Jesus parables are among the best-known and most influential stories in the world. Even if people know nothing about Jesus, they either know about his stories or have encountered their impact in expressions like “prodigal” or “Good Samaritan.” The importance of the parables of Jesus cannot be over-estimated. Jesus was the master creator of story and nothing is so attractive and so compelling as a good story. Children (and adults) do not say, “Tell me some facts.” They want a story. Stories are inherently interesting. They entertain, involve, motivate and mirror our human existence.
Jesus was not the first or the only person to use parables. Parables are and virtually always have been a human means for persuading and enlightening. So Jesus’ parabolic teaching was not unique but we do not have any evidence that anyone prior to him used parables so frequently or forcefully as he did. He did not create the parabolic method; he honed and mastered it.
Parables make up about 35% of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. There is little agreement on the number of parables, ranging from 37 to 65. Most of them are in Matthew and Luke, with only a few in Mark and none in John.
Stories enable us to see reality. They often force us to see from a new perspective. From this “other world” we are invited to understand, evaluate and hopefully, redirect our lives. Apart from personal experience, stories are one of the quickest ways of learning.
Jesus always had an agenda, an ‘intent,’ for every story he told. He used them to explain what God is like (who he is and how he acts), what the kingdom of God is like, and God’s intentions for humans (what they should and may become). This intent of Jesus (the teller or the author) must always be the goal as we seek to interpret any parable. We look to discover the intent of Jesus to his contemporaries – his disciples and his fellow Jews. The question for each parable is: “How did Jesus seek to change attitudes and behaviours with this parable?”
We must avoid allegorising the parables by turning them into something Jesus never intended for them to be, reading into a parable our own church’s theology. Parables are among the most abused and mistreated stories ever told. They have been twisted, subverted, realigned and psychologized for centuries by pastors and scholars alike, making them mirror theologies Jesus that never intended them to communicate.
Jesus parables have been described as works of art and as weapons of conflict with opponents. His teaching delighted and brought instruction to many while also causing offence to others.
Parables are more than stories. A common definition is that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Although there is some truth in this saying, parables are much more than illustrations and although some are concerned with future eschatology, they are not about heaven. They are directed to life on this earth.
Parables are expanded analogies using comparisons and contrasts with the intent of convincing and persuading. They create an imaginary world that reflects reality.
Parables are a form of indirect communication that give a person handles for understanding truth. Through their creativity, they engage our attention and interest then force us to think in fresh ways. Their ultimate aim is to awaken insight, stimulate the conscience (through reflection) and move to action. [A good parable creates distance, provokes and appeals. By creating distance it gives the hearer/reader space to reconsider] Jesus wanted people to stop, reconsider their ways, and change their behaviour. They seek to goad people into the action that the gospel deserves and the kingdom demands.
Direct communication about the kingdom might say, “The kingdom is of supreme value and is worth everything you could give.” The Parable of the Treasure in the Field is double indirect communication in that it does not speak of the hearer/reader or the subject at hand. It uses another person (the one who finds) and another subject (the treasure) to address the hearer indirectly.
The story of the Prodigal and Elder Brother is double indirect communication. It is about a man and his sons, not the hearers/readers, but it uses other people and another subject (their relations) to speak of God, relation with God, and relations among humans. We see this indirection over and over.
Characteristics of Jesus’ Parables
- There are many different types or forms of parables.
- Most parables are brief and talk about anonymous people (except for Lazarus and Abraham).
- Parables are marked by simplicity and symmetry. They tend to focus on two or three characters.
- Most of Jesus’ parables focus on humans. They mirror human behaviour and by doing so see to change that behaviour and create disciples. Their main purpose is to goad people into response.
- Parables are fictional descriptions taken from everyday life. Some are realistic; some are not. Some use hyperbole, elements of surprise and shock.
- Parables are engaging. They were told to create interest and thereby draw the listeners in so they were compelled to deal with the issues being raised. They often started or ended with a question. Finding the implied question a parable addresses is key to its interpretation.
- The intent of parables was to force thought, usually new and unexpected thought, so as to gain insight and bring about response. Jesus sought to move people past superficial thinking, to discern and to understand the impact of the parable.
- Parables often contain elements of reversal, forcing unexpected decisions and associations. The tax collector is righteous, not the Pharisees; the Samaritan is the neighbour not the Jewish elite.
- With their intent to bring about response and elements of reversal, the crucial matter of parables is usually at the end, which functions something like the punch line of a joke. Pay particular attention to the rule of “end stress.”
- Most parables are context-specific and are effective because of their contexts. They are not all general stories with universal truths. They served a specific teaching purpose to bring about change in the people’s beliefs and actions. Parables regularly require interpretations and the focus should be on understanding the intent of the speaker and how the primary analogies work, rather than assigning direct correspondences to every detail in a parable.
- Jesus’ parables are theo-centric. They seek to change behaviour and create disciples, but they do so by telling about God and his kingdom, the new reality God seeks to establish on earth.
- We don’t have to say that a parable has only one point per main character (as Craig Blomberg does). Rather, each parable must be allowed to function as it will and to make as many points as it wishes in its own context. The key is knowing when to stop interpreting. Parable interpretation is about understanding the limits – and the significance – of the analogy.
- Interpret what is given in the parable, not what is omitted. There are always gaps and information that we are not given. Don’t focus on these, as the interpretation does bot lie there.
Summarized from Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne R. Snodgrass. In my opinion, this is the best book currently available on the understanding parables of Jesus.