The parables of Jesus have captivated readers for nearly 2,000 years. Characters like the prodigal son, good Samaritan, or Pharisee and tax collector have become well-known even outside the church. Overfamiliarity, however, can breed misunderstanding. It is often hard to re-create the trauma that some of Jesus’s stories would have caused his original audiences. At times, they seem to conceal truth at least as much as they reveal it (Mark 4:11–12). Parables tended to polarize crowds, drawing some people closer to Jesus while driving others away.

Only about half of the stories in the New Testament Gospels typically termed “parables” have that label attached to them in the text. We have come to recognize them more by their form than by any single word that introduces them. The Greek word parabolē, like the Hebrew mãshãl that it translates, was used for a wide variety of forms of figurative speech. A concise definition of a parable is that it is a short, metaphorical narrative. With or without an explicit comparison, it highlights aspects of the kingdom of God. It presents a series of events involving a small number of characters (people, animals, plants, even inanimate objects), most of which seemed realistic in Jesus’s world. At least one element in most parables, however, pushes the boundaries of plausibility. Along with their contexts in the Gospels, this quality reveals that they are fictional works designed to disclose spiritual truths.

History of Interpretation

The history of the interpretation of Jesus’s parables has been checkered. Critical scholarship has regularly found the stories to be as authentic as anything in the Gospels but has attributed their concluding words of explanation to the early Christian tradition or the Gospel writers themselves. A good parable, like a good joke, needs no interpretation; Jesus as master storyteller would not have explained his tales. The problem with this perspective is that we have hundreds of parables of the early rabbis from Jesus’s time onward, who almost always gave clear interpretations.

For much of church history, the dominant form of interpreting the parables swung the pendulum to the opposite extreme. Commentators viewed them as detailed allegories in which almost every element corresponded to some spiritual counterpart. In 1899, Adolf Jülicher published a massive two-volume German work, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, on the history of interpretation of each parable. He demonstrated not only the frequency of allegorizing but also the number of contradictory allegorical interpretations of a given passage that had sprung up. He insisted that parables make only one main point and should not be treated allegorically at all.

Most subsequent scholarship has been a reaction to Jülicher: some accepted his views entirely, most modified them a little, and a few have suggested more significant alternatives. To accept him entirely, one had to deny that Jesus could have given the point-by-point explanations of the parables of the sower (Mark 4:14–20) and of the wheat and weeds (Matt 13:36–43). The wicked tenants (Mark 12:1–12) had probably been embellished as well, because it seemed transparently to teach about the coming crucifixion of God’s Son after God had repeatedly sent prophets to try to turn Israel from its evil ways—a clear allegory. Most other parables, nevertheless, could be seen as inculcating a single point: the persistent prayer commended by the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1­–8), the judgment coming on those who resemble the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23–35), or the inevitability of harvest reflected in the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26–29).

On closer inspection, however, most of the parables appear more complex. Consider again the prodigal son in Luke 15:11–32. Those who have sought one point from this story throughout church history have offered three quite different clusters of topics. Some have focused on the possibility of repentance no matter how far one has strayed from God; others, on not begrudging God’s generosity to the wayward; and still others, on the amazing grace, love, and forgiveness of the heavenly Father. Must we choose only one of these as Jesus’s sole point, as Jülicher did, and decide on the third option? Interestingly, each of these themes emerges from reading the story from the perspectives of each of its three main characters—the prodigal, the older brother, and the father, respectively. Parables appear to teach one main lesson per main character.

Three-Pointed Parables

Approximately two-thirds of Jesus’s parables have a structure that resembles the story of the prodigal. A master or authority figure illustrates some dimension of God’s reign in the world. This figure could be a king, father, landowner, farmer, slave-master, shepherd, banquet-giver, and so on. A set of subordinates then relates to the authority figure in contrasting ways—servants, sons, tenants, seed, slaves, sheep, guests, etc. Often, but not always, there is a surprise as to which of the subordinates turns out to be the good one to be imitated. When one recognizes that multiple individuals can function as either the good or bad characters, one realizes how pervasive this structure is among Jesus’s parables.

For example, in the parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matt 25:1–13), the bridegroom is the master figure who interacts with both the wise and foolish young women. From his behavior, we learn that God may delay the arrival of the end of this age. Like the wise women, therefore, his followers will be prepared for “the long haul” if necessary. The delay is not forever, though, as the foolish women learn, and when that time comes, people’s destinies are irreversible. Identifying the wise women as followers who are prepared should surprise no one, though the bridegroom’s claim not to know the foolish bridesmaids (25:12) does not fit a normal wedding scenario and points to a second or symbolic level of meaning in the passage.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), Abraham appears as God’s spokesman. This time the contrasting subordinates do cause surprise. Most in Jesus’s world would have assumed the beggar was poor as a punishment for sin, while the rich man was rich as a reward for his piety; instead, it turns out to be the reverse. The rich man’s concern for his still-living family members’ need for repentance (16:30) suggests that he knows he had never truly repented before God. That this story has the identical structure as other three-pronged stories of Jesus further ensures that it is indeed a fictional parable, not an account of real people, as has sometimes been postulated.

Sometimes the good or bad subordinates can be subdivided. Just like a good joke often begins with two or three similar individuals, then setting up a contrast with the last one (“A pastor, a priest, and a rabbi all went into a bar . . .”), so too in Jesus’s parables. The sower sows seed in four different kinds of soil, but only the last one produces the crop for which the farmer planted it. The seeds that grow briefly but wither or are choked out and die are thus not less mature followers but no true disciples at all, just like the seed that fell on the path and was eaten by birds. The contrast does not occur until one comes to the final seed, sown in the good soil. The surprise is the astonishing size of harvest for its day that it produces. The “law of end-stress” determines where the emphasis should be placed: on the good seed. The sower is a “comic” parable in the literary sense of the term—a story with a happy ending.

Jesus’s parables can also be tragic, though, with unhappy endings for characters who could have done better. The great dinner in Luke 14:16–24 has a banquet-giver as the authority figure and groups of contrasting subordinates: the originally invited guests who alike made up flimsy excuses at the last minute for not attending, and the replacement guests who came from the “riff-raff” of society. No one would have expected that reversal, and the climax of the parable is the final exclusion of the original invitees.

In another setting, Jesus reuses the main plot of the great dinner parable but expands it. The wedding banquet (Matt 22:1–14) employs a king as the master figure. Again, there are originally invited guests who refuse to come, followed by replacements, but here the latter are much more briefly described. Instead, Jesus adds a segment on a man without a wedding garment who tries to crash the party (22:10–13). The negative example in this parable is thus divided into two groups—those who overtly reject God’s kingdom offer, and those who act like they are accepting it but refuse to come on God’s terms. Both exclude themselves.

Not all three-pronged parables create a triangular diagram, with a master at the top and contrasting subordinates below. Two of Jesus’s parables can be diagrammed with a straight vertical line—a master, a subordinate under him, and one or more subordinates under the first one. The unjust steward (Luke 16:1–9) presents a master, his steward under him, and several debtors under the steward. The master commends the steward’s shrewdness, not his injustice (v. 8a), the steward, sadly, exemplifies greater shrewdness than many believers do (v. 8b), and the debtors help the steward out after he is fired (16:9)—the three points from the three characters are thus expressed sequentially after the story itself (16:1–7).

In the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23–35), we have three successive scenes: first, the king displays amazing grace and forgiveness toward his servant (18:23–27); second, the lowest-level servant experiences the absurdity of not receiving grace when the servant over him had received so much (18:28–31); and, finally, the unforgiving servant experiences the full anger and judgment of his master (18:32–34),

In one case, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37), the line connecting the three main characters of the story seems to be horizontal. There is no one person in a position of power who interacts with the other two. The “unifying” character is someone in a position of powerlessness—the man robbed and left for dead by the side of the road. Shockingly, the priest and the Levite together form the bad example by not stopping to help, while the Samaritan, just as amazingly, becomes the hero when he helps. There is a good model to imitate (10:37), but the story also teaches how religious duty cannot excuse lovelessness and how even an enemy can become one’s neighbor.

Two- and One-Pointed Parables

In about a sixth of Jesus’s parables, there are only two main characters or elements. Sometimes there is a master and subordinate, without a contrast. Other times, there are good and bad examples, without a master figure. The unjust judge exemplifies the first structure. While it is true from Luke 18:1 that Jesus taught about not losing heart in prayer (from the actions of the widow), verses 6–8 teach us what we should learn from the judge. If even an evil authority can be badgered and frightened into administering justice, how much more will God dispense it to those who ask for it? This “how much more” logic, also known as “from the lesser to the greater,” characterizes a number of Jesus’s parables. Too often, commentators have stumbled over the features of the authorities who do not display God’s attributes, especially when they seem overly harsh, without recalling that the dynamic of a parable is not that its characters match their spiritual counterparts in every respect, but merely in certain key aspects.

The very next parable in Luke, the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9–14), illustrates the category of a short story with contrasting figures but no overt master. Jesus himself, after completing the story in verses 9–13, renders the verdict on behalf of God, that the tax collector went home “justified” rather than the Pharisee, and then derives the two points from the passage—those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted (18:14).

In the remaining one-sixth of the parables, then, it seems that Jülicher was correct in affirming only a single point. Pairs of parables like the mustard seed and the leaven (Matt 13:31–33), the tower builder and the king going to war (Luke 14:28–32), and the treasure hidden a field and the pearl of great price (Matt 13:44–46) each have one main character and teach one central lesson. From them, we learn about the surprisingly large growth of the kingdom from tiny beginnings, about counting the cost of discipleship, and about giving up whatever is necessary to be a part of the kingdom, respectively.

The Power of Narrative

It is important to remember that all Jesus’s parables are couched in a narrative rather than didactic form. The power of good fiction is that it grabs one’s attention, sucks one into the plot, and makes one think it is about other people until it is too late. By the time one recognizes a parable’s metaphorical or even, in a limited sense, allegorical form, one has already identified with one or more of the characters and is caught in the trap. The one Old Testament narrative virtually identical in form to those Jesus told is Nathan’s parable of the ewe lamb (2Sam 12:1–10). In a potentially life-and-death move for the prophet, Nathan confronts King David over his adultery with, or rape of, Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah (by sending him to the front lines in battle to be killed). Uriah is like the poor man; Bathsheba, like the ewe-lamb. The rich man obviously represents David, and once David is hooked, he cannot deny that his behavior was as unjust as that of the rich man in the story, whom he has just condemned (12:5–6). The climax of the account comes in verse 7 when Nathan points the finger at David and declares, “You are the man!” David can no longer ignore his sins; fortunately, he repents (12:13; cf. Ps 51).

When Jesus’s parables have lost their shock value in today’s world, they need to be contemporized in order. The Jew robbed and left for dead may need to become a white evangelical man who is helped by a black Muslim woman after the senior pastor and worship leader from the local Reformed church pass him by! Whenever we face a hostile audience, the indirect rhetoric of compelling stories may help at least some people hear God’s Word more favorably.

Further Reading

This essay is part of the The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary, edited by Phil Thompson. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.

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