Matthew 13:10-17 - What is a Parable?
The Master Teacher, Jesus Christ, used various methods of teaching while He was here on earth. One of the methods He frequently used was the Parable. The parables which He spoke have become some of the best known and best loved parts of the New Testament. He was not the first to use this method of teaching; the Old Testament contains various parables. It was also a method used by many oriental teachers.
What is a Parable?
What is a parable? Various definitions have been given. I suppose that the readers are all familiar with the definitions: "A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning." It is difficult to say in how far this definition helps us. We are aware of the fact that the parables consist of earthly stories, but, the heavenly meaning is not so easily discovered. By means of the stories Christ told He illumined spiritual things. The spiritual matters are usually not clear to us but the stories He told to illumine them are clear. He took His stories from the everyday life of that time. He sometimes took His illustrations from men's misconduct. He spoke of the unjust steward and of the return of the Lord "as a thief in the night." By them the points which He wished to make became crystal clear.
When and Why were they Told?
Our Lord did not begin to speak in parables immediately on beginning His public ministry. He spoke to the people in clear language and in a direct manner. He spoke the Sermon on the Mount. He often used metaphors, but those were not the same as his later parables.
The disciples asked Him why He now began to speak in parables. The parables puzzled them and they later asked Him for an explanation. It is often said of Jesus' parables that He used illustrations beautifully and effectively. We must be careful about accepting that assertion. If a present-day minister would use illustrations in this way, no one would understand him! Christ began to speak in parables only when the majority of the people and their leaders no longer followed Him or listened to Him.
The Biblical Answer
Our Lord told the disciples the reason for the change in His method of teaching, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. This chapter deals with the call of Isaiah. He had volunteered to go out as a spokesman for his God. Fiery coals had touched his lips to purify them and he was ready to go out with the glorious message of the living God. However, he was sent to a people who would not understand him. In fact, through the word which the prophet brought the ears of the people became heavy and their eyes were shut and their hearts became fat so that they could not turn to the Lord. Christ applied this word to His own method of teaching by means of parables. In order that we do not lose sight of the importance of these words, they are found not only in Matthew 13, but also in Mark 4:12 and Luke 8:10. Paul quoted these words from Isaiah once more in the last chapter of Acts when he described the unwillingness of the Jews to believe the words he was teaching them (Acts 28:26ff).
The Double Purpose
The reason which our Lord gave for speaking in parables may not be overlooked and will also have something to say to us concerning the interpretation of these parables. The parables belong to the word of God, as well as all the rest of the Scriptures. In these parables the Lord is speaking to His people and at the same time He is concealing the truth from the others. Perhaps we can think of it in somewhat the following manner: His followers hear Him speak, and so do many of those who do not believe in Him. Those who do not believe hear an interesting story, but this story doesn't teach them anything they did not already know! If the key to the understanding of the parable is not given, how can it benefit anyone? Even the disciples ask Him to explain the parable. Those who, for example did not receive the explanation of the parable of the sower did not understand that it spoke of the word coming to the hearts of different people, and they learned very little about the methods of farming in their day! But, they heard the word! Don't forget it! Jesus spoke the gospel by means of parables! The people had to admit that never had anyone spoken as He had. The common people loved to hear Him. They even loved to hear Him because He spoke with authority — "Thus saith the Lord!" and not as the Pharisees who spoke on the basis of what someone else had said.
Perhaps the way in which the parables were perceived by the different people of that day may be even be likened to the effects of the pillar of cloud and of fire which led Israel in their desert journeys. The one side gave light to Israel while the other side of the same pillar gave darkness to those who were not of Israel.
Difficulty of Interpretation
The interpretation of parables has given a great deal of difficulty throughout the history of the church. Even today, men often look upon a parable as a very simple illustration of the truth and they consider a sermon which has one of the parables for its text, "light." The teaching of our Lord about the reason He speaks in parables should make clear to everyone that to deal with the parables is no easy matter. In the early church some fanciful interpretations were given of the parables. Many of the early theologians were of the opinion that a parable had a literal meaning and at least one (maybe more) deeper spiritual meaning. This led to interpretations which were neither gospel nor anything else by which the people might profit. A great improvement in interpretation came at the time of the Reformation, although the fanciful interpretations were still by no means completely gone. Theologians often warned in the early days of the church that the parables were not to be used as "proof texts" for doctrine. That is not surprising when we consider the interpretations given.
Compare Scripture with Scripture
We must keep several things in mind to come to the proper understanding of the teaching of a parable. First of all, this too is the inspired word. Christ is an Artist. He does not use a parable which does not fulfill its purpose. We are to compare Scripture with Scripture. This is one of the most fundamental rules of interpretation. One of our Lord's parables is not going to say something which is contradicted by the rest of the Scriptures. It has often been said that we must find the tertium comparationis, which literally means, the "third of comparison." There is an earthly figure and there is a spiritual truth. What is now the means or the manner which our Lord used to compare the two? There were times when Christ explained the parable Himself. There were other times when the introductory sentence or the concluding sentence gives the key to the meaning of the whole parable. At still other times the context or the setting aids us in coming to the proper understanding of the parable. All these means are to be used in order that the true meaning come to light.
Dealing with Details
In the interpretation of the various parables one must be very careful in treatment of their details. The early theologians of the church scarcely overlooked a detail of any parable. This led them to strange conclusions. When Christ likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which is the smallest of all garden seeds and says that when the plant is full grown it is so big that the birds can build nests in the branches, we must not ask: what do these birds mean? They are only mentioned to show the size of the plant. That it becomes a large plant from a very small seed is the heart of the illustration. The birds are incidental.
Follow the Lord's Explanation
However, as soon as we have said that there are incidentals which do not touch the heart of the parable, we have also left open another big problem. Who are we to say that some things which are contained in one of our Lord's parables are mere incidentals? We are to follow our Lord's explanations and receive our instruction from Him. He interprets virtually every item in the parable of the sower. In others He does not emphasize everything. Therefore it is important to find the heart of the parable. Then we will be safe-guarded from many misinterpretations.
When rightly understood the parables may also be used to establish the truth of a doctrine. Why not? They are important parts of the word of God.
History or Illustration?
When we deal with the parables are we dealing with actual history or are we dealing with illustrations which Christ has simply thought up? In other words, was there actually that prodigal son in Israel? Was there actually a Samaritan who aided an individual who had been bypassed by both priest and Levite? Although some may think this is of little importance, there are difficulties if we assume that all the parables were actual historic happenings. Then there are difficulties with the parable of Dives and Lazarus. Is the one able to see the other in the hereafter? Are they able to communicate the way Dives and Abraham do?
All of the parables of our Lord will not be treated this season in this series of Lessons because there are more of them than our time and space allow us to cover. There is also a wide difference of opinion whether certain teachings of our Lord are parables or not. Some sound a great deal like parables yet are not truly parables. Some people have concluded that there are several parables found even in the Sermon on the Mount. We shall endeavor to treat some of the more important and more interesting parables this season.
Enriching Revelation of Christ's Kingdom
These parables are a gold mine. How the people must have hung on Jesus' every word as He spoke these wonderful truths. What a revelation it is to us to see the Kingdom of Heaven so revealed to us! To be instructs in prayer. To be instructed in the Father's love and it the Son's desire for His own!
Questions for Discussion:
- Why did Jesus choose to speak in parables? Can we say that the parables both reveal and conceal the truth of the Gospel?
- Is it more difficult for us to understand the parables of Jesus than it was for the people who first heard them. Why?
- Although the entire Bible is the word of God, does it become clear that some parts of that word fall under different rules of interpretation than others?
- In more modern circles of Bible interpretation interpreters often speak of the husk and the kernel of the word to be interpreted. This is a dangerous procedure. However, are we able to avoid this differentiation entirely in studying the parables?
- How can parables be used as proof-texts?