Parables of Jesus

Parables of Jesus.  Parables are stories.  Lots of effort has gone into defining parables. Some argue that they are like analogies, in which one thing stands for another.  But that definition would assume that every parable can be taken apart, so that this means that.  Better to see the parable as a short story whose meaning is set by the context.

Parables are the main way Jesus Christ explains the kingdom of God, to show the character of God, and the expectations that God has for humans (Snodgrass, p 1).  Parables make up over 35% of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke).*  Most scholars believe that the parables are the bedrock of Christ’s teachings, the closest we can get to what he actually said.  Trouble is, the meaning of many parables is ambiguous.  Another trouble is that we have only the evangelists’ interpretation of the parables, and they had a theological agenda, set by the resurrection.  Generally, this is not a problem, for it is this we want to know.  However, there are other ways of trying to get behind Jesus’ intent, and I will share one of them with you.    

Parables remind me of the questions Socrates posed as he went about his day, such as “what is justice?” or “what is excellence?”  Simple questions with big answers.  But the real similarity resides in the way in which Jesus’ parables and Socrates’ questions call for answers.  Not just to the question posed, but an answer that requires turning one’s life around.  The Hebrew term for riddle, mashal, also means parable.  It is up to us to find the answer.  My favorite definition is that the parable is intended to “deceive the hearer into the truth.”

The parable of the unforgiving servant

Snodgrass regards the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35) as the single most revealing and compelling parable.  I’ll quote it for you. 

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.  He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Christ’s parables, by the way, are never about himself, but always about God and his kingdom, here on earth and after the eschaton (second coming).  In this parable God’s forgiveness is limitless.  The first servant owed the equivalent 60,000,000 denarii.  Since a day laborer earned one denarius a day, it would have taken him over 164,000 years to repay it (Snodgrass, p 66)!  Parables frequently use exaggerated numbers in order to make a point.  Here it is the willingness of God to forgive any transgression, or any number of transgressions, if one truly repents and extends this same forgiveness to others. 

This the first servant refuses, sending the second servant to prison for a relatively small debt.  And now it gets tricky.  If God is merciful and forgiving, what is he doing sending the first servant to be tortured until he pays his debt, which means tortured forever, or at least until he dies?  The answer is the kingdom that comes with limitless grace imposes a limitless obligation.  This gives a sharper edge to the line in the Lord’s prayer about “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  If you don’t, there will be Hell to pay. 

After the London bombings in 2005, an Anglican priest felt compelled to give up her priesthood because she couldn’t forgive the terrorist who murdered her daughter (Nicholson).  Will she be tortured forever, in this life and the next?  Forgiveness is important, but it is equally important to remember that parables are parables.  They are stories to illustrate a point, and not to be taken literally.  Seriously but not literally. 

Another way to think of this parable is to remember the line from Isaiah 55:8, where God says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways . . .”  God is wholly other, entirely different.  Using parables, Christ renders God in human terms, using familiar examples in order to make a point.  This is why it is important not to turn parables into analogies; the point they make is often more subtle than that.  In this case, forgiveness turns out to be absolutely central to all Christ teaches: in his life, and through his death.  God is extraordinarily generous, but equally demanding.

I don’t understand

One aspect of Jesus’ parables I simply don’t understand.  Why would Jesus say, in all three of the synoptic gospels, that the parables are not intended for the masses, who will not understand (Mark 4:10-15; Matthew 13:10-17; Luke 8:9-10).  As Mark puts it,

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

`they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
  and ever hearing but never understanding;
 otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'”

The quote used by Jesus is from Isaiah 6:9-10. 

I simply cannot understand this statement.  The parables are so clearly meant to be used to explain Christian charity and God’s kingdom to everyday people, employing everyday images, such as loaves, fig trees and farming.  Christ employs at least five parables in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  Yet here he claims that their meaning is intended to be hidden from these same people.  What sense does this make?  Especially since the disciples, to whom he explains the parables, are not especially bright bulbs.  The best sense I can make of it is that Jesus had become discouraged because so many people wanted wonder and miracles, and so few to learn, understand, and follow.  But this doesn’t seem like the complete story either.  And so, I wonder. 

The parables as political education

Seeking to get behind the meaning of the parables in the Bible, William Herzog reconstructs life in early first century CE Palestine.  The vast majority were peasants barely surviving on what they could grow, while a colonial aristocracy (Rome) taxed any surplus to support its extravagance.  The aristocrats were small in number, perhaps 2% of the population, but they controlled the military, so peasant revolt was fruitless.  Small numbers of the population worked in trade and cottage industry.      

Recall the parable of the laborers in the vineyard from this perspective.  Some come to work in the morning, while others are chosen late, working only an hour or two.  Yet all are paid the same wage at the end of the day, a denarius, barely enough to live on.  If the reader assumes, as almost all do, that the vineyard owner = God, then one way or another he has to be seen as being generous in a situation that seems unfair. 

If, however, one says the vineyard owner = God equation is that of Matthew (20:1-15), then the parable is already a theology, a statement about God’s boundless generosity to all who turn to him, early or late. 

But what if Jesus was really trying to educate peasants in the reality of their situation, which many had come to accept it as natural?  In this case, the vineyard owner is an oppressive landlord who devalues the labor of all by treating each the same, no matter how much of himself he puts into the labor.  For all a laborer possesses is his labor and his time.

One could call this a Marxist interpretation of Jesus, but it’s not so simple, for Herzog takes the structure of the parable seriously.  They are teaching stories, designed to instruct the poor on the reality of their oppression.  They call not for commitment, but for discussion, such as whether the vineyard owner really was fair.  The great advantage of this interpretation, says Herzog, is that only it paints Jesus as a political threat to Rome, and so worthy of crucifixion, the punishment reserved for the worst offenders.    

Herzog takes some big leaps, but it’s worth noting that every interpretation of the parables makes key background assumptions, most taken from the theological development of Christianity, so that it is almost impossible to get behind the gospel version to what might have been the radical Christ’s real intention.  There is no avoiding a background interpretive framework.  Some are just more obvious than others because they have become part of Christian theology. 


The parables, it has been held, offer special access to the heavenly order.  They assume that there is an “inward affinity between the natural and spiritual order.” (Barclay, p 12)  This is an attractive idea because it brings heaven closer to earth.  Heaven is not some ethereal place, but already present in the natural order of things, what is sometimes called a proleptic interpretation.  The future is foreshadowed in the mundane reality of the present. 

I like this interpretation, yet again I am left to wonder.  What if the parables foreshadow not heaven on earth, but simple fairness and equality, as Herzog argues?  But perhaps these are not entirely different.  


* Most scholars hold that there are no parables in the Gospel of John.  Some find two.


William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus.  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1970.

William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994. 

Julie Nicholson,  A Song for Jenny: A Mother’s Story of Love and Loss. Harper, 2011. [The movie based on the book is also titled A Song for Jenny]

Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus.  Eerdmans, 2008

3 thoughts on “Parables of Jesus”

  1. I enjoyed reading this new post.It has some ideas I’ve not come across before.I especially liked
    “that the parable is intended to “deceive the hearer into the truth.””
    I’ve never read about that before before.I am planning to read the book by Herzog since that is a topic I know little about
    But I feel for some people trusting in God completely is the only way we can live,perhaps because of our own weaknesses.
    Stories grab all people’s attention.. most conversation in women’s circles are stories about their families or the dreaded gossip about what another person has done to them.I used to be shocked as a child hearing women talkiumanityhng after Mass saying nasty things and I was bewildered by the incompatibility of the rituals of the Mass and the tone of their chatting.
    Maybe the original sin is talking too much especially when it is cruel gossip.I wonder what the Bible says about that?
    Thanks for that,Fred.Food for my heart.

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