Brief Thoughts on the Parables

Story is one the most powerful and globally recognized ways of communicating. In the context of the Bible, it is different than propositional truth because instead of listing facts and theologies that inform us about who God is and how he works as revealed in Scripture, it uses the raw material of real life and presents it directly and often literarily—using strong metaphors, imagery and irony which appeal both to the emotions and the intellect. Before we get too far into talking exclusively about stories, it is important to note that the parables are not always complete stories, like the Lost Son, for example. Many parables—like New Wine in New Wineskines, the Mustard Seen, the Leaven, the Hidden Treasure, and the Pearl of Great Price—are simply metaphors or images of a theological truth, instead of actual tales.

It must be noted that stories don’t stand in opposition to propositions; they instead help to illuminate the propositions and induce responses drawn from every element of the human consciousness. Propositions tend to exercise only the intellect, while stories help us to respond emotionally and even physically. For example, as powerful as Romans is, the Bible would be incomplete if we were to only be told about Jesus indirectly, in theological jargon. To be sure, Paul’s theological handling of sin and redemption through Jesus is essential, but there needs to be more. The Gospels provide that, through carefully constructed (and divinely inspired) narratives of Jesus’ life. This larger approach to the life of Christ can help us understand the smaller significance of why Jesus told parables at all, instead of just telling us things about God directly (which he also did).

The great story of life is the Story of redemption, as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. This Story finds its crux (both literally and figuratively) in the life of its greatest protagonist—Jesus Christ, the promised and foretold messiah who will destroy the power of sin, redeem people to himself, and rebuild what God had built in the Garden of Eden but man had polluted. One of the beautiful things about Jesus’ ministry is that he often used parables to tell truths about himself and his Kingdom—stories within the Story. The parables themselves serve, I believe, a two-pronged purpose. First, Jesus often told them to puzzle and confuse the listeners. This happened often with the disciples, exemplified in the story surrounding his parable of the Sower. When he told the parable, he deliberately told it in a cryptic, difficult-to-understand way, and the disciples didn’t know what he was talking about. But Jesus didn’t hide the meaning forever, as he later explicated his own short story (of sorts, this phrase is admittedly pushing the terminology). But now the story was clarified to the disciples, and they understood its deeper theological meaning. Jesus’ parables are not propositions, just as the gospels themselves are not propositions. But just because they are not theologically presented does not mean they are insignificant, and more to the point, also does not mean that they don’t present theological truths. I don’t know if I can prove this textually because I am not a theologian nor a biblical scholar, but I think the parables are literary spotlights into theological truths.

Second, as noted before, Jesus used parables tell the hearers something important about his Father (the Lost Coin and the Lost Son), his Kingdom (The Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector), and himself (New Wines and New Wineskins). He used stories—replete with characters (obvious protagonists and antagonists), plot, juxtaposition, irony, and all kinds of other traditional literary devices—to show theological truth. This word show is significant. Any literature professor will tell you that good writing (whether fiction or non-fiction) doesn’t tell as much as it shows. Jesus used parables to show theological truths in action. Again, it is important to remember that he also told people truths directly, in order to be precise and clear. He even sometimes told his hearers what he had shown in the story, so that the theological significance will be obvious and unmistakable. And don’t forget that sometimes Jesus doesn’t tell a story, but instead simply uses a metaphor for the same purpose—to illustrate a theological truth.

Jesus used parables—stories and metaphors—to demonstrate theology about his new kingdom, not only in ways the people could relate to and understand (drawing on contemporary culture—in this case Jewish—to do so, like any good story), but also in ways that are true to the reality of it all.

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