Grace Theological Journal 11.2 (1970) 3-20

          Copyright © 1970 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                                 VERNON D. DOERKSEN

               Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament

                                    Arizona Bible College


     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" (4:34). 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. 7:28, 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




            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

nonsense besides.4

            It is necessary, therefore, to determine hermeneutical principles

for the uncovering of Biblical truth contained in the parables.




            The definition often learned by Sunday school children is, "A parable

is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning." This, though true, needs

further clarification.

            In the Authorized Version "parable" is a translation used of three

different terms. The Hebrew word is mashal meaning "a proverbial saying”

(I Sam. 10:12; 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; 11:19), 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”

(10:11) 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


                                   THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES             5


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 (4:22-31). This is

perhaps pressing it too far, but Straton indicates that the Christian soldier

in Ephesians (6:14 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

divine truth.




            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

severest part."15


            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. 10:30-36). 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 Samar-

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. 7:41, 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. 13:11; cf. Lk.

8:10; Mk. 4:11,12). It would seem that Christ's teaching in parables did

not come until His rejection by the nation of Israel was becoming clear,

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

8                                              GRACE JOURNAL


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


            Dodd clearly misses the idea of judicial blinding upon unbelieving Israel. 

Armstrong seems to take the ability of sound scholarship away from evan-

gelicals when he writes, "This passage [Mark 4:11, 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 4:11 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

relative pronoun."34


            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.] 11:25 f.;          

Rom. 9:18 ff; 11:30-            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


            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. 13:26). 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. 13:31-33).


                        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

            professing Church.43


            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


            Jesus and His Parables by Murray is quoted by Buttrick:


                        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. 22:14; 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

Luke 15.


            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

            and spake a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem,

            and because they thought that the kingdom of God should

            immediately appear (Lk. 19:10, 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. 18:23-34) 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. 12:16-20) 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


            An understanding of life in Palestine is essential to an understanding

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.

15:11-32). The size of the mustard herb (Matt. 13:31.32) must be learned,

not from the mustard plant of the California and Arizona hillsides, but

from the mustard plant growing in Palestine. The relative value of talents

and pence must be known to appreciate the lesson of forgiveness taught by

the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:23-34). 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. 13:24-30).


            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


            The central theme of the teaching of Christ was the Kingdom of God.

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,

            the Kingdom of God.54


            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-

cerning the Kingdom of God; 2) the evangelic parables (e.g. parables of

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

to God.

                        THE INTERPRETATION OF PARABLES             15


            Even in the Parable of the Sower, the emphasis is on the soil, not

the sower.


                        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. 14:16-24), 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

will follow."67


            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

the servants.

            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

every part.


                                           Certain Warnings


            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.

3.       Ibid

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 Zondervan Pictorial
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
(Chicago: The University Press, 1957), p. 617.

18                                            GRACE JOURNAL


7.      W. J. Moulton, "Parable,” Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels  (N. Y.: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1912), II, 313.

8.      Ibid.

9.      A. B. Bruce, Parabolic Teaching of Christ (London: Hodder, n. d.), pp. xi, xii.

10.  R. C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of our Lord (N.Y.: Fleming H. Revell Company,
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),

p. 189.

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
interesting switch.

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
(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n. d.),

p. 517.

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 Burton, and C.
Roney, in their harmonies, give it as the second parable, with the
parable of the Two Debtors (Lk. 7:41-43) 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.

25. Ibid.

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
, 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 for
(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),

p. 111.

35.  A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (N. Y.: Richard R.
Smith, 1930), I, p. 286.

36.  R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Mark's Gospel (Columbus: The
Wartburg Press, 1946), p. 169.

37.  Edward Kirk, Lectures on the Parables of Our Savior (N. Y.: R. Craighead,
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, N.Y.: Doubleday,
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),

p. 306.

49.  Neil Lightfoot, Lessons from the Parables (Grand Rapids: Baker Book
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 Christian
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. 21:33-45)
 is an allegory.

58.   Dodd, p. 7.

59.   Ibid.

20                                      GRACE JOURNAL


60. Hubbard, p. 4.

61. Ibid.

62. Trench, p. 35.

63. Ibid.

64. Russell, p. 15.

65. Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Luke (N. Y.: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1914), p. 380.

66. St. Augustine, "Sermons on New Testament Lessons," The Nicene and
Post-Nicene Fathers
, vol. VI (N. Y.: The Christian Literature Company, 1888), p. 477.

67. Chrysostom, "Gospel of Matthew," The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,
vol. X (N.Y.: The Christian Literature Co., 1888), p. 292.

68. Trench, p. 30.

69. Terry, p. 198.

70. Ramm, p. 263.



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