Ask Ivor

Dave asks: "Why did Jesus always speak in parables?"

There is a diversity of opinion on this question. Here are four theories:

1) Jesus chose the parabolic teaching method because of its ability to communicate spiritual truths in ways that a more prosaic method of telling the truth could not. As Klyne Snodgrass says, parables "hold up one reality to serve as a mirror of another.... They are avenues to understanding."

2) Jesus chose parables because of their ability to be easily memorized, allowing for their retelling and the spread of Jesus' message.

3) Jesus used parables because of their ability to conceal their meaning from listeners. Not everyone who came to hear Jesus was a friend or a follower. Some wanted to silence him. Some wanted him to be a conquering king. Some were merely spectators. Some wanted another free lunch. When Jesus addressed the crowds parabolically, the Sanhedrin could find no direct statements to use against him in the courts, the Zealots could not manipulate him into taking sides, the thrill-seekers were dissatisfied, the self-serving deceived themselves, and many were left with no understanding at all. "Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him," says Jesus.

4) Jesus spoke in parables because his parables, as Robert Stein says, were able to "disarm his listeners and allow the truth of the divine message to penetrate their resistance. Often hearers could be challenged to pass judgment on a story before discovering that in so doing they had in fact condemned themselves." For instance, Jesus asked the chief priests and elders which of two sons did what his father asked: the son who said "I will not," but then changes his mind and goes and works in the vineyard, or the son who said "I will, sir," but then did not go? The priests and elders answered that it was the first son. Jesus then explains that the tax collectors and prostitutes are the first son, whereas the priests and elders are the second son. (Naturally this offended them, so "they looked for a way to arrest him.")

Another good question is: What do Jesus' parables mean? This too is an area in which there is a diversity of opinion.

Sometimes a parable is interpreted overly literally. The parable of the great banquet, in which the invited guests are too busy with their affairs (managing, purchasing, planning), so that the host instead invites people off the street, was interpreted by the writer of the (noncanonical) Gospel of Thomas as being simply a condemnation of "businessman and merchants." In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, however, the implication is that the parable is a condemnation of self-righteousness, and a warning that God is going to take his gifts from elitist snobs and give them instead to "the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame."

Sometimes a parable is interpreted overly allegorically. The parable of the good Samaritan, generally understood as being a straightforward teaching about acting neighborly, was interpreted by Augustine in this manner: the man is Adam; Jerusalem is the heavenly city; Jericho is our mortality; the robbers are the devil and his angels who strip the man of his immortality and beat him by persuading him to sin; the priest and the Levite are the priesthood and the ministry of the Old Testament; the good Samaritan is Christ; the binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin; the oil and wine are the comfort of hope and the encouragement to work; the animal is the Incarnation; the inn is the church; the next day is after the resurrection of Christ; the innkeeper is the apostle Paul; and the two denarii are the two commandments of love, or the promise of this life and that which is to come....

John Crossan has some wise words concerning the interpretation of parables: "Parables demand interpretation, and multiple, diverse, and successive commentary is their destiny.... Misinterpretation is always possible but... even faithful interpretation will be plural rather than univocal." Why did Jesus speak in parables, when there was such a danger of misinterpretation? "The parable risks losing control over the hearer in the interest of participation by the hearer because the Kingdom of God is an interaction between the divine and the human. The parable is a most appropriate form for such a process."