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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]


1. Definition and Classification. —The word ‘parable’ is an oft-recurring one in the Synoptic Gospels, appearing altogether 48 times. Otherwise it is found in the NT only in  Hebrews 9:9;  Hebrews 11:19 (Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885), where it has the meaning of ‘type’ or ‘symbol’ (Authorized Version ‘figure’). The Evangelists use of it suggests that for them it was a technical term designating a certain form of discourse or method of teaching, and they report Jesus as employing it in like manner. It is always introduced as something well known, and nowhere denned. The readers are assumed to be as familiar with it as are the writers. This occasions no surprise, for we know that the term had long been current in the circle to which the Evangelists belonged, appearing, as it does, often in the LXX Septuagint. The connexion between the NT usage and that of the LXX Septuagint is expressly pointed out by St. Matthew ( Matthew 13:35), who sees in Jesus’ use of parables the fulfilment of  Psalms 78:2.

In the LXX Septuagint παραβολή serves frequently, though not uniformly, to translation the Heb. mâshâl (מָשָׁל). The practice is sufficiently constant to warrant the assumption that it had much the same range of meaning. But, accepting this as true, we have made little progress in determining the exact significance of παραβολή, for as yet agreement has not been attained with reference to the definition of the Semitie original (משל, Aram. Aramaic מתלא). By some scholars the root is thought to mean primarily to represent or stand for something (so Fleischer; cf. Franz Delitzsch, Com. zu Prov ., Leipzig, 1873, p. 43 f.; Gesenius-Buhl, HWB [Note: WB Handwörterbunch.] ; Bugge, Die Haupt-Parabeln , i. 20 f.); while others, following a different line of derivation, make the conception of likeness or resemblance to be fundamental (König in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. p. 661; cf. Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu , i. p. 36 f.). An examination of the OT makes it evident that Hebrew writers employed the term in the broadest and most inclusive way. Allegory, similitude, parable, proverb, paradox, type, and even riddle could be so designated. Jülicher concludes ( op. cit. i. p. 37) that the most that can be done in the way of definition is to say that in the OT mâshâl is a discourse expressing or implying comparison. The limitations thus suggested are, that it be a complete statement and not merely a word or phrase, and that it employ or rest on comparison.

The modern understanding of the word ‘parable’ has not as yet become well defined. One naturally expects this to follow the Greek conception, but in many definitions one finds a considerable infusion of the Semitic point of view. παραβολή (from παρά ‘beside,’ and βάλλειν ‘to throw or east’) signifies literally a placing beside , and in ancient rhetoric designates an illustration or comparison. The fundamental idea is thus in agreement with that which is found by some in the Heb. mâshâl . Aristotle classes parable and fable together as means of indirect proof, more convenient and easier to use than historical example for one who is able to detect resemblances, but less effective.

That the Synoptists should entertain this narrower and more definite view of Greek and Roman writers is not to be anticipated. One expects to find in them rather the wider and more indefinite application of Semitic authors, and in this one is not disappointed. Proverb ( Luke 4:23), paradox ( Mark 7:17), similitude ( Mark 4:30), allegory ( Mark 4:13), and example or illustrative instance ( Luke 12:16) are so named. The word appears with sufficient frequency to make evident its wide application. This does not prove, of course, that in the NT it has a meaning identical with that which it bears in the OT. It is Jülicher’s view that a new element entered in during the period of the Jewish-Hellenistic literature. Besides being a complete thought and expressing or implying comparison, the parable is now understood to veil a hidden meaning. The real teaching is not in what the words seem to say, but in their deeper import. We shall have occasion to return to this topic after reviewing the range of the parabolic material.

It is not to be assumed that the Synoptists have prefixed a title to all the sections that they regarded as παραβολαί. On the contrary, they have done so only incidentally as occasion required, since they had no particular interest in rhetorical categories. In Mk. the word παραβολή is found 13 times, with reference to 6 different sections; 17 times in Mt., with reference to 12 sections; and 18 times in Lk., with reference to 13 sections. It is not used in Jn., but παροιμία occurs with much the same meaning. Deducting parallels, there are 20 passages in the Synoptic Gospels that are spoken of as parables. How far short this comes of full enumeration is made evident by noting the number of parables recognized by modern expositors: e.g. van Koetsveld, 79 (including Jn.); Bugge, 71; Weinel, 59; Jülicher, 53; Heinrici, 39; Lisco, 37; Bruce, 33, and 8 parable germs.

This divergence of opinion makes it evident that it is not easy to determine the precise extent of the parabolic material. Nor is it easy to discover a satisfactory principle for classifying it. This has been attempted from various points of view. Some have sought to make the truth taught a standard for grouping. So Bruce distinguishes (1) Theoretic parables, or those embodying a general teaching regarding the Kingdom of God; (2) the parables of Grace; (3) the parables of Judgment. Others have made the realm from which the illustration was taken the criterion of division. More satisfactory results are obtained by paying heed to the form of the parable, that is, to the character of the illustration and the manner of its introduction. From this point of view a large portion of the material falls within one general division. To this belong all the sections in which a spiritual or moral truth is established or enforced by the use of an express or implicit comparison. An appeal is made to common experience, to what is recognized and accepted by all, in support of less evident truths pertaining to a higher realm. The tacit assumption is that the same laws are valid for moral and religious as for daily practical life. If assent is yielded without hesitation in the one case, it cannot be withheld in the other.

At times the comparison is expressly made by some formula, or by some word or particle ( e.g. ὅμοιον, ὥσπερ, or ὡς). Attention is in this way directed to the resemblance between two distinct relationships. The writer makes his readers aware that a concrete experience is being used to teach some moral or spiritual lesson. Parables of this kind have been happily called Similitudes. The passage regarding the Fig-tree, found in all the Gospels ( Mark 13:28 f.,  Matthew 24:32 f.,  Luke 21:29 f.), and designated in them all as a parable, is a good example. ‘Now from the fig-tree learn her parable: when her branch is now become tender and putteth forth its leaves, ye know that the summer is nigh; even so ye also, when ye see these things coming to pass, know that it is nigh, even at the doors.’ All the dwellers in Palestine knew that the bursting buds and tender shoots of the fig-tree gave unmistakable indication that summer was at hand. The application is that the nearness of the Parousia can with equal certainty be inferred from the signs that immediately precede its coming. There is here no thought of the resemblance of details, as, for example, between summer and the Parousia; but in both instances it is pointed out that with equal certainty, from the signs of the coming, the nearness of the coming itself can be inferred. The likeness is one of relationships and not of details. In the pair of parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price we have two illustrations of like character to enforce the one truth, that to gain a possession of greatest value no sacrifice is too great. The Synoptic records afford evidence that not infrequently Jesus thus employed a double illustration. The attempt to discover resemblances between the Kingdom of heaven and the treasure or the pearl may be homiletically admissible, but it is exegetically beside the mark. Equally irrelevant are the ethical discussions regarding the conduct of the man who found the treasure. Jesus no more approves the quality of his act than He does that of the younger brother, or that of the unjust steward.

The following inferences regarding the character of a Similitude are possible in view of what has been said: (1) Fundamentally it is a comparison. Often this is expressly indicated, as above. (2) It is a comparison of relationships and not of details. There may chance to be some suggestive resemblance in details, but this is immaterial to the real purpose of the illustration. (3) In each Similitude there is one main comparison and one application, one truth that is unfolded. (4) Since there are two parts, the statement needing proof and the illustration supplying this, it is wrong, as is often done, to speak of the illustration alone as the Similitude. (5) The purpose of the Similitude is manifestly to elucidate or to prove, to win assent for what is unfamiliar by an appeal to what is well known.

A group of passages of lesser extent than the one just considered makes a like use of sayings which were apparently proverbial.  Luke 4:23 is an instance of this: ‘And he said unto them, Doubtless ye will say unto me this parable, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in thine own country.’ Jesus, conduct is likened to that of the physician in question. The proverb by itself does not constitute the parable, but the proverb used as an illustration. Since such proverbs are the concise and pointed formulations of the truths of common experience, we need not differentiate these parables from those last discussed—no further, at least, than to make them a subdivision of the Similitudes. Besides the passage quoted, others, such as  Matthew 5:14 b,  Matthew 6:24 ( Luke 16:13)  Luke 15:14 ( Luke 6:39)  Luke 24:28 ( Luke 17:37),  Mark 2:17 ( Matthew 9:12 f.,  Luke 5:13 f.), would be included.

Often the illustration from experience is not stated as a general inference, recognized always and by all, but is embodied in the form of a specific incident, in what was done by some person or persons, or in what happened to them. Thus  Luke 15:11-32 begins, ‘A certain man had two sons,’ and  Mark 4:3-9 ‘Behold, the sower went forth to sow.’ In purpose and in the way the illustration is employed there is close resemblance between this group and the Similitudes. The difference is mainly in the definiteness of the experience. Here it is presented as a single occurrence. It may still be, and no doubt usually is, wholly imaginary. All that is required is a degree of naturalness and probability sufficient to command unhesitating assent. Such a story, formed by the imagination from the material of actual experience, might be classed as a Fable , had not this name gained in the course of time a restricted meaning. By many writers it is looked upon as applicable only to the small group of animal fables in which the main actors are animals or inanimate objects. Since such stories often serve merely to entertain or to teach worldly prudence and discretion, the difference between parable and fable is made by some to consist in the kind of truth enforced. The latter is restricted to the lower realm of worldly knowledge, while the former is assigned to the service of the higher truths of morality and religion. We need not further discuss the distinction, because fable has become exclusively associated in most minds with the type of teaching attributed to aesop. To connect it with any of the discourses of Jesus would occasion misunderstanding. Jülicher’s proposal is to retain for this group the name Parable in its narrower meaning. Until a better designation is found, it will be well to accept this.

The Gospel of Lk. contains at least four sections differing in character from any previously considered. They have the narrative form, but the illustration is taken, not from a different realm, but from that to which the truth under discussion belongs. A specific instance wherein this is exemplified is recited to win the approval or call forth the disapprobation of the hearer. The application is made, not through analogy, not by some word expressing likeness or resemblance, but by simple affirmation: ‘So is it’ or ‘so should it not be.’ The Good Samaritan ( Luke 10:30-37), the Foolish Rich Man ( Luke 12:16-20), the Rich Man and Lazarus ( Luke 16:19-31), and the Pharisee and the Publican ( Luke 18:9-14) belong to this group. Possibly, as Heinrici suggests ( PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , vi. 692), we ought also to add the accounts of the Importunate Friend ( Luke 11:5 ff.), and the Unjust Judge ( Luke 18:1 ff.), since the lesson is gained in these instances by reasoning a minori ad majus . It is often difficult, as here, to determine to which division a given section may be most properly assigned. Comparison enters into this class only through the demand made upon the listener to test his life and conduct by that depicted in the story. The abstract truth is commended to him in concrete form. We might call such illustrations, which stand apart from the groups previously enumerated, Narrative Examples , or perhaps it will be better to term them, with Jülicher, Illustrative Instances .

On the basis of the reference in  Mark 7:17 ( Matthew 15:15) it has been proposed (cf. Bugge, op. cit. i. pp. 59, 15, and 16) to regard the Paradox as a class of parable. That the name might be so applied may, in the light of Semitic usage, be assumed as probable, though there is wide difference of view regarding this particular passage in Mk. and Mt. Expositors have not, however, generally made paradoxes a distinct group in their treatment of the parables.

It now remains to ask whether there is another class of passages that should be brought together under the head of Allegory. This question has recently been much discussed, and opinion is still widely divided. It is variously affirmed that, even according to the Synoptists, Jesus never spoke in allegories (Weinel, Die Gleichnisse Jesu , p. 30); or that He is mistakenly reported by them as so doing (Jülicher, op. cit. i. 61 ff. etc.); or that He did make use of allegories, and is correctly reported in this respect (Bugge, op. cit. i. 40 ff. etc.). Allegory (ἀλληγορία, ἀλληγορεῖν) comes from ἄλλο, ‘other,’ ‘something else,’ and ἀγορεύειν, ‘to speak.’ The word occurs as a substantive nowhere in the NT or in Biblical Greek, nor does the verb appear except in  Galatians 4:24, where St. Paul makes use of the participle ἀλληγορούμενος. It is a mode of speech whereby one thing is ostensibly described or narrated, while the primary reference is to something very different. It is thus closely akin to the metaphor (wh. see), differing from it in consisting not of a single word or concept, but of a series of concepts belonging to the same realm, and so related as to form together a continuous and intelligible narrative. Since the several details are introduced, not because they are the component parts of a vivid and artistic picture, but because of their suitability to portray the desired meaning, the best of allegories are marked by some degree of artificiality and incongruity. The attentive listener is made aware that the story is being told to convey some deeper meaning and not for its own sake. Often it will be impossible for him to determine what this is until the allegory has been wholly or in part interpreted. In other instances the setting in which it occurs may afford the needed clue. To understand it fully, he must be able to translate the terms one by one and read their hidden meaning. Naturally no one but the framer of the allegory can be his infallible guide in this. In the similitude and parable we do not feel the need of seeking for any meaning beyond that which the words usually bear, whereas in the allegory the deeper, hidden significance is of first importance. Are there sections in the Gospels of which this is true? It seems to be, to some degree, in at least five. Three are in the Synoptic Gospels, namely, the accounts of the Sower ( Mark 4:3-9;  Mark 4:14-20,  Matthew 13:3-9;  Matthew 13:18-23,  Luke 8:5-8;  Luke 8:11-15), of the Wicked Husbandmen ( Mark 12:1-12,  Matthew 21:33-46,  Luke 20:9-19), and of the Tares ( Matthew 13:24-30;  Matthew 13:36-43): and two are from the Fourth Gospel, the Door of the Sheepfold ( John 10:1-16), and the Vine and the Branches ( John 15:1-8). In each of these, except the Wicked Husbandmen, an allegorical interpretation is expressly added, while in this latter the setting, the comments, as well as the character of the narration, suggest an allegory. According to the definition given above, none of the five passages can he regarded as a perfect and fully developed allegory, because each has unimportant details that are not, and clearly were not intended to be, interpreted. They are introduced as natural parts of the picture, without reference to a hidden meaning. For instance, in the Sower no deeper meaning attaches to the way, the thirty, sixty, and hundredfold, as would be the case in a carefully developed allegory. The Wicked Husbandmen and the Tares are better examples of allegory; but even in these there are several features without allegorical significance. The passages in the Fourth Gospel differ quite markedly from those in the Synoptics. The literal and the figurative are blended in such an unusual way that it has not been possible for commentators to agree in their classification. In ch. 10, following the first interpretation ( John 10:7-10) comes a second ( John 10:11-16), which seems to presuppose a closely related but really different allegory. Or we can regard these last verses as a new allegory with continuous interpretation. The discourse of ch. 15 is of exactly the same type; parallel to ‘I am the good shepherd’ we there have ‘I am the true vine.’ Besides lacking the unity that usually marks the allegory, these Johannine sections contain many terms that have no significance beyond that belonging to them in ordinary speech. It seems, nevertheless, more correct to class them as allegories than to call them parables with an allegorical interpretation, or collections of related metaphors.

In addition to these passages there are numerous others where little doubt can exist that the Evangelists understood some details allegorically, for they suggest, even if they do not give, such an interpretation. By way of illustration the reference to the whole and the sick ( Mark 2:17) may be cited, so also the taking away of the bridegroom ( Mark 2:20), and the blind who lead the blind ( Matthew 15:14,  Luke 6:39). Jülicher maintains that they looked on all parables as allegories. They have given, it is true, few allegorical interpretations, and have not often indicated that they felt such treatment necessary, but this is only because their practice is not in accord with their theory. Whenever they reflect (as they do in  Mark 4:10-12;  Mark 4:33-34 ||  Matthew 13:10 to  Matthew 15:34 ff.,  Luke 8:9-10), they think of parables as always veiling a hidden meaning, one hard to be understood and intelligible to the disciples themselves only after interpretation. This conception, as was stated above, is not held to be their own creation, but is thought to be one that came to them from the age of the Jewish-Hellenistic literature. It was the product of scribal activity. Such an explanation is open to serious question. It may be doubted whether existing evidence proves that the notion of mystery belonged so exclusively to this later period. It is true that with the decadence of prophecy men looked for the message of God in what had been said rather than in what was being said, and that the allegorical method of exegesis was assiduously cultivated. It may also be true that the Gospels indicate that, at the time when the Evangelists wrote, the words of Jesus received to some extent like treatment; but that it went to the length that this theory supposes is not attested. Such a claim could be more reasonably made for the Church Fathers and the interpreters of later generations. From post-Apostolic days even down to the present the prevailing method of exegesis has been allegorical. (On its prevalence in Alexandrian and Palestinian circles before and after Christ, see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘Allegory,’ i. p. 64). Representatives ( e.g. Chrysostom, Calvin, Maldonatus) of sounder interpretation have not been altogether wanting, but they have been little heeded. There is no parable or detail of a parable that has not received many and conflicting interpretations. The judge of  Luke 18:2, for example, according to some stands for God, and according to others for the devil. Elsewhere results are no less incongruous ( e.g.  Matthew 24:28,  Luke 17:37;  Matthew 24:43 f.,  Luke 12:39 f.;  Luke 11:5-8). So great was the contradiction, that in the 17th cent. the thesis was proposed that parables should not be used as a source of doctrine, but only to illustrate and confirm what was otherwise established (‘theologia parabolica non est argumentative,’ cf. Jülicher, op. cit. i. p. 277). The form of the disciples’ question ( Mark 4:10 f., cf.  Mark 4:33-34) might at first incline us to agree that the Church Fathers were but following the Synoptists, were it not that so many parables are recorded without even suggestion that they need interpretation. Julicher finds it a priori improbable that a popular teacher, who expressed himself without any considerable deliberation or preparation, should employ such a highly artificial, rhetorical form as the allegory. This tends to veil rather than to reveal, and belongs to the writer rather than to the speaker. He concedes that Jesus may on occasion have made metaphorical or allegorical application of certain suggestive details of some parable, but finds little or no evidence of His having done so. Everything indicates, rather, that all the passages to which we have alluded derive their allegorical features and interpretations from the writers. Originally, as spoken by Jesus, the Synoptic accounts were parables in the narrower meaning of the term.

This extreme position of Professor Jülicher has been opposed by many, and unqualifiedly approved by few. Admitting the proclivity of Jesus’ hearers, by reason of their traditions, to give an allegorical interpretation to many details, admitting that this might be increasingly done as men recalled these discourses and reflected on their import and sought to apply them to existing conditions, still to deny to Jesus all allegorical application of details and restrict Him to simple comparison, is unwarranted. If along with comparison ( e.g.  Matthew 23:37 [ Luke 13:34]  Matthew 10:16 [ Luke 10:3],  Luke 10:18) He made frequent use of metaphor, as the Gospels indicate ( e.g.  Mark 5:34;  Mark 10:21 [ Matthew 19:21,  Luke 18:22]  Matthew 12:40 [ Luke 20:47]), and if He expanded comparison into parable, is it unwarrantable to assume that occasionally metaphor might be so extended as to become virtually an allegory? As long as such an interpretation of suggestive particulars contributes in a natural way to the enforcement of the main lesson, it cannot be considered irrelevant or artificial. Weinel has pointed out ( Die Bildersprache Jesu in ihrer Bedeutung für die Erforschung seines inneren Lebens 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1906) that in its psychological origin the parable is closely akin to the allegory. It springs often from some suggestive analogy of detail which might well be made evident in the progress of the discourse. Such an assumption does not, to be sure, account for all the allegorical features that a sound exegesis will discover in the Gospels, but it enables us to understand how Jesus may, in the case of some parables, have added an application distinctly allegorical, as, for example, in the account of the Sower. And if He wished to address to His enemies such thoughts as are contained in the Wicked Husbandmen, could they have been more suitably presented? The great service of Jülicher and of B. Weiss before him in effectually discrediting false methods of interpretation and establishing true, can hardly receive too great recognition. But past extravagances and present danger of their perpetuation do not furnish adequate reason for denying to Jesus the use of allegory, or of parables so developed as to be hardly distinguishable therefrom. We accordingly admit allegory as a division of our classification.

2. Purpose. —Why did Jesus make use of parables? It would occur to hardly any reader of the Gospels to-day to be in doubt as to their purpose, were it not for the statements of the Synoptists. Parables have been used by teachers of all ages to unfold and enforce their instruction. Was it otherwise with Jesus? Is it otherwise, for example, in His use of the story of the Prodigal Son? The passage which occasions the perplexity is as follows: ‘And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parables. And he said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables: that [ἵνα] seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them. And he saith unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how shall ye know all the parables?… And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. And without a parable spake he not unto them: but privately to his own disciples he expounded all things’ ( Mark 4:10-12;  Mark 4:33-34, cf.  Matthew 13:10 ff.,  Matthew 13:34 ff.,  Luke 8:9 ff.). These words are beset with difficulty from any point of view. Taken by themselves they affirm that parables lead to the hardening of men’s hearts, and were intended so to do. Notwithstanding differences in statement, all three accounts are in substantial agreement as to this. It is instinctively felt, however, that Jesus could not possibly have entertained a purpose so at variance with the spirit of His whole ministry. He went forth to seek and to save that which was lost. To win, not to harden; to enlighten, not to mystify, was ever His endeavour. Otherwise, why should He express surprise at the failure of His hearers to comprehend His parables? Why should He exhort them to hear? Can we think that He would mock at their helplessness? Why should He speak to His own disciples as well as to the multitude in parables which they could not understand without interpretation? Does not the parable of the Sower, to which these words are joined, imply an understanding on the part of all classes, even though all do not alike heed and profit by what is heard? It is evident that the statements cannot be attributed to Jesus in their most obvious meaning. While this is generally conceded, there is disagreement as to how they are to be qualified and the extent to which this should be done. A few have resorted to text emendation for the removal of the difficulties, but most have preferred to keep the form and seek for a new interpretation. Some expositors suppose that the truths needful for salvation were not presented after this manner, but in a way intelligible to all. What is here said refers only to parables dealing with the mysteries of the nature of the Kingdom of heaven, or the one mystery of its gradual development. Or this reference is limited to the parables of this chapter, or to the parables of Judgment. Such teaching, being suited only to those who are already disciples, is so conveyed that they alone receive it, while outsiders hear without understanding. The improbability and unnaturalness of such a supposition are too apparent to need refutation. The harshness of the view is softened by assuming that the unreceptive and unworthy multitude already stood self-condemned because of their rejection of the message of salvation. Teaching in parables is part of their just punishment, and serves also to keep the door open for those who may become receptive. Another way of removing the harshness is to say that the parable, while executing God’s judgment, was at the same time a merciful provision, preventing an increase of guilt. Had the unreceptive understood what was taught in these parables regarding Jesus and themselves, or had it been spoken openly, they would have added to existing sins those of hate and blasphemy, and fallen into a passion, making all hearing impossible for themselves and others.

A different explanation is proposed by those who see here the enunciation of a pedagogical purpose. No class of hearers, not even the disciples, can understand the truth so presented, but the receptive will reveal themselves by their questions as to the meaning of the parable, while the unreceptive remain indifferent, and thereby make clear the hopelessness of their condition. Plain speech would have been equally unintelligible to such hearers, whereas the parable was calculated to quicken in them a spirit of inquiry, if anything could. This, again, is a very improbable supposition. Another interpretation sees in these words a reference not to intellectual comprehension, but to the inner spiritual appropriation of the truth set forth. Jesus seeks for this on the part of all, but finds it wanting in those who were dulled and hardened in their short-sighted self-righteousness and superficial self-satisfaction. Their hearing is as though they heard not. The parables are thus a summons to the conscience of the hearer, and bring about a separation between the receptive and the unreceptive.

Professor Jülicher, together with other recent writers, accepts the verses in their most obvious meaning, but assigns them to the Evangelists. When Jesus’ words were collected after His death, the large proportion of parabolic material attracted attention. An explanation was sought, and it was found in the character of those to whom the parables were addressed, and in their attitude toward Jesus. The multitude had not accepted Him as the Messiah. What had happened must have been in accord with the Divine plan. This plan had been fulfilled through the use of parables. Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 is here applied by the Evangelists to the history of Jesus. J. Weiss, indeed, holds that Mk. was acquainted with Romans, and followed St. Paul ( Die Schriften des NT , i. p. 101). Whatever may be thought as to the dependence, the likeness of conception is obvious.

This explanation has in its favour a full and frank recognition of the difficulty as well as the avoidance of forced and unnatural interpretation. Many who think that the passage goes back to Jesus admit that the Evangelists in their report have been in some measure influenced by the hostility and opposition of unbelieving Israel, so pronounced at the time when they wrote. The explanation gains added support from the fact that the existing difficulty is not confined to the words of Jesus, but is occasioned in part by the appended comments of the Evangelists. Still, it cannot yet lay just claim to the validity of a demonstration. That the Evangelists should feel the need of accounting for the large proportion of parabolic material in Jesus’ teaching is not obvious. The proportion in Mk., with whom we have primarily to do, is not striking. We should need to postulate, what many deny, his acquaintance with the Logia. Again, if the Evangelists evolved this whole conception, it is certainly strange that they should make so little use of it. Writers are not wont thus to forget or neglect their own pet hypotheses, as Mk. apparently did, even in the course of ch. 4. Could he fail to notice, too, how his theory was contradicted by the readiness with which Jesus’ hearers understood the account of the Wicked Husbandmen? With all their freedom in transmitting Jesus’ words, is it probable that the writers would venture upon an entirely new creation of this kind at so late a date?

There is greater likelihood that we have to do in this passage with a saying of Jesus that, in the course of time, has been modified, or received a false emphasis. At what stage of the development of the Gospels the change took place we cannot be certain. The lack of responsiveness on the part of His hearers and the growing opposition of which we learn in the Gospels, may have caused Jesus to apply to His ministry the words of the prophet Isaiah ( Isaiah 6:9 f.). The outcome of His mission might appear, on first thought, to be a repetition of this experience; but a deeper insight revealed as true what the parables of this chapter (Mark 4) teach. The despair of the prophet’s words receives its answer. That it was the Evangelists who first brought this OT quotation into such connexion can be doubted, though we can no longer be certain of its exact application, and though the text does not seem here to be in order. If Jesus used the words ironically, they might be cherished by the Christians of the later days of conflict as a statement of the Divine purpose. There is, in any case, too much contradictory evidence to admit of our receiving them as the deliberate statement of Jesus’ intention.

3. Interpretation. —In what sense is it permissible to speak of the interpretation of a parable? If we mean thereby an allegory, the need of translating its terms into their equivalents is evident. This will be required by the hearer in more or less fulness, according to circumstances. The statements of the Synoptists ( Mark 4:10-13;  Mark 4:33-34 ||) are then comprehensible so far as they may refer to allegories, but can the same be claimed if the remaining parabolic material is likewise included? By some it is said that it can be for the narrative parables, or parables in the restricted meaning of the term. Similitude and Illustrative Instance are excepted, as necessarily clear from the way in which they are introduced, but narrative parables, being complete and independent accounts, require interpretation. The hearer is as little aware of their real significance as was David when listening to Nathan’s story of the poor man and his lamb ( 2 Samuel 12:1 ff.). This view evidently represents Jesus as wont to relate incidents that had no apparent connexion with what was being said or done, and then to add an application, as the moral is appended to the fable. One, for instance, who heard about the Treasure in the field ( Matthew 13:44), or the Two Debtors ( Luke 7:36-50), would have no reason to think of the Kingdom of heaven, or the duties of the sons of the Kingdom, until it was demanded by the application. The Gospels are not responsible for this theory, for they do not give the impression that Jesus kept His hearers in suspense. Either an explicit statement, as in the first example, or the occasion, as in the second, left commonly no doubt as to the topic under discussion. Furthermore, there seems to be no good reason for making such a distinction between this group of parables and the Similitudes and Illustrative Examples. Two parts are here essential to constitute a parable, the illustration and the truth illustrated. That the illustration appears in a slightly modified form does not involve a change in the parable’s essential character. And can we suppose that Jesus ever told the people one story, or a series of stories, and withheld all indication of His purpose? What could be expected to result therefrom beyond a little entertainment? And even this would be of short duration, unless the stories were longer than most of our parables. How can we harmonize the fact that the parables, as they now stand, set forth in unparalleled clearness and beauty the deepest truths of the gospel, with the assumption that they were used by Jesus as a means of punishing the unrepentant by hiding the truth?

It is not improbable that oftentimes the illustrative half of a parable alone was preserved by tradition. In such cases we can speak of interpretation if we mean thereby the discovery of the original setting and application, whether this service is performed by the Evangelists or undertaken by their interpreters. Such an understanding of the term is, however, misleading, as it obviously does not represent the thought of Mark 4 and parallels. The demand of these passages is satisfied only when we assume that interpretation means an unfolding of details such as is provided for the story of the Sower. This would not be required for all parabolic material, but only for those parables that were considered to be allegories. We have found above that it is not easy to decide how many were included by the Synoptists in such a point of view. A priori considerations or ingenious conjecture cannot decide the question, but only the internal evidence discovered by detailed exegetical study.

4. Transmission and Value. —Have the Evangelists rightly understood and faithfully reported Jesus’ parables? Had the tradition, upon which they were dependent, preserved an exact recollection of His words and their application? The parables were quite certainly spoken originally in Aramaic, and many of them, after being preserved for a time by oral tradition, may have first been written down in this same language. But even if the bulk of them were first written in Greek, we should, of course, still possess them only in translation. The possibility of modification accordingly exists, even if an earnest endeavour at historical accuracy, as we conceive of it, could be postulated. A comparison of the records of even the shortest parable appearing in all the Gospels, or in two of them, reveals many variations. While the major part are trifling, others may affect materially the meaning and structure of the parable. In the description of patching the old garment, for instance ( Mark 2:21,  Matthew 9:16,  Luke 5:36), the casual reader of the English notes the striking variation in Luke. The defenders of the validity of the several accounts in all their details have been wont to explain the divergences by advancing the hypothesis of the use of the same parable on different occasions. In some parables common to Mt. and Lk. such a view may be advocated with a show of reason, but when these two Gospels are following Mk. it has little support. There are parables, furthermore, like the one just noted and the Sower and the Wicked Husbandmen, that are spoken under conditions and with applications so much alike and at the same time so peculiar as to exclude any thought of repetition. The differences in the accounts of the Evangelists are unquestionable, and they leave the interpreter no choice. He must seek to ascertain the original form of the parable. If we say that these differences existed in the sources, we simply carry the problem back to an earlier stage and contribute nothing to its solution; and even then the personal equation of the Evangelist enters in, through the choice and arrangement of the details of his narrative. When we observe Mt.’s tendency to group material, revealed in so many connexions, we can but conclude that this purpose, rather than special knowledge of the occasion, has often determined the setting of his parables. A comparative study shows that each of the Synoptists has peculiarities which reveal themselves in his report. Lk.’s interest in the individual and his love of the beautiful are as noticeable as Mt.’s regard for the OT and discovery of allegorical meanings.

If the existing evidence proves that Jesus’ words were not at first treated as unalterably holy, it does not, on the other hand, show that there was such freedom as to cast doubt on all His reported sayings, or justify giving them a value secondary to that of the narrative portions of the Gospels. Notwithstanding differences, the Synoptists show such essential agreement that we feel little doubt regarding most parables. The wonder is that there should be so little divergence, even though so short a period separated our records and their Aramaic sources from the original utterances. It can be urged in explanation that Jesus’ teaching was too well remembered to admit of the incorporation of new creations. What He had said became early a precious heritage for all believers, and, besides, the parables are of a character to make them especially well remembered. Their freshness, beauty, and earnestness attest their originality and faithful transmission, as does also, in a special degree, their suitability to explain and enforce the teaching in whose service they are employed. That they can be so varied and at the same time so simple, excites wonder. One turns from Rabbinical literature to the parables of Jesus with an increased appreciation of their literary excellence, to say nothing of the marked contrast in dignity and grandeur of theme. Nor is there any writer of early Christian literature worthy of a place in this field beside the Master. An observation of the details and relationships of common life and an appreciation of their significance is revealed that is unparalleled. We gain an insight into the inner life of Jesus Himself, as well as into His teaching, that is afforded by hardly any other portions of the Gospels. The parables are rightly regarded as a most valuable part of the Evangelical tradition, and they will so continue when their right to be heard in their simplicity is generally recognized.

Literature.—The most important work of recent date on the Parables and their exposition is A. Jülicher’s Die Gleichnisreden Jesu , Freiburg, 1899. See also C. A. Bugge, Die Haupt-Parabeln Jesu , Giessen, 1903; Heinrich Weinel, Die Bildersprache Jesu in ihrer Bedeutung für die Erforschung seines inneren Lebens 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , Giessen, 1906; ‘Die Gleichnisse Jesu, zugleich eine Anleitung zu einem quellenmässigen Verständnis der Evangelien,’ Leipzig, 1904 [a volume of the series Aus Natur und Geisteswelt ]; Paul Fiebig, Alt-jüdische Gleichnisse und die Gleichnisse Jesu , Tübingen u. Leipzig, 1904; S. Goebel, Die Parabeln Jesu methodisch ausgelegt , Gotha, 1879–80 [English translation (Edin. 1883) The Parables of Jesus ]; A. B. Bruce, The Parabolic Teaching of Christ , London, 1882; F. L. Steinmeyer, Die Parabeln des Herrn , Berlin, 1884; R. Winterbotham, The Kingdom of Heaven (1898); A. L. Lilley, Adventus Regni (1907); artt. in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, the EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] , and the PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , vol. vi. pp. 688–703 (Heinrici); Commentaries on the Gospels, and Lives of Christ . For further literature, see Jülicher, op. cit. i. pp. 203–322.

W. J. Moulton.

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [2]

Parable (In Ot )

1 . The word represents Heb. mâshâl , which is used with a wide range of meaning, and is very variously tr. [Note: translate or translation.] both in LXX [Note: Septuagint.] and in EV [Note: English Version.] . The root means ‘to be like,’ and Oxf. Heb. Lex . refers the word to ‘the sentences constructed in parallelism,’ which are characteristic of Heb. poetry and gnomic literature; i.e . it refers to the literary form in which the sentence is cast, and not to any external comparison implied in the thought. Such a comparison, however, is often found in the mâshâl , and, according to many scholars, is the main idea underlying the word. We are concerned here with the cases where the EV [Note: English Version.] tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘parable’; it is important to notice that in OT ‘parable’ has the varying senses of mâshâl , and is never used in the narrow technical sense of the NT. In   Numbers 23:7 etc. it is used of the figurative discourse of Balaam (cf.   Isaiah 14:4 [RV [Note: Revised Version.] ],   Micah 2:4 ,   Habakkuk 2:3 ); in   Job 27:1;   Job 29:1 of Job’s sentences of ethical wisdom, differing little from the ‘ proverbs ’ of   1 Kings 4:32 ,   Proverbs 1:1;   Proverbs 10:1 (the same word mâshâl ). So in   Luke 4:28 (RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) it is used of a proverb.   Proverbs 26:7-9 speaks of ‘a parable in the mouth of fools,’ which halts and is misapplied. In   Psalms 49:4;   Psalms 78:2 ‘parable’ is coupled with ‘ dark saying ’ and implies something of mystery; cf. the quotation in   Matthew 13:35 and   John 16:25 AVm [Note: Authorized Version margin.] , RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] , where it represents a Gr. word usually tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘proverb.’ In Wis 5:3 (AVm [Note: Authorized Version margin.] , RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), ‘parable’ means ‘by-word,’ a sense which mâshâl often has. In   Ezekiel 17:2 we have ‘the parable’ of the eagle, really an allegory (see below); cf. the use in   John 10:3 ,   Hebrews 9:9 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ,   Hebrews 11:19 RV [Note: Revised Version.] , where it represents a figure or allegory. Closely connected is   Ezekiel 24:3 , the parabolic narrative of the caldron; the action described was probably not actually performed. Such mysterious figures are characteristic of Ezekiel, and he is reproached as ‘a speaker of parables’ (  Ezekiel 20:49 ).

2 . The meaning of ‘parable’ in the technical sense . If Christ did not create the parabolic type of teaching, He at least developed it with high originality, and gave it a deeper spiritual import. His parables stand as a type, and it is convenient to attach a technical sense to the word, as describing this special type. As distinguished from fable (wh. see), it moves on a higher ethical and literary plane. Fables violate probability in introducing speech of animals, etc., in an unnatural way, and their moral is confined to lessons of worldly wisdom. The allegory , again, is more artificial. It represents something ‘other’ than itself (the Gr. word means ‘speaking other’), the language of the spiritual life being translated into the language, e.g ., of a battle, or a journey. ‘The qualities and properties of the first are transferred to the last, and the two thus blended together, instead of being kept quite distinct and placed side by side, as is the case in the parable’ (Trench, On Parables , ch. 1). Hence each detail has its meaning, and exists for that meaning, not for the sake of the story. In the parable , particularly in those of the NT, the story is natural and self-sufficient as a story, but is seen to point to a deeper spiritual meaning. The details as a rule are not to be pressed, but are simply the picturesque setting of the story, their value being purely literary. In the allegory, each figure, king or soldier, servant or child, ‘is’ some one else without qualification; each detail, sword or shield, road or tree, ‘means’ something perfectly definite. It is not so in most of the parables; the lesson rests on the true analogy which exists between the natural and the spiritual world. Without requiring any fictitious ‘licence,’ the parable simply assumes that the Divine working in each sphere follows the same law. Like an analogy, it appeals to the reason no less than to the imagination.

3 . OT parables . There are five passages in the OT which are generally quoted as representing the nearest approach to ‘parables’ in the technical sense. It is noticeable that in none of them is the word used; as we have seen, where we have the word, we do not really have the thing; in the same way, where we have the thing, we do not find the word. The first two passages (  2 Samuel 12:1-4 [Nathan’s parable],   2 Samuel 14:6 [Joab’s]) are very similar; we have a natural story with an application. The first is exactly parallel to such a parable as ‘the Two Debtors,’ but the second has no deep or spiritual significance. The same is true of   1 Kings 20:39 [the wounded prophet], where the story is helped out by a piece of acting. In all three cases the object is to convey the actual truth of the story, and by the unguarded comments of the listener to convict him out of his own mouth. The method has perhaps in the last two cases a suspicion of trickery, and was not employed by our Lord; the application of the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (  Matthew 21:33 ) was obvious from the first in the light of   Isaiah 5:1-8 . This passage is the fourth of those referred to, and is a true parable, though only slightly developed. It illustrates well the relation between a parable and a metaphor; and a comparison with   Psalms 80:8 shows how narrow is the border-line between parable and allegory. The last passage is   Isaiah 28:24-28 , where we have a comparison between the natural and the spiritual world, but no story. It should be noted that post-Biblical Jewish literature makes a wide use of parable, showing sometimes, alike in spirit, form, and language, a remarkable resemblance to the parables of the NT.

C. W. Emmet.

Parable (In Nt ) . 1. Meaning and form . (1) The constant use of a word, meaning resemblance both in Hebrew and in Greek, makes it evident that an essential feature of the parable lay in the bringing together of two different things so that the one helped to explain and to emphasize the other. In the parables of Christ the usual form is that of a complete story running parallel to the stages and divisions of a totally different subject. Thus in the parable of the Sower (  Matthew 13:1-8 ) the kinds of soil in the narrative are related to certain distinctions of character in the interpretation (  Matthew 13:19-28 ), The teaching value thus created came from an appeal to the uniformity of nature. In the Oriental thought of the Bible writers this contained a factor or field of illustration often grudgingly conceded by the materialistic provincialism of modern Western science. It was recognized and believed by them that the Lord of all had the right to do as He pleased with His own. Instead of being an element of disruption, this was to them the guarantee of all other sequences. He who gave to the frail grass its form of beauty could be relied upon with regard to higher forms of life. The attention given to the fall of the sparrow would not be withheld from the death of His saints. The conception gave solidarity to all phenomenal sequences, and forced into special notice whatever seemed to be subject to other influences. Such was the parable value of contrast between the behaviour of Israel towards God and the common seotiment of family relationship, and even the grateful instincts of the beasts of burden (  Isaiah 1:2 ,   Isaiah 1:3 ). Thus also Christ spoke of His own homelessness as a privation unknown to the birds and the foxes (  Matthew 8:20 ). This effect of contrasting couples formed a literary feature in some of Christ’s parables where opposing types of character were introduced side by side (  Matthew 21:28;   Matthew 25:2 ,   Luke 18:10 ).

(2) The use of the word paroimia in LXX [Note: Septuagint.] and in the Gospel of John indicates that a proverb or parable, being drawn from common objects and incidents, was available and meant for public use. What was once said in any particular case could always be repeated under similar circumstances.

(3) Occasionally the public parable value was reached by making an individual represent all others of the same class. The parable then became an example in the ordinary sense of the term ( Luke 14:8;   Luke 14:12-13 ). In   John 10:1-8;   John 15:1-7 , there is no independent introductory narrative dealing with shepherd life and the care of the vineyard. Certain points are merely selected and dwelt upon as in the interpretation of a parable story previously given. Here there is all the explanatory and persuasive efficiency of the appeal to nature and custom, but, as in this case the reference is to Christ Himself as Head of the Kingdom, the parable has not the general application of those belonging to its citizenship. It is nevertheless a parable, though ‘the Door’ and ‘the Vine’ are usually called emblems or symbols of Christ.

2 . Advantages and Disadvantages . In the parable two different planes of experience were brought together, one familiar, concrete, and definite, the other an area of abstractions, conjectures, and possibilities. At the points of contact it was possible for those who desired to do so to pass from the known to the unknown. Imagination was exercised and the critical faculty appealed to, and sympathy was enlisted according to the merits of the case presented. A moral decision could thus be impartially arrived at without arousing the instinct of self-defence, and when the parallelism was once recognized, the hearer had either to make the desired application or act in contempt of his own judgment (  2 Samuel 12:1-4 ). In Christ’s parables, as distinct from the ordinary fable which they otherwise completely resembled in form, the illustrations were always drawn from occurrences that were possible, and which might therefore have belonged to the experience of the hearer. When the meaning was perceived, this fact gave to the explanation the persuasive value of something sanctioned, by the actualities of life. But, on the other hand, the meaning might not be understood. Its acceptance was limited by the power to discover it. Only he who could see the prophet’s chariot could use the prophet’s mantle. The transition of responsibility from the speaker to the hearer was sometimes indicated by the words, ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear’ (  Matthew 13:9 ). Christ’s most solemn utterances were directed towards the insensibility that took its music without dancing, and sat silent where the wail for the dead was raised (  Matthew 11:17 ). His last act towards such imperviousness was to pray for it and to die for it (  Luke 23:34;   Luke 23:37 ,   Romans 5:8 ).

3 . The special need of Parables in Christ’s teaching . If the teaching of Christ had been devoted to matters already understood and accepted as authoritative, such as the conventional commentary on the law of Moses, such a presentation of moral and spiritual truth, while imparting the charm of freshness to things familiar, would not have been actually necessary. The Scribes and Pharisees did not require it. Even if, passing beyond the Jewish ceremonial observance and externalism, He had been content to speak of personal salvation and ethical ideas after the manner so prevalent in the Western Church of to-day, He would not have needed the vehicle of parable instruction. But the subject which, under all circumstances, privately and publicly, directly and indirectly, He sought to explain, commend, and impersonate, was that of a Kingdom that had for its destiny the conquest of the world. Alike in His preaching and in His miraculous works, His constant purpose was to reveal and glorify the Father (  John 15:8;   John 16:25 ) and to unfold the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven (  Matthew 4:23;   Matthew 13:11 ,   Luke 8:10 ). These mysteries were not in themselves obscure or remote (  Matthew 16:1-4 ,   Luke 17:21;   Luke 18:16 ), but its principles and motives and rewards were so opposed to all that had entered the mind of man, that it had to be characterized as a Kingdom that was not of this world (  John 18:36 ). It was this Kingdom of Messianic expectation that united Christ with the historic past of the elected nation to which according to the flesh He belonged. Its appearance had been the chief burden of prophecy, and its expansion and attendant blessing to humanity had been dwelt upon as the recompense for the travail of Zion. The Messiah was to be the Prince of Peace in that Kingdom of exploded and exhausted evil, where in symbol the wolf and the lamb were to feed together (  Isaiah 65:25 ). The princes of the people of the earth were to be gathered together to be the people of the God of AbrahamGenesis 12:3 ,   Psalms 47:9 ). But the same mysteries of the Kingdom, which connected Christ with the prophetic utterances and developed history of Israel, also brought Him into a relationship of antagonism towards the religious teaching of His own time. The people recognized in His words the authority that belonged to Moses’ seat, but they saw very clearly that another than Moses was there. The point of distinction between Him and the Pharisees was that in His hands the Law was no longer an end in itself, but became a minister to what was beyond and greater than itself. While the Rabbinical teaching boasted that the world had been created only for the Torah, He taught that the Law had been created for the world. This radical opposition appeared in what He said about the proper use and observance of the Sabbath day, and in His condemnation of those who would neither enter the Kingdom nor allow others to do so. They taught with pride and complacency that the Kingdom of God had reached its final consummation and embodiment in their own exclusive circle, whereas the message of Christ was to be borne over new areas of progress and expansion until it reached and conquered the uttermost parts of the earth. It was a parting at the fountain-head. One teaching meant the extinction of the other. Of this Kingdom and its mysteries Christ spoke in parables. He thereby turned the thoughts of men from the Mosaic succession of Rabbinical precedents and their artificial mediation of the Law of God, and discovered a new source of illumination and authority in the phenomena of the seasons, the relationships of the family, and the industries of village life. Faith, obedience, and love took the place of technical knowledge and official position. The Kingdom of heaven was at hand, and the King’s invitation to enter was always wider than the willingness to accept it. To His disciples He more intimately explained that it was a Kingdom of relationship to God, and of men’s relationship, in consequence, towards one another. This, along with the story of His own life and ministry and resurrection, was to be the gospel they were to preach, by the power of the Spirit, as the message of God’s salvation to the whole world. In the Sermon on the Mount those mysteries of the Kingdom were indicated in outline, and in the parables the theme was still the same, whether the story started from the initiative of the Teacher in the presence of the multitude, or was suggested by some incident of the hour. In the long warfare of the world’s kingdoms men had grown familiar with the cry, ‘Woe to the vanquished!’ but, in that Kingdom of which He spoke, a new social instinct, created and nourished by its citizenship, was to inflict an intolerable pain on those who could relieve misery and uplift the down-trodden and cheer the despairing, and did it not. It was to take upon itself the world’s estrangement from God and hardness of heart, and make its own the Christless shame of moral defeat, and social discord, and all unloveliness of life. In the citizenship of that Kingdom the sorest impoverishment would not be in the humble byways of the lame and the blind, but in the homes of selfish luxury and privileged exemption. The chief crime of the Kingdom, involving a complete negation of discipleship, would be an evaded cross. ‘I was sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not’ (  Matthew 25:43 ). Both from the novelty of the vision thus presented, and from its hostility to the spirit and authority of the religious leaders, it is evident that teaching by parable was the form best adapted to Christ’s purpose and subject, and to the circumstances of the time. It was an efficient and illuminating method of instruction to those who were able to receive it. The petition once presented by two of His disciples indicates what might have become general if the rewards of the Kingdom had been announced to those who had not the true spirit of its service (  Matthew 20:21 ). By leaving altogether the traditions and controversies of the exhausted Church of that day, He gave a fresh positive re-statement of the nature and dimension of the Kingdom of God.

4. The following selection from Christ’s parables Indicates some of the points of relationship to the Kingdom. Whatever is stated generally applies also to the individual, and the latter should not regard anything as essential and vital which he cannot share with the whole membership. The humblest service is regarded as done directly to the King. (1) The parable of boundaries, the conditions and environment of the Kingdom: the Sower and the Seed (  Matthew 13:1-23 ); difficulties and dangers arising from in attention, superficiality, and divided allegiance. Failure abnormal. (2) Accepted circumstance: Wheat and Tares (  Matthew 13:24-30 ); malignity progressively revealed in the advancing stages of the Kingdom; the patience of the Spirit. (3) Continuous development and adaptation: Growing Seed (  Mark 4:26-29 ); union in the service of the Kingdom not an artificial pattern commending itself to a particular age, but a new circle of growth around the parent stem which moves onwards and upwards towards flower and fruit. (4) The appointed task: Talents (  Matthew 25:14-30 ), Pounds (  Luke 19:12-27 ); faith accepting personal responsibility; the servant of the Kingdom, being relieved from the dangers of success and failure, labours so that he may present his account with joy in the presence of the King, being prepared for that which is prepared for him. (5) The parable of office: The Husbandmen in the Vineyard (  Matthew 21:33-46 ,   Luke 12:42-46 ); names and claims in the Church that dispossess and dishonour Christ. (6) The King’s interest: Lost Sheep (  Luke 15:3-7 ), Lost Coin (  Luke 15:8-10 ), Lost Son (  Luke 15:11-32 ); forfeited ownership sorrowfully known to the owner; social relationship to the Kingdom indicated by the fact that the sheep was one of a hundred, the coin one of ten, and the son a member of a family. (7) Cost and recompense of citizenship: Hid Treasure (  Matthew 13:44 ), Pearl of Great Price (  Matthew 13:45 ); self is eliminated, but ‘all things are yours.’ (8) Fulfilment: The Great Supper (  Luke 14:15-24 ): the King’s purpose must be carried out; if individuals and nations of civilized pre-eminence hold back, others will be made worthy of the honour of the service. (9) Rejected membership and lost opportunity: Rich Fool (  Luke 12:16-21 ), Rich Man and Lazarus (  Luke 16:19-31 ). (10) Personality in the Kingdom: ( a ) humility (  Matthew 18:1-4 ,   Luke 18:9-14 ); ( b ) sincerity (  Matthew 7:15-27 ); ( c ) usefulness (  Luke 13:3-8 ); ( d ) gratitude (  Matthew 18:28-35 ,   Luke 7:41-43 ); ( e ) readiness to help (  Luke 10:30-37 ); ( f ) assurance of faith (  Luke 11:5-13;   Luke 18:1-8 ); ( g ) patient hope (  Mark 13:34-37 ,   Luke 12:35-39 ).

G. M. Mackie.

Morrish Bible Dictionary [3]

In the O.T. the word is mashal, 'a similitude,' and is also translated 'proverb.' In the N.T. it is παραβολή. A parable is a mode of relation under which something is figured which is not expressed in the terms. Hence a parable usually necessitates an expositor. The Lord said on one occasion that He spoke in parables, so that the multitude should not understand His teaching: they had virtually rejected their Messiah, and were not morally in a condition to be taught. The Lord acted as expositor and explained the meaning privately to His disciples, for it was given unto them to know 'the mysteries of the kingdom.'   Matthew 13:11 . Some, however, of the Lord's parables were so pointed that they were understood even by His enemies, which doubtless was His intention; they were laid bare as in His presence. Some of those in the O.T. also were plain, but in the parable of the ewe lamb, David did not see the application till he had himself judged the culprit. So also with Ahab and the 'escaped captive.' These allegories were calculated to strike home the intended lesson, by portraying in an objective way the evil.

The word 'parable' is used many times in the O.T. for figurative language where no distinct parable is related, as when Balaam 'took up his parable,'  Numbers 23:7,18 , etc.; and Job 'continued his parable.'  Job 27:1;  Job 29:1 . The word παραβολή is twice translated 'FIGURE.'  Hebrews 9:9;  Hebrews 11:19 .

From the fact of the Lord connecting 'the mysteries of the kingdom' with the parables He uttered, we may be sure that there is much instruction to be gathered from them if rightly interpreted: they need the teaching of the Spirit of God as much as any other part of scripture.

It will be seen by the annexed list that some of the parables are recorded only by Matthew; two 'similes' are found in Mark only; several parables are given only by Luke; and none are recorded by the evangelist John. There must be divine reasons for this, and wisdom is needed to discern and profit by it. All is doubtless in harmony with the character of each of the Gospels. The word 'parable' occurs in  John 10:6 in the A.V., but it is not the same word, and signifies 'allegory.' The teaching is not in the form of a parable: the Lord is speaking of Himself as the good Shepherd.

Some of the parables are grouped together. Thus in  Matthew 13 there are seven parables, four of which were delivered in the hearing of the multitude, and three in private. The first was introductory, namely, the Sower The Lord came seeking fruit, but finding none He revealed that He had really been sowing 'the word of the kingdom,' and explained why much of the seed did not produce fruit. The next three parables give the outward aspect of the kingdom during Christ's absence, that which man has made of it. The second is the Wheat And The Tares The Lord sowed the good seed, but Satan at once sowed his seed, and both grew up together until the harvest at the end of the age. The third is the Mustard Seed This grows up into a tree large enough for the birds (which caught away the good seed in the parable of the sower) to lodge in its branches. The fourth is the Leaven. A woman hid leaven (always a type of what is human, arid hence of evil, because sin is in the flesh) which diffused itself unseen amid the three measures of meal until all was leavened.

Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and in private explained first to His disciples the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, and then added parables that show the divine object and intent in the kingdom. The first is the HID TREASURE, for the sake of obtaining which a man buys the field in which it is hid. The second is the Pearl Of Great Price The merchant-man seeks goodly pearls, and having found one pearl of great price, sells all that he has to be possessed of it. Christ renounced all that belonged to Him as man after the flesh and as Messiah on earth, in order that He might possess the church. The third is the parable of the NET, which gathers out of the sea of nations good and bad, as the gospel has done in Christendom. When the net is drawn to shore the servants make a selection of the good from the bad, but at the end of the age (it is added in the exposition) the angels will separate the wicked from the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire.

Another group of parables is in  Luke 15 , or in one sense a parable in three sections ( Luke 15:3 ). It answers the charge brought against the Lord, "This man receiveth sinners."

1. THE Lost Sheep was followed by the shepherd until it was found.

2. THE Lost Piece Of Money The piece of money was lost in the house, even as many persons in God's sight were lost in the outward profession of being Abraham's children (as many indeed are lost now in Christendom). The lost piece was sought by the light of the candle till it was found. It was precious, a piece of silver.

3. THE Prodigal Son was joyfully received by the father, a feast was prepared, and the recovery of the lost one was celebrated by music and dancing. This is the climax — the celebration of grace. In all three the joy is that of the finder. It is the joy of heaven over the recovery of lost sinners.

It is doubtless best to study each parable or each group, with its context, as the Holy Spirit has given them. Attempts have, however, been made to classify them according to the truth conveyed by them thus:

1. The setting aside of Israel. THE TWO SONS, of which the Lord gives the interpretation. THE Wicked Husbandmen: the rulers of Israel were among the Lord's hearers, and He explained the parable thus: "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." The Barren Fig Tree: the Lord came seeking fruit in Israel as representing man under culture, but found none. He gave time for repentance, but the fig tree yielded no fruit and was to be cut clown: the destruction of Jerusalem was its actual removal.

2. The introduction of the kingdom and Satan's opposition to it. The SOWER. The Wheat And Tares The Growth Of Seed: notwithstanding the opposition of Satan, God in His own secret way makes His seed fructify and bring forth fruit. The LEAVEN; the Hidden Treasure; the Pearl Of Great Price; and the NET.

3. God's way of bringing into blessing. The Lost Sheep; the Lost Piece Of Money; and the Prodigal Son The Marriage For The King'S Son: God will do honour to His Son. The Jews were invited to the feast, but would not come. Others, the Gentile outcasts, were invited. One without the wedding robe (Christ) was cast out. He had no sense of natural unfitness. The Great Supper: the feast of heavenly grace in contrast to the earthly things of the kingdom of God. All who were invited made excuses, not as prevented by evil but by earthly things; they were indifferent to the gracious invitation. Some, the poor and afflicted of the city, were brought in, and others were to be compelled to come in. God will have His house filled. The Pharisee And Publican: the Pharisee thanked God that he was not as other men; the publican cried for mercy, and went down to his house justified rather than the other. The TWODEBTORS: the poor woman was forgiven much, and she loved much; not forgiven because she loved much. The Unjust Judge: the Lord's point was that men "ought always to pray and not to faint." God will answer in His own time, and the earthly elect will be saved. The Labourers In The Vineyard: God in His sovereignty asks, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" Man claims this liberty for himself, yet murmurs against the sovereignty of God. "Many are called, but few chosen." Notice also in this parable the Lord's reply to Peter's question in  Matthew 19:27;  Matthew 20 continues the subject and shows us sovereign grace in contrast with the mercenary spirit of man's heart.

4. The various responsibilities of men. The Good Samaritan: this was given in answer to "Who is my neighbour?" The Lord was really the good Samaritan, and after describing the course He took He said, "Go thou and do likewise." The Foolish Rich Man: the moral is, "So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." The Unjust Steward: he sacrificed the present for the future, forwhich his master commended him, not for his injustice but his wisdom. The Lord applies the parable thus: "Make to yourselves friends with the mammon of unrighteousness [worldly possessions] that when it fails ye may be received into eternal tabernacles." Giving to the poor is lending to the Lord, and laying up treasure in heaven. The Lord exhorted His hearers to be (unlike the unjust steward) faithful in their stewardship of the unrighteous mammon (which does not belong to the Christian), that the true riches might be entrusted to them.

The Rich Man And Lazarus Nothing is said of the moral character of either of these men. It had been taught in the O.T. that outward prosperity should mark the upright man.  Psalm 112:2,3 . In the kingdom in its new phase, consequent upon Christ's rejection, the possession of riches is no sign of divine favour. This was a needful lesson for the Jew. It was very difficult for a rich man to be saved, but the poor had the gospel preached unto them. The poor man was carried into Abraham's bosom, and the rich man fell into perdition. Another world reverses the conditions of the present one. The teaching in the parable of the Unjust Steward is continued here: the rich man was not sacrificing the present for the future. It also gives a vivid picture of the unalterable condition of the lost.

The Unmerciful Servant This illustrates the government of God, which is not set aside by His grace. It is revealed that God will recompense to His people according as they act towards others.  Matthew 7:2 . Doubtless this parable has another application, bearing upon the Jews as to their jealousy of grace being shown to the Gentiles. The debt of the Gentiles to them is expressed in the hundred pence [perhaps a few months wages]; whereas the indebtedness of the Jews to God is seen in the ten thousand talents [millions of pounds or dollars]. Pardon was offered to them by Peter in  Acts 3:19-26; but it was rejected, and their persecution of Paul and those who carried the gospel to the Gentiles showed that they could not forgive the Gentiles the hundred pence. They must now pay the uttermost farthing. Compare  Isaiah 40:2;  Matthew 5:25,26;  1 Thessalonians 2:15,16 .

The TEN VIRGINS. The explanation of this is simple. The normal attitude of Christians is that they have gone forth to meet the Bridegroom. This was the hope and expectation of the apostles. After their days all in this respect fell asleep. There may have been times of awakening, but when the last call goes forth it reveals the solemn fact that some have a profession only, without Christ — lamps without oil — who will be for ever shut out. "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour." The virgins signify Christians, and not the faithful Jewish remnant, for these will not sleep (persecution will prevent that), nor be a mixed company, nor have to wait a long time for their Deliverer.

The TALENTS. This parable is similar in character to that of the POUNDS. The talents were distributed according to the ability of each servant, so that one had five, another two, and another one. This parable follows that of the Ten Virgins, showing that while the Christian waits for his Lord, he should be faithfully using the gifts entrusted to him. The POUNDS show the Lord Jesus leaving the earth to receive a kingdom, and giving to each of His servants a pound to trade with during His absence. All gifts are for the glory of the Lord, and the servant is responsible to Him for the faithful use of them.

Another arrangement of the principal parables has been suggested, namely, in three groups corresponding to different periods of the Lord's ministry.

1. In His early ministry, embracing the new teaching connected with the kingdom, and the mysterious form which it takes during His absence. This extends to   Matthew 13 and   Mark 4 . These parables will be easily distinguished in the following table.

2. After an interval of some months. The parables are now of a differenttype, and are drawn from the life of men rather than from the world of nature. They are principally in answer to questions, not in discourses to the multitude. Most of them occur in Luke only, in which gospel the Son of man is for man. They fall chiefly between the mission of the seventy and the Lord's last approach to Jerusalem.

3. This group falls towards the close of the Lord's ministry. They concern the kingdom in its consummation, and are prophetic of the rejection of Israel and the coming of the Lord.

In  Matthew 13 the Lord asked His disciples if they understood what He had been saying to them. They said, "Yea, Lord." He added, "Every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, is like unto a man that is a householder which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old."

Parables And Similes In The Old Testament

Fausset's Bible Dictionary [4]

Hebrew Maashaal , Greek Parabolee , a placing side by side or comparing earthly truths, expressed, with heavenly truths to be understood. (See Fable .) The basis of parable is that man is made in the image of God, and that there is a law of continuity of the human with the divine. The force of parable lies in the real analogies impressed by the Creator on His creatures, the physical typifying the higher moral world. "Both kingdoms develop themselves according to the same laws; Jesus' parables are not mere illustrations, but internal analogies, nature becoming a witness for the spiritual world; whatever is found in the earthly exists also in the heavenly kingdom." (Lisco.) The parables, earthly in form heavenly in spirit, answer to the parabolic character of His own manifestation. Jesus' purpose in using parables is judicial, as well as didactic, to discriminate between the careless and the sincere.

In His earlier teaching, as the Sermon on the Mount, He taught plainly and generally without parables; but when His teaching was rejected or misunderstood, He in the latter half of His ministry judicially punished the unbelieving by parabolic veiling of the truth ( Matthew 13:11-16), "therefore speak I to them in parables, because they seeing see not ... but blessed are your eyes, for they see," etc. Also  Matthew 13:34-35. The disciples' question ( Matthew 13:10), "why speakest Thou unto them in parables?" shows that this is the first formal beginning of His parabolic teaching. The parables found earlier are scattered and so plain as to be rather illustrations than judicial veilings of the truth ( Matthew 7:24-27;  Matthew 9:16;  Matthew 12:25;  Mark 3:23;  Luke 6:39). Not that a merciful aspect is excluded even for the heretofore carnal hearers. The change of mode would awaken attention, and judgment thus end in mercy, when the message of reconciliation addressed to them first after Jesus' resurrection ( Acts 3:26) would remind them of parables not understood at the time.

The Holy Spirit would "bring all things to their remembrance" ( John 14:26). When explained, the parables would be the clearest illustration of truth. The parable, which was to the carnal a veiling, to the receptive was a revealing of the truth, not immediate but progressive ( Proverbs 4:18). They were a penalty era blessing according to the hearer's state: a darkening to those who loved darkness; enshrining the truth (concerning Messiah's spiritual kingdom so different from Jewish expectations) from the jeer of the scoffer, and leaving something to stimulate the careless afterward to think over. On the other hand, enlightening the diligent seeker, who asks what means this parable? and is led so to "understand all parables" ( Mark 4:13;  Matthew 15:17;  Matthew 16:9;  Matthew 16:11), and at last to need no longer this mode but to have all truth revealed plainly ( John 16:25). The truths, when afterward explained first by Jesus, then by His Spirit ( John 14:26), would be more definitely and indelibly engraven on their memories.

About 50 out of a larger number are preserved in the Gospels ( Mark 4:33). Each of the three synoptical Gospels preserves some parable peculiar to itself; John never uses the word parable but "proverb" or rather brief "allegory," parabolic saying ( Paroimia ). Parabolic sayings, like the Paroimia) in John ( John 10:1;  John 10:6-18;  John 16:25;  John 15:1-8), occur also in  Matthew 15:15;  Luke 4:23;  Luke 6:39;  Mark 3:23, "parable" in the sense "figure" or type,  Hebrews 9:9;  Hebrews 11:19 Greek Fable introduces brutes and transgresses the order of things natural, introducing improbabilities resting on fancy. Parable does not, and has a loftier significance; it rests on the imagination, introducing only things probable. The allegory personifies directly ideas or attributes. The thing signifying and the thing signified are united together, the properties and relations of one being transferred to the other; instead of being kept distinct side by side, as in the parable; it is a prolonged metaphor or extended simile; it never names the object itself; it may be about other than religious truths, but the parable only about religious truth.

The parable is longer carried out than the proverb, and not merely by accident and occasionally, but necessarily, figurative and having a similitude. The parable is often an expanded proverb, and the proverb a condensed parable. The parable expresses some particular fact, which the simile does not. In the fable the end is earthly virtues, skill, prudence, etc., which have their representatives in irrational creation; if men be introduced, they are represented from their mere animal aspect. The rabbis of Christ's time and previously often employed parable, as Hillel, Shammai, the Gemara, Midrash (Lightfoot, Hor. Hebrew,  Matthew 13:3); the commonness of their use was His first reason for employing them, He consecrated parables to their highest end. A second reason was, the untutored masses relish what is presented in the concrete and under imagery, rather than in the abstract. Even the disciples, through Jewish prejudices, were too weak in faith impartially to hear gospel truths if presented in naked simplicity; the parables secured their assent unawares.

The Pharisees, hating the truth, became judicially hardened by that vehicle which might have taught them it in a guise least unpalatable. As in the prophecies, so in parables, there was light enough to guide the humble, darkness enough to confound the willfully blind ( John 9:39;  Psalms 18:26). A third reason was, gospel doctrines could not be understood fully before the historical facts on which they rested had been accomplished, namely, Jesus' death and resurrection. Parables were repositories of truths not then understood, even when plainly told ( Luke 18:34), but afterward comprehended in their manifold significance, when the Spirit brought all Jesus' words to their remembrance. The veil was so transparent as to allow the spiritual easily to see the truth underneath; the unspiritual saw only the sacred drapery of the parable in which He wrapped the pearl so as not to cast it before swine. "Apples of gold in pictures (frames) of silver." The seven in Matthew 13 represent the various relations of the kingdom of God. The first, the relations of different classes with regard to God's word.

The second, the position of mankind relatively to Satan's kingdom. The third and fourth, the greatness of the gospel kingdom contrasted with its insignificant beginning. The fifth and sixth, the inestimable value of the kingdom. The seventh, the mingled state of the church on earth continuing to the end. The first four parables have a mutual connection ( Matthew 13:3;  Matthew 13:24;  Matthew 13:31;  Matthew 13:33), and were spoken to the multitude on the shore; then  Matthew 13:34 marks a break. On His way to the house He explains the parable of the sower to the disciples; then, in the house, the tares ( Matthew 13:36); the three last parables ( Matthew 13:44-52), mutually connected by the thrice repeated "again," probably in private. The seven form a connected totality. The mustard and leaven are repeated in a different connection ( Luke 13:18-21).

Seven denotes "completeness"; they form a perfect prophetic series: the sower, the seedtime; the tares, the secret growth of corruption; the mustard and leaven, the propagation of the gospel among princes and in the whole world; the treasure, the hidden state of the church ( Psalms 83:3); the pearl, the kingdom prized above all else; the net, the church's mixed state in the last age and the final separation of bad from good. The second group of parables are less theocratic, and more peculiarly represent Christ's sympathy with all men, and their consequent duties toward Him and their fellow men. The two debtors ( Luke 7:41), the merciless servant (Matthew 18), the good Samaritan ( Luke 10:30), the friend at midnight ( Luke 11:5), the rich fool ( Luke 12:16), the figtree ( Luke 13:6), the great supper ( Luke 14:16), the lost sheep, piece of silver, son (Luke 15;  Matthew 18:12), the unjust steward ( Luke 16:1), Lazarus, etc. ( Luke 16:19), unjust judge ( Luke 18:2), Pharisee and publican ( Luke 18:9), all in Luke, agreeable to his Gospel's aspect of Christ. (See Luke .)

Thirdly, toward the close of His ministry, the theocratic parables are resumed, dwelling on the final consummation of the kingdom of God. The pound ( Luke 19:12), two sons ( Matthew 21:28), the vineyard ( Matthew 21:33), marriage ( Matthew 22:2); the ten virgins, talents, sheep and goats (Matthew 25). Matthew, being evangelist of the kingdom, has the largest number of the first and third group. Mark, the Gospel of Jesus' acts, has (of the three) fewest of the parables, but alone has the parable of the grain's silent growth ( Mark 4:26). John, who soars highest, has no parable strictly so-called, having reached that close communion with the Lord wherein parables have no place. For a different reason, namely, incapacity to frame them, the apocryphal Gospels have none.

Interpretation . Jesus' explanation of two parables, the sower and the tares, gives a key for interpreting other parables. There is one leading thought round which as center the subordinate parts must group themselves. As the accessories, the birds, thorns, heat, etc., had each a meaning, so we must in other parables try to find the spiritual significance even of details. The mistakes some have made are no reason why we should not from Scripture seek an explanation of accessories. The fulfillment may be more than single, applying to the church and to the individual at once, both experimental and prophetic. But

(1) The analogies must be real, not imaginary, and subordinate to the main lesson of the parable.

(2) The parable in its mere outward form must be well understood, e.g. the relation of love between the Eastern shepherd and sheep ( 2 Samuel 12:3, an Old Testament parable, as the vineyard Isaiah 5 also) to catch the point of the parable of the lost sheep.

(3) The context also introducing the parable, as  Luke 15:1-2 is the starting point of the three parables, the lost sheep, etc.; so  Luke 16:14-18 (compare  John 8:9) introduces and gives the key to the parable of the rich man and Lazurus.

(4) Traits which, if literally interpreted, would contradict Scripture, are coloring; e.g. the number of the wise virgins and the foolish being equal; compare  Matthew 7:13-14. But there may be a true interpretation of a trait, which, if misinterpreted, contradicts Scripture, e.g. the hired laborers all alike getting the penny, not that there are no degrees of rewards ( 2 John 1:8) but the gracious gift of salvation is the same to all; the key is  Matthew 19:27-30;  Matthew 20:16. So the selling the debtor's wife and children ( Matthew 18:25) is mere coloring from Eastern usage, for God does not consign wife and children to hell for the husband's and father's sins.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology [5]

The range of meaning of the term "parable" (Gk. parabole [   Matthew 13:33; B. Pes. 49a), allegories ( Ezekiel 17:2;  24:3;  Matthew 13:18,24 ,  36 ), proverbs ( Proverbs 1:1,6;  Mark 3:23 ), riddles ( Psalm 78:2;  Mark 7:17 ), and symbols or types ( Hebrews 9:9; B. Sanh. 92b ). "Parable" is a general term for a figurative saying.

The conceptual background for the concept of parable in the New Testament was Semitic, not Aristotelian Greek. This single insight could have saved the history of interpretation of the parables of Jesus from several key misconceptions. From Jülicher on, based on the Aristotelian Greek idea of parable as "pure comparison" conveying only a single point, there has been a significant school of interpretation that has regarded all allegorical traits as foreign to the parables of Jesus and has insisted that each parable has only one point. This narrow definition of parable has led interpreters to regard the allegorical interpretations of parables in the Gospels (e.g.,  Mark 4:14-20 ) as later misinterpretations, even though the earliest written gospels have the highest percentage of allegorical elements, and the latest, the Gospel of Thomas, has the least. It has also led to a seemingly endless series of variations of exactly just what was the "one point" of each parable. A study of the many interpretations shows a wide range of views of just what that one point must have been. For many parables, such as the prodigal son, limiting the interpretation to "one point" has proved to be a procrustean bed.

Nathan's parable of the ewe lamb in  2 Samuel 12:1-4 foreshadows in several respects many of Jesus' parables. The story of the rich man who slew a poor man's beloved pet lamb caused David to judge the rich man worthy of death. Nathan's "You are the man!" struck David to the quick precisely because he recognized the parallels between his actions and the rich man's, between Uriah and the poor man, and between Uriah's wife and the ewe lamb. This is reinforced with specific imagery ("It shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms") that could be applied just as well to Uriah's wife. Similarly, many of Jesus' parables elicit a judgment that invites repentance, such as the good Samaritan. His parables lead us to a new way of seeing life and invite us to adopt a whole new perspective that changes how we live.

The parable of the vineyard in  Isaiah 5:1-6 is immediately interpreted in verse 7 with explicit allegorical identifications: "The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight." Thus, the allegorical interpretations of Jesus' parables in the Gospels follow the pattern in the Old Testament, a pattern that is abundantly exemplified in rabbinic literature as well.

Jesus' narrative parables are probably best understood as extended metaphors. The story (the image) is a window through which a larger reality (the referent) is depicted. Understanding the message of a parable is more than identifying its "point, " though many parables do have a focal point that is reinforced by the parable as a whole. Thus, it is crucial both to understand the story as it would have been understood by Jesus' original hearers, and to understand the referent, the wider reality about which it gives insight. Typically the referent is some aspect of the kingdom of God, the reign of God in people's hearts, or the realm of God's sovereignty. In order to let the parable have its full impact, we need to see the referent in a new way through the parable story.

To understand a parable we first need to listen to the story. We need to appreciate how its various details support the focus of the whole. For instance, the words describing the fate of each of the seeds that did not bear fruit—devoured, scorched, chokedhave terrifying overtones. This is a story about the reception of seed in various soils. The three examples of multiplied fruitfulness balance the former three examples of fruitlessness. By their concluding position the multiplied fruitfulness of the good soil offers hope in contrast to the devastation where the Word does not take root. The interpretation in each of the Synoptics fits the story perfectly: a person's destiny depends on his or her response to the Word. It both offers hope and warns of devastation to those who will not accept the message. Such a combination of cursing and blessing seems to have been typical of Jesus' contrast parables: eschatological blessing for those who respond properly to God's invitation, but cursing for those who do not.

Of Jesus' fifty-two recorded narrative parables, twenty seem to depict him in imagery that in the Old Testament metaphorical use typically referred to God. The frequency with which this occurs indicates that Jesus regularly depicted himself in images that were particularly appropriate for depicting God. Such self-portrayal appears to be unique to Jesus. In the vast corpus of rabbinic parables there seems to be none in which a rabbi depicted himself. This distinctiveness, like the distinctive artistry of Jesus' parables, is further evidence that the parables recorded in the Gospels are authentic to Jesus.

The imagery that Jesus used to depict himself is an integral and often necessary part of the parables in which they occur. For instance, take the "father" out of the prodigal son, the "bridegroom" out of the bridegroom, the "shepherd" out of the lost sheep, or the "rock" out of the two houses and the parable disintegrates. Furthermore, these symbols for God applied by Jesus to himself in the parables are not interpreted in the Gospels as divine claims. In light of these factors, we can be confident that they were not later, theologically motivated insertions.

The argument implicit in many of these parables depends on the hearer's making an association that equates Jesus' act with God's act. Jesus implicitly claimed to be performing the work of God: as the sower, sowing the kingdom and implanting his word in people; as the director of the harvest, assuming God's role as judge in the endtimes; as the rock, providing the only secure foundation; as the shepherd, seeking out his lost sheep and leading his own; as the bridegroom in the wedding feast of the kingdom, where fasting is unthinkable; as the father, welcoming repentant sinners into the kingdom and calling his children into his service; as the giver of forgiveness, even to grievous sinners; as the vineyard owner, graciously giving undeserved favor; as the lord, who has final authority over his servants, who calls them into responsible participation in the kingdom, and who will ultimately determine the destiny of each of them, depending on their response to his lordship; and as the king, who has authority to allow or refuse entry into the kingdom, and to increase the responsibility of people who develop his resources, or to take away those resources from people who fail to develop them.

Not only do these parables depict Jesus as performing the work of God; they implicitly apply various titles of God to Jesus: the Sower, the Rock, the Shepherd, the Bridegroom, the Father, the Lord, and the King. Each of these parables adds to the overall impression that Jesus implicitly claimed to be God. Most parable studies that deal with the sort of implicit claim Jesus was making through the parables assume that it is a messianic claim, but most of this imagery was not used in the Old Testament to depict the Messiah. Even those symbols that were occasionally also used of the Messiah in the Old Testament (shepherd, king, stone) in Jesus' parables refer more naturally to God.

However, could Jesus' use of these symbols for God mean simply that he saw himself, as all of the prophets did, as doing God's work and speaking God's word? A few of these parables, like the two houses and the two sons, with their particular focus on obedience to Jesus' word, could be interpreted in this way. But three points support the view that Jesus was in fact presenting himself as God:

This is of vital relevance to the current debate on the deity of Jesus. Did he really understand himself to be deity? Here in the parables, the most assuredly authentic of all the traditions about Jesus, is a clear, implicit affirmation of Jesus' self-understanding as deity. His sense of identification with God was so deep that to depict himself he consistently gravitated to imagery and symbols that in the Old Testament depicted God.

Jesus' parables depict many aspects of the kingdom of God. God's reign requires total devotion to him and a life exemplifying repentance, trust, love, and obedience. The forgiving quality of God's love and his merciful invitation to the kingdom inspire trust, the rejection of prejudice, and love for our neighbors.

Philip Barton Payne

See also Allegory; Jesus Christ; Kingdom Of God

Bibliography . K. Bailey, Poet and Peasant  ; idem, Through Peasant Eyes  ; C. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables  ; C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom  ; J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus  ; P. B. Payne, Trinity J 2 ns (1981):3-23; R. H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus  ; D. Wenham, The Parables of Jesus .

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary [6]

Derived from a Greek word, which signifies, to compare things together, to form a parallel or similitude of them with other things.

What we call the Proverbs of Solomon, which are moral maxims and sentences, the Greeks call the Parables of Solomon. In like manner, when Job answers his friends, it is said he took up his "parable,"  Job 27:1   29:1 . In the New Testament the word parable denotes sometimes a true history, or an illustrative sketch from nature; sometimes a proverb or adage,  Luke 4:23; a truth darkly or figuratively expressed,  Matthew 15:15; a type,  Hebrews 9:9; or a similitude,  Matthew 24:32 . The parabolical, enigmatical, figurative, and sententious way of speaking, was the language of the Eastern sages and learned men,  Psalm 49:4   78:2; and nothing was more insupportable than to hear a fool utter parables,  Proverbs 26:7 .

The prophets employed parables the more strongly to impress prince and people with their threatening or their promises. Nathan reproved David under the parable of a rich man who had taken away and killed the lamb of a poor man,  2 Samuel 12:1-31 . See also  Judges 9:7-15   2 Kings 14:9-10 . Our Savior frequently addressed the people in parables, thereby verifying the prophecy of  Isaiah 6:9 , that the people should see without knowing, and hear without understanding, in the midst of instructions. This result, however, only proved how inveterate were their hardness of heart and blindness of mind; for in no other way could he have offered them instruction more invitingly, clearly, or forcibly, than by this beautiful and familiar mode. The Hebrew writers made great use of it; and not only the Jews, but the Arabs, Syrians, and all the nations of the east were and still are admirers of this form of discourse.

In the interpretation of a parable, its primary truth and main scope are chiefly to be considered. The minute particulars are less to be regarded than in a sustained allegory; and serious errors are occasioned by pressing every detail, and inventing for it some spiritual analogy.

The following parables of our Lord are recorded by the evangelists.

Wise and foolish builders,  Matthew 7:24-27 .

Children of the bride-chamber,  Matthew 9:15 .

New cloth and old garment,  Matthew 9:16 .

New wine and old bottles,  Matthew 9:17 .

Unclean spirit,  Matthew 12:43 .

Sower,  Matthew 13:3,18   Luke 8:5,11 .

Tares,  Matthew 13:24-30,36-43 .

Mustard-seed,  Matthew 13:31-32   Luke 13:19 .

Leaven,  Matthew 13:33 .

Treasure hid in a field,  Matthew 13:44 .

Pearl of great price,  Matthew 13:45-46 .

Net cast into the sea,  Matthew 13:47-50 .

Meats defiling not,  Matthew 15:10-15 .

Unmerciful servant,  Matthew 18:23-35 .

Laborers hired,  Matthew 20:1-16 .

Two sons,  Matthew 21:28-32 .

Wicked husbandmen,  Matthew 21:33-45 .

Marriage-feast,  Matthew 22:2-14 .

Fig tree leafing,  Matthew 24:32-34 .

Man of the house watching,  Matthew 24:43 .

Faithful and evil servants,  Matthew 24:45-51 .

Ten virgins,  Matthew 25:1-13 .

Talents,  Matthew 25:14-30 .

Kingdom divided against itself,  Mark 3:24 .

House divided against itself,  Mark 3:25 .

Strongman armed,  Mark 3:27   Luke 11:21 .

Seed growing secretly,  Mark 4:26-29 .

Lighted candle,  Mark 4:21   Luke 11:33-36 .

Man taking a far journey,  Mark 13:34-37 .

Blind leading the blind,  Luke 6:39 .

Beam and mote,  Luke 6:41-42 .

Tree and its fruit,  Luke 6:43-45 .

Creditor and debtors,  Luke 7:41-47 .

Good Samaritan,  Luke 10:30-37 .

Importunate friend,  Luke 11:5-9 .

Rich fool,  Luke 12:16-21 .

Cloud and wind,  Luke 12:54-57 .

Barren fig tree,  Luke 13:6-9 .

Men bidden to a feast,  Luke 14:7-11 .

Builder of a tower,  Luke 14:28-30,33 .

King going to war,  Luke 14:31-33 .

Savor of salt,  Luke 14:34-35 .

Lost sheep,  Luke 15:3-7 .

Lost piece of silver,  Luke 15:8-10 .

Prodigal son,  Luke 15:11-32 .

Unjust steward,  Luke 16:1-8 .

Rich man and Lazarus,  Luke 16:19-31 .

Importunate widow,  Luke 18:1-8 .

Pharisee and publican,  Luke 18:9-14 .

Pounds,  Luke 19:12-27 .

Good shepherd,  John 10:1-6 .

Vine and branches,  John 15:1-5 .

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [7]

παραβολη , formed from παραβαλλειν , to oppose or compare, an allegorical instruction, founded on something real or apparent in nature or history, from which a moral is drawn, by comparing it with some other thing in which the people are more immediately concerned.

( See Allegory . ) Aristotle defines parable, a similitude drawn from form to form. Cicero calls it a collation; others, a simile. F. de Colonia calls it a rational fable; but it may be founded on real occurrences, as many parables of our Saviour were. The Hebrews call it משל , from a word which signifies either to predominate or to assimilate; the Proverbs of Solomon are by them also called משלים , parables, or proverbs. Parable, according to the eminently learned Bishop Lowth, is that kind of allegory which consists of a continued narration of a fictitious or accommodated event, applied to the illustration of some important truth. The Greeks call these αινοι , allegories, or apologues; the Latins fabulae, or "fables;" and the writings of the Phrygian sage, or those composed in imitation of him, have acquired the greatest celebrity. Nor has our Saviour himself disdained to adopt the same method of instruction; of whose parables it is doubtful whether they excel most in wisdom and utility, or in sweetness, elegance, and perspicuity. As the appellation of parable has been applied to his discourses of this kind, the term is now restricted from its former extensive signification to a more confined sense. But this species of composition occurs very frequently in the prophetic poetry, and particularly in that of Ezekiel. If to us they should sometimes appear obscure, we must remember, that, in those early times when the prophetical writings were indited, it was universally the mode throughout all the eastern nations to convey sacred truths under mysterious figures and representations. In order to our forming a more certain judgment upon this subject, Dr. Lowth has briefly explained some of the primary qualities of the poetic parables; so that, by considering the general nature of them, we may decide more accurately on the merits of particular examples.

It is the first excellence of a parable to turn upon an image well known and applicable to the subject, the meaning of which is clear and definite; for this circumstance will give it perspicuity, which is essential to every species of allegory. If the parables of the sacred prophets are examined by this rule, they will not be found deficient. They are in general founded upon such imagery as is frequently used, and similarly applied by way of metaphor and comparison in the Hebrew poetry. Examples of this kind occur in the parable of the deceitful vineyard,  Isaiah 5:1-7 , and of the useless vine, Ezekiel 15;  Ezekiel 19:10-14; for under this imagery the ungrateful people of God are more than once described;  Ezekiel 19:1-9; Ezekiel 31; Ezekiel 16; Ezekiel 23. Moreover, the image must not only be apt and familiar, but it must be also elegant and beautiful in itself; since it is the purpose of a poetic parable, not only to explain more perfectly some proposition, but frequently to give it some animation and splendour. As the imagery from natural objects is in this respect superior to all others, the parables of the sacred poets consist chiefly of this kind of imagery. It is also essential to the elegance of a parable, that the imagery should not only be apt and beautiful, but that all its parts and appendages should be perspicuous and pertinent. Of all these excellencies, there cannot be more perfect examples than the parables that have been just specified; to which we may add the well known parable of Nathan,  2 Samuel 12:1-4 , although written in prose, as well as that of Jotham,  Judges 9:7-15 , which appears to be the most ancient extant, and approaches somewhat nearer to the poetical form. It is also the criterion of a parable, that it be consistent throughout, and that the literal be never confounded with the figurative sense; and in this respect it materially differs from that species of allegory, called the continued metaphor,  Isaiah 5:1-7 . It should be considered, that the continued metaphor and the parable have a very different view. The sole intention of the former is to embellish a subject, to represent it more magnificently, or at the most to illustrate it, that, by describing it in more elevated language, it may strike the mind more forcibly; but the intent of the latter is to withdraw the truth for a moment from our sight, in order to conceal whatever it may contain ungrateful or reproving, and to enable it secretly to insinuate itself, and obtain an ascendency as it were by stealth. There is, however, a species of parable, the intent of which is only to illustrate the subject; such is that remarkable one of the cedar of Lebanon, Ezekiel 31; than which, if we consider the imagery itself, none was ever more apt or more beautiful; or the description and colouring, none was ever more elegant or splendid; in which, however, the poet has occasionally allowed himself to blend the figurative with the literal description,  Ezekiel 31:11;  Ezekiel 31:14-17; whether he has done this because the peculiar nature of this kind of parable required it, or whether his own fervid imagination alone, which disdained the stricter rules of composition, was his guide, our learned author can scarcely presume to determine.

In the New Testament, the word parable is used variously: in  Luke 4:23 , for a proverb, or adage; in  Matthew 15:15 , for a thing darkly and figuratively expressed; in  Hebrews 9:9 , &c, for a type; in  Luke 14:7 , &c, for a special instruction; in  Matthew 24:32 , for a similitude or comparison.

Smith's Bible Dictionary [8]

Parable. (The word parable is, in Greek, parable ( parabole ), which signifies placing beside or together, a comparison, a parable is therefore, literally, A Placing Beside, A Comparison, A Similitude, An Illustration Of One Subject By Another. - McClintock and Strong. As used in the New Testament, it had a very wide application, being applied sometimes to the shortest proverbs,  1 Samuel 10:12;  1 Samuel 24:13;  2 Chronicles 7:20, sometimes to dark prophetic utterances,  Numbers 23:7;  Numbers 23:18;  Numbers 24:3;  Ezekiel 20:49, sometimes to enigmatic maxims,  Psalms 78:2;  Proverbs 1:6, or metaphors expanded into a narrative.  Ezekiel 12:22.

In the New Testament itself, the word is used with a like latitude in  Matthew 24:32;  Luke 4:23;  Hebrews 9:9. It was often used in a more restricted sense to denote a short narrative, under which some important truth is veiled. Of this sort were the parables of Christ . The parable differs from the fable

(1) in excluding brute and inanimate creatures passing out of the laws of their nature and speaking or acting like men;

(2) in its higher ethical significance.

It differs from the allegory in that the latter, with its direct personification of ideas or attributes, and the names which designate them, involves really no comparison.

The virtues and vices of mankind appear as in a drama, in their own character and costume. The allegory is self-interpreting; the parable demands attention, insight, and sometimes, an actual explanation. It differs from a proverb in that, it must include a similitude of some kind, while the proverb may assert, without a similitude, some wide generalization of experience. - Editor).

For some months, Jesus taught in the synagogues and on the seashore of Galilee, as he had before taught in Jerusalem, and as yet without a parable. But then, there came a change. The direct teaching was met with scorn, unbelief, and hardness, and he seemed, for a time, to abandon it for that which took the form of parables.

The worth of parables, as instruments of teaching, lies in their being, at once, a test of character, and in their presenting, each form of character with that which, as a penalty or blessing, it is adapted to it. They withdraw the light, from those who love darkness. They protect the truth, which they enshrine, from the mockery of the scoffer. They leave something, even with the careless, which may be interpreted and understood afterward. They reveal, on the other hand, to the seekers after truth. These ask the meaning of the parable, and will not rest until the teacher has explained it.

In this way the parable did work, found out the fit hearers and led them on. In most of the parables, it is possible to trace something like an order.

There is a group, which have for their subject, are the laws of the divine kingdom. Under this heading, we have the sower,  Matthew 13:1;  Mark 4:1;  Luke 8:1, and the wheat and the tares.  Matthew 13:1; etc.

When the next parables meet us, they are of a different type, and occupy a different position. They are drawn from the life of men rather than from the world of nature. They are such as these - the two debtors,  Luke 7:1, the merciless servant,  Matthew 18:1, and the good Samaritan,  Luke 10:1; etc.

Toward the close of our Lord's ministry, the parables are again theocratic, but the phase of the divine kingdom on which they chiefly dwell, is that of its final consummation. In interpreting parables, note -

(1) The analogies must be real, not arbitrary;

(2) The parables are to be considered as parts of a whole, and the interpretation of one is not to override or encroach upon the lessons taught by others;

(3) The direct teaching of Christ presents the standard to which all our interpretations are to be referred, and by which they are to be measured.

Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words [9]

1: Παραβολή (Strong'S #3850 — Noun Feminine — parabole — par-ab-ol-ay' )

lit. denotes "a placing beside" (akin to paraballo, "to throw" or "lay beside, to compare"). It signifies "a placing of one thing beside another" with a view to comparison (some consider that the thought of comparison is not necessarily contained in the word). In the NT it is found outside the Gospels, only in  Hebrews 9:9;  11:19 . It is generally used of a somewhat lengthy utterance or narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances, the object of which is to set forth a spiritual lesson, e.g., those in  Matthew 13 and Synoptic parallels; sometimes it is used of a short saying or proverb, e.g.,   Matthew 15:15;  Mark 3:23;  7:17;  Luke 4:23;  5:36;  6:39 . It is the lesson that is of value; the hearer must catch the analogy if he is to be instructed (this is true also of a proverb). Such a narrative or saying, dealing with earthly things with a spiritual meaning, is distinct from a fable, which attributes to things what does not belong to them in nature.

 Matthew 13:34

2: Παροιμία (Strong'S #3942 — Noun Feminine — paroima — par-oy-mee'-ah )

denotes "a wayside saying" (from paroimos, "by the way"), "a byword," "maxim," or "problem,"  2—Peter 2:22 . The word is sometimes spoken of as a "parable,"  John 10:6 , i.e., a figurative discourse (RV marg., "proverb"); see also  John 16:25,29 , where the word is rendered "proverbs" (marg. "parables") and "proverb."

Easton's Bible Dictionary [10]

 1 Samuel 10:12 24:13 2 Chronicles 7:20 Numbers 23:7 Ezekiel 20:49 Psalm 78:2 Proverbs 1:6 Mark 7:17 Luke 4:23 Hebrews 9:9 11:19 Matthew 15:15 24:32 Mark 3:23 Luke 5:36 14:7

Instruction by parables has been in use from the earliest times. A large portion of our Lord's public teaching consisted of parables. He himself explains his reasons for this in his answer to the inquiry of the disciples, "Why speakest thou to them in parables?" ( Matthew 13:13-15;  Mark 4:11,12;  Luke 8:9,10 ). He followed in so doing the rule of the divine procedures, as recorded in  Matthew 13:13 .

The parables uttered by our Lord are all recorded in the synoptical (i.e., the first three) Gospels. The fourth Gospel contains no parable properly so called, although the illustration of the good shepherd ( John 10:1-16 ) has all the essential features of a parable. (See List of Parables in Appendix.)

People's Dictionary of the Bible [11]

Parable (from a Greek word signifying comparison) is used in the Bible in both the wide and a narrow sense. In the first case it comprises all forms of teaching by analogy, and all forms of figurative speech, and is applied to metaphors, whether expanded into narratives,  Ezekiel 12:22, or not,  Matthew 24:32; to proverbs and other short sayings,  1 Samuel 10:12;  1 Samuel 24:13;  2 Chronicles 7:20;  Luke 4:23; to dark utterances or signs of prophetic or symbolical meaning.  Numbers 23:17-18;  Numbers 24:3;  Ezekiel 20:49;  Hebrews 9:9, etc. In the second case it means a short narrative of some every-day event, by which some great spiritual truth is conveyed to the hearer. For list of parables of Christ see Appendix.

Hawker's Poor Man's Concordance And Dictionary [12]

A mode of speaking, in order to illustrate and make familiar to our apprehension divine and spiritual things, by human and natural figures of expression. It was a method of teaching common in the eastern part of the world, and hence all the sacred writers and servants of the Lord adopted it. Yea; the Lord Jesus himself condescended to the same; and indeed so much so that at one time we are told, "without a parable spake he not unto them." ( Matthew 13:34)

There is another sense of the word parable, in which it is sometimes used in Scripture when spoken in a way of reproach; hence Moses, when charging Israel to faithfulness, declares that if the people of God apostatize from him, and set up idols in the land, the Lord would scatter them among all nations, "and thou shalt become (saith Moses) an astonishment, a proverb, (or parable) and a by-word, among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee." ( Deuteronomy 28:37) See Types

King James Dictionary [13]

PAR'ABLE, n. L. parabilis. Easily procured. Not used.

PAR'ABLE, n. L. parabola Gr. to throw forward or against, to compare to or against as in confero, collatum, to set together, or one thing with another. A fable or allegorical relation or representation of something real in life or nature, from which a moral is drawn for instruction such as the parable of the trees choosing a king,  Judges 9 . the parable of the poor man and his lamb.  2 Samuel 12 . the parable of the ten virgins,  Matthew 25

PAR'ABLE, To represent by fiction or fable.

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [14]

A fable or allegorical instruction, founded on something read or apparent in nature or history, from which a moral is drawn, by comparing it with something in which the people are more immediately concerned: such are the parables of Dives and Lazarus, or the prodigal son, of the ten virgins, &c. Dr. Blair observes, that "of parables, which form a part of allegory, the prophetical writings are full; and if to us they sometimes appear obscure, we must remember, that, in those early times, it was universally the mode throughout all the eastern nations, to convey sacred truths under some mysterious figures and representations."

Webster's Dictionary [15]

(1): ( a.) Procurable.

(2): ( n.) A comparison; a similitude; specifically, a short fictitious narrative of something which might really occur in life or nature, by means of which a moral is drawn; as, the parables of Christ.

(3): ( v. t.) To represent by parable.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [16]

par´a - b ' 50  :

1. Name

2. Historical Data

3. Christ's Use of Parables

4. Purpose of Christ in Using Parables

5. Interpretation of the Parables

6. Doctrinal Value of the Parables

1. Name:

Etymologically the word "parable" ( παραβάλλω , parabállō ) signifies a placing of two or more objects together, usually for the purpose of a comparison. In this widest sense of the term there is practically no difference between parable and simile (see Thayer, Dictionary of New Testament Greek , under the word). This is also what substantially some of Christ's parables amount to, which consist of only one comparison and in a single verse (compare   Matthew 13:33 ,  Matthew 13:44-46 ). In the more usual and technical sense of the word, "parable" ordinarily signifies an imaginary story, yet one that in its details could have actually transpired, the purpose of the story being to illustrate and inculcate some higher spiritual truth. These features differentiate it from other and similar figurative narratives as also from actual history. The similarity between the last-mentioned and a parable is sometimes so small that exegetes have differed in the interpretation of certain pericopes. A characteristic example of this uncertainty is the story of Dives and Lazarus in  Luke 16:19-31 . The problem is of a serious nature, as those who regard this as actual history are compelled to interpret each and every statement, including too the close proximity of heaven and hell and the possibility of speaking from one place to the other, while those who regard it as a parable can restrict their interpretation to the features that constitute the substance of the story. It differs again from the fable, in so far as the latter is a story that could not actually have occurred (e.g.  Judges 9:8 ff;   2 Kings 14:9;  Ezekiel 17:2 f). The parable is often described as an extended metaphor. The etymological features of the word, as well as the relation of parables to other and kindred devices of style, are discussed more fully by Ed. Koenig, in HDB , III, 660 ff.

2. Histotical Data:

Although Christ employed the parable as a means of inculcating His message more extensively and more effectively than any other teacher, He did not invent the parable. It was His custom in general to take over from the religious and linguistic world of thought in His own day the materials that He employed to convey the higher and deeper truths of His gospels, giving them a world of meaning they had never before possessed. Thus, e.g. every petition of the Lord's Prayer can be duplicated in the Jewish liturgies of the times, yet on Christ's lips these petitions have a significance they never had or could have for the Jews. The term "Word" for the second person in the Godhead is an adaptation from the Logos-idea in contemporaneous religious thought, though not specifically of Philo's. Baptism, regeneration, and kindred expressions of fundamental thoughts in the Christian system, are terms not absolutely new (compare Deutsch, article "Talmud" Literary Remains ) The parable was employed both in the Old Testament and in contemporaneous Jewish literature (compare e.g.   2 Samuel 12:1-4;  Isaiah 5:1-6;  Isaiah 28:24-28 , and for details see Koenig's article, loc. cit.). Jewish and other non-Biblical parables are discussed and illustrated by examples in Trench's Notes on the Parables of our Lord , introductory essay, chapter iv: "On Other Parables besides Those in the Scriptures."

3. Christ's Use of Parables:

The one and only teacher of parables in the New Testament is Christ Himself. The Epistles, although they often employ rhetorical allegories and similes, make absolutely no use of the parable, so common in Christ's pedagogical methods. The distribution of these in the Canonical Gospels is unequal, and they are strictly confined to the three Synoptic Gospels. Mark again has only one peculiar to this book, namely, the Seed Growing in Secret ( Mark 4:26 ), and he gives only three others that are found also in Mt and Lk, namely the Sower, the Mustard Seed, and the Wicked Husbandman, so that the bulk of the parables are found in the First and the Third Gospels. Two are common to Matthew and Luke, namely the Leaven ( Matthew 13:33;  Luke 13:21 ) and the Lost Sheep ( Matthew 18:12;  Luke 15:3 ff). Of the remaining parables, 18 are found only in Luke and 10 only in Mt. Luke's 18 include some of the finest, namely, the Two Debtors, the Good Samaritan, the Friend at Midnight, the Rich Fool, the Watchful Servants, the Barren Fig Tree, the Chief Seats, the Great Supper, the Rash Builder, the Rash King, the Lost Coin, the Lost Son, the Unrighteous Steward, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Unprofitable Servants, the Unrighteous Judge, the Pharisee and Publican, and the Pounds. The 10 peculiar to Matthew are the Tares, the Hidden Treasure, the Pearl of Great Price, the Draw Net, the Unmerciful Servant, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Two Sons, the Marriage of the King's Son, the Ten Virgins, and the Talents. There is some uncertainty as to the exact number of parables we have from Christ, as the Marriage of the King's Son is sometimes regarded as a different recension of the Great Supper, and the Talents of the Pounds. Other numberings are suggested by Trench, Julicher and others.

4. Purpose of Christ in Using Parables:

It is evident from such passages as  Matthew 13:10 ff (compare   Mark 4:10;  Luke 8:9 ) that Christ did not in the beginning of His career employ the parable as a method of teaching, but introduced it later. This took place evidently during the 2nd year of His public ministry, and is closely connected with the changes which about that time He made in His attitude toward the people in general. It evidently was Christ's purpose at the outset to win over, if possible, the nation as a whole to His cause and to the gospel; when it appeared that the leaders and the great bulk of the people would not accept Him for what He wanted to be and clung tenaciously to their carnal Messianic ideas and ideals, Christ ceased largely to appeal to the masses, and, by confining His instructions chiefly to His disciples and special friends, saw the necessity of organizing an ecclesiola in ecclesia , which was eventually to develop into the world-conquering church. One part of this general withdrawal of Christ from a proclamation of His gospel to the whole nation was this change in His method of teaching and the adoption of the parable. On that subject He leaves no doubt, according to  Matthew 13:11 ff;   Mark 4:12;  Luke 8:10 . The purpose of the parable is both to reveal and to conceal the truth. It was to serve the first purpose in the case of the disciples, the second in the case of the uncleserving Jews. Psychologically this difference, notwithstanding the acknowledged inferiority in the training and education of the disciples, especially as compared with the scribes and lawyers, is not hard to understand. A simple-minded Christian, who has some understanding of the truth, can readily understand figurative illustrations of this truth, which would be absolute enigmas even to an educated Hindu or Chinaman. The theological problem involved is more difficult. Yet it is evident that we are not dealing with those who have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, for whom there is no possibility of a return to grace, according to  Hebrews 6:4-10;  Hebrews 10:26 (compare   Matthew 12:31 ,  Matthew 12:32;  Mark 3:28-30 ), and who accordingly could no longer be influenced by an appeal of the gospel, and we have rather before us those from whom Christ has determined to withdraw the offer of redemption - whether temporarily or definitely and finally, remaining an open question - according to His policy of not casting pearls before the swine. The proper sense of these passages can be ascertained only when we remember that in  Mark 4:12 and   Luke 8:10 , the ἵνα , hı́na , need not express purpose, but that this particle is used here to express mere result only, as is clear too from the passage in  Matthew 13:13 , where the ὅτι , hóti , is found. The word is to be withheld from these people, so that this preaching would not bring about the ordinary results of conversion and forgiveness of sins. Hence, Christ now adopts a method of teaching that will hide the truth from all those who have not yet been imbued by it, and this new method is that of the parable.

5. Interpretation of the Parables:

The principles for the interpretation of the parables, which are all intended primarily and in the first place for the disciples, are furnished by the nature of the parable itself and by Christ's own method of interpreting some of them. The first and foremost thing to be discovered is the scope or the particular spiritual truth which the parable is intended to convey. Just what this scope is may be stated in so many words, as is done, e.g., by the introductory words to that of the Pharisee and the Publican. Again the scope may be learned from the occasion of the parable, as the question of Peter in  Matthew 18:21 gives the scope of the following parable, and the real purpose of the Prodigal Son parable in   Luke 15:11 ff is not the story of this young man himself, but is set over against the murmuring of the Pharisees because Christ received publicans and sinners, in   Luke 15:1 and   Luke 15:2 , to exemplify the all-forgiving love of the Father. Not the Son but the Father is in the foreground in this parable, which fact is also the connecting link between the two parts. Sometimes the scope can be learned only from an examination of the details of the parable itself and then may be all the more uncertain.

A second principle of the interpretation of the parables is that a sharp distinction must be made between what the older interpreters called the body ( corpus ) and the soul ( anima ) of the story; or, to use other expressions, between the shell or bark ( cortex ) and the marrow ( medulla ). Whatever serves only the purpose of the story is the "ornamentation" of the parable, and does not belong to the substance. The former does not call for interpretation or higher spiritual lesson; the latter does. This distinction between those parts of the parable that are intended to convey spiritual meanings and those which are to be ignored in the interpretation is based on Christ's own interpretation of the so-called parabolae perfectae . Christ Himself, in   Matthew 13:18 ff, interprets the parable of the Sower, yet a number of data, such as the fact that there are four, and not more or fewer kinds of land, and others, are discarded in this explanation as without meaning. Again in His interpretation of the Tares among the Wheat in   Matthew 13:36 ff, a number of details of the original parable are discarded as meaningless.

Just which details are significant and which are meaningless in a parable is often hard, sometimes impossible to determine, as the history of their exegesis amply shows. In general it can be laid down as a rule, that those features which illustrate the scope of the parable belong to its substance, and those which do not, belong to the ornamentation. But even with this rule there remain many exegetical cruces or difficulties. Certain, too, it is that not all of the details are capable of interpretation. Some are added of a nature that indeed illustrate the story as a story, but, from the standpoint of Christian morals, are more than objectionable. The Unjust Steward in using his authority to make the bills of the debtors of his master smaller may be a model, in the shrewd use of this world's goods for his purpose, that the Christian may follow in making use of his goods for his purposes, but the action of the steward itself is incapable of defense. Again, the man who finds in somebody else's property a pearl of great price but conceals this fact from the owner of the land and quietly buys this ground may serve as an example to show how much the kingdom of God is worth, but from an ethical standpoint his action cannot be sanctioned. In general, the parable, like all other forms of figurative expression, has a meaning only as far as the tertium comparationis goes, that is, the third thing which is common to the two things compared. But all this still leaves a large debatable ground in many parables. In the Laborers in the Vineyard does the "penny" mean anything, or is it an ornament? The history of the debate on this subject is long. In the Prodigal Son do all the details of his sufferings, such as eating the husks intended for swine, have a spiritual meaning?

6. Doctrinal Value of the Parables:

The interpreters of former generations laid down the rule, theologia parabolica non eat argumentativa , i.e. the parables, very rich in mission thoughts, do not furnish a basis for doctrinal argument. Like all figurative expressions and forms of thought, the parables too contain elements of doubt as far as their interpretation is concerned. They illustrate truth but they do not prove or demonstrate truth. Omnia similia claudicunt , "all comparisons limp," is applicable here also. No point of doctrine can be established on figurative passages of Scripture, as then all elements of doubt would not be eliminated, this doubt being based on the nature of language itself. The argumentative or doctrinal value of parables is found in this, that they may, in accordance with the analogy of Scripture, illustrate truth already clearly expressed elsewhere. Compare especially Trench, introductory essay, in Notes on the Parables of our Lord , chapter iii., 30-43; and Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics , Part II, chapter vi: "Interpretation of Parables," 188-213, in which work a full bibliography is given. Compare also the article "Parabel" in Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature [17]

The word parable denotes

an obscure or enigmatical saying, e.g.; .

It denotes a fictitious narrative, invented for the purpose of conveying truth in a less offensive or more engaging form than that of direct assertion. Of this sort is the parable by which Nathan reproved David . To this class also belong the parables of Christ.

Any discourse expressed in figurative, poetical, or highly ornamented diction is called a parable. Thus it is said. 'Balaam took up his parable' and, 'Job continued his parable' .

In the New Testament the word seems to have a more restricted signification, being generally-employed in the second sense mentioned above, viz., to denote a fictitious narrative, under which is veiled some important truth. Another meaning which the word occasionally bears in the New Testament is that of a type or emblem, as in , where the original word is rendered in our version figure.

The excellence of a parable depends on the propriety and force of the comparison on which it is founded; on the general fitness and harmony of its parts; on the obviousness of its main scope or design; on the beauty and conciseness of the style in which it is expressed; and on its adaptation to the circumstances and capacities of the hearers. If the illustration is drawn from an object obscure or little known, it will throw no light on the point to be illustrated. If the resemblance is forced and unobvious, the mind is perplexed and disappointed in seeking for it. We must be careful, however, not to insist on too minute a correspondence of the objects compared. It is not to be expected that the resemblance will hold good in every particular; but it is sufficient if the agreement exists in those points on which the main scope of the parable depends.

If we test the parables of the Old Testament by the rules above laid down, we shall not find them wanting in any excellence belonging to this species of composition. What can be more forcible, more persuasive, and more beautiful than the parables of Jotham , of Nathan , of Isaiah , and of Ezekiel ?

But the parables uttered by our Savior claim pre-eminence over all others on account of their number, variety, appositeness, and beauty. Indeed it is impossible to conceive of a mode of instruction better fitted to engage the attention, interest the feelings, and impress the conscience, than that which our Lord adopted. Among its advantages may be mentioned the following—

It secured the attention of multitudes who would not have listened to truth conveyed in the form of abstract propositions.

This mode of teaching was one with which the Jews were familiar and for which they entertained a preference.

Some truths which, if openly stated, would have been opposed by a barrier of prejudice, were in this way insinuated, as it were, into men's minds, and secured their assent unawares.

The parabolic style was well adapted to conceal Christ's meaning from those who, through obstinacy and perverseness, were indisposed to receive it. This is the meaning of Isaiah in the passage quoted in . Not that the truth was ever hidden from those who sincerely sought to know it; but it was wrapped in just enough of obscurity to veil it from those who 'had pleasure in unrighteousness,' and who would 'not come to the light lest their deeds should be reproved.' In accordance with strict justice, such were 'given up to strong delusions, that they might believe a lie.' 'With the upright man thou wilt show thyself upright; with the froward thou wilt show thyself froward.'

The scope or design of Christ's parables is sometimes to be gathered from his own express declaration, as in;; . In other cases it must be sought by considering the context, the circumstances in which it was spoken, and the features of the narrative itself, i.e. the literal sense. For the right understanding of this, an acquaintance with the customs of the people, with the productions of their country, and with the events of their history, is often desirable. Most of our Lord's parables, however, admit of no doubt as to their main scope, and are so simple and perspicuous that 'he who runs may read,' 'if there be first a willing mind.' To those more difficult of comprehension, more thought and study should be given, agreeably to the admonition prefixed to some of them by our Lord himself, 'Whoso heareth, let him understand.'

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [18]

Bibliography Information McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Parable'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [19]

A short allegorical narrative intended to illustrate and convey some spiritual instruction.