Why Did Christ Speak in Parables? An Essay by Katina Michael (Final Submission)

Below is the final version of my draft essay. I received very positive feedback after my draft submission, but also some critical changes to be made before final submission. I tried my best to address these as per the suggestions of my tutor. I gained so much from taking this final redraft process seriously. My thanks to my tutor Rev. Dr. Alexander Tefft for his guidance and time in extensive feedback provided. In many ways I almost felt this was like a peer review of my paper, and I likewise responded by addressing a line by line list of corrections made.

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This paper explores why Christ spoke in parables in the context of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The word parable, means “putting things side by side”. In the Synoptic Gospels, official parables number thirty, however this number varies depending on the criteria for accepting a passage of New Testament (NT) Scripture as a standalone parable. Importantly, a parable should not be confused with mashal, which is to be found in the Old Testament, and which contained only a single message. The parables of Christ are rich in form and content in the Synoptic Gospels and lend themselves to being interpreted allegorically, as well as literally. In the Gospel of John, Christ’s parables are presented using hypostatic language. Somehow Christ is able to reach out to the crowds who have come to hear Him, using only simple stories they could grasp that were contextually set in everyday life. And yet at once the listener who stood among the masses could place himself or herself typologically within the parable; free to choose whether they would follow the Great Storyteller or would resist His message (Beavis 2001, p. 3). Christ’s parables are universal, they have traversed space and time, they are equally relevant today as they were over 2000 years ago. Plainly, Christ wished to ensure that everyone who heard him teach could comprehend his profound message and come to the realisation of the state of their personhood with a clear way forward toward salvation. I intend to prove that the parables of Christ are the basis of Christian ethical judgement, and not merely explicit didacticism. This paper is broken into five parts: definitional; biblical sources; Early Church Fathers; modern scholarship; and discussion.

Parable as Allegory in Context of the NT

The word parable (the Greek root-word παραβολή [Gk], parabole) means “comparison”, and was the manner in which the primitive Christian Church described the stories that Christ used to illustrate his teachings (Potapov 2000). According to Victor Potapov (2000), "a parable is a spiritual lesson of a story developed by comparison to everyday life. The Lord's parables draw memorable details from nature, human, social, economic, or religious life of His time." A parable is similar to an allegory, although the latter usually denotes a more detailed comparison of elements of a tale (Tasker 1962, p. 932). There is no doubt among Eastern Orthodox scholars, that the parables of the New Testament were allegories and lent themselves to allegorical interpretation demonstrated by Christ Himself and the Fathers of the Church. Christ masterfully uses vivid images from everyday life to ensure the listener has every opportunity to connect with spiritual truth in a life-long manner (Beavis 2001, p. 11).

At various times in one’s life, the parables might take on layered meaning, or dependent on the state of the penitent, he or she may find himself or herself as one or more of the characters depicted. For example, in the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32), the Christian might find himself in the role of the forgiving father, the repentant younger son, or the older son. The ultimate language of the parables is not one of coercion but love and freedom. Somehow the listener/ reader of the parables of the New Testament is led to a place of self-confrontation (Kirkwood 1983, p. 59), awareness and logical conclusion, that the only means of salvation is through love in action.

In examining Scripture, Christ answers the question posed by the disciples: “Why do You speak to them in parables?” (Matt. 13:10) explicitly in the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10).

10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; 15 For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it?

Matt. 13:10-17

 

Despite the seeming simplicity of the stories through which Christ revealed deep spiritual truths, it was those innocent at heart, whose soul was ready to accept the light shining forth, who understood what Christ taught (Orthodox Study Bible 1991, p. 37) and who were given to “know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees who were present in the large crowds, and who were highly educated, were hard of heart, so did not “see” and did not “perceive”, and could not “hear” and had not “understanding” (Matt. 13:13) (Marshall 1978, p. 321, 323).

The result of the Pharisaic blindness and deafness was that they would remain in their sin, while the faithful who repented were open to the good news of the Kingdom of God (Orthodox Study Bible 1993, p. 93; Goldingay 1995, p. 79). Christ relies on the parabolic approach to minister to the crowds, “but to those who are outside, all things come in parables” (Matt. 13:11-12). Yet he emphasised, even to the disciples (Marshall 1978, p. 318 citing Schürmann 1976), that if they could not comprehend even this parable, then how were they to understand the rest (Matt. 13:13). It is important to note, that Christ does not deliberately make people unreceptive to His message, rather it is individual persons who must take responsibility for being insensitive to the truth (Orthodox Study Bible 1993, p. 38). It was also this form of teaching that allowed Christ to execute the divine plan without a premature arrest by the authorities. The sacred parables then, served three distinct purposes, namely: “to reveal, to conceal, and to perpetuate” (Whedon 1874, p. 163).

What is at stake here for those who have shunned the light? While the Parable of the Sower only appears in the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John adopts the language of hypostatic paradigms. While John’s style of writing differs from that of the Synoptics, the message is the same. Only, in John, the dialogue between Christ and a representative typology through a given individual (i.e. paroimiai 'figures') becomes the hypostatic parable. Consider Christ’s words to Nicodemus in John 3:1-21. After explaining to Nicodemus that he must be “born again” (John 3:3), Nicodemus is confused (John 3:4). Christ questions him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (John 3:10). And again, “if I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12). Compare this passage of Scripture with “all things come in parables” (Mark 4:11). John’s form of “parables” are recorded using a different style, to emphasise one’s personal relationship with Christ, and demonstrate that the faithful need spiritual eyes and ears to comprehend the multiple layers of meaning in the parabolic method we find in the Synoptic Gospels (Orthodox Study Bible 1993, p. 38), and in this way come to know God intimately.

The Early Church Fathers on Interpreting the Parables

Certainly the Early Church Fathers interpreted the parables using the allegorical method (Stein 1981, p. 42; Papakosta 1929). And this method gained momentum over time and geographical expanse (Table 1). No doubt the Fathers were influenced by Christ’s own example. He offered a detailed explanation for the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:18-23; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:4-8). As Trench (1867, p. 15) noted, “as the allegory proceeds, the interpretation proceeds hand-in-hand with that, or, at least never falls far behind.” There is also strong speculation that the allegorical method, was already popularised through the heroes of Homer, making it a “ready-made tool” which could be applied to the Scriptures (Stein, 1981, p. 43). But why the form of a parable?

Table 1 Representative Early Church Fathers Who Allegorised the Parables

Caption: Descriptions are summarised and slightly adapted from Stein (1981, ch. 4) and Stavrianos (2012, pp. 29-48). For example, while the Early Church Fathers might have differed on identifying who the “robbers” were in the story of the Good Samaritan, they indeed all agreed that the Good Samaritan was none other than Christ Himself. For a comprehensive analysis of Patristic Thought with respect to The Good Samaritan, refer to Stavrianos (2012).

Parables provide an avenue for layered meanings- from the superficial experiences of every-day living (which must have come forth from Christ’s own exposure to various controversies), to the very deep spiritual layer where the believer is confronted with one’s own sin and through the parables finds a means to recalibrate his or her life to Christ. In many ways, Christ is delivering an ethical discourse using guiding principles, without well-defined direct commandments as found in the Old Testament, prevalent in Exodus 20:1-17 with the words “You shall not” and also in the exhaustive ritual, legal and moral practices described in Leviticus. Rather, Christ uses non-coercive language to bring the listener to a point in the transmission of the word of realisation, if their heart is open to the message of Christ.  As W.H. Auden has so magnificently put it: “You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; …particular stories of particular people and experiences, from which each according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusions” (Bozorth 2005, p. 183). Christ’s parables are unique and allow for flexibility in allegorical interpretation throughout the ages, which is what makes them so accessible. In John’s Gospel, when the language of the “person” is instituted, and typological characters are presented to us in dialogue with Christ, every Christian is being encouraged to develop a deeper relationship with Christ the Son of God through the Parables. Yet for some, “the tradition of the early church is seen almost exclusively as something to be overcome” (Kingsbury 1972, p. 107, Sider 1983, p. 62).

Warnings Against Over-Elaborating the Parables

It should be emphasised however, that not all of the Early Church Fathers agreed with the extreme use of the allegorical method of interpretation. According to Stein (1981, p. 47): “Men like Isidore of Pelusium (360-435), Basil (ca. 329-379), Theodore of Mopsuestia (350?-428), and Chrysostom (349-407) protested against the allegorical method.” Stein quotes St. John Chrysostom who believed it was neither wise nor correct: “to inquire curiously into all things in parables word by word but when we have learnt the object for which it was composed, to read this, and not to busy oneself about anything further.” And Papadopoulos (1999, p. 108) noted that St. Chrysostom interprets the parables as “the elevation of the soul to the heavenly”. Perhaps Stein uses language that is too strong here, rather than “protest” he should have rather said, that Fathers like St. Basil and St. Chrysostom were more preoccupied with the whole message of the parable, than trying to tie back every word to a present context. For example, there were stark differences in the way that St. Augustine and Origen of Alexandria allegorised the interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Caird 1980, p. 165). Had they gone too far? Possibly.

The interpreter should be wary of over-elaboration or over-simplification when it comes to the parables (Tasker 1962, p. 933).  But this does not mean we reject the allegorical interpretation that was always intended by Christ. For if allegory was missing, the Parables found in the New Testament would not have differed to those of the Old Testament, they would have been merely simple illustrations (e.g. 1 Sam. 24:13; Ezekiel 18:2-3). Rightly, St. Chrysostom of Constantinople who was from the Antiochian School, was resistant to “flights of fancy,” preferring to discern the scope and purpose for each parable, rather than to “find a special significance in each circumstance or incident” (Unger 1980, p. 824). This does not mean however, that St. Chrysostom shied away from interpreting the Parables himself. See, for example, Homily XLV. Matt. XIII. 10, 11, where St. Chrysostom explains why the Pharisees did the very opposite to what Christ called the crowds to do: “not only disbelieving, not only not hearkening, but even waging war, and disposed to be very bitter against all” that Christ said, all because, “They heard heavily.” St. Gregory of Nyssa considered “allegorical interpretation necessary at points where symbolism or the words covered a deeper meaning”, and he also accepted the literal interpretation (Stavrianos 2012, p. 43). Even St. Basil of Caesarea wrote in the Hexaemeron VIII.2 (PG 29:188), as quoted by Stavrianos (2012, p. 44): “to take [just] the literal sense and stop there is to have the heart covered by the veil of Jewish literalism.”

The Rise and Impact of the New Hermeneutic

In 1888 Adolf Jülicher's two volume seminal work, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu was a major influence against the centuries-old tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Parables of Christ. Jülicher was more preoccupied with the form of parables, seeking “clear-cut definitions” of differences between parables, allegories, similes, and metaphors. He simply took the parables literally and stressed they only had one point of comparison, not many (Caird 1980, p. 161). C.H. Dodd (1935) who was then followed by J. Jeremias (1947) and A.M. Hunter (1958) “rejected Jülicher's moralistic interpretations in favour of the now generally accepted thesis that the parables had a particular reference to the ministry of Jesus and the crisis it inaugurated…” (Caird 1980, p. 162). In an attempt to develop and in some cases correct Jülicher’s claims, form criticism and redaction criticism scholarship in Germany, and literary-critical studies in the United States, have proliferated in the field of “new hermeneutics” (Blomberg 1991, pp. 50-55; Goldingay 1995, p. 79). As a result, there are now definitions abounding for different types of parables (e.g. simple simile, simple metaphors, simile story, metaphor story, example story). Stein (1994) beautifully, dedicates several chapters to the form of Jesus’s writings, and the parables, describing him as an “outstanding” and “exciting” teacher; a “personality” who was “authoritative”. He continues to describe that Christ used certain devices of language to attract attention from his audience, including exaggeration, hyperbole, ‘paronomasia’ (i.e. pun), simile, metaphor, riddles, paradox, fortiori statements, synonymous parallelism, and more (Stein 1994, pp. 7-24). The whole topic has become somewhat of a minefield if the critic is drawn in to the details of labelling. Perhaps about the only light to have come forth from all of this modern scholarship, is the uniqueness of the Parables of Christ in the Gospels. No matter how hard scholars have tried to encapsulate the formula used by Christ when speaking in Parables, they have found themselves in a tangle. They could have only been written by the Son of God (Lithgow 1907, p. 538). Scripture is the living Word, the text is dynamic and ever-changing, it is universal yet personal (Hogan 2016, pp. 119-120), and couched in history, all at the same time.

Modern Scholarship versus Early Christian Teaching on the Parables

It would be all too easy to dismiss the work of the modern scholars which has gone against the grain of tradition, as being written by those ‘who had eyes but could not see’. Jeremias lays blame for the state of parabolic interpretation with the “early Christian teachers” (Tasker 1962, p. 932). But even Stein (1994, p. 37) himself had to admit: “[i]t would appear that some parables possess undeniable allegorical elements” (e.g. the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matt. 22:1-14). Dodd, in particular, takes exception with the fact that Christian preachers today deliver sermons that are far removed from the original meaning/ function of the parable, as set in the time of Christ (i.e. Sitz em Leiben). Stavrianos (2012, p. 29), in his study of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) in Patristic thought, emphasises: “…even though the central truth of the parable remains the same, Christians in every era can adapt it to their reality, thus giving it new meaning and perspective.”

There is no doubt, that outside the confines of the established church, there are so-called preachers who teach falsehoods, for example, the so-named “prosperity gospel” whose message bears no relationship to what was intended by Christ. These are contemporary secular interpretations. St. Basil of Caesarea warned against those who would take Holy Scripture, and instead of using common sense for their explanations, use “fancy wishes… to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own end” (St. Basil quoted in Stavrianos 2012, p. 44). Of course, the Fathers seemingly would agree with Jülicher, that the "parables were intended to illustrate one truth only" (Tasker 1962, p. 932) but the Fathers would deviate in their belief, emphasising that each Parable consisted of multiple layers of the “one truth”. Consider a kernel and its shell; it is one object that contains several layers, despite that scholars such as Via and Crossan prefer the onion motif of layering (Parris 2002, pp. 34-37). As devoted Christians, the more layers uncovered, the closer the relationship hypostatically proceeds to Christ the Saviour.

Discussion on Why Christ Spoke in Parables

Christ Incarnate came to deliver His message by empathically placing Himself in the shoes of humans: “Jesus comes and stands where the hearer already stands" (Craddock 2002, pp. 88-89). His parables (i.e. teachings) were inextricably linked to His Person (Blomberg 1991, p. 74). Such was His love for humankind that he set his parables in everyday life, to captivate the imagination equally of the rich and poor man, the educated and uneducated, the respected and the outcast, the healthy and the sick. Whether tax collector, fallen or adulteress, Samaritan, Publican or farmer- all people are His Creation, and He went to great lengths, even descending from on high to reach all people, and to save all people, using accessible language. “He mixes the realistic with the extraordinary and improbable” (Via 1974, p. 105). He gives the hearer the freedom to manoeuvre (Peta Sherlock private comms cited in Goldingay 1995), to find the space required to make correction. It is a daily choice one makes whether or not to follow Him. Christ’s parables were not only prophetic in depicting how He Himself would suffer (Matt. 5:1-12; Barbu 2009, pp. 262-263) but somehow simultaneously represented universal contexts in which hearers could fully relate: “[d]ifferent facets also come home to individual hearers at different times in their lives; there is no once for all hearing of a story” (Goldingay 1995, p. 78).  A sound Orthodox Christian framework that can be followed for understanding why Christ spoke in parables is presented by Potapov (2000). He has written, Christ spoke in parables for three reasons: (1) to help listeners recall vivid images from ordinary life, and to ponder on the deeper message behind the allegory; (2) parables carried a double meaning and were deliberately indirect so that Christ could carry out the divine plan in full without being prematurely accused by the Pharisees; and (3) the parable format preserved the purity of Christ’s teachings.

Christ’s parables were comprehensible, accessible, and non-coercive. Christ spoke in parables so that everyone could understand His teachings. The parables are illustrations set in-context that help people to remember to love others, despite the preconceived stereotypes. Christ was not coercive. We the hearer of the Word, can place ourselves almost with certainty in the shoes of one or more of the characters depicted in the parable itself. At times, the penitent might feel convicted, for example in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, having sown seed by the wayside (v. 4), on stony places (v. 5), among thorns (v. 7) (Marshall 1978, p. 320). Christ spoke simply to give the masses a choice to believe in Him through faith. The unbelievers would not understand his parabolic message, because they maintained their unbelief through hardness of heart. G.A. Kennedy cited by Black (2000, p. 389), concurred with Potapov’s second point noting that Christ spoke in parables to ensure the divine plan would be completed without interruption. If the Pharisees would have detected his claim to being the Son of God, Christ would have been unable to continue preaching to the crowds freely.

Christ's parables are unique, beautiful, and moving to one's soul (Rindge 2014, p. 403). They are better than the finest poetry or music; artistic and imaginative. They often began or closed with rhetorical questions that Jesus Himself went on to answer, that “transforms the audience” by imagination (Rindge 2014, p. 408). Christ's parables stand apart from any other writing of its type: they are layered in meaning but maintain one truth. This shows the connection to allegory, and multiple meanings that can be derived from the same story- literal, moral and spiritual. Christ's parables are also universal, they have withstood the test of time and continue to be relevant (Hebrews 13:8), and applicable to all. Christ pierces the conscience and personal thoughts and heart of every person through the parables, and offers him a way toward personal and inner transfiguration (Barbu 2009, p. 262). So Christ might have preached to the masses only through the parabolic device, but inwardly, every individual would reflect on their personal state of spirituality. The believer is compelled to participate in God’s mystery, being drawn in to hear His word. For example, in Matthew 21:30-32, Christ asks rhetorically: "Which of the two did the will of his father?” Each individual knows in his/ her heart, which did the will of his father, despite that the outcome is paradoxical and antinomic. In the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32) the hero is the son who repented, not the second son who seemingly never sinned because he did not take his father's inheritance squandering it away in the world like the prodigal. This approach turns things upside down but does so legitimately. There is hope for even the greatest sinner. Are we willing to believe and grow in faith?

Conclusion

While modern parabolic scholarship (e.g. form criticism and literary-critical studies) has been at odds with the tradition as recorded by the Early Church Fathers, there are two main points of agreement. First, that in fact some of the Parables are truly meant as “allegories” in the technical literary sense, and second, each parable has a single truth, though the Fathers would contend there are multiple layers of the one truth to be extracted at face value, in moral value and spiritual, among other perspectives. The warnings of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great should be heeded when the Parables of Jesus are over-elaborated but at the same time Christ’s example is altogether present in the Scriptures. In this paper, the Parable of the Sower was used to illustrate “allegory in action”, and here is found Christ’s own example of explaining what He Himself meant by the story. While the Parables are easily recognisable in the Synoptic Gospels, there are numerous examples of parables present in the Gospel of John. The technique however in John’s writing, seems juxtaposed against the writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke the evangelists. In the Synoptics, Christ speaks to the crowds in Parables and then each has the choice of whether or not to apply these principles to themselves personally. In the Gospel of John, rather, we see “encounters” between Christ and typological figures (e.g. the Good Samaritan) that then can be used to represent universal principles. The Parables are the basis for Christian Ethics despite that they are never made explicit, hearers who wish to come to a closer knowledge of God and enter a deeper personal relationship with Him, are led to a place of everlasting love.

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