Grace Theological Journal 11.2 (1970) 3-20
Copyright © 1970 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES
Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament
The striking importance of the parabolic method of teaching in
Jewish thinking can be seen from this passage in the Apocrypha:
But he that giveth his mind to the law of the most
High, and is occupied in the meditation thereof, will seek
out the wisdom of all the ancient, and be occupied in
prophecies. He will keep the sayings of the renowned
men: and where subtil parab1es are, he will be there also.
He will seek out the secrets of grave sentences, and be
conversant in dark parables (Eccles. 39:1-3).
Our Lord made ready use of the parabolic method of teaching
to the extent that Mark comments "but without a parable spake he
not unto them" (). The parables are not mere human tales; they are
teachings of the Son of God, the One to whom the crowd listened gladly
(Mk. 12:37). Of Him it is declared, "...the people were astonished at
his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the
scribes" (Matt. , 29). Of the parables, Armstrong writes:
Indeed, they are sparks from that fire which our
Lord brought to the earth (Lk. xii. 49)--the message of
One who was 'a prophet...and more than a prophet'
(Mk. xi.9; Lk. vii. 16)1
Christ's parables are not of mere man. Their higher quality is evidenced
by deep earnestness and the lack, yea, total absence of jesting or folly.
By a consideration of the great number of parables, one can note
the importance of them in Christ's ministry. Ramm has written, "The importance
of the study of the parables is to be found in their sheer number representing a
large part of the text of the Gospels.2 And he further makes an important
observation, "Any doctrine of the kingdom or eschatology which ignores
a careful study of the parables cannot be adequate.”3
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The individual parables have been interpreted in many diverse
ways, from the extreme allegorical method of Augustine to the topical
method of Chrysostom. Hubbard vividly states, "They have been made
the stalking-horse for all kinds of false doctrine and not a little sheer
It is necessary, therefore, to determine hermeneutical principles
for the uncovering of Biblical truth contained in the parables.
WHAT IS A PARABLE?
The definition often learned by Sunday school children is, "A parable
is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning." This, though true, needs
In the Authorized Version "parable" is a translation used of three
different terms. The Hebrew word is mashal meaning "a proverbial saying”
(I Sam. ; 24:14), "a prophetic figurative discourse" (Num. 23:7),
a similitude" or "parable" (Ezek. 17:2), "a poem" (Ps. 49:4), or "a riddle”
(Ezek. 17:2).5 In the New Testament the word is a translation of two Greek
terms parabolē and paroimia. The former is used in the sense of "symbol”
or "type" (Heb. 9:9; ), and it is used in the Synoptics to denote “a
characteristic form of the teaching of Jesus," (6) and the latter word is used
by John (Jn. 10:6) as "dark saying" or "figure of speech" and by Peter
(2 Pet. 2:22) as "proverb."
The importance of a definition, and the confusion at this point, can
be noted by the varied lists of parables that are assembled. Moulton relates
that scholars have made lists varying from "33 to 79 parables.7 He con-
cludes, "This divergence of opinion makes it evident that it is not easy to
determine the precise extent of the parabolic material."8 Standard listings
contain about thirty. A. B. Bruce lists 33 parables and eight parable-
germs,9 and Trench gives 30.10
In our thinking, the word "parable" generally brings to mind
the longer stories of Jesus. Therefore it is well, at this point, to distinguish
between parable, allegory, simile, and metaphor.
A metaphor equates one object or person with the other. For
instance, John's Gospel contains no parables, in the usual sense, but it
gives many metaphors of our Lord, such as, "I am the good shepherd”
() and "I am the true vine" (15:1).
A simile does not equate the two, but it does draw out a comparison.
Straton writes, "A simile says that one thing is not another but like
another.”11 An example is, "But whereunto shall I liken this generation?
It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling to their fellows…"
(Matt. 11:16ff). The simile and parable are very close together in a par-
able such as, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman
took…” (Matt. 13:33). This may be called a parabolic similitude, or an
extended simile, though Smith points up the problem of endeavoring to split
hairs at this point:
If the illustration of the Mustard Seed is a similitude
in Mark, are we to class it as a parable in its Lukan
form? And if so, where shall we place Matthew's version
of it, which stands half-way between the two?12
One further form is the allegory. An allegory is a story where
every point is important. The classical illustration is Bunyan's Pilgrim's
Progress. A Biblical example is allegory in Galatians (-31). This is
perhaps pressing it too far, but Straton indicates that the Christian soldier
in Ephesians ( ff) is an allegory. (13) Thus in an allegory every detail of
the story has its counter-part; whereas, in a parable there is usually but
one central truth. Terry makes this pertinent observation:
The parable is essentially a formal comparison, and
requires its interpreter to go beyond its own narrative to
bring in its meaning: the allegory is an extended meta-
phor, and contains its interpretation within itself.14
Thus for our purpose, a parable is a similitude or full-length story,
true to nature and to life, a picture of something which can be observed in
the world of our experience, which was told by our Lord to illustrate a
THE PURPOSE FOR THE USE OF PARABLES
In order to draw a proper conclusion in the interpretation of the
parables, it is first necessary to determine the reason for Christ's use of
the parabolic method. The “Whereunto shall I liken it?" of Christ's teach-
ing method is not without significance. Two specific reasons can be sug-
gested; one a pedagogical, the other a historical one.
The Pedagogical Purpose for Parables
The value of illustration can scarcely be denied in proper teaching.
A parable is an illustration. The term itself is from parabal1ō, "to cast
along side." It is a story "cast along side" as an illustration. Several
characteristics of the parabolic method of teaching can be noted.
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They are Stories. Parables are pictorial, easily grasped, quickly remembered,
and attention holders. Mark 4:1, 2 demonstrates this fact.
A great multitude had gathered and He taught them by parables. The group
stayed all day; finally in the evening they were sent away. It appears that
the parabolic method was a good way of keeping their attention (cf. vs. 33-
35). The story-telling method is a powerful means of imparting truth. The
Lord made effective use of it.
Truths are Taught. It cannot correctly be said that unbelievers did
not understand any of the parables. An example is the parable of the Wicked
Husbandmen (Lk. 20:9-18). The parable was told to the people, in the
presence of the chief priests, scribes, and elders who had questioned His
authority to perform His mighty deeds. At the conclusion the chief priests
and scribes sought to kill him "for they perceived that he had spoken this
parable against them" (v. 19). Lenski makes an interesting observation at
this point: "They realized that the parable was directed against them but
did not realize that by their rage they were justifying that parable in its
No doubt, the full implication of the parable, and certainly the
prophetic utterance, they did not understand, but it was sufficiently clear
for them to desire to kill Him.
Thus it is evident that unbelievers as well as believers were taught
truths by means of parables.
They Unfold the Meaning of Scripture. One parable can be men-
tioned at this point. An inquirer questioned Christ concerning His under-
standing of "neighbor" as found in Leviticus 19:18. Christ responded by
telling the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. -36). The parable
clearly gives, in illustration form, the meaning of "neighbor.”16 This
parable was understood by an unbelieving lawyer who had come to challenge
Christ, and the Lord told him to do even
as he had understood the
itan to have done (v. 37). Geldenhuys writes, "Jesus' answer was so clear
and challenging that the lawyer was compelled to acknowledge the deep
truth conveyed by it."17 Thus the truth of Leviticus 19:18 is clearly taught
by our Lord.
They Force the Hearer to Think. Though Moule misses the point
of Mark 4:11,12, his statement concerning those verses is worthy
You cannot teach people by spoon-feeding: you must
set them a puzzle to think out for themselves; those who
start to crack it are getting somewhere. There is no
short-cut to understanding.18
THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES 7
A liberal writes, "The parable is not so much a crutch for limping
intellects as a spur to spiritual perception."19
An illustration of this purpose may be seen in the parable of the
two debtors (Lk. , 42). Evidently Simon, to whom Jesus addressed
this parable, was an unbeliever, but he was able to understand the meaning
and respond to the question posed by Christ. Christ said, "Thou hast
rightly judged" (v. 43). And in the words of A. B. Bruce:
Jesus looks at the woman now for the first time, and
asks His host to look at her, the despised one, that he
may learn a lesson from her, by a contrast to be drawn
between her behavior and his own in application of the
One of the most difficult parables of our Lord, the parable of the
Unjust Steward (Lk. 16:1-9), closes with two searching questions (vss. 11,
12). It seems obvious that the questions appeal to the hearer to think that
matter through and come to a conclusion.
The Historical Purpose for the Parables
It has been shown that some parables were given to illustrate a
truth so that the hearers would grasp the meaning more readily. They were
stories of common settings and close to the experience of the Palestinian
people. But beyond this, when our Lord was asked why He spoke in para-
bles He responded, "Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of
the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given" (Matt. ; cf. Lk.
; Mk. 4:11,12). It would seem that Christ's teaching in parables did
not come until His rejection by the nation
and He saw the need to speak in a manner understood by His true followers,
but not understood by the mere curious or those who were hostile to His
ministry. Bruce shows that there was a progression toward the parabolic
method from beatitudes to metaphors and similes to parables.21 Matthew
12 is a turning point in the ministry of Christ. At this point the work of
Christ has been attributed to Satan and the leaders of the people have
turned their backs on Christ. Matthew 13 introduces the reader to the
parables of the kingdom. (22) The coming Inter-Regnum is being unfolded.
At the close of the first parable, we are introduced to the purpose of the
parabolic method. The truth was revealed to the followers of Christ, but
through this method it was concealed to those who were not true believers.
The interpretation of Matthew 13:10-17, Mark 4:11 and Luke 8:10
has gone in many directions. The critical view is that it was an addition
by the primitive church. Torrey writes on Matthew 13:14ff., "The extended
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citation from Is. 6 (LXX) is an early insertion in the Greek Gospel.”23
Dodd explains that "this explanation of the purpose of the parables is an
answer to the question which arose after the death of Jesus, and the failure
of His followers to win the Jewish people."24 He further states,
But that He desired not to be understood by the people
in general, and therefore clothed His teaching in unintel-
ligible forms, cannot be made credible on any reasonable
reading of the Gospels.25
clearly misses the idea of judicial blinding upon unbelieving
Armstrong seems to take the ability of sound scholarship away from evan-
gelicals when he writes, "This passage [Mark , 12]...has been inter-
preted in different ways by commentators, though it would be hard to find
any authority who regarded it as a verbatim record."26
Jeremias holds a view that is unacceptable, when he teaches:
...That v. 11 f. [Mark 4] is a logion belonging to
wholly independent tradition, which was adapted to the
word parabolai (v. 10-11), and must therefore be inter-
preted without reference to its present context.27
It was, in his view, a possible saying of Christ, but out of context.
F. Hauck, in Kittel's Theological Dictionary, holds that these were
actual words of Christ, but spoken at a later period in His ministry, and
"obviously a distinction has to be made between the theology of Mk.
and the original meaning and purpose of the preaching in parables."28
Hunter summarizes the critical view well when he writes:
If the notorious verses in Mark f. mean what,
at first glance, they appear to mean--then Jesus delib-
erately used parables to hide God's truth from the masses
and made them ripe for judgment--they cannot be words
of Jesus (My own view is that they are genuine words but
that they do not belong here).29
Hauck expresses this view clearly, "The critical understanding
sees in it a later construction which echoes the theology of the community
rather than Jesus Himself."30
This unbiblical view must be rejected and the verses accepted as a
part of the original autographs. The inclusion of Christ's statement con-
cerning His use of parables in the three Synoptics is significant.
THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES 9
How are we to understand this seeming judgment of closed ears
and eyes to understand the parables? As has been noted, some reject it alto-
gether, or say the writer added it as a true saying of Christ but completely
out of context.
One can s1ide over the judicia1 pronouncement of Christ as
Thompson has done:
These words are a little hard to understand at first,
but the difficulty disappears when we observe that Jesus
was quoting a passage from Isaiah, and that Isaiah was
speaking ironically, putting the result as a purpose, as
is done so often in Hebrew. Jesus also was speaking
Or as Moule writes, "They will hear without hearing and see with-
out seeing; otherwise--this is a bit of sarcasm, not meant to be taken in a
solemnly literal way--they might actually repent,"32
Another explanation has been suggested by some, proposing that the
hina may rather be translated from the Aramaic as a relative pronoun.33
As Wright says, it "may here be a mistranslation of the Aramaic particle
di, which can be used to express purpose, but was here probably used as a
Robertson accepts the words as written and draws this conclusion,
“What is certain is that the use of parables on this occasion was a penalty
for judicial blindness on those who will not see." (35) It seems clear that
this is the only legitimate conclusion that can be drawn. Judicial blindness
comes upon those who willfully refuse the gracious invitation for salvation.
For obscurity and darkness of this kind, no amount of hermeneutical ability
can bring clarity and light. "The wicked purpose of the obdurate not to
believe and be saved God is eventually compelled to make also his purpose;
that they shall not believe and be saved."36
At this juncture a point must be made clear. The honest, believing
inquirer was not shut out from understanding. Kirk makes this pertinent
statement, "The Saviour explained to those who asked for explanation."37
Certainly, the whole purpose of our Lord was to bring truth to light, to
seek and to save that which was lost, to illumine and enlighten.
...The unreceptive and unworthy multitude stood
self-condemned because of their rejection of the message
of salvation. Teaching in parables is part of their just
punishment, and serves also to keep the door open for
those who may become receptive.38
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The hina clause of Mark and Luke and the hoti clause of Matthew,
point to judicial blinding. Mark and Luke view purpose and Matthew result.
Haas writes, "Mark sees in actual occurrence what Matthew portrays as
a result.” (39) Jeremias quotes Bower, "In the case of divine decisions
purpose and fulfillment are identical." (40) Notwithstanding differences in
statement, the three accounts are in substantial agreement as to the purpose
of the parabolic method at that time. Judicial blindness may seem harsh, but:
If we shrink sensitively from the idea that the 'Lord of heaven and
earth' reveals to some and hides from others, we are strangely out of
sympathy with the feelings of Jesus and of Paul, who found in this idea not
only occasion of resignation, but of adoration and joy. ([Matt.] f.;
Rom. ff; - 36.)41
It is concluded that often the parables were meant to be examples
and illustrations, demonstrating a truth which our Lord was emphasizing
to believer or unbeliever. At other times (such as Matthew 13), the para-
bles were a method of veiling the truth from those who would not believe.
This was a judicial blinding upon the unbelieving. To those who asked,
Christ gave the meaning of the veiled truths.
The interpretation of parables is not an easy task. The multiplicity
of interpretations testifies to this. Even those who walked daily with Christ
had need of asking of Him the interpretation (Matt. ). The interpre-
tation Christ gave of several will help in understanding others.
It is self-evident that one's theological persuasions will also bear
on his understanding of the meaning. Ramm makes this worthwhile
In general, the amillennialists and postmillennialists
have interpreted certain parables optimistically whereas
premillenarians and dispensationalists have interpreted
the same parables pessimistically.42
He illustrates this by the two basic interpretations of the parables
of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Matt. -33).
The growth of the mustard seed to a tree, and the permeation of the
meal by the leaven is taken by the former to be a teaching of the powerful
growth and spread
THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES 11
of Christianity, and by the latter of the corruption of the
This points out the need to keep ourselves open to the ministry
of Spirit and compare our findings with the clear teachings of the rest of
Word. Certain principles must be observed.
Study the Context
This point cannot be stressed too forcefully. The modern critical
method is to remove the parable from the setting. The liberals generally
agree that the parables are original stories of Christ, re-audienced, re-
applied, and generalized by later editors. Jeremias' first two sentences
The student of the parables of Jesus, as they have
been transmitted to us in the first three Gospels, may
be confident that he stands upon a particularly firm his-
torical foundation. The parables are a fragment of the
original rock of tradition.44
and His Parables by
A recent commentator maintains (and there is sound
and reverent scholarship to support the plea) that the
parables themselves are more trustworthy guides than
their scriptural settings. He quotes Wernle with approval:
'Our delight in the parables rises regularly in the exact
degree in which we succeed in liberating ourselves from
the interpretations of the Evangelists, and yielding our-
selves up to the original force of the parables them-
So, in their view, the parable is an actual logion of Jesus, but they
are quick to say that the setting into which the writer places it was an
addition of the primitive church. "Thus the parables, in the earliest days,
had two settings--their original setting in the life of Jesus, and their later
one in the life of the early church."46 Therefore, it is clear, the liberal
has no room for the setting as contained in the Gospels. Bishop Kennedy
in his work on the parables virtually ignores the setting.47
The setting is needful; though, if the proper interpretation is to be
derived, even as Hope quotes James Denney, "A text without its context is
nothing but a pretext."(48) The evangelical scholar will recognize this.
Lightfoot is correct in stating, "The background of the parable and the con-
12 GRACE JOURNAL
text of the passage in which it appears will help immeasurably
standing it."49 Another scholar has written:
...Perhaps the best way of studying them is not to
isolate them from the general history of His ministry for
separate consideration, but rather to look a t them as
parts of a larger whole in connection with the particular
occasions which called them forth.50
Keys to the interpretation can be found in the context. Often our
Lord supplied the interpretation (Matt. ; 25:13). Sometimes is it
supplied by the Gospel writer such as the parable of the Unjust Judge (Lk.
18:1). Luke introduces it thus, "And he spake a parable unto them to this
end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint" (v. 1). The Pharisees’
murmuring that Jesus ate with Sinners brought forth the three parables of
Often the key to the interpretation can be found in the prologue to
the parable. The parable of the Pharisee and Publican (Lk. 18:9-14) is
introduced by, "And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in
themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (v. 9). The
parable of the Pounds is introduced by Luke in this fashion:
For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that
which was lost. And as they heard these things, he added
spake a parable, because he was nigh to
because they thought that the
immediately appear (Lk. , 11).
At other times the epilogue of the parable gives a key to the proper
interpretation. After the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-12), our
Lord said, "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour
wherein the Son of man cometh" (v. 13). "Make to yourselves friends out
of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it fails, they may receive
you into everlasting habitations" is the conclusion to the parable of the
Unjust Steward (Lk. 16:9, Greek).
In some parables, information for interpretation is given in both
the epilogue as well as the prologue. The parable of the Unmerciful Ser-
vant (Matt. -34) is introduced by the question of Peter, "Lord, how
oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?" (v.21). Christ
told him, "Until seventy times seven" (v. 22). This was followed by the
parable. The conclusion to the parable is, "So likewise shall my heavenly
Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his
brother their trespasses" (v. 35).
THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES 13
The context of the parable of the Rich Fool (Lk. -20) is a
further illustration. It was given in response to a man asking Christ to
arbitrate the dividing of an inheritance between two feuding brothers (v.14).
Christ asked the man. "Who made me a judge or a divider over you?" (v.
14); then he said to those around. "Take heed, and beware of covetousness:
a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he pos-
sesseth” (v. 15). This was followed by the parable to illustrate this truth.
Our Lord's conclusion was, "So is he that layeth up treasure for himself,
and is not rich toward God" (v. 21).
Dodd has well written:
The task of the interpreter of the parables is to find
out, if he can, the setting of the parable in the situation
contemplated by the Gospels, and hence the application
which would suggest itself to one who stood in that
Learn and Understand the Story
understanding of life in
of many of the parables. Christ told stories which were common to the
people of the day. "Most of the stories involve customs, conditions, and
ideas peculiar to the Jews of Palestine in Jesus' time and therefore require
explanation before an American reader fully understands them."52 Jesus
lived among the Jewish people and most of the parables were drawn from
the natural setting of the poor Jewish peasant. Customs of possession and
transference of property are involved in the story of the Prodigal Son (Lk.
-32). The size of the mustard herb (Matt. 13:31.32) must be learned,
not from the mustard plant of the
from the mustard plant growing in
and pence must be known to appreciate the lesson of forgiveness taught by
the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. -34). The common
practice of broadcasting grain should be familiar to understand the parable
of the Sower (Matt. 13:3-8). The parable of the Tares is incomprehensible
without an acquaintance with darnel (Matt. -30).
Ramm has written:
Studies in the local color of the parables have turned
up a rich store of information and one is tempted to say
that one should never preach again on any parable until
he has made himself familiar with this material.53
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Recognize the Christological Nature of the Parables
central theme of the teaching of Christ was the
The parables were used to illustrate some of the great truths concerning
the kingdom. Hope writes:
For a proper understanding of the parables of Jesus
it must always be borne in mind that all of them deal with
one great subject, and one great subject only, namely,
It is commonly agreed that they are all illustrations of Christ and
His mission. Without an understanding of Christ and His mission, the
interpretation of the parables is impossible. Bruce divides the parables
into three groups: 1) the didactic parables (e.g. parables of the Sower, the
Tares, the Mustard Seed) which relate in a general way to teachings con-
the Lost Sheep, the Lost Son, the Great Supper) which deal with Christ’s
love for the sinful; and 3.) the prophetic or judicial parables (e.g. parables
such as the Ten Virgins and the Wicked Husbandman).55
Even the critic recognizes the kingdom nature of the parables though
he interprets them as realized eschatology. The evangelical realizes the
two-fold nature of the kingdom. In one sense it is present (cf. Matt. 13),
and in another sense it is yet future in fulfillment (the Ten Virgins, the
Talents). Proper interpretation demands that we "keep in mind the cen-
trality of the reign of God in all that Jesus said and did."56
Determine the Central Point of the Parable
With but few exceptions the stories of Christ were parables, not
allegories. (57) A true parable has but one main point. Christ spoke a par-
able to drive home the truth He was endeavoring to teach. Dodd calls this
"the most important principle of interpretation.”58 He continues, “The
typical parable, whether it be a simple metaphor, or a more elaborate
similitude, or a full length story, presents one single point of compar-
ison.”59 A parable might be likened to a wheel, the central point is the
hub, and all the spokes point to the hub. If the hub is off center, the wheel
will not perform and function properly.
Some have seen in the parable of the Prodigal Son two main points;
the joy of the Father over the return of a penitent, and a rebuke to those
not accepting a sinner returning from the error of his way. These two
ideas can be brought together when it is recognized that the thrust of the
parable is the joy which should be expressed when a wayward one returns
THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES 15
Even in the Parable of the Sower, the emphasis is on the soil, not
The four-fold division represents but one truth, viz.,
Other things being equal, the growth and fruitfulness of
seeds will be determined by the nature of the soil upon
which they are cast.60
Understand the Details
Recognizing the importance of the one central point, the next thing is to
understand the various details of the parable. The parabolic method is not
expository but topical and parables must be treated in that fashion.
The topical method "looks first of all to find the central thought which
the parable was designed to embody, and it treats every detail with
reference to its bearing upon this thought."61 Trench gives this advice:
The expositor must proceed on the presumption that
there is import in every single point, and only desist
from seeking it when either it does not result without
forcing, or when we can clearly show that this or that
circumstance was merely added for the sake of giving
intuitiveness to the narrative.62
He also writes:
It will much help us in the matter of determining
what is essential and what is not, if, before we attempt
to explain the parts we obtain a firm grasp of the central
truth which the parable would set forth, and distinguish
it in the mind as sharply and accurately as we can from
all cognate truths which border upon it; for only seen
from that middle point will the different parts appear in
their true light.63
The details are included for a purpose, either they have a definite
role in the interpretation or ". ..they simply belong to the story as a true
transcript of life."64 Plummer makes this observation concerning the
parable of the Unjust Steward (Lk. 16:1-9), "The difficulty and consequent
diversity of interpretation are for the most part the result of mistaken
attempts to make the details of the parables mean something definite."65
Augustine is a notable example of one who endeavored to make the
parables "walk on all four." One illustration is sufficient to see his method.
In the parable of the Great Supper (Lk. -24), he interprets the five
16 GRACE JOURNAL
yoke of oxen (v. 19) to be the five senses; seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting,
and touching. They are in pairs; two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the
tongue and the palate, and the inner and outer touch. These senses are
double; the eyes see light and darkness, the ears hear harsh and musical
sounds, the nose smells sweet and offensive odors, the mouth tastes bitter
and sweet, and the touch feels smooth and rough.66
Against this extreme view is Chrysostom. He taught that the parable
had only one central meaning and they were not to be allegorized. In dealing
with Matthew 13:34, 35, he writes, "And, as I am always saying, the parables
must not be explained throughout word for word, since many absurdities
Thus, in the history of interpretations there have been these
two extremes. It caused Trench to write:
There are those who expect to trace only the most
general correspondence between the sign and the thing
signified; while others aim at running out the interpre-
tation into the minutest detail; with those who occupy
every intermediate stage between the two extremes.68
Often it is difficult to determine which is to be interpreted and
which is not. Christ gave the interpretation of the parable of the Tares
(Matt. 13:24-30, 37-43) and this may be of help at this point. Note that
Christ interpreted for the disciples the meaning of the tares, the sower,
the field, the good seed, the enemy, the harvest, the reapers; but, at the
same time He does not interpret the meaning of the men who slept, the
meaning of sleep, the springing up of the wheat, the yielding of fruit, or
After dealing with the parables of the Sower and the Tares, Terry concludes:
From the above examples we may derive the general
principles which are to be observed in the interpretation
of parables. No specific rules can be formed that will
apply to every case, and show what parts of a parable
are designed to be significant, and what parts are mere
drapery and form. Sound sense and delicate discrim-
ination are to be cultivated and matured by a protracted
study of all the parables, and by careful collation and
Thus it is observed that the parts of the parable often play an impor-
tant role in interpretation, on the other hand they may be given just to
THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES 17
streamline the story. The interpreter must determine the importance of
In brief, a few dangers in interpretation should be mentioned. The
parables contain much which is doctrinal, and these doctrinal teachings are
not to be taken lightly. Ramm has written:
Parables do teach doctrine, and the claim that they
may not be used at all in doctrinal writing is improper.
But in gleaning our doctrine from the parables we must
be strict in our interpretation; we must check our results
with the plain, evident teaching of our Lord, and with
the rest of the New Testament.70
Parables should not be considered primary sources of doctrine. Doc-
trine may be illustrated and confirmed by parables, but one must be careful
to check the interpretation with the whole body of inspired Scripture.
As a further warning, it is needful to be aware that parables are
comparisons and illustrations. Every comparison must halt somewhere.
The interpreter is to use the parable as an illustration and he must be
careful not to interpret it further than the intent of the Lord.
Finally, Christ made it quite clear, many parables cannot be under-
stood by the natural man. These can only be understood by the one who is
led by the Spirit (I Cor. 2:9-16). There is a blinding over the hearts of
those who willfully refuse the message of our Lord.
1. Edward A. Armstrong, The Gospel Parables (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967), p. 11.
2. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1956), p. 255.
4. George H. Hubbard, The Teachings of Jesus in Parables (Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1907), p. xv.
5. This listing is given by Howard Cleveland, "Parable," The
Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963), p. 621.
6. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English
Lexicon of the New
Testament (Chicago: The University Press, 1957), p. 617.
18 GRACE JOURNAL
Moulton, "Parable,” Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (N. Y.: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1912), II, 313.
Bruce, Parabolic Teaching of Christ (
C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of our Lord (N.Y.: Fleming H. Revell
n. d.), pp. v, vi.
11. Hillyer H. Straton, A Guide to the
Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1960), p. 14.
12. B. T. D. Smith, The Parables of the
Synoptic Gospel (Cambridge: University
Press, 1937), pp. 17, 18.
13. Straton, p. 15.
14. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (N. Y.: Eaton and Mains, 1890),
15. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of
St. Luke's Gospel (Columbus: The
Wartburg Press, 1946), pp. 984, 5.
16. An interesting change takes place in this
parable. From the question "Who is
my neighbor?" Christ turns it about to "Who acted as a neighbor?" This is a most
17. Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the
Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), p. 312.
18. C. F, D. Moule, The Gospel According to
Mark (Cambridge: The University
Press, 1965), p. 36.
19. A. M. Hunter, "Interpreting Parables," Interpretation, 14:1 (January, 1960), p. 74.
20. A. B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels,
in The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. I
21. A. B. Bruce, The Parabolic Teaching of Christ, pp. 20, 21.
22. Some have suggested that the parable of
the Sower was the first parable
of Christ. However, A. T. Robertson, Wm. Stevens and
Roney, in their harmonies, give it as the second parable, with the
parable of the Two Debtors (Lk. -43) as the first one.
23. Charles C. Torrey, Documents of the
Primitive Church (N. Y.: Harper
and Brothers, 1941), p.67.
24. C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (N. Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), p. 4.
26. Edward Armstrong, The Gospel Parables
(London: Hodder and
Steughton, 1967), p. 22.
27. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1955), p. 12.
28. Friedrich Hauck, "Parabole," Theological
Dictionary of the New
Testament, vol. V (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Company, 1967), p.758.
THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES 19
29. Hunter, pp. 73, 4.
30. Hauck, p. 757.
31. Ernest Thompson, The Gospels According to Mark and It’s Meaning
Today (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1962), p. 86.
32. C. F. D. Moule, The Gospels According to Mark (Cambridge:
University Press, 1965), p.35.
33. Sherman Johnson, The Gospels According to St. Mark (N. Y.: Harper
and Brothers, 1960), p.90.
34. Francis Beare, The Earliest Records of Jesus (N. Y.: Abingdon Press, 1962),
35. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (N. Y.:
Smith, 1930), I, p. 286.
36. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Mark's Gospel
Wartburg Press, 1946), p. 169.
37. Edward Kirk, Lectures on the Parables of Our Savior (N. Y.:
1857), p. 14.
38. W. J. Moulton, p. 315.
39. John Haas, Gospel According to Mark, in The Lutheran
Commentary (N. Y.:
The Christian Literature Co., 1895), pp. 72, 3.
40. Jeremias, p. 14.
41. John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew
(Valley Forge: The
American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 288.
42. Ramm, P.263.
43. Ibid., pp. 263, 4.
44. Jeremias, p. 9
45. George A. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (Garden City,
Doran and Company, 1928), p. xxiv.
46. Hunter, p. 76.
47. Gerald Kennedy, The Parables (N.Y.: Harper and Brothers, 1960).
48. Norman Hope, "Bases for Understanding," Interpretation, 6:3 (July, 1952),
49. Neil Lightfoot, Lessons from the Parables (Grand Rapids:
House, 1965), p. 16.
50. Bruce, The Parabolic Teaching of Christ, p. 1.
51. Dodd, p. 14.
52. Elbert Russell, The Parables of Jesus (N.Y.: Young Women's
Associations, 1912), p. 10.
53. Ramm, p. 260.
54. Hope, p. 303.
55. Bruce, The Parabolic Teaching of Christ, pp. 8, 9.
56. A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand
Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), p. 229.
57. It has been argued that the story of the Wicked Husbandmen (Matt.
is an allegory.
58. Dodd, p. 7.
20 GRACE JOURNAL
60. Hubbard, p. 4.
62. Trench, p. 35.
64. Russell, p. 15.
65. Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Luke (N. Y.:
Scribner's Sons, 1914), p. 380.
Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. VI (N. Y.: The Christian Literature Company, 1888), p. 477.
67. Chrysostom, "Gospel of Matthew," The Nicene and
vol. X (N.Y.: The Christian Literature Co., 1888), p. 292.
68. Trench, p. 30.
69. Terry, p. 198.
70. Ramm, p. 263.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
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