Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Parables

This is the 2nd blog in this series, the 1st blog being Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.

Christ Teaching

Parables, which are one of the ways by which Jesus taught us the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, naturally require some form of interpretation.  The Twelve living with Jesus daily were themselves not clear about the interpretation of the parables and asked Jesus to explain his stories to them (Matthew 13:36, 15:15).  A parable is a story that literally makes sense, but its meaning has to be discerned and deciphered.  The use of parable by Jesus is a strong indication that He meant for His followers to study his words and to discern their meaning.   His parables point out to us that Jesus spoke using metaphor and image to offer thoughts about things like the Kingdom of Heaven and its values, rather than relying purely on straight lecture when teaching the Twelve and us how to live and how to be His disciples.

In Mark 4:33-34, we are told that Jesus always spoke and taught in parables, much to the consternation of the Twelve who questioned Him about why He used parables rather than speaking plainly to the people  (Matthew 13:10, Mark 4:10-12, Luke 8:9-10, John 16:25-30).  Of course the disciples are asking Him to explain to them the parables – they may be concerned that the public couldn’t possibly understand His stories, but mostly because they themselves didn’t know how to interpret them!

What exactly is a parable?

“A parable presents a spiritual truth, but not every detail of the parable should be taken as an article of faith.”  (Blessed Theophylact, EXPLANATION OF THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. JOHN, p 55)

Parable of the Prodigal Son

A parable is a story which presents a truth, but one has to glean the lesson or the moral from the story though meditation and prayer.  A parable is not identical to an allegory in that in an allegory each detail/character stands for something else.  The details of a parable do not necessarily each stand for something else, for the parable must be considered as a unit and a whole to learn its profound lesson.  Jesus Himself however does interpret His own parable of the sower in an allegorical fashion (Matthew 13:37-43) which is why allegory was such a positive and proper way for ancient Christians to interpret other texts in Scripture:  they were simply following the method of their Master.

“The Lord Jesus Christ Himself often made use of parables from nature – things and happenings from this world – as aids to teach men.  And He often took ordinary things and occurrences in His teaching, to show the nourishment these kernels give, and how deep are the things that are hidden within them.  Ordinary people seek some meaning in strange and rare events, like shooting stars, earthquakes, great wars and so forth, but rare are those who seek and find a spiritual meaning in the ordinary, in the most common daily happenings.  The rarest among all the rare who have ever walked the earth, the Lord Jesus Himself, deliberately took the most ordinary things from this life in order to reveal to men the mysteries of eternal life.  What is more ordinary than salt, yeast, a tree growing from a mustard seed, the sun, sparrows, grass and wild lilies, wheat and tares, rock and sand?  None of those who look every day at these things with their eyes alone could imagine seeking in them the hidden mysteries of the Kingdom of God.  But Christ paused by just such objects and called men’s attention to them, revealing immeasurable heavenly mysteries hidden under their outward form.  In the same way, the Lord made use of simple, ordinary occurrences to present and explain the whole of man’s spiritual life, the whole history of man’s fall and salvation, the end of the world, the Last Judgment and God’s mercy towards sinners.”  (St. Nikolai Velimirovic, HOMILIES  Vol 2, p 212)

Parable of the Publican & the Pharisee

Jesus used parables to challenge people to rethink their values and their own understanding of God’s Kingdom.  He used them to teach the “upside down” values of the Kingdom of God:  the Kingdom is not going to operate based on the rules of logic and fairness which appeal to humans, for it is a Kingdom whose justice is based in the love of God.  The Parable confronts and challenges the thinking and reasoning of the listener, and those who do not want to be challenged will be blind and deaf to the message, and will then be judged for their stubbornness of heart (Matthew 13:11-16).

“Finally, and most importantly, if by some chance we really do hear these stories, we often do not like what they are saying.  They challenge our quest for wealth and power, our sense of fair play, the facile optimism with which we can view the world around us.  If we were to take them seriously, these stories would threaten civilization as we know it.  They shove us on at times, at other times pull us back; they are too forceful, too demanding.  And we long for preachers and commentators who will reassure us that the stories don’t really mean what we think they do; like children awakened into reality by a harsh noise, all we want is someone who will tell us that it is alright to go back to sleep.”   (C. McCarthy & W. Riley, THE OLD TESTAMENT SHORT STORY: EXPLORATIONS IN NARRATIVE SPIRITUALITY,  p194)

Next:  Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Allegory

4 thoughts on “Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Parables

  1. Pingback: Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury | Fr. Ted’s Blog

  2. I was taught that Jesus chose symbols and situations for the parables so that as generations read them they would be able to understand them even though times and circumstances might be quite different. For instance the use of animals to point out character attributes. The qualities of an eagle remain the same today as they would have in Jesus’s time. Am I on the right track?

    1. Fr. Ted

      There may be some truth to what you said, but symbols are different in different cultures. For example some years ago Volkswagon sold in America a car which was called a “Rabbit.” The image in America is that a rabbit is fleet footed. But a German friend told me they wouldn’t use that name in Germany because there rabbits are bred to be slow and fat in order to be eaten (like turkeys or chickens in America). Not every culture made “bread” so the use of that image would be lost on people. What is true is that story tellling itself seems to exist in all cultures – people like a good story. Stories are effectively used to convey wisdom and truth (think Aesops’ Fables for example). Which animals a culture values does change, but that truth can be conveyed through symbols is true everywhere.

  3. Pingback: Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Allegory | Fr. Ted’s Blog

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