Christ and the Woman Taken
in Adultery by Rembrandt Jesus was regarded as very charismatic and persuasive. He spoke very eloquently and presented a simple, direct message that was easy to understand. The writer John Updike called him a “paragon of vitality and poetic assertion.”
Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “When Jesus speaks, the major verb that is used in the gospel accounts is "to teach...." He teaches his disciples, he teaches in the synagogues, he teaches the crowds.... What is he teaching? Well, we have again a complex variety of things, which don't quite hang together entirely. We, of course, have notions of repentance.... He is asking Jews to repent of their sins, to expect the end time or the Kingdom of God, that somehow that we need to improve our ways so as to prepare ourselves for whatever God has in store for us. That is one clear notion of preaching on his part, which we might say is a preaching for repentance. But we also have him teaching verses from the scripture, which he quotes, verses from Isaiah or other passages, and again dealing with the Son of God, whatever that means exactly, referring again, apparently the Messiah, or some equivalent redeemer figure of the end time. It's hard to make sense out of all these different things together. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“We also of course have the parables, which seem to be a kind of social commentary on the world of Galilee. We occasionally meet in these parables the land owner and the tenant farmers or the master and the slaves, which may be veiled or not so veiled social commentary.... <>
“We put all these different things together, it's not a simple case where we can say Jesus came and preached X, as if somehow that X is clear and consistent and unambiguous. We have different messages that are ascribed to him in the gospel text. And especially once you come to Jerusalem, and we have Jesus confronting the priests of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple scene, it's hard to figure out exactly what all of this means. The only common denominator seems to be the sense that the end of the world is at hand, or the end of history is at hand.... <>
“In the first century of the common era, Jews possessed a collection of sacred books, the books that we will come to call the Bible or Christians will come to call the Old Testament. Jesus apparently knew many, some, all of these books. The synagogue service on the Sabbath would consist of communal group study of various collections from these books. Jesus in his teaching referred frequently to the Laws of Moses, by which we mean the Pentateuch, the five books of the Torah, and refers frequently to the prophecies of Isaiah or passages from the Psalms. These are the most widely quoted books in the New Testament. The important thing to remember of course is that Jesus is not reading the New Testament, he is not preaching the New Testament as a book. These books do not yet exist.... Whatever it was that Jesus spoke, he was speaking words of his own, he was speaking words of common wisdom, or he was referring to or explicating verses from the Hebrew Bible, specifically from the five books of Moses, from the Torah, or more especially the prophet Isaiah or the book of the Psalms. These will have been the stuff out of which Jesus will have created his teaching and his preaching. And it is only later of course, much later, that we begin to have the creation of books that you and I call the gospels, or you and I call the New Testament. This is a product of, these are the products of the late first and early second century of our era.” <>
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org
Jesus has been described as an ethical radical. Unlike John the Baptist, who preached about hellfire and damnation, Jesus preached about selflessness, repentance, forgiveness, and emphasized the gracious, merciful side of God. The crux of his message was to love God and love one’s fellow humans. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” he said, “and with all thy soul, and with all they mind, and with all they strength; this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shall love they neighbor as thyself.”
Compassion was a keystone on Jesus’s teaching. He preached forgiveness of sins and promised salvation to everyone who had faith no matter what they had done. Some scholars have said that Jesus preached the "politics of compassion" in response to repression by the Romans.
Jesus was clear that his message was consistent with that of Judaism: “Think not I come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” However he dismissed many Jewish traditions. He didn’t ritually wash before he ate and he criticized the Pharisees, a Jewish sect, for following the letter of the commandments but not their spirit. Some scholars have called him Pharisee reformer.
Some people were angered by his teaching. Jesus and his followers were run out of several towns. In his unorthodox introduction to the Bible, the bestselling British author Louis de Bernieres wrote that Jesus in St. John's Gospel is "far from being meek and mild," rather he "is self-assured, pushy and somewhat dislikable." In one passage in John, Jesus told the Jews: “You belong to your father, the devil...The reason you do not hear [God] is because you do not belong to God.”
Jesus often used parables—“earthly stories with heavenly meaning”---to make his points. In the parable of the sower he compared the word of God with seeds scattered by a sower. Sometimes they fall on hard ground and don’t take root. Other times they fall in fertile soil where the grow and flourish. Other famous parables include the Prodigal Son, who was changed and transformed by God, and the Good Samaritans, who helped people in need, even outsiders.” In the story of the Good Samaritan on the Gospel of John Jesus surprises a Samaritan woman at a well by asking her for water even though Jews and Samaritans traditionally did not associate.
Ethics: The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7
Parables: Matthew 13:1-30, 36-43, 15:21-28; Luke 10:25-37
Instructions to Disciples: Matthew 10:1-42, 16:13-28, 24:3-31, 25:31-46
Jesus, Equality, the Poor and Violence
p> Jesus spent more time among the poor and disenfranchised than he did with rulers and rich men. He sought out publicans (the hated tax collectors), sinners and lepers. Poverty and weakness were regarded as virtues. He said the “meek shall inherit the earth” and “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus told his disciples to travel the countryside with no food, belongings or money and instead rely on the generosity and hospitality of strangers. He showed particular compassion for people with leprosy, a disfiguring disease that often turned people who had it into outcasts.
Jesus taught that people should renounce materialism and devote their efforts to God, good deeds and helping other people. As an expression of his sincerity on these issues, Jesus told his followers that he would continue to help them even after he was dead.
Jesus also advocated egalitarianism. This was a radical thought in his time that undermined the authority of the ruling priestly class and thus may have been a major reason why he was crucified.
For many of the peaceful statement in the New Testament there were violent negations: "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:19) versus "I come not to send peace but a sword." (Matthew 10:34). "All that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matthew 26:52) versus "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment to buy one" (Luke 22:36).
Ministry of Jesus
Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “From a strictly historical perspective, then, we don't really know all that much about the ministry of Jesus. It might have been very brief, depending on which gospel you read, it might have been as short as only a few months or as long as three years, but if we take the smaller version of the story, if we take the more limited historical perspective that Mark's gospel offers us, for example, Jesus seems to have started preaching in the Galilee. He's associated with cities, smallish cities like Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, market towns, fishing centers and so on. And he deals with some farmers and some city folks but that's about all we hear.... [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“His public ministry, though, seems to have focused especially around the working of miracles, casting out demons, healing people. He was known as a miracle worker. He travels around some but mostly in the Galilee. And, at least in Mark's gospel, he never even thinks of going to Jerusalem until the very last week of his life. So the geographical frame of reference of Jesus' life, at least in Mark's gospel, is limited to the Galilean context for the most part. And that's very different than John's gospel which has Jesus in Jerusalem from a very early stage. Now from a historical perspective, these two stories don't mesh together very well, and we have to be very careful about what we say about the life of Jesus.... [I]t's probably better to be safe than sorry and say "What's the least we can say? What can we really know?" And then work from there in talking about how the stories developed. <>
“We don't know much about the life of Jesus in the final analysis: We know he was a public figure, we know he gathered some kind of a following, we know he eventually went to Jerusalem and there he was arrested and executed. The rest of the story is filled by the gospels by talking about his life as a significant life. But the minimalist perspective of the historian has to say, it's a life that we don't know in detail until his death.” <>
Jesus' Teaching: the Kingdom of God
Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “The core of Jesus' preaching is the kingdom of God. And the difficulty is for us to hear that term as 100 percent political and 100 percent religious. Not one, not the other. In the first century those were inextricably intertwined.... "The kingdom," if you use that expression in the first century, would have meant the Roman kingdom, it meant the Roman Empire. When you talked about the Kingdom of God..., you were making a very caustic criticism of the Roman Empire, and you were saying that its system was not the system of God. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“Well, that seems to kind of limit the relevance of what Jesus had to say, if part of his preaching was considered [directed at] the Roman Empire; is it more universal than that, in your opinion? <>
“By talking about the Kingdom of God, but by focusing it on the Roman Empire, what Jesus was focusing on was the systemic injustice, which are really the normal ways that life is run. The Roman Empire was no worse than any other empire we've ever had. And in fact, what we are criticizing there is really the normal life of discrimination and oppression and persecution and hierarchy, all the normalcies of life are what are being criticized. It applies to us; if Jesus was here today, we are Rome. <>
“I might say that the core of his preaching are these sort of enigmatic sayings of his.... When you get back to his doctrine, if that's the right word, what do you arrive at and what you make of this? The sayings of Jesus are very often enigmatic, only because of their lack of context. If, for example, you say "the last shall be first and the first shall be last," that can mean almost anything taken out of context. It can be a banal cliche, or it could be a call to rebellion. Put back into the context of an occupied country, a Jewish homeland occupied by the Romans, the urbanization of lower Galilee, these statements such as "blessed are the destitute" take on an acute religio-political edge and are not quite so enigmatic as they may sound to us. <>
Parables of Jesus
Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “Jesus is most famous, I think, for parables and aphorisms. And both of them are really ways of teaching ordinary people. Now, if you read them in the New Testament, it might take a minute to read; I imagine them as maybe an hour long interaction between Jesus and an audience, who are probably talking back to him, and interrupting him and debating with him and disagreeing with him and fighting with him. And the parable is a way, really, of getting them to think. It's a way of provoking people to think for themselves.... [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“[For example], Jesus tells a parable about somebody who takes a mustard seed, plants it in the ground, and it grows up to be a great tree, or a bush at least, a weed, though, in plain language. Now, imagine an audience reacting to that. Presumably the Kingdom is like this, and you have to figure out, "What's it like? You mean, the Kingdom is big? But you just said it's a big weed. So why don't you say a big cedar of Lebanon? Why a big weed? And besides, this mustard, we're not sure we like this mustard. It's very dangerous in our fields. We try to control it. We try to contain it. Why do you mean the Kingdom is something that the people try to control and contain?" Every reaction in the audience ... the audience fighting with themselves, as it were, answering back to Jesus is doing exactly what he wants. It's making them think, not about mustard, of course, but about the Kingdom. But the trap is that this is a very provocative, even a weird, image for the Kingdom. To say the Kingdom is like a cedar of Lebanon, everyone would yawn, say, "Of course." It's like a mustard seed ... "What's going on here?"” <>
Is this [style of teaching] unique to Jesus? “The parables are unique only in a very limited sense, in that the primary teaching of Jesus is not taking texts out of the Hebrew scriptures and explaining them, blasting them, commenting on them. What he is doing is telling a perfectly ordinary story. And using that as the major teaching. "The Kingdom of God is like this." Now you have to think, well, I hear the story, but how on earth is the Kingdom of God like that? That's your job as the hearer. So it's open to anyone. And that's, I think, the point of the parable. If you teach in parables, you give yourself to interpretation. If you really want to tell people what to think you preach them a sermon. If you tell them a parable then you're leaving yourself open, inevitably, to interpretation.” <>
Madeleine I. Boucher wrote: “The importance of the parables can hardly be overestimated. They comprise a substantial part of the recorded preaching of Jesus. The parables are generally regarded by scholars as among the sayings which we can confidently ascribe to the historical Jesus; they are, for the most part, authentic words of Jesus. Moreover, all of the great themes of Jesus' preaching are struck in the parables. Perhaps no part of the Gospels, then, can better put us into touch with the mind of Jesus Christ than the parables. They still today present us with the challenge with which Jesus encountered his hearers in first-century Palestine. These little stories (together with the Lord's Prayer and the Beatitudes) are the best known of all Jesus' words. It is a measure of the value which the Church places upon them that every parable without exception occurs in the Sunday lectionary readings. [Source: The Parables by Madeleine I. Boucher /~\]
The Samaritans of Jesus’ day were despised as infidels, yet Jesus, in one of his most famous parables, cast a “good Samaritan” as an exemplar of neighborly love. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]
Parable in the Ancient World
Madeleine I. Boucher wrote: “When Jesus preached so strikingly in parables, he did not create a new literary genre. Rather, he made brilliant use of a genre which was already of long tradition and which was familiar to all throughout the Mediterranean world. In Greece and Rome, parables were employed by rhetoricians, politicians and philosophers. Perhaps the most illustrious among those who made use of them were Socrates and Aristotle. An interesting question is to what extent the classical parables are like those of the Bible. (The reader may wish to peruse Aristotle's discussion of the parable in The "Art" of Rhetoric, Book II.) In Israel, parables were uttered by prophets and wise women and men. They appear even in the oldest books of the Old Testament. Parables were often used by Jewish rabbis who were contemporaries of Jesus. [Source: The Parables by Madeleine I. Boucher /~\]
“A famous and quite ancient Old Testament example is the parable of the Ewe Lamb which the prophet Nathan addressed to David. After the king had arranged the death of Bathsheba's husband on the battlefield so that he might himself marry Bathsheba, Nathan told him this story:
“12 There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him. (2 Sam 12:1-4) /~\
“When David condemned the man who had done this as deserving to die, Nathan revealed that the story was a parable, saying, "You are the man" (v. 7). For other Old Testament parables see 2 Sam 14:5-l3; I Kgs 20:39-42; Isa 5:1-7; 28:2129; Ezek 17:1-24; 19:1-14; 20:45-49; 24:3-14. The rabbinic parables are of course the closest in both time and place to those of Jesus. The following example is interesting for its similarity to the Gospel parable of the Two Builders (Mt 7:24-27; Lk 6:47- 49): /~\
“He whose wisdom exceeds his works, to what may he be likened? To a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few. The wind comes along and uproots it and sweeps it down.... But he whose works exceed his wisdom, to what may he be likened? To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Then even if all the winds of the world come along and blow against it they cannot stir it from its place.... (Pirqe Aboth III. 18) /~\
“The parables which most closely resemble Jesus' are those in the Old Testament and rabbinic literature. These Semitic parables (as distinct from the classical) are no doubt the predecessors of those we find preserved in the Synoptic Gospels. Anyone who compares the parables in the Gospels with those in other sources is led to conclude that Jesus was a master of the genre, perhaps its most brilliant author ever. Even today parables, and in particular those of Jesus, remain among the most beautiful and memorable works in the history of literature.” /~\
Three Types of Parables
Madeleine I. Boucher wrote: “It has been noted, since the late nineteenth century, that the parables in the Gospels fall into three groups. These are usually given the names (1) similitude, (2) parable, and (3) exemplary story (sometimes called illustration). It is unfortunate that the word "parable" is thus used in two senses, in the broad sense to refer to all the parables generally, and in the narrow sense to denote one of the three types of parables. The resulting confusion is often deplored, but as yet no other term for the narrower type has been widely adopted. [Source: The Parables by Madeleine I. Boucher /~\]
“All of the parables, that is, all three types, have this in common, that they present an implied comparison between an experience or event from ordinary, everyday life, and a reality of the moral or religious order. The characteristics which distinguish each type from the other two are here described, and will be explained in greater depth in the following chapters. /~\
Madeleine I. Boucher wrote: “The similitude is the most concise type of parable. It briefly narrates a typical or recurrent event from real life. It tells a story which everyone would recognize as a familiar experience. Since it has to do with the recurrent or typical, the similitude is usually told in the present tense, although the past tense is occasionally used. The similitude gains its persuasiveness by recounting what is widely recognized as true. No one, on hearing a similitude, is likely to deny that this is the way life is. Such is how anyone would rejoice on finding a lost coin (Lk 15:8-10); this is how seed always grows to full harvest (Mk 4:26-29). Many of the similitudes in Luke's Gospel begin, "Which of you?" (e.g. Lk 11:5; 14:28, 31), "Or what woman?" (Lk 15:8), "Or what king?" (Lk 14:31). Those in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew often begin by stating the comparison: "The kingdom of God is as if" (e.g. Mk 4:26, 30-31; Mt 13:33). Some twelve similitudes appear in the Synoptic Gospels. [Source: The Parables by Madeleine I. Boucher /~\]
“Two examples of this type of parable are the following similitudes of the Lost Coin and the Growing Seed. In the first, God's love for the sinner is compared to the homely experience of a poor woman seeking and finding one lost coin, and celebrating with her friends. The interpretation in Luke's Gospel (v. 10) makes explicit the story's meaning: /~\
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Lk 15:8-10) /~\
“In the similitude of the Growing Seed, the coming of the reign of God is compared to the grain's ripening to harvest, a natural occurrence familiar to anyone living in farm country, and yet a mysterious and wonderful event: And he said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come." (Mk 4:26-29) /~\
Madeleine I. Boucher wrote: “The parable is often (though not always) longer and more detailed than the similitude. The parable tells a story, not about something recurrent in real life, but about a one-time event which is fictitious. While the parables are fictitious, however, they never indulge in the fanciful or fantastic, but remain true-to-life. They derive their persuasiveness from being told in a simple, vivid and fresh way which engages the hearer. Though the Gospels do not use these words, the parables are "once upon a time" stories. They are usually narrated in the past tense. Typical beginnings are these: "There was a rich man" (Lk 16:1); "A certain creditor had two debtors" (Lk 7:41); "A sower went out to sow" (Mk 4:3; Mt 13:3; Lk 8:5). In Matthew's Gospel, however, we again find the beginning which explicitly states the comparison: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to" (see Mt 13:24; 18:23; 20:1; 22:2). Approximately sixteen of the parables in the Synoptic Gospels belong to the type called parable (in the narrow sense). [Source: The Parables by Madeleine I. Boucher /~\]
“Examples of this type are the Persistent Widow and the Two Sons, two of the briefer parables. The Persistent Widow has to do with God's liberation of his chosen ones from injustice, need, oppression: “And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Vindicate me against my adversary.' For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, 'Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'" And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 'And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?' “(Lk 18:1-8)
“The parable of the Two Sons is spoken in the temple to religious leaders, the chief priests and the elders (Mt 21:23). Jesus says to them: “What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' 'And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go.” — Mt 21:28-30) /~\
“Jesus asks his hearers which son did the father's will, and when they reply, "The first," he pronounces this conclusion: "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you" (v. 31). /~\
3. Exemplary Story
Madeleine I. Boucher wrote: “The exemplary story, like the similitude and parable, presents an implied comparison between an event (real or imagined) drawn from life and a reality of the moral or religious order. The distinction lies in this: the similitude and parable present an analogy between two very different things (e.g. the reign of God is compared to seed, a sinner to a lost coin). The exemplary story presents, not an analogy, but an example, one specific case which illustrates a general principle (e.g. the good Samaritan illustrates love of neighbor in Lk 10:29-37; the tax collector stands for the humble and repentant sinner in Lk 18:9-14; the rich man exemplifies those with materialistic concerns in Lk 16:19-31). In the similitude and parable the two things compared are dissimilar, whereas in the exemplary story they are similar. The exemplary stories resemble the parables (rather than the similitudes) in these respects, that they are fictitious and somewhat developed stories told in the past tense. We find only four exemplary stories in the Synoptics, all in the Gospel of Luke: the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37); the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21); the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31); and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14). [Source: The Parables by Madeleine I. Boucher /~\]
“Perhaps the most beautiful and best known of the exemplary stories is the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells this story, according to Luke, in response to the lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor?' /~\
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'— Lk 10:30-35 “The lawyer grants, when Jesus questions him, that of the three passers-by the Samaritan alone "proved neighbor to the man." Jesus concludes: "Go and do likewise" (vv. 36-37). /~\
Use of the Parable in Jesus' Ministry
Madeleine I. Boucher wrote: “We come now to the next question: how was the parable employed by Jesus himself during his ministry? Certainly it could not have been Jesus' intention to use parables in order to render his message incomprehensible. We may dismiss that notion out of hand. Yet, as we look at the parables in the Synoptic Gospels, we cannot help but observe that there is variation with respect to how easy or difficult they are to understand. For example, the Growing Seed (Mk 4:26-29) is quite abstruse. The Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) is considerably more lucid. Most parables fall somewhere between these two. Some are quite clear and require little or no explanation; others are obscure enough to need interpretation of some sort. There is no hard and fast rule here. /~\
“The first circle of hearers, those who heard the parables from Jesus himself, must have asked, "What does the man mean?" They must have wondered, that is, what his point might be in telling this story. The meaning of a parable would have been conveyed to them in different ways. In some instances, the social situation in which the parable was told, its context, would indicate what the lesson might be. In others, the question or discussion preceding the parable would give the clue to its meaning. Many of the tropes appearing in the Synoptic parables were standard and well known in first century Judaism. For example, God was often represented as a ruler, a judge, a parent, the owner of a vineyard or field; the people of Israel were depicted as servants, children, a vine or flock; the judgment was represented as a harvest or a reckoning; and God's reign as a feast or wedding. Jesus' audience would immediately have understood these tropes. Perhaps ~ Jesus sometimes gave an interpretation following the parables. We can observe that the parables in the Old Testament and the rebbinic literature are often accompanied by explanations. The rabbis no doubt interpreted their parables explicitly, at least sometimes; there is no reason to believe that Jesus would have employed the parables differently from other rabbis. Thus, in one or all of these ways, the hearers would have been able to grasp the meaning of the story Jesus told. /~\
“An observation made by a New Testament scholar writing at the beginning of this century, M.- J. Lagrange, seems to me sound. Noting that the parable is not always absolutely clear, Lagrange explained this by saying that the purpose of a parable is to strike the imagination, to pique the curiosity, to make the listener reflect and work to arrive at the meaning, but only so that the lesson will be more deeply engraved on the mind. /~\
“Again, this is not to say that Jesus employed parables with the aim of making his subject obscure. A parable is an implied comparison. The comparison is not always obvious; but once it is perceived it sheds new light on the subject under discussion. The purpose of a parable is to move to decision or action; paradoxically, that purpose is perhaps more effectively achieved precisely because the speaker proceeds indirectly rather than directly.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018