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A Series of Letters on Bible Study (11): Studying a Parable

D Newell, Glasgow

Dear John,

In my last letter I tried to demonstrate how you might profitably study a Biblical poem which is simultaneously a prophecy. What I want to do now is move into one of the most difficult areas of Scriptural analysis – the gospel parables. You may be surprised at the word "difficult" – after all, isn’t a parable just an earthly story with a heavenly meaning? What could be simpler? Well, yes; the Sunday School explanation has a lot going for it, not least that it foregrounds the illustrative value of the parable, with its kernel of spiritual truth. But it does not adequately prepare us for the tricky business of discovering to whom each parable is primarily applicable, nor does it caution us against the fallacy of always expecting to find a distinct meaning in every supporting detail.

Let’s start with a compact definition from Fausset’s Bible Dictionary (which is well worth purchasing if ever you find it). A parable is "a placing side by side or comparing earthly truths, expressed, with heavenly truths to be understood". So parables illustrate divine principles. Yet we often forget that their purpose was primarily judicial. The Saviour’s early preaching was direct and straightforward. He only resorted to the obliqueness of parables after Israel objected to His plain speaking. They were therefore a kind of punishment for those who resisted His testimony (Mt 13.10-16, 34-35), concealing truth from the unbelieving many while revealing it to the privileged few. It may also help you to bear in mind that every parable has at least three components: its setting, its story, and its significance. The first involves the historical circumstances which provoked its telling, the second the actual narrative, and the third the meaning. Take for example the Good Samaritan. If you read Luke 10.25-37 you will see that the parable itself (vv.30-35) is framed by a dialogue between the Lord Jesus and an expert in the Jewish religion. Luke’s important signals ("tempting him…willing to justify himself") indicate that this man’s approach to the Saviour was far from that of an honest inquirer. If eternal life (and you will want to ask what that meant in context) depended upon obedience to the Jewish law, what exactly was required? Unfeigned love to God and unselfish love to one’s neighbour sound fine in the abstract, but what about actual practice? So the Saviour gave the example of a man in desperate need being bypassed by representatives of Judaism but rescued by a despised outsider. Having told the tale, the Lord turned to His listener with a challenging question: "Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?" (v.36). The setting, then, was a crucial debate about the conditions for entrance into eternal life and what it meant to obey the law God gave Israel. The famous story needs no summary, but its full significance has to be worked out by the reader.

And we have some help. The chapter where the Lord starts His parable ministry includes two models of interpretation, for He expounded the Sower, and the Wheat and Tares privately to His disciples (Mt 13.18-23, 36-43). His exposition shows that a parable has a central idea around which all else revolves, and that even ancillary details can be meaningful. We must not therefore suppose that a parable is simply an expanded illustration of one spiritual truth in which the minutiae are, if I dare quote Pooh-Bah from The Mikado, "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative". The Good Samaritan is not to be restricted to a lesson in benevolence, answering the question, "Who is my neighbour?". But nor should we assume that the tiniest detail has to be teased out and interpreted. Augustine famously allegorised everything in this parable so that (for example) the two pence given to the innkeeper came to stand for this life and the life to come. That approach gives licence to the wildest flights of imagination.

Perhaps one way to avoid interpretive excess is to recall that close cousins to the New Testament parables are the Old Testament types, those marvellous foretastes of the Lord Jesus which spotlight aspects of His person and work. One of the important things to remember about them is that they all, at some point or other, break down. This is simply because no individual can possibly represent the Lord Jesus in His fullness. God has organised human history and His written Word so that selected persons, events, and ceremonies suggest features of the Saviour and His work – but they can do little more than suggest. For example, the lovely story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 involves three distinct pictures of the Saviour: Isaac stands for Him as the beloved son (v.2), the ram speaks of Him as the substitute (v.13), while conversational reference to a lamb hints at His spotlessness (v.8). Again, in 2 Samuel 9 King David’s kindly treatment of Mephibosheth anticipates God’s grace going out to undeserving sinners like us; but in his later dealings with Mephibosheth (2 Sam 16,19), David is just a fallible man under stress who makes an impulsive decision which he lives to regret. My point is this. Just as we should never expect a type to conform perfectly to its spiritual counterpart, so we should avoid forcing a parable into a preconceived doctrinal framework. I have heard gospel preachers use the Good Samaritan story and try to argue that, in allowing himself to be rescued, the traveller represents a sinner exercising faith in Christ! But the poor man was "half dead" – in no condition to refuse any aid, let alone make a rational decision about practical confidence. He could neither call out for help nor make any effort to obtain it. This parable, you see, addresses the exercise of benevolence rather than its reception. As an illustration of God’s salvation its focus is purely upon sovereign grace, not human responsibility. Of course, the evangelist will bring into his message the necessity of faith, but he will explain that he gets it from other Scriptures. Like types, parables do not say everything that could be said. This, incidentally, suggests that we should be as wary of building doctrine on the one as on the other.

But let’s now examine a familiar parable in two ways: first, to draw out its teaching, and second, to highlight contrasts between the story and its significance. The passage to read is Mark 12.1-12. The story of the landlord and his tenant farmers comes from the last week of the Lord’s earthly ministry, and is addressed to "the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders" (Mk 11.27; 12.1), who clearly recognized an unflattering portrait of themselves: "they sought to lay hold on him, but feared the people: for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them" (12.12). It is therefore an indictment of Israel’s persistent rejection of God’s servants, climaxing in their slaying of the Christ. The parallels are so plain you can jot them down as you read. Here are some pointers with a few supporting Scriptures, but I urge you to dig up more – each idea must always be backed up from the Word. The landlord speaks of God, who took the initiative in giving Israel its land and privileges (Is 43.1). The vineyard represents the nation, chosen to bring Him the fruit of obedient service (Ps 80.8-15; Is 5.1-7). The tenants are Israel’s spiritual leaders, ambitious and greedy (can you find a suitable Scripture?). The servants are the Old Testament prophets (Jer 35.15; Mt 23.37). The landlord’s one son makes us think of God’s "only begotten son" (Jn 3.16). The judgment anticipates God’s disciplining of Israel both through the Romans in AD 70 and in the coming "day of Jacob’s trouble" (Jer 30.7; Lk 19.41-44). And while the replacement tenants may make us think of Gentiles coming into blessing (Rom 11.11), its prime fulfilment, I suspect, will be in a future repentant generation of Israelites (Rom 11.26).

So far the comparisons are clear. But let’s now look at the parable again to observe the equally instructive contrasts. In the story the landlord "went into a far country", so that he was at a distance from his tenants, knowing little of what was going on. But that isn’t true of our God, who is eternally present, inescapable, all-seeing and all-knowing (Jer 23.23-24). Nothing escapes His eye. Again, in the story everything is condensed into one year, whereas God’s gracious dealings with Israel cover a period of some one and a half millennia, stretching at least from the exodus to the incarnation. God’s patience with His people is beyond measure (2 Pet 3.9). The landlord sent his final demand on the faulty supposition that "they will reverence my son". How little he knew the wickedness of their hearts! But God has never been under any illusions about the sinfulness of Israel or humanity as a whole (Jer 17.9). Nor did man’s rejection of Christ take Him by surprise. In the parable the tenants correctly identified the heir and deliberately killed him in the expectation of gain. Did Israel’s leaders recognize their Messiah? Peter and Paul (Acts 3.17; 13.27) insist that they did not. This of course does not exonerate them any more than sinful blindness excuses those who will not trust Christ. The son’s death is passed over in few words: "they took him, and killed him, and cast him out". He had no option – in fact he is entirely passive and silent, the innocent, ignorant, helpless victim of malice. But the glory of the gospel is that the Son of the living God knowingly and willingly took upon Himself manhood so that He might, through death, eternally deliver His people (Jn 10.18; Heb 2.14-15). And – mark this – He rose again.

You can see, I hope, that the parable both parallels and contrasts with the spiritual reality which lies behind it. But it is particularly worth noting the close, which shifts unexpectedly from agricultural to architectural imagery as the Lord directly challenges His audience with an Old Testament quotation: "And have ye not read this scripture; The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner: This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?" (Mk 12.10-11). Remember, the son has been killed – and, as far as the story is concerned, that is the end of him. But the Lord Jesus goes on to teach that the rejected son will become the exalted stone, the most significant feature in God’s construction site, the pinnacle of God’s programme for the universe. His miraculous resurrection and triumphant return are thus implied.

Although there is immense value in listing, cataloguing, and analysing the parables one by one they are, I would suggest, always best encountered in their context. They are of wonderfully wide application and full of spiritual meat for our souls, but their prime meaning is bound up with the Lord’s ministry to and plans for Israel. And because we just cannot study the gospel narratives too often, when you read them again, get stuck into those parables!

God bless

Uncle David

To be continued.


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