How to use a Parable
These are simple illustrations, sometimes of no more than a single sentence, but at other times running on as a complete story. “You cannot gather figs from thistles” is an example of the short parable, and the story of the Prodigal Son is of the longer variety. The first thing to remember is these parables were meant to be simple illustrations that ordinary people could easily understand. The parable was not meant to confuse or hide the truth. The only people who could not 120
understand them were the clergy. They did not want to understand but rather argue. A contemporary method of teaching was to argue using different points of view and quoting the writings of other men. The discussion on abstruse points of observance of the law might go on for days. After all, there was no TV or other distractions. This was not Jesus’ way.
The simple parable
Just look at the illustration, and ignore the explanation.
Even when Jesus begins to explain it in the text, just look at the simple illustration. This is when things go off the rails. He was too good a teacher to have to explain what he said. The people in front of him understood very well what he meant. Later the disciples had to try to explain to others, and they put their explanation in his mouth. They even expanded on what he was teaching to include their own ideas, such as judgment and damnation. When he wanted to expand his listeners’
understanding, Jesus would use a second parable like the first, but which would develop the theme one more step. We call this literary device a couplet. Look out for them.
Each of Jesus’ parables is a simile
Many of them begin with the words, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like...” Jesus’ style is recognizable after 121
reading a few of them; his words have a rhythm about them that can be identified as uniquely Jesus of Nazareth. Further, these similes only occur in the synoptic gospels, but not the gospel of John. That writer puts in Jesus’ mouth teaching expressed in metaphor rather than simile. That is another story we may eventually get around to telling.
Jesus states the subject of the parable in the first phrase of the parable
The point of the parable will therefore be about what that person or object does. This might seem obvious, but it is not. Preachers, teachers, and eminent theologians have gotten parables wrong for centuries, all because they missed who or what the subject of the parable was. It is very difficult to understand a parable if you begin with the wrong assumptions. The perfect example of this is a parable referred to as that of the Dishonest Steward, Luke 16:1-8. For 2,000 years, the point of this parable has been missed entirely because would-be interpreters have concentrated on the figure of the dishonest steward. Jesus tells us in the first line who it is about: “There was a rich man who had a steward.” It is about the rich man, and it is about what he does that matters, not the machinations of the grotesque figure of the steward. The same thing happens in the stories of the Prodigal Son, the Sower, 122
the Weeds, Treasure hidden in a field, Pearl of Great Price, and several more.
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