Illustrations. —The use of illustrations is a noticeable mark of Jesus’ teaching. He spoke in similes and metaphors and parables; general rules He illustrated by examples or stated in concrete instances. His aim may be gathered from observing what uses the method actually served.
Stories and similes, concrete facts and instances, catch the ear of the people. He who would win their attention must trick out his message in pictorial garb; he must weave in his truth with earthly fact and incident on the loom of fancy. Such teaching also remains in the memory. Truth pictured makes vivid appeal to the eye, and what the eye sees the memory retains, store for mind and heart to brood over. Jesus knew what was in man, and, desiring His message to be current coin for all, treasure of life for the simplest, He spoke in pictures and similitudes.
Illustrative examples serve also to make abstract truth more easily understood. A tale may enter in at lowly doors, bearing its load of truth and suggestion, when a truth stated abstractly would remain without. The concreteness of the poet, his vision of truth and symbol wedded together, of principle incarnated in fact, is closely akin to the ordinary man’s ways of thinking and speaking. It is primary; the abstractness of thought, the language of reflexion and analysis, is secondary. Jesus spake to the people after their own fashion.
These uses are obvious; but they are only surface explanations; they hardly touch the main purpose. When Jesus said ( Matthew 7:9-11), ‘What man is there of you, who, if his son ask a loaf, will give him a stone? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?’, He was aiming at something more than a clear and striking presentation of His truth. He was speaking from the heart to the heart, appealing to their feeling for what is highest and best, for what is reasonable to faith in goodness. His illustration was an argument addressed to the heart. ‘In theology,’ it is said to be an axiom that ‘parables do not act as arguments’ (Trench15 [Note: 5 designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 40 n. [Note: note.] ); but they may in the sphere of faith. The parable of the Unmerciful Servant ( Matthew 18:21 ff.) was an answer to Peter’s question, ‘How often shall we forgive?’ It gives no direct answer to that question. It is spoken not to the discursive intelligence busy about problems, but straight to the indignations of the generous spirit. The better nature is enlisted against the man forgiven who was not made thereby tender-hearted and pitiful. When the lawyer put the searching question, ‘But who is my neighbour?’ ( Luke 10:29), Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. That parable also does not answer the question directly. It rather sets before the heart the beauty of kindness, and its power to break down barriers between men which the neighbourhoods of race and religion may leave standing. An idea, such as that all men are potentially brothers, is apt to be barren, without conviction, without power of intellectual or spiritual inspiration; a story such as this appeals to the human heart by which we live, that tenderness in us which leaps up in admiration of a good man’s deed.
The aim of our Lord’s teaching was not enlightenment, the bringing of clear ideas to the mind: it was to create faith and sustain it. And the form of His teaching—His parables, similes, metaphors, concrete instances—was a means to serve that end. ‘After all,’ says Newman ( Gram. of Assent , 94), ‘man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal.’ It is by the heart that man believes unto salvation. There is the seat of the emotions, the joy we have in things, the intuitions of faith, the admirations which rule conduct and fashion character and shape our beliefs. The heart has its own reasons: visions of what is noble and fair, spells mighty there. And Jesus’ illustrations are mostly pictures painted for that inward eye, music played that the ear of faith there may hear.
Many of Jesus’ parables and pictures are more than mere illustrations; they have in them the imagination’s power of interpretation, the revealing vision of the poet. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican ( Luke 18:9 ff.) is more than an illustrative example, it is as Jülicher classes it, ‘an example of the spiritual worth of humility before God.’ It reveals, as in a transparency, the essential and hidden evil of a religions class. Our Lord’s controversy with the Pharisees sums itself up in this revealing picture where the inner spirit and tendency of Pharisaism is brought to a luminous point. The parable has the force of a revelation, suddenly illumining a whole spiritual world. The same quality is in the illustrations of hypocrisy in Matthew 6. These kindle a light in the spiritual imagination. Jesus takes the cases of almsgiving, prayer, fasting. These are not chosen as representing the three spiritual worlds, or spheres of duty—neighbour, God, self (Gore). That activity of the schematizing intellect is foreign to the whole method of Jesus. These were the fashionable religions virtues of the day, and therefore the chosen theatre of hypocrisy: self-seeking in religion leaves the humble sequestered virtues alone; and Christ’s pictures of ostentatious service there, have that direct illumination of the religious and ethical imagination which sets it free from the bondage of all externalism. Many of the parables have this quality, such as the Seed Growing in Secret, the Good Samaritan, the Unmerciful Servant, the Prodigal Son, the Two Debtors.
In the Synoptic Gospels there is an explanation of Jesus’ use of parables which is a startling paradox. It is that He spake to those without in parables, and that He did so to hide His meaning ( Matthew 13:10-15, Mark 4:11-12, Luke 8:10). It is easy to show that these words are not universally true, and that the aim of Jesus generally was to make Himself understood. So Jülicher ( Encyc. Bibl . art. ‘Parables’) rejects this conception, placed on the lips of Jesus, as quite unhistorical. But we find that in all these Gospels this explanation occurs at one place, namely, between the parable of the Sower as spoken to those without and its interpretation to the disciples. And there the words have a real significance. The parable did not convey its meaning on the face of it. In the circumstances in which it was spoken, it was largely an utterance of the ironic spirit. Jesus was looking on the multitudes, drawn together by curiosity and various motives, caring so little, most of them, for the truths He had to tell them; and He gave utterance to the pathetic thoughts of His spirit. He spoke this parable which tells the disappointments of a prophet and the hope that sustains him, the faith that some, his sheep, will know his voice. It is a simple enough parable; and yet a veil does rest upon it for the careless unspiritual many who are listening, though not any veil of subtle allegory. Jesus is speaking of hopes and fears they comprehend not; and, looking on them in their ignorance, it was natural that the words of old prophecy, with their kindred pathos and irony, should come to His lips, and He should speak about those who hearing understood not and whose hearts were darkened. That explanation has in it a hint of wider suggestiveness. Clearness and directness of speech are not the only sources of enlightenment. ‘Art may tell a truth obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought.’ A truth stated objectively, indirectly, in the form of a story, may not compel the understanding; careless ones may hear it as though they heard it not; but it has greater effectiveness with those who receive it. That is exemplified in Jesus’ latest parables. These are parables of judgment; the shadow of the Cross rests on them. In them, by their very form, the meaning is veiled somewhat. The intention and the value of that stand out strongly in this contrast. When Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin, he said: ‘Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye’ … ( Acts 7:51 ff.). There is no mistaking that accusation, or evading it; but there is no persuasion there. No wonder the bold truth-speaker was stoned. Jesus says to His enemies, ‘Hear another parable’; and after the parable of the Two Sons, He tells the parable of the Householder and his Vineyard. It is the same charge, but spoken indirectly; the reference is left to their own thoughts. That is a way of persuasion; sympathy and love, which are the sources of persuasiveness, have woven a vesture for the truth that, through the imagination, it may reach the heart. See art. Parables.
One great, though indirect, value of Jesus’ illustrations must not be missed, i.e. their witness to the man He was, their revealing of His mind and heart. (1) His figurative method of teaching reveals the fashion of His mind. Farrar speaks of ‘that kind metaphorical method of expression which our Blessed Lord adopted.’ The thought there is of a stress put upon His mind through a sympathetic accommodation to His simple unlearned hearers, as though He first had a thought, and then searched for some simple familiar picture to express it. But a man’s customary method of speech shows his manner of thinking. Our Lord ‘reasoned in figures, because He had an eye for nature’ Thought and image were born together in His seeing; His was the poet’s mind, with its concreteness and beauty, its outlook of the whole personality, its individual vision of things flushed with emotion; and the pictures He set in the light give joy to the generations as they pass, because they first of all gave joy to Himself as they arose in His imagination. (2) The illustrations He uses reveal also the simplicity and fulness of His interest in life. It is amazing how the common life of His day passes in procession through His words! The sower in the fields, the merchant on his travels, the fisherman on the beach looking over his catch, the labourers waiting to be hired in the market-place, the beggar at the rich man’s gate and the dogs licking his sores, the clamorous woman with her wrongs at the unjust judge’s door, the poor woman turning her house upside down for her lost coin, the play of the little children in the streets; and even the faults and follies of men, the Pharisee with his broad phylacteries and wide fringes praying ostentatiously at the street corners, the craft of the dishonest steward, the son who says ‘I go, sir,’ and goes not, the anxious host begging for a loaf at midnight, and the grumbling friend in bed with his children—all speak of the interest with which Jesus looked on life. ‘The learned eye is still the loving one.’ He was no thinker whose mind ranged among ideas, no dreamer living in a world of ideals. His heart was amid the pell-mell of ordinary life, ordinary men, and ordinary duties; His thoughts of religion found their sphere there.
(3) Jesus’ outlook on Nature was full of joy. That is shown, not so much by the abundance of His references, as by the light in which He places them, the thoughts they brought to Him. He speaks of the hen gathering her chickens under her wings, symbol of His own protecting love for Jerusalem; the sparrows, objects of God’s care; the grass in its beauty and the lilies outvying the splendour of Solomon, symbols of the Creator’s joy in the work of His hands, seeing He thus clothes these casual flowers of a day with such loveliness and grace. He touches also the common things of our life with the sudden glory of poetry—the growing of the corn, symbol of the upspringing of life in human souls; the care of parents in the home, symbol of the sleepless providence of the Heavenly Father over all His children; servants waiting for their lord, symbol of our duty to an unseen Master. When Jesus looked on Nature and the universal order of man’s life, something great shone through—a Divine and beautiful mystery. It all spake of the Father in heaven who made and loves it all; it was all instinct with the presence of God’s Spirit. The beauty of religion, its tenderness and grace, is there: and the spiritual glory of life. That is an outlook of the fullest joy:
Literature.—Books on the Parables, by Trench, Arnot, Dods, Bruce; Steinmeyer, Die Parabeln des Herrn ; Julicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu ; Fiebig, Altjüdische Gleichnisse und die Gleichnisse Jesu ; Wendt, The Teaching of Jesus , English translation vol. i. § 2; Plummer, art. ‘Parables’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible; Sanday, Outlines of the Life of Christ , or art ‘Jesus Christ’ in D B [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] ; the various Lives of Christ.