The Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass

Jesus’ parables are among the most influential, loved, and compelling aspects of his or any other religious teachings. Approximately one-third of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels is in parables, and they are the primary way that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God. Jesus used the parables to prompt thinking and stimulate response in obedience to God.

Jesus’ parables were prophetic tools intended to instruct and confront his people, just as prophets before him, in the Hebrew Bible, had done. Parables occur too in later Jewish literature, especially in rabbinic writings, but there they are used more for scriptural explanation than for prophetic confrontation. Parables occur as well in virtually all cultures, especially as a way to teach wisdom.

What is a parable? The term translated as “parable” in both Hebrew and Greek (mashal and parabole respectively) covers everything from simple proverbs to questions to long narratives like Jesus’ story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). A parable is a disarming form of indirect communication designed to make you look one way—to a sower sowing a field—in order to grasp a meaning elsewhere—responses to God’s word. A parable acts like an extended analogy that directs your gaze away from “what it is” (reality) to enable you to see “what it is like” (analogy). For example, the prophet Nathan tells David about a rich man who killed a poor man’s beloved sheep. David is incensed at the story (reality), until he realizes the story is just like (analogy) his own recent murder of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba (2Sam 12:1-7).

Jesus’ parables are typically brief and symmetrical. They do not usually give unnecessary information such as motives for action. They are quite diverse in form, length, and function. They feature normal aspects of ancient Palestinian life such as family, master-servant relations, and workers. They use everyday features, but they are not about everyday occurrences. They are more pseudorealistic than realistic and often have elements of exaggeration or surprise. Sometimes they force a reversal of expectations, such as having to admit that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, is righteous (Luke 18:9-14).

How are parables to be understood? Jesus’ parables have often been distorted by being interpreted apart from their first-century context. For much of the church’s history, the elements in a parable were each assigned some theological significance, usually unrelated to Jesus’ original intent. Against this approach, other interpreters took the stance that each parable makes only one point. In truth, neither interpretive approach does justice to Jesus’ parables. Key issues in getting at the meaning of a parable are (1) how and why the story works in Jesus’ first-century teaching and in terms of his confrontation with various groups, and (2) what Jesus intended to say to his first hearers.

The Gospel writers arranged the parables according to subject (the kingdom, Israel, future judgment, money, prayer, etc.), with most of them appearing in Matt 13, Matt 18, Matt 20-22, Matt 24-25; Mark 4, Mark 12; and Luke 7-8, and Luke 10-20. Parables of Jesus are found only in the Synoptic Gospels; the Gospel of John does not contain any narrative parables, though it does present Jesus using analogies that fit with the broad Hebrew word translated as “parable.” A few apocryphal gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas, contain parables as well, most of them parallel to synoptic parables.

Klyne Snodgrass, "Parables of Jesus", n.p. [cited 17 Aug 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/parables-of-jesus

Contributors

Klyne Snodgrass

Klyne Snodgrass
Professor, North Park Theological Seminary

Klyne Snodgrass is the Paul W. Brandel Professor of New Testament Studies, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. He is editor of Ex Auditu, an international journal of theological interpretation of Scripture. Among his publications relevant to parables, in addition to Stories with Intent (Eerdmans, 2008), are The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mohr-Siebeck, 1983) and “From Allegorizing to Allegorizing: A History of the Interpretation of the Parables of Jesus.”

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

An apocryphal gospel made up of sayings attributed to Jesus Christ and considered to be Gnostic in viewpoint.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Belonging to the ancient region of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin name for the Roman province of Palaestina.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Luke 15:11-32

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother
11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the ... View more

2Sam 12:1-7

1and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.2The rich man had ve ... View more

Luke 18:9-14

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with ... View more

Matt 13

The Parable of the Sower
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sa ... View more

Matt 18

True Greatness
1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”2He called a child, whom he put among them,3a ... View more

Matt 20-22

The Laborers in the Vineyard
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.2After agreeing ... View more

Matt 24-25

The Destruction of the Temple Foretold
1As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple.2 ... View more

Mark 4

The Parable of the Sower
1Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, ... View more

Mark 12

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
1Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, a ... View more

Luke 7-8

Jesus Heals a Centurion's Servant
1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.2A centurion there had a slave wh ... View more

Luke 10-20

The Mission of the Seventy
1After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intende ... View more

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