Parables were simply aids to effective teaching. Their purpose was to clarify and to illustrate a story, a truth, an incident, a teaching. Sometimes these parables seem obscure when we read them today – we can’t quite figure out the meaning and people interpret them differently. But the reason that they no longer seem clear or illustrative to us is because we are so removed from the historical circumstances in which they were told. We are removed from the language, the culture, and the specific circumstances regarding an incident. If we had that information the parable would become abundantly clear to us. Parables were used because they appealed to the masses, they were a very popular way of teaching. Yet Jesus was such a profound parable teller that they also fascinated and intrigued the scholar, the more advanced student; because often they have deeper levels of significance which you might share with your inner circle of disciples or students. But when you are giving a sermon or teaching to a crowd, you simply gave the story, and the central meaning was abundantly clear to the crowd, because parables convey very concisely and simply what is often a complex religious message – they take complexities and simplify them. Parables convey the message with impact. But I must stress this point — parables always elucidate and illustrate; they clarify and illuminate. This is absolutely fundamental, and it is so often misunderstood.
There is a whole school of teaching that maintains Jesus had secret teachings he would reveal only to his inner circle – those who were spiritually mature enough. And for the masses he spoke in parables; and we say that almost as if it is the term paradox. Some people say Jesus taught the masses in a way that they really didn’t understand – he sort of obscured the issue by telling parables, and then he had to explain the simple story to his disciples. This is a misunderstanding of the function of parables in the way Jesus used them. Yes, there were times when Jesus would amplify upon a parable with his disciples – but don’t misunderstand, the basic meaning of a parable was abundantly clear in the specific circumstances in which it was given.
Because there is so much confusion, whole theories have arisen about how we should interpret parables. Some have taught (even some of the early church fathers) that they were allegories, fables. Some would say that you can take each item in a parable and say what it corresponds to, what it symbolizes – as if it's some kind of allegorical or symbolic presentation. This is a very dangerous thing to do. Parables were not allegories, they were not disguised or symbolic messages—they were stories to illustrate a truth that was being talked about. They were live dramas with a specific function.
That function was determined:
- by the context (the actual circumstances) of what has just happened
- by the story teller – what point he wants to make
We often look at parables today and interpret them differently, because we give them their meaning based on our circumstances or context; but Jesus gave them meaning depending on his intent in that specific incident. Generally we can say that these parables had moral implications – they were always illustrating the need for man to come into a right relationship with the Creator and with other people.
In his research of the synoptics, Dr. Lindsey has pointed to a basic pattern that we see in Jesus’ ministry as a rabbi. The pattern is basically this:
- there is an incident that has just happened or a comment/statement that somebody makes
- Jesus then teaches some message that relates to that incident or comment
- He then illustrates and reinforces his teaching by typically giving two parables
Incident – teaching – parable. The people who heard these parables were those who saw the incident or heard the comment, i.e. they hear his teaching, and so it is very clear what he is illustrating. Just as when I give you illustrations, I illustrate a specific point that I have just made, so it is clear to you that the illustration serves to clarify what I just said. But if you take my illustration and remove it from the context in which I gave it to you, its meaning may become very obscure and you may question what happens. This very thing happens in the gospels.
It may surprise or even shock you (although it shouldn’t) to know that between Matthew, Mark and Luke you will find different parables tacked onto the same teaching incident. There is not always uniformity between Matthew, Mark and Luke as to where parables go. If you get a synoptic Bible that has the 3 gospels in parallel – you will see the same event, and in one gospel a parable will be stuck on, in the next gospel you will see the same event with a different parable attached. And so, there can be some confusion. E.g. Matt. 6:25-34, and then the same account in Luke 12:22-31. The teaching here is on the issue of anxiety – be anxious for nothing. But in Matthew’s account it is followed by the parable about serving 2 masters. In Luke’s account the same teaching is followed by the parable of the rich fool. Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel that he is drawing together many sources, and he says to Theophilus, ‘I am putting this together from many sources, and I am giving you an orderly account of the teachings of Jesus’. When these men wrote these gospels they were drawing from different sources/references, and because of that there is sometimes placement of parables in different locations—all of this is simply to say that parables today often seem to us obscure, and subject to various interpretations.
I have heard some of the wildest allegories and interpretations of parables. People who have axes to grind will typically find a parable, and construe it to reinforce their point. The reason they can do that is because we don’t always know the specific incident or teaching that it was associated with. If we were to know that, the essential message of the parable would be very clear to us, because the purpose of parables are always to clarify, to elucidate and to illustrate. I am pressing this because I see such abuse of this. We have established that Jesus was a master parable teller - this is an essential feature, because over one third of his teachings consists of parables.