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The parables of Jesus: The greatest stories ever told

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Thesis: Parables show the timeless relevance of Jesus’ teachings for our lives.

“What we don’t know most assuredly does hurt us.” Is this sentence true? Does it suggest anything relevant to your life today? Does it even matter very much?

Now consider the story which John Claypool told before making the statement you just read: “One of the good things that I got out of my ministry in Texas was a delightful story about a certain Mexican bank robber by the name of Jorge Rodriguez, who operated along the Texas border around the turn of the century.

“He was so successful in his forays that the Texas Rangers put a whole extra posse along the Rio Grande to try and stop him. Sure enough, late one afternoon, one of these special Rangers saw Jorge stealthily slipping across the river, and trailed him at a discreet distance as he returned to his home village. He watched as Jorge mingled with the people in the square around the town well and then went into his favorite cantina to relax.

“The Ranger slipped in and managed to get the drop on Jorge. With a pistol to his head he said, ‘I know who you are, Jorge Rodriguez, and I have come to get back all the money that you have stolen from the banks in Texas. Unless you give it to me, I am going to blow your brains out.’ There was one fatal difficulty, however. Jorge did not speak English and the Texas Ranger was not versed in Spanish. There they were, two adults at an utter verbal impasse.

“But about that time an enterprising little Mexican came up and said, ‘I am bilingual. Do you want me to act as translator?’ The Ranger nodded, and he proceeded to put the words of the Ranger into terms that Jorge could understand. Nervously, Jorge answered back: ‘Tell the big Texas Ranger that I have not spent a cent of the money. If he will go to the town well, face north, count down five stones, he will find a loose one there. Pull it out and all the money is behind there. Please tell him quickly.’ The little translator got a solemn look on his face and said to the Ranger in perfect English, ‘Jorge Rodriguez is a brave man. He says he is ready to die.'”

Now you believe that Claypool’s lesson is true, and relevant. Because of a story.

For the next eight weeks, we’ll learn eight of the greatest stories ever told, from the greatest storyteller of all time. These stories will make the biblical worldview come to life for us. They will each show us a different dimension of its truth and relevance. These stories will be knots to hold in the rope of life, lights to find the next step in the dark.

We begin our study today with an introduction to parables: what are they? Why did Jesus tell them? How do we interpret them? When we’re done, perhaps we’ll be able to open these timeless treasures more fully, and draw closer to the One who gave them to us all.

What are parables?

Let’s begin with a definition: the word “parable” means “to place alongside for measurement or comparison like a yardstick” and is “an objective illustration for spiritual or moral truth” (Robertson 1:101). “Parable” is a Greek word (“para,” beside, and “bole,” thrown) which means something “thrown alongside.” In his parables, Jesus threw a temporal, secular story alongside a timeless, spiritual truth.

The pastor/scholar Albert Barnes described a parable as “a narrative of some fictitious or real event, in order to illustrate more clearly some truth that the speaker wished to communicate” (139). Dr. W. A. Criswell called a parable “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning” (71). Michael Green describes it as “the comparison of two subjects for the purpose of teaching. It proceeds from the known to the unknown. It is an everyday story with a spiritual meaning” (152).

Jesus’ parables fall into five categories. The first is an illustrative comparison without an extended narrative (cf. Matthew 15.15; 24.32; Mark 3.23; Luke 5.36; 6.39). For example, when Jesus’ disciples warned him that his teachings had offended the Pharisees, he replied to them: “Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15.14). Peter responded, “Explain the parable to us” (v. 15). In his brief illustration Jesus showed his disciples that the religious leaders were blinded spiritually, and that his followers must not follow them into the pit which is their eventual end. He could have given them this explanation, but his illustration made the point much more memorably.

A second kind of parable used by Christ is an illustrative comparison in the form of narrative. This is the most common use of parables in the teachings of our Lord. For example, Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with this comparison: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7.24-27).

Here Jesus compared those who obeyed his teachings to a wise home builder, and those who did not follow them to a foolish one. In Palestine, a rugged and arid country, dry stream beds are common. They are wide and level, suggesting themselves as good locations for a home. Until a flash flood from the spring rains washes the new building down the river, that is. Jesus’ hearers all knew how stupid it would be to build a house upon such sand. Now they knew that disobedience to Jesus’ words is even more foolish.

A third form of parable is a narrative illustration which does not use a comparison. Examples are the Rich Fool, the Good Samaritan, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Consider, for instance, this story: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18.10-14).

This timeless story does not use a comparison or analogy. It does not compare the humble person to a man who builds his house on a rock, or a prideful man to one building on sand, for instance. It is a narrative without comparison. And its meaning is powerful.

Luke gave us the context for Jesus’ parable in the verse preceding it: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable . . .” (v. 9). He chose for his subjects the most admired man in his day, and the least. The Pharisee was part of the most rigorous religious movement in Jewish history, a man who had “separated himself” (the meaning of “Pharisee”) from normal life to obey every stricture of the Law as he understood it. The tax collector, by contrast, was a traitor working for the despised Romans to take money from his own neighbors. Jesus’ story made clear beyond dispute the fact that spiritual pride is always wrong, and spiritual humility is always right.

A fourth type of parable is the proverb. For example, Jesus said to those in his hometown of Nazareth, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!'” (Luke 4.23). This was a common saying, found in many languages and religions. Doubtless it was a truism in Jesus’ day, one he anticipates being used against himself. The meaning is clear: those most familiar with Jesus the son of man would find it hardest to accept him as the Son of God.

The fifth kind of parable used by Christ is the profound saying. For instance, Matthew describes Jesus’ teaching in this way: “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 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'” (Matthew13.34-35). Here “parable” is a general term for the spiritually profound sayings of the Lord Jesus. (For more on these categories, see Broadus 282.)

In each of Jesus’ parables, he used settings which were extremely familiar to his listeners. Most of the Galileans were rural, agrarian peasants. Thus most of his parables are agricultural or practical in nature (Keener, BBCNT 82). Jesus always found the most effective way to speak truth to life. He still does.

Why did Jesus use parables?

Approximately one-third of Jesus’ teachings were in the form of parables (Davis 127). Why did he use them so frequently?

One reason is that this use was a way of showing himself to be the Messiah. Matthew 13.34-35 quote Psalm 78.2, one of the ways this Jewish gospel writer showed his Lord to be the Messiah for his people.

Second, Jesus wanted his hearers to remember his teachings. They had no pen and paper with which to take notes. No books or newspapers could record his truth for them to study later. They had only their minds to capture his sayings. And so he made certain they would remember and apply his teachings to their lives.

The story is still the best means of doing this. It has been estimated that we remember only 10% of what we hear, 40% of what we hear and see, but 90% of what we hear, see, and do. When we are engaged actively in a brilliant story told by a master, we hear its words, see its scenes, and interact personally with its teachings. We are captured by it, and participate in its truth.

Third, Jesus wanted to give memorable teachings to those who might eventually recognize and accept their truth. Many of his parables taught spiritual facts which would be offensive to those without faith. But his stories carried this truth without eliciting negative reaction at the time, enabling the hearer to welcome such truth later: “A parable not only arrests attention at the time, it impresses the memory; and, if the hearer’s heart afterwards becomes receptive, he understands the lesson which he missed when he heard” (Plummer 188; cf. Broadus 283-4, Barnes 139).

Fourth, Jesus used parables to communicate to those who were willfully blind, knowing that their rejection of his teaching would prevent their understanding its truth. This is a difficult dimension of Jesus’ parables, but one he clearly stated himself.

For instance, after giving the crowds the parable of the sower and seed (see next week’s lesson), Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew13.10). These disciples had been scattered among the crowd listening to Jesus teach. Now they drew closer to him and asked him this question privately (cf. Mark 4.10). His answer: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (v. 11). “Secrets” translates “mysteries,” truth we could not know unless it is revealed to us (Broadus 287, Barclay 2.66, Barnes 140; cf. Romans 16.25-27, 1 Corinthians 2.7-8, 10, 11, 14).

Many in the crowd were unwilling to receive this revelation (cf. Matthew 23.37, Acts 7.51), proving Calvin’s statement right: “It remains a fixed principle, that the word of God is not obscure, except so far as the world darkens it by its own blindness” (2.102-3). So Jesus spoke truth to them in parables which require a spiritual commitment they rejected.

Even his answer was given as a parable which then quoted Isaiah’s condemnation of their spiritual blindness (Isaiah 6.9,10). Jesus’ answer is an amazing grammatical construction, in which each half of his statement mirrors the other half (a device known as “chiasm”). He begins, “This is why I speak to them in parables,” then adds:

1. Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

2. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

3. You will be ever hearing but never understand;

4. you will be ever seeing but never perceiving;

5. For this people’s heart has become calloused,

6. they hardly hear with their ears,

7. and they have closed their eyes.

7. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

6. hear with their ears,

5. understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them.

4. But blessed are your eyes because they see,

3. and your ears because they hear.

2. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men

1. longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it (cf. Carson 306).

Jesus gave truth to his hearers in parables, so that those willing to receive and obey his teachings would remember them, and those unwilling to do so would not understand them. Obedience is still the key to understanding biblical revelation.

How should we interpret parables?

Now we come to the practical question which must be answered before our study of parables can be profitable: how can we best interpret Jesus’ parables? Five principles are essential. (For an excellent overview of scholarly debate and opinion on the interpretation of parables, see Carson 301-4).

First, see the parable as a story set in reality: “The parable may not be actual fact, but it could be so. It is harmony with the nature of the case” (Robertson 1:101). It could always have occurred in reality (Broadus 283). Seek to hear the parable as would its first listeners, in their culture and circumstances.

Second, find the parable’s main spiritual truth. A.T. Robertson, one of the greatest Greek scholars of the modern era, cautions us: “As a rule the parables of Jesus illustrate one main point and the details are more or less incidental, though sometimes Jesus himself explains these. When he does not do so, we should be slow to interpret the minor details. Much heresy has come from fantastic interpretations of the parables” (Robertson 1:101-2).

“Allegory” is finding unintended spiritual truth in the details of Scripture. It was extremely popular in the patristic and medieval church (ca. AD 300 to 1500). And it was nowhere more employed than with parables.

For example, consider St. Augustine’s interpretation of Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. Augustine is typically considered to be the greatest theologian after Paul in all of Christian history. Nonetheless, he saw the oil and wine poured on the wounded man as his baptism. And the inn of the story, “if ye recognize it, is the Church. In the time present, an inn, because in life we are passing by: it will be a home, whence we shall never remove, when we shall have got in perfect health unto the kingdom of heaven. Meanwhile receive we gladly our treatment in the inn, and weak as we still are, glory we not of sound health: lest through our pride we gain nothing else, but never for all our treatment to be cured.” Nowhere did Jesus suggest that the inn is the church, and nothing could be further from the central point of his story. If Augustine could so misinterpret a parable, so can we.

Third, seek the meaning apparent to Jesus’ first hearers. The Bible can never mean what it never meant. Understand the language, culture, history, and setting as well as Jesus’ first audience did. Determine the subject Jesus intends to illustrate, in its context. Regard the parable as a whole and look for common-sense truth and applications. And interpret the details only to the degree that Jesus teaches them to us (Broadus 284).

Last, interpret the parables within Jesus’ Kingdom worldview. Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom on earth (cf. Mt 4.17). As we discovered in the last semester’s Bible studies, this Kingdom is a worldview, a way of seeing life and ourselves. Jesus’ parables are windows into that world and invitations to live therein.

These parables were revolutionary. They challenged the assumptions by which the people of Jesus’ day lived and believed (Boring 299). Never forget that Jesus’ stories got him killed. They will make us uncomfortable, convict us of our sin, and challenge our cherished beliefs. But they will also lead us into a life filled with the joy and purpose. The parables are stepping stones into a new world. Nothing less.

Chuck Swindoll once told the story of “Bonnett” and “Crossbeak,” two California whales who became trapped in a breathing hole in Alaska. The year was 1988. America was focused on the presidential race between Bush and Dukakis. But the two whales didn’t know it.

These giants of the sea found themselves stranded inland by ice. Without help they would suffocate. Eskimos were the first to become involved, gouging ice holes with chain saws. Water-churning devices were brought to keep more water from freezing. When the media caught the story, the world came to the rescue. An Archimedean Screw Tractor was brought to grind a way to the sea. Next came the National Guard with two CH-54 Skycrane helicopters. The Soviets then dispatched two icebreaking ships. Finally the whales were set free, silently slipping out to sea.

This true story is also a spiritual parable. To people trapped by sin, unable to find their way into the Kingdom of God, the greatest teacher of all time came. He gave them stories which broke through the ice which encrusted their minds and suffocated their souls. These stories led them step by step to freedom and life.

They still do.

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