Jesus told parables. Lots of them. But what exactly is a parable? What’s the point of them? Are parables to tell us something? Or are they to hide something from us? Either way, how much do we really understand of the parables Jesus told us? That’s a lot of questions! Let’s get some answers.
Jesus told parables, but what is a parable?
I guess it’s important to look at what a parable really is before we dive right in and look at them. While it kind of odd to put in the technical definition right away – here’s one that’s actually useful:
In the NT the actual word ‘parable’ is used with the same broad variety of meaning as Heb. māšāl to refer to almost any kind of non-literal utterance. 1Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 867). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
I think the key to this definition is to remember that it’s a “non-literal utterence”.
In even more plain words, it’s something said that was not, is not, and was never meant to – be taken literally.
However, having said not to take it literally, it often possible to exactly that. Jesus had a habit of taking things that everyone knew about and then using them to explain something else. For instance, one time while speaking to a large crowd from a boat, Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed.
Obviously, the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a mustard seed. And yet, Jesus used the comparison. It was a comparison that people understood at the time. But now, two thousand years later, in a different part of the world, in a different culture. we often miss the point. Instead of just going with the comparison, we argue about the size of the seed, the size of the plant growing from that seed, and whether or not anyone would even plant a mustard seed in a garden.
Back then, it was done, the facts given were valid, and the comparison fit. But unless we’re willing to learn something about the times, the culture, even what kind of mustard plants existed in that part of the world back then, we miss the point Jesus was making. Why? Because we’re too busy picking on things that have changed over time, with the culture, and the part of the world we live in.
We’ll get into specifics as we move along, both here in this article and with each parable. But I do want to point this out right at the beginning, so we can be aware of the potential for, as I often call it, getting lost in the weeds. The weeds are those things we aren’t familiar with, appear to cause problems with what Jesus said, but are easily cleared up by taking a “trip back in time” to the language, culture, region, and even the religion of the Israelites/Hebrew/Jewish people in those times.
Why it’s important to know what a parable really is
What “parable” meant when Jesus told parables.
Realizing what a parable is would take away a lot of the complaints people have about many of the things Jesus said. Jesus told a lot of parables. And if we can’t accept His words for what they are, but insist on making them what we want them to be, we’ll never get the point. We will be, as I said, lost in the weeds. By the way, there’s even a parable about that!
There are lots of examples of people who have issues with things Jesus said in parables that seem to be impossible in the “real” world. And, while there’s always the possibility of miracles to explain some of what Jesus said, we also see many instances where Christians go out of their way – occasionally getting all twisted up in their words – trying to show how a literal interpretation of Jesus’ parables is possible. But as we saw, by definition, a literal interpretation of a parable is never what the parable was actually meant to portray.
It’s a shame. It would be far easier to explain the definition of the word “parable” than it would be to twist a parable to actually meet the requirements of being literally true. And yet, it happens all too often.
What “parable” means today
It isn’t exactly easy to show the same definition of parable is still in use today. but let’s follow the trail from dictionary.com to show that the meaning of the word has not changed since Biblical times. I’ve underlined the word from each definition that we’ll use in the subsequent definition to be looked up.
1. a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.
2. a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like.
1. consisting of or pertaining to allegory; of the nature of or containing allegory; figurative:
an allegorical poem; an allegorical meaning.
noun, plural allegories.
1. a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.
2. a symbolical narrative:
the allegory of Piers Plowman.
3. emblem (def 3).
1. of the nature of or involving a figure of speech, especially a metaphor; metaphorical and not literal:
The word “head” has several figurative senses, as in “She’s the head of the company.”.
Synonyms: metaphorical, not literal, symbolic.
2. metaphorically so called:
His remark was a figurative boomerang.
3. abounding in or fond of figures of speech:
Elizabethan poetry is highly figurative.
Synonyms: ornate, ornamental, flowery, elaborate, florid, grandiloquent.
4. representing by means of a figure or likeness, as in drawing or sculpture.
5. representing by a figure or emblem; emblematic.
and there it is, finally – not literal.
It took a while, but clearly, whether it be Biblical times or today, parables are certainly not meant to be taken literally. As such, any attempt to invalidate a parable based on the inability to take it literally / make any real-world scenario be a prerequisite for accepting the validity of the parable is, by definition, a misuse of the literary tool known as a parable.
As I said at the beginning – a parable was not, is not, and was never meant to – be taken literally.
Why did Jesus tell parables?
Why did Jesus tell parables? Why didn’t He just come out and talk plainly? There’s more than one reason, so let’s just pick one and start from there.
One of the functions of a parable is to jolt people into seeing things in a new way
You can see the problem here: One of the functions of a parable is to jolt people into seeing things in a new way. The jolt comes because Jesus takes a common everyday “thing” and turns it into something entirely different. Like the little mustard seed and the incredible Kingdom of Heaven. Something tiny compared to something infinite.
But most of us today aren’t into growing things, much less mustard trees. It’s not common for us. Plus, we don’t realize that mustard plants in the middle east two thousand years ago aren’t what most of us would grow today anyway. So maybe we Google mustard seed. And we find that Jesus’ statements about the mustard seed don’t line up with what we read in Google for where we live – for instance, me here in southern California. And now we’re in the weeds.
What we probably don’t do is the research to find out about mustard seeds and trees in the middle east around the year 30 AD. If we did, Jesus’ statements make sense. But most people won’t do that.
The end result is that the only jolt most of us get is from trying to figure out how come the Son of God knows so little about mustard seeds! And now we’re really deep in the weeds. Thorny weeds at that!
To understand Jesus’ words, to actually be jolted into thinking about the right thing, let alone the right thing in a new way, we must put ourselves in the position of those who actually heard His words. That’s my goal in this series on the Parables of Jesus. To help us understand something that was ordinary two thousand years ago in the Middle East to a Jewish person. Something that’s not al all common to most of us today.
Since I began to look at what Jesus said from that point of view, it was like a giant light bulb was turned on. It was like I’d been reading the Bible with the light from a match, but now can see so much more. And then what happens, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the things Jesus was really trying to tell us also became so much more colorful and clear.
Another reason Jesus spoke in parables was because of Old Testament prophecy
I have to interject here, what Christians call the Old Testament is actually Jewish Scripture. It’s the record of what happened in the times of what we refer to as the Old Covenant. So once again, we see the need to look at what’s in that Old Covenant record from their point of view. Yes, there is prophecy in it that we must understand from a Christian point of view. However, to ignore the Jewish viewpoint is to miss a lot of things that Jesus referred to during His ministry.
One other note. It’s sort of true that Jesus spoke in parables was because of Old Testament prophecy. A better way to put it is that the Old Testament had prophecy about Jesus speaking in parables because that’s what was going to happen. In any case, remember Jesus said this about His use of parables:
13:1-15 pp — Mk 4:1-12; Lk 8:4-10
13:16, 17 pp — Lk 10:23, 24
13:18-23 pp — Mk 4:13-20; Lk 8:11-15
Mt 13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
Mt 13:10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
Mt 13:11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
Mt 13:14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
Mt 13:15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
Mt 13:18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
So that’s a parable Jesus told while out on the boat in the image at the top of the page. We also saw the thorns I mentioned earlier. Most important, we read the prophecy from Isaiah. So let’s look at that a bit deeper.
Verse 15 is a reference to a passage from Isaiah, regarding his commission from the Lord. It’s worth noting that this passage is just before one where Isaiah tells the people about a sign of the savior to come – Immanuel. Jesus. Let’s go through that passage on Isaiah’s commission and see what’s happening.
Isa 6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy , holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Here, Isaiah gives the time frame for when this event took place – as well as sets the scene to show it clearly is from God.
Isa 6:4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
Isa 6:5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
Isaiah knows he has no business being here. He’s afraid he’s going to die because he, a sinner, has seen God.
Isa 6:6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
One of the angels purifies Isaiah with the burning coal. With fire. This is reminiscent of God touching Jeremiah’s lips to give him the words for his prophecy. Also of the fire that appeared when the Holy Spirit was given to those in the upper room in Acts, on the day of Pentecost. And many other similar events and statements about being refined and purified by fire.
Isa 6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Now, Isaiah goes from being afraid he’ll die from seeing God to wanting to be God’s prophet. Quite a turn-around. Or is it? That’s how we should all feel after receiving the Holy Spirit. But honestly, how many of us do?
Isa 6:9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
“ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Here’s the verse from which Jesus quotes.
It’s followed by something that I believe, tends to be misinterpreted.
Isa 6:10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Did Jesus use parables because God really didn’t want people to understand?
Let’s step away from Isaiah for a moment and examine the question of Jesus speaking in parables.
So what is the deal here? Does God really want people to not be able to hear and see? That is, people will hear, but not understand. And people will see, but not only at a superficial level where they miss out on the message behind what they see with their eyes. Is that really what God wants?
Further, is that what God wanted during the time of Isaiah’s prophecy? And is it what God wanted during Jesus’ time on earth? And for us today, is that still what God wants?
Understanding the answers to those questions requires both understanding of what we hear (and read) and perception of what we see (and read). So how are we supposed to ever gain that understanding and perception? Are we forever doomed? Or has God given us a way to both understand and perceive?
Finally, if God’s intention was that people would forever remain in a state of spiritual darkness, then why did He send Jesus to pay for our sins? It would be totally pointless unless we actually can understand what Jesus is telling us.
Since Jesus’ presence was foretold way back in Chapter of Genesis, we must believe we are given a way to understand. And that way is a combination of two things. First, the parables, which cannot be understood only with our own minds. So the second is the Holy Spirit, who will teach us what we need to know, to give us understanding, and through Him we will be able to both understand and perceive the true message in those parables.
Does God prevent people from understanding?
There are so many times in the Old Testament where we read of God “hardening” people’s hearts. Obviously, that’s not literally making the heart hard. That would be instant death. Here’s what it’s about when we read that God hardens people’s hearts:
It is to Isaiah himself that the Lord now utters His command. He is charged to work in such a manner that his labors will bring about a hardening of heart and sensibility upon the part of the nation, so that there will be no possibility of its being saved. The heart with which men understand is to be made fat so that it is gross and callous and hence cannot perceive nor understand the divine message. In the Bible the heart is generally conceived as the center not merely of the understanding but indeed of the entire man. It is the man himself, then, that is to be made callous when he hears Isaiah’s preaching, so that he will not believe. Again, God simply speaks of the nation as “this people.” He no longer refers to them as “my people.”
The ears, the normal organs of hearing, are also to be made so dull that they cannot even hear the spoken word, and the message of truth, which should bring light, is to bring light so blinding that the eyes will not be able to see. It will, as it were, have the effect of placing a veil over the eyes. Preaching is thus compared to the act of smearing something over the eyes.
lest it see with its eyes—Interesting and forceful is the chiastic (words in revere order) arrangement.
Heart ears eyes—eyes ears heart.
In the second half of the verse there is another chiastic arrangement;
lest it see with its eyes—and with its ears it hear.
It is of course a metaphorical seeing; it is nevertheless a seeing of things as they actually are: the nation’s sinfulness and its need for repentance. If the eyes of the people behold its true condition, it will abhor that condition and turn from it. One will not repent of sin until he first sees that he is a sinner. Such “seeing” is a gift of God, but that gift would be withheld from this people. 2Young, E. (1965). The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–18 (Vol. 1, pp. 257–258). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
The last paragraph tells us a lot about this “hardening”. Notice, the thing that’s ultimately being prevented is for the people to see that they are sinners. That they have already turned away from God.
This is not about God hardening the hearts of individuals who are in fact following Him already. Further, we’ll see that it’s also not about God preventing everyone from turning back to Him.
What lots of people, especially non-Christians, don’t understand is that this is one of the ways God tries to get our attention. Tries to actually get us to turn back to Him, maybe even turn to Him for the first time. Most of us know the saying about having to hit rock bottom before we do anything about our situation. In a sense, that’s what God is doing here. It’s not like God does this to be mean. It is about getting us to turn to Him for help, rather than trying to do everything on our own.
Let’s return now to the passage in Isaiah.
Isa 6:11 Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?”
And he answered:
“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
Isa 6:12 until the LORD has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
Isaiah asks the Lord how long these things will take place. And he receives an answer.
But what we want to pay attention to, for this topic, is what comes next.
Isa 6:13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
A tenth of the people will be with God. Before we move on with Isaiah, this one-out-of-ten is reminiscent of the person Jesus healed that returned to give Him glory, while the other nine didn’t.
Lk 17:11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
Lk 17:14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
Lk 17:15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Lk 17:17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
It’s a sad statement that only one of these ten was saved. It’s even more sad that these ten would be a representation of the population at large. And even worse yet, that the one wasn’t even one of God’s people prior to the healing. If that’s not reason for every one of us who claims to be a believer to examine ourselves – I don’t know what is.
What we can see from this is that Isaiah won’t be speaking in vain. It may look like He’s speaking to only the one-tenth. But in reality, there is actually a message for everyone. Remember, the other 90% are related to when we read: One will not repent of sin until he first sees that he is a sinner. Such “seeing” is a gift of God, but that gift would be withheld from this people.
So there’s a process taking place here. One that’s necessary.
In commissioning Isaiah to become His prophet, God warns him that his ministry, for the most part, will fall upon deaf ears. Hear ye indeed, but understand not should be read “keep on hearing” as the syntax of the sentence indicates. In other words, Israel will continue to listen to the prophet’s message but will not really respond with believing faith. Their rejection will be such that it will be the same as if they had never heard and never seen. Make the heart … fat … ears heavy … shut their eyes indicates a ministry of reprobation.
Here’s what reprobation means:
Disapproval. Severe disapproval. If you want to find out what it means for yourself, try telling your nasty boss what you really think of him. Originally reprobation was a religious word meaning “rejection by God.” The root word probate comes from the Latin word probare, which means “prove.”
So one of the goals for Isaiah is to prove that the 90% aren’t following God. Not even close. Essentially, it’s proof that these people were so far away from God that they were beyond turning back to Him. And I don’t mean prove to God. He already knew this.
No, it’s proof to us. It’s to show us, who think that God wasn’t “fair”, that we are wrong to judge Him for what the people did. The truth is, “fair” would have been to destroy everyone. None of us really follow God the way we should. As Paul wrote, all of us fall short of the glory of God. If God was truly fair – well, you wouldn’t be reading this and I never would have written it. Because none of us would be here.
The more he preaches and they reject his message, the more hardened they will become toward the Lord. Thus, they will not believe and be converted that they might be healed. Probably stunned by this statement, Isaiah asks the question, Lord, how long? God’s answer, that He would continue to preach this message until the cities were desolate and only a remnant survived, indicated that his message would be pertinent to Israel up until the time of the Babylonian captivity.
And next we see the ten percent.
Yet, he is reminded that his ministry will not be totally in vain; for a tenth … shall return. This is also indicated in the next chapter in the symbolic name of the prophet’s son Shear-jashub (a remnant shall return). Verse 13 indicates that even this remnant shall be eaten as a tree and that only a holy seed shall be left of that. The teil tree and the oak are both mentioned here; both are especially capable of reproducing from tiny shoots left from their stumps. The idea in this passage is that Judah will continue to rebel against the message of God until they are taken in the Babylonian captivity and only a tenth of them shall ever return; and even that remnant shall later be devastated again, and only a tiny remnant (holy seed) shall actually remain. 3Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 1311). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Ultimately, this brings us to the question of whether God really wanted people to not understand.
Jesus used parables so those who love God will understand
That heading – Jesus used parables so those who love God will understand – is a double-edged statement.
Yes, some will understand. Those who truly love God will understand.
However, those who don’t love God will not understand. Those who love a false image of God – for example when we create God in our image – will not understand.
What we saw above is that God doesn’t want them to understand. Again, I don’t believe that’s because God needs proof of who loves Him and who doesn’t. It’s for us. It’s for us to examine ourselves and be able to tell, if we’re honest with ourselves, where we stand with God.
God knows our hearts. He knows how we feel about Him. He knows if we’ve recreated Him in our image – or if we’re trying to follow Him the way He has revealed Himself to us.
All of these visible things are for us. For us to see that God really is “just”. And that, maybe surprisingly, God is not “fair”. Of course, those two words – just and fair – have to be considered carefully.
By “just”, I mean that justice is always served. Wrong actions require punishment. That’s justice. God’s justice isn’t wrong only gets punished when you’re caught. Or when you can’t afford to hire an attorney to get you off. Justice is always. No exceptions. No excuses.
By fair, I mean everyone gets what they deserve. In that regard – God really isn’t “fair”. That’s because those who accept God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus’ death on the cross – they don’t pay the price for what they did. Jesus paid for us. Justice is still served. One hundred percent. But Jesus didn’t deserve what happened to Him. It wasn’t fair. And it’s not fair that those who truly follow Jesus didn’t pay.
That’s love. God’s kind of love. He so much wants us to love Him that He’s willing to pay for the things we’ve done. Are doing. And will do. “All” we need to do is love Him back.
But ultimately, our free will triumphs. God created us with the right to choose. We can love Him. Or not. It’s up to us.
The Hebrew view of parables
Earlier, I wrote about the importance of understanding the culture, religion, and the times of those whom Jesus spoke during His ministry on earth. In other words, the Jewish people around the time of 30 AD. Given that Jesus was Jewish, and many of the people who heard him were Jewish – I think it’s important to look at what the word parable meant, including its use as a literary form in Hebrew –
PARABLE (מָשָׁ֑ל, mashal; παραβολή, parabolē). A story or saying that illustrates a truth using comparison, hyperbole, or simile. Can be a model, analogy, or example. 4Seal, D. (2016). Parable. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Just in case you’re not familiar with what hyperbole is, let’s look at that as well, from dictionary.com –
1. obvious and intentional exaggeration.
2. an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.”.
Again, we see the part about not to be taken literally, but even more so, we see obvious and intentional exaggeration; which takes the non-literal part of the definition even further. Therefore, when we see complaints about things that obviously aren’t “true” – we need to examine the very real possibility that they were never meant to be true in the first place – but that they were an extreme example that was even exaggerated in order to make that wake-up call and jolt the hearer into paying attention and hopefully getting the intended meaning of the parable – as opposed to trying to figuring out what’s wrong with the literal words of the parable. We’ll see examples of this – for instance in the Parable of The Mustard Seed in Mt 13:31-32. We’ve already seen something about this parable earlier, but here it is:
13:31, 32 pp — Mk 4:30-32
13:31-33 pp — Lk 13:18-21
Mt 13:31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
Mt 13:33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Mt 13:34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”
The mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world (today) – and the plant that comes from it is not the largest tree in the world (today) either. Having said that – we’ll also see when we go through this particular parable that people go to extremes to actually attack not only the literal words in the parable, but also to destroy the message of the parable. How is this possible? Because people don’t know, or ignore, the time, the place, and the culture in which the parable was first spoken.
Why is the Hebrew/Jewish view important for understanding the parables of Jesus?
In the process of researching just this one question – what is a parable? – what I found was any number of people arguing over the minute details of whether or not something is a parable, and then arguing again over how to interpret a parable. There are so many different approaches to answering both questions. Not surprisingly, they vary over time. New ways to interpret are thought of – argued about – accepted by some – rejected by others.
The thing is – Jesus spoke in Aramaic, not English, Italian, German, Etc. The Gospels were written in Greek (although the rumor of Matthew’s Gospel also being written in Hebrew, if true, it was yet to be found – but in any case, they were not written in English, Italian, German, Etc. They were, as mentioned earlier – the words of Jesus, who was Jewish. Also mentioned earlier – the audience was often-times Jewish people.
BTW – it is this argument over what “exactly” is a parable that makes it so difficult to come up with a list of Jesus’ parables. People can’t agree over which of the things Jesus said are parables, and which are something else – like maybe merely comparisons or maybe a proverb. I expect I’ll be taking an approach to this that is more inclusive than some would like – since I’m going with a more general definition based on what we read at the top of the page.
The correct point of view
It seems to me, that if God is never changing, but we do change – then the interpretation should first come from that point of view, and then see what it means to us today. Not the other way around.
And, before we argue about what any given word means in English (or any other modern language using modern definitions) – we should first go back and see what the Greek words that were used actually meant in that time, including both the nuances of the language that have changed since then, but also the cultural themes that would have come to mind at that time as opposed to what we would think of today.
To that end, here’s a brief excerpt from The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology –
The conceptual background for the concept of parable in the New Testament was Semitic, not Aristotelian Greek. This single insight could have saved the history of interpretation of the parables of Jesus from several key misconceptions. 5Payne, P. B. (1996). Parable. In Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology (electronic ed., p. 588). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Since Jesus told parables, was He hiding something?
What can we say at this point? Since Jesus told parables, was He actually trying to hide something? Was He even trying to hide something from unbelievers? Or was something else happening? Are parables to keep people from knowing – or are they to teach people what they don’t yet know? To examine that question, let’s look at this from the New Bible Dictionary –
Some have found Mk. 4:10–12 very difficult to understand, for it seems to suggest that Jesus’ purpose in the parables was not to enlighten the unenlightened, but that the unbeliever might become hardened in his unbelief. It is possible, however, that what seems to be a clause of purpose in Mk. 4:12 is in fact a clause of consequence (so Mt. 13:13). The parables of Jesus may have the effect of hardening the unbeliever, just as Isaiah prophesied with regard to the effects of preaching the Word of God. The truth is that Jesus’ parables are unique. The parables of other teachers can to some extent be separated from the teachers themselves, but Jesus and his parables are inseparable.
To fail to understand him is to fail to understand his parables. ‘For those outside everything is in parables’ (Mk. 4:11); the whole of Jesus’ ministry, not merely the parables, remains on the level of earthly stories and portents devoid of any deeper significance. Here ‘parables’ has virtually come to mean ‘riddles’. It is, therefore, possible for men to decline the invitation to understanding and commitment found in the parables, and in them Isaiah’s prophecy (Is. 6:9f.) is fulfilled (cf. Jn. 12:40 where the same prophecy is cited with reference to the disbelief of the Jews in the face of Jesus’ mighty works). 6Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 869). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
It is, therefore, possible for men to decline the invitation to understanding and commitment found in the parables, and in them Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled.
Unfortunately, this has turned into a huge denominational issue. Some say God never intended for everyone to be saved. Rather, He chose those to be saved before creation ever started. Based on various statements from the Bible itself, I cannot believe this. If Jesus coming to earth was indeed good news for all, as the Bible states, how can that good news translate into many people being doomed to Hell with no hope of salvation?
Therefore, I believe the point of view above is the correct one. It is up to us to choose to love God – or not. To accept God’s gift of salvation via the death of Jesus on the cross – or not.
In that light, there’s a different question that comes to the forefront of this discussion.
Do we even want to believe – parable or not?
I’ve said, in other places, that oftentimes there’s this question of whether or not we even want to believe in Jesus, in God, that the Bible is the word of God. As it’s put in the quote above – it’s a question of whether or not we choose to accept God’s invitation to believe.
To be sure the whole thought is understood, let’s look at the referenced Isaiah prophecy again –
Isa 6:9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
“ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Isa 6:10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
It appears, from the English translation in the NIV, that it’s God preventing people from understanding and perceiving. But – is that really the case? Looking at the Hebrew, there is no word corresponding to “make” in verse 6:10. It’s an assumed word, based on how the interpreter looks at the context.
but wait …
However – if we look at Young’s Literal Translation, we see something quite different –
Isa 6:9 And He saith, ‘Go, and thou hast said to this people,
Hear ye—to hear, and ye do not understand,
And see ye—to see, and ye do not know.
Isa 6:10 Declare fat the heart of this people,
And its ears declare heavy,
And its eyes declare dazzled,
Lest it see with its eyes,
And with its ears hear,
and its heart consider,
And it hath turned back, and hath health.’ 7Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Is 6:9–10). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Make versus Declare
The NIV says “make”. But Young’s Literal, which is – well – literal, ways “declare”! Big difference there.
As with other places in the Bible, where we read similar things that God has “made happen”, that’s only a partial explanation of what’s going on.
Now that we’ve seen the three passages above, is it God that arbitrarily made the people incapable of understanding – or is God only enforcing what the people have already done to themselves? And, by the way, what they have done to God – since all the stuff they did in the process of making themselves unable to understand was a sin against God. Every instance where I’ve looked into scenarios like this, it’s God enforcing what the people have already done to themselves.
So – when someone hears a parable, do they hear Jesus teaching them – or do they hear Jesus telling them something to prevent them from learning? I’d say it depends on the person. If they want to learn – they will. If they don’t want to learn – they won’t.
As we go through the parables, we’ll look at some of the arguments put up by those who don’t want to learn. At the very least, it’s informative and helpful to someone who does want to learn, but is hearing the words of those who don’t want to learn. At the other end of the spectrum, maybe – via the Holy Spirit – someone who hasn’t wanted to learn can overcome some of the obstacles in their way, and begin to accept God’s invitation to believe.
Conclusion – Jesus spoke in Parables to help make things easier to understand
Yes, we just went through all that stuff about how parables were used to make things harder to understand. But that’s about making the deeper meanings harder to understand. About requiring both desire and effort to learn about God, as opposed to just right out telling everything in plain English, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Etc.
Not that people would have understood anyway. Had Jesus tried to speak definitively about things like the Kingdom of God, it wouldn’t have been possible. Not in our languages. Not with our limited understanding. And likely for a whole bunch of other reasons as well. Imagine us trying to explain a computer to Abraham.
So we see things like every time Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven, He used a parable. He tried to convey something we might understand using things familiar to us. But, as we saw, it was still necessary for us to put in some effort to go beyond the simple meanings behind the simple things of our lives.
But we don’t know some of those “simple” things anymore
I’m adding this section as part of the Parable of the wise and the foolish builders. But the concepts will certainly apply to others as well. There are things that people of Jesus’ time did, the way they did things, the way they understood things – that we just can’t relate to.
For instance, we have lots of buildings along the coast. Built on sand. And they don’t come crashing down every time there’s a storm. True enough – sometimes they do. But then we strengthen building codes, in the hope that the next time it won’t happen again.
Unfortunately, storms are getting worse. Sea levels are rising. But with our engineering knowledge, we think we can keep from falling too far behind. I’m not going to get into my feelings about the fool’s folly of trying to outrun what we’re doing to this planet. Not in this article anyway. That’s over in Why does it matter that we’re not a Christian nation any more?
The point is, we don’t think it’s a problem to build on sand these days. Even if that sand is 10 feet away from where the ocean comes to at high tide. We think we can defeat the destructive forces of nature. An so we have a hard time even grasping the problems that used to come with building on sand rather than stone. Today, most think there’s nothing foolish at all about building on sand. And to many, sand along the oceanfront is a prime location for a home.
And then there’s the whole question of whether or not we even know anything about building a house. Most of us didn’t build the house / apartment / condo / whatever that we live in. We couldn’t do it if our lives depended on it. That kind of knowledge used to actually be life and death.
But not anymore. We have building codes. And inspectors – both government and private (for when we buy a home). And then there’s insurance, if the home does get destroyed. And rescue boats, helicopters, and other means of being saved in the middle of a storm. Again – it’s something that was life or death in Jesus’ time – but not so much these days.
How can we learn from a parable when we don’t even know the simple things?
All of this leads to an inevitable question. At least, it should lead you to ask a question. If we don’t even understand the simple / obvious part of the parable, how can we hope to even come close to getting the real point of the parable? It’s even harder when we realize that we live in a world where we’re taught that God doesn’t exist, Hell doesn’t exist and everyone goes to “heaven” – except the “heaven” many people talk about isn’t the Heaven of the Bible.
You may remember from Jesus uses parables so those who love God will understand that part of the reason for using parables was related to loving Jesus. Wanting to make the effort to learn about Him. Willing to make that effort. Having faith that knowing Jesus was important.
But from what we just saw, it seems to be getting harder. The simple examples that Jesus used were about things that His listeners knew about. Some were even regional, like our example of building on sand or rock. Someone who didn’t lie near sand might not have gotten the point. But today, we see no problem with building on sand. We think we have ways around the issues Jesus spoke of. And so, the larger point is harder to comprehend.
However, that really shouldn’t surprise us. After all –
Ro 1:28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
As Paul wrote – this was bound to happen. And as we get further and further away from God, it will only get worse.
Parables required desire and effort to understand in Jesus’ time. And as we get further and further away, they will only require even more effort. And fewer people will be willing to put in that effort. Not to mention, fewer people will even think it worthwhile to make any effort at all.
Ultimately, if we want to understand what Jesus said when He spoke in parables, we must do the things above. We must take the time to understand what He said. And if we truly love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind – we should be willing to take the time to do that. Shouldn’t we?
- 1Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 867). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- 2Young, E. (1965). The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–18 (Vol. 1, pp. 257–258). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- 3Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 1311). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
- 4Seal, D. (2016). Parable. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
- 5Payne, P. B. (1996). Parable. In Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology (electronic ed., p. 588). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
- 6Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 869). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- 7Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Is 6:9–10). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.