The range of meaning of the term "parable" (Gk. parabole [παραβολή]) in the New Testament closely parallels that of the Hebrew masal [מָשַׁל , מָשַׁל] in the Old Testament and related Hebrew literature. As well as referring to narrative parables, the term identifies similitudes (Matt 13:33; B. Pes. 49a), allegories (Ezek 17:2; 24:3; Matt 13:18, 24, 36), proverbs (Prov 1:1, 6; Mark 3:23), riddles (Psalm 78:2; Mark 7:17), and symbols or types (Heb 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 fruitdevoured, scorched, choked—have 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:
- None of the prophets applied symbols for God to himself in the way that Jesus did so consistently in his parables.
- None of the prophets claimed that they were doing or would do what the Scriptures specifically say that God will do. Yet it is precisely these things that Jesus so often depicted himself as doing in the parables: forgiving sin, sowing the kingdom, sowing his word in men's hearts, graciously welcoming undeserving sinners into the kingdom, seeking out and rescuing his lost sheep, directing the harvest of the great judgment, and dividing between those who will and those who will not enter the kingdom.
- Many of the images through which Jesus refers to himself focus not so much on his activity as on who he is: the bridegroom of the kingdom, the good shepherd, the one who will return as king, the one with authority as vineyard owner and lord to do what he wishes with what is his, the one with authority to forgive sins, and the lord with authority to give or refuse entry into the kingdom and to reward the faithful.
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 J2 ns (1981):3-23; R. H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus; D. Wenham, The Parables of Jesus.