Parables make up about one third of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. In order to properly understand the Synoptic Gospels, therefore, one must be familiar with the definition, function, and forms of parables.
Because parables vary in their form and usage, it is difficult to construct an accurate but usable definition. Blomberg (1997, 257) gives the very basic definition: “A parable is a brief metaphorical narrative.” This definition covers the broad usage of parables, but it is so general that further description is needed. A parable consists of a fictional picture or story and a corresponding reality that is better understood through that picture or story. For instance, in Matt 13:31-32 Jesus tells the following parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The picture or story element is the man who plants a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree large enough for nesting birds. The reality element, which is better understood through this story, is the kingdom of heaven. Often one has to examine the context of the parable to narrow down what particular meaning the correspondence conveys. In this parable, the smallness of the mustard seed corresponds to the relatively small effect the Kingdom of Heaven seems to have in the present age. However, the kingdom will eventually grow bigger and more influential than anything else in the world (field). Through the picture, Jesus’ hearers gain a deeper understanding of how the Kingdom of Heaven manifests itself.
While parables occur in the broader ancient Hebrew and Greek literature, Jesus seems to have used parables to a greater extent than any of his predecessors. Parables rarely appear in the Old Testament (OT), but Nathan’s rebuke of King David (2 Sam 12:1-10) is the OT parable most similar to Jesus’ parables. Other OT parables are found in: 2 Sam 14:5-20; Isa 5:1-7; Ezek 17:1-10; 19:1-9, 10-14.
Parables prominently feature in the Synoptics, but not in any other New Testament (NT) book (other than two uses of the word “parable” in Heb 9:9; 11:9). Some consider the “Good Shepherd” and “True Vine” passages (John 10:1-18; 15:1-8) as parables, but John seems to employ these as “I am” sayings and not as parables. Regardless, John presents Jesus’ teaching very differently than the Synoptics by not explicitly including parables.
Some parables occur in all three Synoptics, while others appear in only one. The Gospel writers arrange parables in different ways, often grouping them thematically. Sometimes it is difficult to discern if the Gospel writers are reporting the same parable (Matt 25:14-30 & Luke 19:11-27). Perhaps Jesus told variations of a given parable in different places, and the Gospel writers were reflecting those different renditions. Below is a table of parables in the Synoptics, but the reader should understand that such catalogues of parables differ slightly because scholars differ on the exact qualifications of a parable.
|Parables of the groom, cloth, wineskins||Matt 9:14-17||Mark 2:18-22||Luke 5:33-39|
|Blind leading the blind; pupil leading teacher||(Matt 15:14)||Luke 6:39-40|
|2 houses built on 2 different types of ground||Matt 7:24-27||Luke 6:46-49|
|A forgiving money lender||Luke 7:40-50|
|House divided; binding the strong man||Matt 12:24-29||Mark 3:22-27||(Luke 11:15-22) Not binding a strong man, but being stronger.|
|Parable of the sower/soils receiving seed/word of God||Matt 13:1-23||Mark 4:1-20||Luke 8:4-15|
|A lamp is not hidden||Matt 5:15||Mark 4:21-23||Luke 8:16-18; 11:33|
|The children and the marketplace||Matt 11:16–19||Luke 7:31–35|
|Kingdom is like: weeds sown in a field||Matt 13:24-30, 36-43|
|Kingdom is like: seeds’ sudden growth||Mark 4:26-29|
|A friend at midnight||Luke 11:5-8|
|Kingdom is like: mustard seed||Matt 13:31-32||Mark 4:30-32||Luke 13:18-19|
|Kingdom is like: leaven||Matt 13:33-35||Luke 13:20-21|
|Kingdom is like: hidden treasure||Matt 13:44|
|Kingdom is like: merchant finding a valuable pearl||Matt 13:45-46|
|Kingdom is like: a dragnet||Matt 13:47-50|
|Disciple as head of household||Matt 13:52|
|Defiled by what comes out, not what enters||Matt 15:10-20||Mark 7:14-23|
|Kingdom is like: a king forgiving a slave, but that slave not forgiving||Matt 18:23-35|
|Good Samaritan-loving neighbor||Luke 10:30-37|
|Folly of building storehouses||Luke 12:13-21|
|Giving the Fig tree another chance||Luke 13:6-9|
|Guests taking the more humble seat||Luke 14:7-11|
|The tower builder and the warring king||Luke 14:28-33|
|The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.||Matt 18:12-14; (just lost sheep)||Luke 15|
|The shrewd manager||Luke 16:1-13|
|The rich man and Lazarus||Luke 16:19-31|
|A slave just doing what he is supposed to||Luke 17:7-10|
|The unrighteous judge and the persistent window.||Luke 18:1-8|
|The praying Pharisee and humble tax-collector.||Luke 18:9-14|
|Kingdom is like: a landowner hiring workers for vineyard||Matt 20:1-16|
|Two sons in a vineyard||Matt 21:28-32|
|Wicked Vine growers||Matt 21:33-45||Mark 12:1-12||Luke 20:9-19|
|Kingdom is like: a wedding feast||Matt 22:1-14||Luke 14:16-24(same parable?)|
|Fig Tree predicts summer||Matt 24:32-33||Mark 13:28-29||Luke 21:29-31|
|Servants alert for their master’s return||Matt 24:45f?||Mark 13:33-37||Luke 12:35-48??|
|Kingdom is like: 10 virgins waiting for the groom.||Matt 25:1-13|
|A master goes away and tasks servants to use his money until he returns||Matt 25:14-30||Luke 19:11-27 (same parable?)|
The two most prevalent themes in the parables are the Kingdom of God (the nature of its coming) and citizenship in that kingdom (discipleship). K. Snodgrass (DJG, 599-600) categorizes parables according to what kingdom reality they describe: 1) The kingdom as present. Some parables answer questions concerning how God’s kingdom is present in Jesus’ work and ministry. The parable of the strong man (Matt 12:25-28) means Jesus is plundering Satan’s current domain on earth, and the parable of the leaven (Luke 13:20-21) explains how the kingdom seems to be small at the present time.
2) Kingdom as future. Other parables focus on aspects of the kingdom that are still future. The parables that picture a reckoning or judgment (Matt 22:1-14; 25:14-30) fall into this category, as they encourage faithfulness in preparation for a final day of judgment.
3) Discipleship. Other parables explain what following the heavenly King entails. Being a citizen of Christ’s kingdom requires counting the cost like a warring king (Luke 14:28-32), being like a shrewd manager in the use of earthy wealth for heavenly purposes (Luke l6:1-13), and praying with a humble, tax-collector-like, spirit (Luke 18:9-14).
Guidelines for Interpreting Parables.
The interpretation of parables has had a tangled history. Within a couple centuries of being written down by the Gospel writers, parables began to be interpreted allegorically by the church fathers. Saint Augustine famously attached allegorical meaning to every detail of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan represented Christ, the robbers represented the devil, the inn represented the church (which didn’t even exist at the time Jesus spoke the parable), the beaten man represented Adam, and so on. While not all church fathers interpreted the parables allegorically, it was the dominant interpretive method of their day, and it continued to be until after the reformation. In the 1900s the allegorical interpretation was discredited and almost entirely thrown out. It was replaced with an assumption that parables originally contained no allegory and were simple comparisons with only one main point. In contemporary scholarship more balanced literary views have developed that acknowledge that parables may not be allegories, but they can contain allegorical elements. What, then, are some guidelines in interpreting parables?
A. Because parables contain a story/picture part and a reality part, first identify the familiar picture element(s) and the reality or truth being explained. For example in the parable of the forgiving money lender in Luke 7:40-50 the picture/story element is the money lender who forgave one debtor 50 denarii and another debtor 500 denarii. The reality or truth part being explained concerns the relationship between forgiveness and love. While much more needs to be understood about the parable, it is essential to first clarify what part is the story/picture and what is the truth/reality being explained.
B. Remember the fictional story/picture part of the parable should be interpreted as a fictional composition. As Robert Stein (1994, 137-8) explains, “The picture itself does not describe an actual historical event. It is a fictional creation that came into being out of the mind of its author. . . . We must not confuse a life-like parable, which is a fictional creation, with a biblical narrative referring to a historical event.” The questions we should ask of a parable, therefore, are not about the details of the story, but what spiritual truth the author is trying to highlight with this story. In the example of the forgiving money lender, we should not be asking how the debtors incurred their debt—the creator of the parable did not include that information because it did not help make his point. Usually the details of the story don’t have their own meaning; they simply fill out and support the main picture. The author didn’t intend every detail of the parable to carry its own allegorical meaning totally unknown to the original audience.
C. Search the context for any explanation or interpretation provided by the author. In the above parable of the forgiving money lender, the parable is embedded in a narrative that contains dialogue. Both the narrative and the dialogue point to the spiritual reality that the parable explains. After telling the parable, Jesus compares the Pharisee’s lack of hospitality to the sinful woman’s lavish and loving treatment of Jesus. Jesus then proclaims, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). This material after the parable (the context) repeats and applies the spiritual truth that a person’s reception of Jesus (love) flows from the forgiveness received. It is in the context that the spiritual truth/reality part of the parable becomes clear. Some parables’ contexts are not quite so helpful, but context usually gives important clues to the author’s intention.
In addition to the above guidelines, the Lexham Bible Dictionary provides the following six basic principles for understanding Jesus’ parables.
1. Understand the social, historical, and cultural context of the parable. For example, in the parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1–8), it helps to know that in the first-century widows often experienced significant hardship and oppression.
2. Determine the number of points the parable is intended to teach. This may be linked to the number of main characters in the parable (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 174).
3. Consider to whom the parable is directed. Is the audience being addressed the disciples, the Jewish leaders, or the crowds? The identity of the audience will help indicate the message that the parable was intended to communicate.
4. Realize that repetition in parables is for the purpose of stressing a major point.
5. Identify stock symbolism being employed. For example, God is commonly pictured throughout the Bible (and in parables) as a father, king, judge, shepherd, etc.
6. Note the conclusion of the parable. The last person, deed, or saying often conveys the significance of the parable.
By applying the above guidelines, one should be able to identify the author’s main point(s), which are closely attached to the spiritual reality the parable pictures.
The Parable of the Sower as a Challenge to the Purpose and Interpretation of Parables.
The parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15) challenges many of the concepts presented above. For one, it suggests that parables were meant to obscure understanding and not increase it. Secondly, Jesus assigns meaning to several of the elements of the parable (like an allegory). It is helpful, therefore, to examine more closely this parable about parables.
With some variation in details, the parable of the soils appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. The main points and context of the parable are mostly consistent in each of the Gospel’s retelling, but for expediency we will examine only Matthew’s version (13:1-23). Jesus tells the parable to a large crowd (13:2). Verses 3-9 describe Jesus’ words to the crowd: “Then he told them many things in parables, saying, ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop– a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.’” Using the guidelines above, we first attempt to identify the story part and the reality part of the parable. Up to this point we seem to have the story part, the sowing of seed on various types of soil to various results, but the reality part is unclear. There is no introduction like “the Kingdom of Heaven is like.” Similar to Jesus’ original audience, we are not certain what spiritual reality this story is supposed to help us understand. From Jesus’ religious background, a few clues can be found; seed for sowing was associated with God’s word (Isa 55:10-11; John 4:36-38; 1 Cor 3:6-8) and bearing fruit was a metaphor for godly prosperity (Psa 92:12-14; Isa 5:2; Ezek 17:5-10; John 15:1-8; Rom 7:4). Even with these connections, the main point of the parable remains unclear. We look to the context hoping to find explanation.
In this case, the context does not disappoint; it contains Jesus’ full explanation and interpretation of the parable. Jesus later explains the meaning of the parable privately to the disciples: “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.” (Matt 13:18-23) Seldom are the parables given such a clear and thorough explanation. The story of the sower helps the listeners understand the spiritual reality of the word of God producing varied results among those who hear it.
Jesus’ detailed interpretation raises questions about interpreting parables. The guidelines above state that details of parable should not be given individual allegorical interpretations, but Jesus seems to do just that in his interpretation. Each place the seed lands is given an allegorical meaning that corresponds to different people’s reception of “the message about the kingdom.” This parable shows that although most parables are not simply allegories, they can have allegorical elements. While allegorical interpretation of parables is to be avoided, one must still acknowledge that parables may contain allegorical elements. The meaning of these elements should come from the author or from common metaphors of the author’s culture—not from the interpreter’s imagination or context (as was often the case in the medieval church).
In between Jesus’ telling and explanation of the parable, the Gospel writers introduce another element to this parable. While this parable helps listeners understand the spiritual reality of the word of God producing varied results among those who hear it, the parable also says something about how parables themselves produce varied results among hearers. After Jesus tells the parable, the disciples ask why Jesus teaches in parables, implying that this parable is unclear. Jesus’ reply suggests that parables are meant to obscure understanding instead of increase it—a concept that seems counterintuitive. After all, most parables use familiar elements to paint a picture comparison of an unfamiliar spiritual truth. In response to the disciples question about the purpose of parables, Jesus answers, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 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. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 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.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” (Matt 13:11-16). Jesus explains that the disciples are blessed by having a fuller knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven than others. This knowledge relates to what they already have—a close relationship with Jesus. By virtue of this relationship, the disciples will receive Jesus’ full interpretation of the parable; they truly see and hear. Truly hearing corresponds to the good soil of the parable, which is why the disciples are blessed; they will produce much fruit.
On the other hand, many will not receive this parable or any message about the Kingdom of Heaven. These people are not only like the soils that aren’t productive, they are like those spoken of by the prophet Isaiah: “ever hearing but never understanding . . . this people’s heart has become calloused.” By quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus explains that the rejection of his message fulfills prophecy. Matthew often shows how Jesus’ ministry fulfills prophecy, but the other Synoptic writers include a quotation from Isaiah 6 as well. Many in his Jewish audience, especially the religious leaders, are following the pattern of their forefathers in Isaiah’s day. They hear the prophetic message of God, but with hard hearts they refuse to receive it. Those who reject Jesus’ message will continue rejecting and misunderstanding the word of God.
Parables provide a good illustration of Isaiah’s words and the situation among Jesus’ hearers. Because parables contain a picture/story part that explains a spiritual reality, they can obscure understanding for those who refuse to receive the spiritual reality. Many of the Jewish religious leaders physically heard the parables/message of the kingdom, but they did not receive it and failed to understand it. Especially with the parable of the sower, the story part of the parable part was clear enough, but the only ones who received a full explanation of the spiritual reality part were those who sought more understanding from Jesus (“whoever has will be given more”).
Parables, therefore, clarify spiritual realities for those who have good receptive hearts towards Christ (good soil), but they obscure spiritual realities for those who have rejected Jesus and his message. The parable of the sower is a parable about parables and Jesus’ overall kingdom message. This parable not only explains why Jesus’ message was rejected by some of his own people, it also encourages Jesus’ followers to continue to seek Jesus and receive his word with the soil of a good heart. Jesus’ word will bear a great crop through those who receive him and his kingdom message. “He who has ears, let him hear.”
* Barry, John, ed. Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016.
*Blomberg, Craig. Interpreting the Parables. Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 1990.
*______. Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville: B&H, 1997.
*DJG: Green, Joel and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers
Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.
*EDT: Elwell, Walter, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids:
* NDBT: Alexander, T. Desmond, et. al. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downers
Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.
*Stein, Robert. A Basic Guide for Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994.