The meaning of parables

30 November, 1999

The wonderful thing about Jesus’ parables is that they nearly always have an element of surprise, of counter-culture, which he uses to force the listener to make a decision about accepting or rejecting the kingdom of God in their heart. Jim McPolin SJ explains.

The parables are related to the ordinary life of the people. But these portraits of real life are not an end in themselves. The most important thing about parables is that Jesus communicates to us, through them, a divine meaning in human affairs. In them he gives the events of life a new meaning. He gives us a new vision of everyday life.

Illustration of meaning
Through the parables, Jesus is trying to illustrate for the people the meaning of his own presence among them, the meaning of his mission and his person and the meaning of the kingdom of God. In other words, what is important about the parables is the religious message they convey about human life, about our life with God.
 
It is easy to grasp the meaning of the parables, not just because they are related to life, but also because they usually present one single point or message, no matter how short or long they are. This is the key to understanding the parables.

The details of the parable have no independent significance. The details are there simply to build up the story. For example, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin each have one message: God’s joy over one sinner who repents (Lk ch. 15).

The one central message of the parable of the good Samaritan is: our neighbour is any person who stands in need of our help (Lk. ch. 10). The parable of the mustard seed becoming a big tree tells us something about the kingdom of God.
 
In this thirteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew we also hear of a parable about a small amount of leaven which transforms a whole batch of flour into a large quantity of dough. The real subject matter of these two parables is the coming of the kingdom of God.

The one single point of comparison of both parables is the sure but sudden transformation that occurs in us through God’s saving life and love (that is, his kingdom), provided we are open to him.

Parables and allegories
We come across stories of Jesus which are similar to parables. They are called allegories. The difference between and allegory and parable is: in the parable there is but one message and the details are given just to build up the one message. In the allegory each detail has a symbolic meaning.

For example, in Mark, Ch. 4, Jesus explains the parable of the sower by giving each detail a special meaning and thus he ‘allegorises’ the parable. He explains the meaning of the seed sown on the path, on rocky ground, the seed sown among the thorns etc.

But as regards parables, in general, we should not look for a special significance in each detail. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan, we should not try to find a special meaning in the money given to the innkeeper by the Samaritan. At he same time we need not press too rigorously the distinction between parable and allegory.

Sometimes we come across a mixture of both, especially in an extended parable where certain details are inserted because they suit, fit into the main message.

For example, the parable of the vineyard (Mk. ch. 12) has as its central point the hostility of the Jewish leaders towards Jesus. But it also contains points which are allegorical and apply well to the situation, e.g. the vineyard is Israel, the owner is God, the tenant farmers are Israel’s leaders, the beloved son is Jesus, etc.

Explaining the parables
Jesus seldom explains his parables. Why? Parables do not give precise explanations or answers. They question us and invite us to question ourselves about life, about God.

Sometimes Jesus ends a parable with these words: ‘Let anyone with ears listen,’ meaning, ‘There you are. You’ve heard it. Now try to understand it.’ He allows the people to discover the message. It is a vote of confidence in human beings. He thinks we have enough intelligence to discover from the things of life the meaning of the things of God. He does not spoonfeed us.

Instead of solving problems and supplying answers, Jesus puts problems and questions in the heads of others and forces them to think. They themselves, afterwards, by thinking, living and reflecting will discover the solutions to the problems Jesus has put in their heads.

This is why speaking in parables is a very good way of teaching. It engages the audience more, teaching people to question themselves about the things that really matter, instead of giving people everything on a plate. Parables tease us into active though, encouraging us to make our own personal decisions with God’s help.
 
A change of heart
The purpose of Jesus’ parables is not merely to entertain, as may be the case with other folkstories. Their purpose is to bring about a change of mind, a change of heart in the hearer, to move the hearer to conversion.

Its message is radical. The hearer cannot remain neutral but must accept or reject its message and must act or fail to act on the lesson of the parable. For example, parables call us to true discipleship. The parables of the treasure and the pearl describe the joy of the true disciple on discovering the kingdom of God (Mt. ch. 13).

The parable of the tower builder and the warrior king invites us to assess realistically the cost of discipleship and to be constant in following Jesus (Lk.ch.14). The parables of the unmerciful servant and the good Samaritan are a call to practice mercy and love as followers of Jesus (Mt. ch. 18; Lk. ch. 10).

Response in action
The parables are invitations therefore, waiting on our response in action. The parable is not effective until it is internally accepted and then put into action. The response of the hearer/reader completes the meaning of the parable.

A parable is like a lamp we put in someone’s hands. The person begins to examine it and see how it works, only to find that to give light it must be connected to an electric circuit.

The parable reveals its full meaning and really begins to give light only when it is connected to the person of Christ, through a sincere conversion to him. Then the person begins to see clearly what the road is like. Thus the parables find their meaning in the person, example and teaching of Jesus himself.

Novelty and surprise
There is often an element of surprise and novelty about the parables that makes us take more notice. In some parables, drawn from everyday life, strange things happen that never happen in everyday life.

For example, it is rare to find a shepherd who abandons a hundred sheep in the desert first to go and look for the one who strayed. It is rare to find a father who waits for the ungrateful son who leaves home without any explanation and who then goes out to meet him and prepares a great feast.

It is rare to find a woman who loses a coin, sweeps the house, and after finding the coin calls all her neighbours to tell them the story. Wealthy hosts ordinarily do not react to the absence of invited guests by substituting the poor, the blind and the lame.

The payment first by the vineyard-owner of those hired last makes the audience suspect that something strange is happening (Lk. chs. 15,14).

The person who hears these stories is surprised because, although they are taken from life, they are things that don’t usually happen. They make us listen more attentively and seek the deeper meaning of the parables. These unusual twists, surprises also imply that our God is a God of surprises.

The kingdom of God
There is a great variety of themes in the parables: God’s mercy and compassion, forgiveness, love, justice, care for the poor, wealth and possessions, our following of Jesus. But the most frequent theme of the parables is the kingdom of God (Mk. ch. 4; Mt. ch. 13). In Jesus’ time people had various interpretations of this kingdom.
 
For example, perfect fulfilment of the Jewish law, liberation from the Romans and social injustices or a sudden intervention of God that would bring about a kingdom which would be a new heaven and new earth.

For Jesus human beings were not able to bring about this kingdom by themselves. It is a work of God, and human beings cooperate in bringing about this kingdom. It is to be understood in terms of love. It is the coming to power in and through human’ beings of the self-communicating love of God. This sovereignty of God’s love also requires our activity.


This article first appeared in The Messenger (September 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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