)
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 3rd edn
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 149-161
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008)
David Wenham, The Parables of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1989)

Jesus the celebrated teacher

Are the parables his sermon illustrations?

 Sometimes the parables are the preaching. There is no other bit of the sermon
to illustrate

 the parables, at times, seem deliberately designed to shock, provoke, and even
cause offence

 the parables at times appear to be sufficiently confusing and enigmatic that not
everyone “gets” them (see the Parable of the Sower, in particular).

What is a parable?

According to Klyne Snodgrass, about one-third of Jesus‟ teaching is in parables.

Parables are particularly prevalent in Luke, and Matthew, less prevalent in Mark, and
almost entirely absent in John.

The English word parable is nearly always taken to mean a short story of some kind.
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

The Greek word parabolē is much wider in its semantic range, and includes to a
proverb (Lk 4:23), a riddle (Mk 3:23), a comparison (Mt 13:33), a contrast (Lk 18:1–
8) and both simple stories (Lk 13:6–9) and complex stories (Mt 22:1–14).

The basic idea lying behind the Gk. word is comparison, that of comparing one thing
in terms of another, and therefore perhaps the simplest sense of a parable is that it
refers to an expanded analogy.

Four prominent categories of parables [adapted from the far more exhaustive list in
Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, pp.9-15]

similitudes; interrogative parables; narratives and how-much-more parables.

Similitudes, as a broad category, covers a range of different parables where the

comparison doesn‟t rely on a plot development (there still might be action, but there is
no problem needing resolution, no development of the situation in order to create a
story). Because stories usually involve characters developing, settings changing, and
conflicts being resolved – we tend to call these instances similitudes (expanded

Some examples of Similitudes

The Sower
The Growing Seed
The Mustard Seed
The Leaven
The Treasure in the Field
The Two Builders
The Net

Interrogative Parables - These types of parables (there are many more than the two
examples given below) function similarly to similitudes, but they are distinguished by
the fact that they are presented as questions: i.e. “Which of you…; Suppose one of

The Tower Builder

The Sheep in the Pit

Narrative parables involve a proper story, with real character development, and with
real plot resolutions. It is important to note that such narrative parables could be
further subdivided in other ways (for more, see Snodgrass).

The Unforgiving Servant

The Prodigal Son
The Wheat of the Weeds
The Unjust Judge
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

The Ten Virgins

The Good Samaritan
The Rich Man and Lazarus

“How-Much-More” parables – these parables can sometimes be narratives, they can

sometimes be interrogative parables, but their distinction as a category of parable lies
in their function – their use of comparison relies on the fact God‟s action far exceeds
that of human action

The Friend at Midnight

The Lost Sheep
The Lost Coin
The Unjust Steward
The Unjust Judge

One of the great problems with much parable analysis is that hardly anything said
about parables is true of all of them.

Every parable must be approached in its own right and not assumed to look like or
function like other parables.

The History of Parables Interpretation

This is important because the history of interpretation informs modern interpretation.

Within pre-19th Century Readings – we find a predominance of allegorisation

 Every item/image in the parable is given theological significance.

 This leads to the problem of “reading into” the parables some piece of
theology which had nothing to do with Jesus‟ intention.

 The most frequently cited example is Augustine‟s interpretation of the Good

Samaritan (see attached handout)

Another example is Gregory the Great‟s interpretation of the Barren Fig Tree:

The three times the owner came looking for fruit was taken to stand for God‟s coming
before the law was given, his coming at the time the law was written, and his coming
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

in grace and mercy in Christ. The vinedresser represents those who rule the church,
and the digging and dung refer to the rebuking of unfruitful people and the
rememberance of sins (Gregory the Great)

19th and early 20th Century Readings – The influence of Adolf Jülicher .

 Adolf Jülicher argued that Jesus never used allegory (and where it looks like
he does, it must therefore be added later – such as in the Parable of the Sower)

 Jülicher argued that parables are all about simple similes – this thing is like
that thing.

 Therefore, Jesus‟ authentic parables have one basic point, which is usually a
general religious maxim.

Key parts of Jülicher‟s approach remain in some scholars.

Late 20th Century – 21st century readings – the limited return of allegory as a
legitimate category.

o Rabbinic parables provide our closest guide to Jesus‟ parables – and

they do use allegorical elements (it is not so Greek after all)

o The work of Craig L. Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables)

 The parables can teach several lessons and have multiple points
of correspondence.
 Blomberg‟s general maxim – one main point for each character
or group of characters encoded within the story.
 The recent work of Snodgrass questions how tight a rule this
should be – Snodgrass argues that each parable needs to be
 treated on its merits.

The important difference between allegory and allegorisation

What comes out of this debate is an important reflection on the legitimate and
illegitimate uses of allegory. Here, I want to make a distinction in terms between
allegory and allegorisation.
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

 Allegory is a genre term – it names a type of literature, which therefore

generates a reading strategy (a proper way of reading it). If something is an
allegory, then to read it as an allegorically is to read it correctly.

o The key proviso here is that I make the allegorical connections the
author intended. What did they intend by this image/character? Did
they intend every image/character to have symbolic significance (i.e.
how comprehensive is the allegory)?

 Allegorisation refers to the arbitrary “reading in” of meanings to particular

images/characters, none of which could have been intended by the author
within their context. To allegorise is to transform a story into something else
by importing linkages, connections, symbolic meanings.

The key question, therefore goes back to the parable as it would have been heard by
its original listeners. How would they have understood it? What symbolic connections
would they have drawn?

Key Features of Jesus’ Parables

1. They are designed to stimulate thought

 Revealing the surprising nature of the kingdom and the God of the kingdom

 Pictures as handles by which to grasp theological reality

2. Parables are usually not ‘nice’ stories

 bring people to the point of decision

 think a whole new way

 adopt a whole new way of living.

 Offending for the sake of life-change.

 Parables are about transformation as much as information.
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

Some parables are as clear as bells, and, while we may discuss nuances and
backgrounds in lengthy treatises, they do not need explanation so much as
implementation. They in effect say to us, “Stop resisting and do it,” or “Believe it.”
We do not need much commentary to know the intent of the parable of the Good
Samaritan. Despite the numerous studies of this parable….the parable compels us to
stop resisting and to live its message. (Snodgrass, Stories with Intent).

3. Parables are indirect forms of communication

 Speaks to the reader/listener by telling a story that initially does not seem to be
about them directly.

 Avoids the reflexive defensiveness of humans when challenged and creates

space for reconsideration.

 Creates genuine intrigue – where is Jesus going?

 Wounding from behind – you don‟t see that you are falling into the trap of the

 Some parables lead to self-incrimination:

o The great example: 2 Sam 12:1-7

o An NT example: Luke 7:36-50

o That is what parables can do – they lead you calmly away from your
own defenses and expose your hypocrisy by showing you what you are
really like.
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

4. The parables often have an upside-down image at their centre

 the use of images/characters/events that are the reverse of what we should


o So in Jesus‟ parabolic web we find that tax collectors can be righteous,

that Samaritan‟s can be neighbours, and prodigal sons can end up in a
better place than elder brothers. The shock of these reversals reveals to
us the surprising grace of the kingdom, the hypocrisy of our hearts, and
the need for us to change.

We will return to the hermeneutical issue with this a little later

5. Not every parable is immediately transparent

 Sometimes, large amounts of people don‟t “get” the parable (see, in particular,
Mark 4)

 Jesus seems to be deliberate in this:

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked
him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secreta of
the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order
„they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.‟ ” (Mark 4:10-12)

 Parables can have the effect of sifting the audience – those who „get it‟ want
more, those who don‟t walk away and lose even the little they had.

 On other occasions, though, people seem to get the parable quite easily
(although they still disobey its message (Mark 12:1-12; cf. verse 12 - Then
they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the
parable against them.)
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

5. The parables are inextricably related to Jesus surprising message

about the kingdom

You cannot disconnect the parables from the proclamation of the kingdom

 Not about general moral truths, but about discipleship and theology in light of
the in-breaking kingdom.

 The parables shock and challenge, because the advance in-breaking of the
kingdom shocks and challenges.

 The message of the kingdom - God‟s eschatological salvation had broken into
the present in advance of its full manifestation at the end. God had broken in
with his saving power, to bring good news to sinners – to proclaim the time of
God‟s favour (see Luke 4:16-21). The divine strategy thus came in a
surprising fashion – God‟s kingly power comes initially in the form of the
weakness and humiliation of the incarnation.

 The strangeness of this vision of the kingdom:

o Many in his audience thought it was about blessing the good guys and
destroying the sinner.

o Jesus says – no – I have not come to call the righteous but the sinner.

 a God who runs toward prodigals (Luke 15:11-32)

 a God who gives people equal pay even though some have
worked an hour and others have worked twelve (Matt 20:1-16)

 The parables only make sense within Jesus‟ broader proclamation of the

o Many of them start with the phrase – the kingdom of God is like (see
Matthew 13, in particular)

o All of the parables reflect a new perspective on God, his actions, and
our response, in light of the “kingdom come” in Jesus.
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

Strategies for interpreting the parables

1. Parables are told into a context

It is not always the case that the Gospel writers preserve for us an account (i.e. Mark
4; Matthew 13), but when a context is supplied, it is crucial as to how we are to
interpret the parable. Some examples include:

Mark 11:28 informs Mark 12:1-11 (Parable of the Wicked Tenants)

Luke 15:1-2 informs the rest of Luke 15 (Parable of the Lost Sheep, Coin and Son)

2. Hear the parable as a Palestinian audience would have heard it

Reading culture correctly to work out what is shocking and what is not.

Did father‟s normally run in Middle Eastern culture (Luke 15:20)?

Just how much money was a talent (Matt 18:23-34)?

For cultural information, see the works of Snodgrass and Bailey.

3. The rule of end-stress

The most important part of many parables is the conclusion that either demands a
decision or compels the hearer to think in a new way. E.g. Mk 12:10-11 and the
Wicked Tenants parable. E.g. Lk 15:7, 10 and the Lost Sheep and Coin parables.

4. Determine the function of the parable within the overall ministry and
teaching of Jesus
Lecture 8 – Jesus the Teacher – The Parables of Jesus

5. The parables are fictional descriptions taken from everyday life but they
do not necessarily portray everyday events

The use of hyperbole (see Matt 18:23-35).

This is not historical reportage.

6. Determine how the analogy of the parable works, and help that guide
you as to the symbolism and correspondences to reality.

If allegorization is bad, and yet there are some allegorical elements, how am I to do
this responsibly

o Blomberg uses the principle that there is a major point for each major

o Snodgrass thinks this is likely too tight a rule – what you are trying to work
out how the parable works on you – and what its intended impact is. This will
help you work out which correspondences.

o Does God use torturers (Matt 18:34)? The problem of working out how to
properly treat marginal details.

7. Most parables appear in larger collections of parables

Letting parables interpret one another (see particularly Mark 4, Matt 13, Matt 18,
Luke 15)