Feb 22, 2022
Today I would like to give pointers for understanding Jesus’ parables. I consider the parable to be one of the greatest of all teaching devices, and a legacy of the Greatest Teacher. I will end this episode by sharing about one of my favorite writers of non-Biblical parables.
One little detail to understand is that the word ‘parable’ (Greek paraboles) had a wider meaning than we normally think of in English, and you may see this sometimes in the New Testament. In English, we normally think of a parable as a story that points to some deeper meaning. However, as an example, the word ‘parable’ is used for a one-sentence figurative teaching in Mark 7:17 where it refers back to Jesus’ statement in verse 15:
GW “Nothing that goes into a person from the outside can make him unclean. It’s what comes out of a person that makes him unclean.”
In verse 17, the disciples ask Jesus to explain that ‘parable’.
With that footnote, I want you to know that I will really just be talking briefly about what we normally think of as parables, the story type.
In the episode notes, I give links to more complete and scholarly information than what I will present to you. In particular, I recommend viewing the 6 minute video from bibleproject.com entitled The Parables of Jesus. Also in the episode notes, I have links to both a video and a good summary about Interpreting Parables by Bob Utley.
Bob Utley’s Special Topic page on Interpreting Parables:
Bob Utley’s video on Luke 15:
Don’t miss the cool video from BibleProject.com! Title: The Parables of Jesus
I appreciated the original thinking and humorous examples in this short article:
As I was thinking about what to mention to you, I was reading a historically-interesting commentary by Christopher Wordsworth from 1856, and I almost stumbled into a common error in interpreting parables, which is thinking of them as allegories. An example of this is Luke chapter 15, where we have the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. Wordsworth gives an allegorical interpretation, assigning an identity to all the characters. In this case, the shepherd is Christ, who searches for his lost sheep. That’s not too bad. But seeing the woman who loses one of her coins as a picture of the church, is definitely stretching things. Similarly in the Parable of the Lost Son, the father is interpreted as God, the younger son as the Gentiles who repent, and the older son as the Jews.
One of the things that leads people to take an overly allegorical approach to the parables has to be Jesus himself, in his foundational teaching about the parables found in Mark 4, Mat. 13, and Luk. 8. In Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower, He might almost contradict my last point about allegorical interpretation. It just happens that the Parable of the Sower (also called the Parable of the Different Kinds of Soil) has clear allegorical elements (the birds, path, rocky soil, etc), whereas for many other parables it doesn’t help to seek an allegorical identity for the various participants. A second thing that is unusual in the Parable of the Soils is that it has clear multiple teaching points, whereas most parables have a single, simple point.
I have mentioned all this heavy stuff to bring us around to this simple point: When we get too fancy in our interpretation of parables, we tend to miss the main point, which is to ask, “How does this apply to me?” The cool thing about parables is that Jesus intended them to be multi-purpose. People who were ready to believe in Jesus would get one interpretation, and the religious leaders criticizing Him would understand Jesus’ meaning very differently. Both groups got a correct interpretation, as Jesus intended, even though the interpretations were different.
This propensity of parables to be interpreted differently has a plus side and a negative side. On one hand, we must remember that parables are not good for determining doctrine. Let’s not decide the timing of Jesus’ second coming based on parables, but some of the parables clearly illustrate something about Jesus’ second coming. The plus side is that the Holy Spirit may use Jesus’ parables to say something very pointedly appropriate for you.
I have been amazed that in the Parable of Different Kinds of Soil I sometimes find that I am dangerously close to living amongst thorns, way too concerned with the cares of this life. But in a few months when I come across the parable again, I find that I have moved over to the rocky soil, meaning that I might glibly say that I love God’s Word, but on that day if I am honest, I have to admit that my roots are dangerously shallow.
Another illustration of a personal application for me is this, which I don’t think I have ever shared with anyone before: When I read the story of the prodigal son, I am reminded that I acted like the prodigal son, when I was young and thoughtless, by asking for part of my inheritance early. I didn’t realize that this was tantamount to wishing my father dead. How this must have hurt him! I wish I could tell him how sorry I am that I ever did that.
Don’t look to parables for decisions about moving to another city, quitting your job, or selling your house. That’s not what I mean by a personal application.
Finally, here are three final pointers:
Let me illustrate that idea of a surprising twist found in some parables. One of my favorite booklets that we printed to display our translation in Indonesia is a collection of 25 parables. If I am in Indonesia, I like to have that booklet handy in my bag. There was one devout Islamic taxi driver that took me to my home at least six times. Because of frequent traffic jams in Jakarta, a 20 minute trip can take two hours on bad days. So I started reading the parables to him. He was interested, and it was way better than trying to debate with him about our religions. After many of the parables he would say, “OK, yeah. I think we Muslims could agree with that one.” That continued until we got to the Parable of the Vineyard owner in Matthew 20. That’s the one where the vineyard owner gives all the workers the same pay for a full day’s work, even though some workers only worked for one hour. He responded, “What?! He did that? That’s crazy. That’s unfair!” This gave me an opportunity to talk about God’s kindness. We call it grace. God wants to be generous with us, because none of us can manage to earn our salvation. God designed this counterintuitive situation so that all glory would go to our Savior, and none would go to us.
As I will not be living in the same place in Jakarta when I go back in July, it is not likely that I will take that route again with the same taxi driver. It is not appropriate for me to share his name. But you can join me in praying for that taxi driver that I read parables to.
One of my spiritual fathers (Richard Burson) introduced me to the parables of Safed the Sage. Safed was the pen name of William E. Barton, who lived from 1861 to 1930. William Barton was a highly regarded Congregational pastor, and also a published expert on the life of Abraham Lincoln. Barton also edited a Sunday School newsletter (and in his day, Sunday School included adult classes). In the newsletters he first published his Parables of Safed the Sage. These were picked up by newspapers who republished them, and around 1919 the parables were published in several books. Happily, you can find Barton’s parables of Safed the Sage as free downloads at the Library of Congress website. They are in the public domain.
Barton’s writing style is humorous because he used an affected old-fashioned style of English, mixing in expressions like in the King James Bible. And he heightened the effect by using capital letters in strange places, for words that he wanted to highlight. So I feel that often his parables are better when read, rather than in audio form.
I have so appreciated Barton’s parables that I have recorded many of them for a podcast that I call JoySightings, found at joysightings.info. You can subscribe to this podcast in any podcast player.
I will give you two short examples of the parables of Safed the Sage in this podcast. They are different than Jesus’ parables in that Safed usually gives the meaning of his parable at the end. I think you will enjoy the experience of hearing a new parable. Think of how engaging Jesus’ parables would have been, and still are, for people hearing them for the first time!
The Gravity Trolley
I journeyed unto a distant State, even to California, and I rode upon a Trolley that ran Six miles back from the Railway Station into the hills. And I observed that all the way as we Ascended, the Motorman consumed Electric Current, but when we Descended, then did he shut off the Juice, and controlled our speed by means of the Brake, with an Emergency Brake at hand, and I spake unto certain of those with whom I rode, of the Trolley, and of how the Roadbed was all Up-Hill one way, and all Down-Hill the other way; and how they used two kinds of power, even Electricity and Gravitation, and each of them in one direction only.
And one of them spake unto me, saying, Thus it was intended when this Road was Surveyed, and before they had Electric Power; for in that day did they haul the cars Up-Hill with Mules; and there was a Platform upon the Rear of the Car, and the Mules Ascended the Platform and rode down. And they told me how the Mules soon learned the trick, so that as soon as they were unhitched they hastened to the rear of the car and climbed up.
And others told me many things about those Mules; and a certain Woman procured for me a Picture of the Car with the Passengers riding Inside and the Mules riding Outside, and the Mules enjoying it as much as the Passengers. And it pleased me much.
Now it came to pass in time that the Electric Current Emancipated the Mules, and the Owners of the Trolley sold the Mules. And farmers bought them at a good price, for the Mules were fat and strong. But it was a Bad Buy for the farmers.
For those Mules would pull the Plow Up-Hill to the end of the Furrow, and then turn around and seek to climb up on the rear end of the Plow in order to ride down! And when they found no Platform, then were they Troubled in their Mind and much Bewildered. Neither was it Possible ever to teach them to pull any load Down-Hill.
Now I know many people with whom this System worketh the other way, and who are very willing to be hitched up to a job that runneth down hill by Gravity or the labor of others, but who insist upon riding or being Unhitched when the Trolley hitteth the up-grade. For the work of the Lord hath its Up-Hill and its Down-Hill aspects, and if there be any Platforms provided for those who would ride, thou shalt find them already occupied by kindred souls who have beaten you to it.
On Rising Above the Clouds
I rode upon a Railway Train; and we were in the Rocky Mountains. And we awoke in the morning, and the Train was climbing, with two Engines pulling us, and one pushing behind. And we were nigh unto Twelve Furlongs above the sea.
And it came to pass as we ascended, that there were clouds below us, and Clouds upon the sides of the Mountains, but there were no clouds above us, but the clear shining of the Morning Sun.
And there came unto me a small Girl and her younger Brother, who were riding upon the Train, and we talked about the clouds. For so did John Ruskin, and Aristophanes, and the little lad was very happy, and said,
I have never been above the Clouds before.
And his sister was worldly wise. And she said, A Cloud ain't nothing but just fog.
And he said, Nay, but it is more. And behold now, how then is a cloud just under us, and we ride on top of it?
And she said, We are on the Rails, just as we always have been; and there can't nobody ride on a Cloud.
And the boy said, Jesus can ride upon a Cloud; For I saw a Picture of Him.
And the little girl said, Yes but that ain't us.
Now the little girl may have been right; but I thought within myself that this world hath too many people who look out on Life through her windows. For they see no sunlit Clouds, but only Fog; and they have little faith in rising above Clouds, but have confidence only in the Rails.
And I do not despise Rails, nor advise people to discard them and ride upon Clouds. Nevertheless, I have seen people rise above Clouds, and live in the sunlight of God. But I have known others who, whenever it is said unto them, Thus have other men done, or thus did the good Lord Jesus, make reply, Yes, but that ain't us.
And if it is spoken concerning the House of God, Thus did the Synagogue in Jonesville, and thus was it done by the Church in Smithville, they answer, Yes, but that ain't us.
And if it be said, Thou shouldest be a better man; for other men have risen above thy Clouds and thine Infirmities, they say, Yes, but that ain't us.
And when it is said, Thus hath the grace of God abounded in other lives, they say, Yes, but that ain't us.
But if it ain't, why ain't it?
For this cause did God dwell in human flesh: That men should never count any good thing impossible that they behold in the dear Lord Jesus.
For he is our peace, who hath broken down all middle walls, that men should no longer say, But that ain't us.
May the Lord bless you ‘Real Good’!