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By Richard Gunther


  A friend of mine told me recently that he thought the parables (as told by Jesus) were in fact based on real events. In other words, my friend had removed the fictional aspect of the parables and considered them to be actual historical events, with real people in them.


   This made me think about the whole Bible and its methods of relaying truth to us, which led me to realize how little is taught on the subject of idioms. Without a general appreciation of the many devices and styles of presentation which God has employed, we may easily miss the point – we might even “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel” as the Pharisees did.


   Before I begin, I must remind the reader that there are many bigger and better studies of this subject available, written by people more able than me, but perhaps this little essay will be a step in, and an encouragement to you to go further.



   A parable is sometimes defined as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”. The Greek word is ‘parabole’ which denotes a ‘placing beside’. Another Greek word ‘paraballo’ means ‘to lay beside to compare’, so in the word parable we have the idea of two things side by side, set that way for a comparison.


   This is not to be confused with a fable, which attributes to things what does not belong to them in nature. For example a long-beaked bird and a short-nosed fox, each trying to drink from a long-necked jar or a shallow dish, in order to teach a moral about consideration to others.


   The reason for the parables, as told by Jesus was not so much to illuminate his hearers as to place them in a position of judgment. It was usually only the few ‘worthy’ ones who actually understood the parables, and even then they had some difficulty (Mat.13:10 -13).


   Another important point is that the parables were usually about “the kingdom”, which means that they had a national aspect. This does not mean that some spiritual meanings may not be drawn from them, but it does mean that we ought to look for national teaching in them first of all. A “kingdom” parable means a story about a nation, not a church, and it was as the King of Israel that Jesus told them, but it seems that even today, after 2000 years, the Church is still largely unaware of the national implications of the parables – a blindness which reminds us of the reaction of the religious people in Jesus’ own day, who also missed the national aspect, and the godless crowds, who followed Jesus merely for free food or healing. The parables were wasted on them.


   But returning to the question, can the parables be taken as literal historical events?


   First of all it must be pointed out that the Church of England, after much scholarly study and consideration has declared that no parable is to be used as the basis of a doctrine. This ought to sound an alarm bell right away. If doctrine is not inherent in the parables, then any attempt to pull correct doctrinal theology from them is bound to produce problems.


   But there are (unfortunately) some Christians who would quickly discard anything declared by the Church of England (as if it were the ‘the worthless word of Man’) so we will move on to the second point.


   Secondly, if we compare some of the parables with plain teaching in other Scriptures, we find some serious contradictions and inconsistencies. I will take this point a little further because it seems to be the more important of the two.


   There are 35 parables in the New Testament, three of which appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  (Only three of the same parables appear in three gospels.) They are listed here should you want to read them all:


Sower Mat 13, Mark 4, Luke 8

Mustard seed Mat.13, Mark 4, Luke 8

Wicked vinedressers Mat. 21, Mark 12, Luke 20


Leaven Mat. 13

Hidden treasure Mat. 13

Pearl of great price Mat. 13

Drag net Mat. 13

Unforgiving servant Mat. 18

Labourers in the vineyard Mat. 20

Two sons Mat. 21

Marriage of the king’s son Mat. 22

Ten virgins Mat. 25

Seed growing secretly Mark 4

Householder and his servants Mark 13

Two debtors Luke 7

Good Samaritan Luke 10

Friend at midnight Luke 11

Rich fool Luke 12

Stewards and their absent master Luke 12

Barren fig tree Luke 13

Great supper Luke 14

Lost coin Luke 15

Prodigal son Luke 15

Dishonest steward Luke 16

Rich man and Lazarus Luke 16

Unprofitable servant Luke 17

Judge and persistent widow Luke 18

Pharisee and publican Luke 18

Pounds given to servants Luke 19

Sheep and goats Mat. 7:31-36

House on rock and sand Mat. 7:21-27

Vineyard and husbandmen Mat. 21


   The parables as doctrinal statements.

   Many very difficult problems emerge when we press the parables beyond what they were originally designed to do. If they are doctrinal statements, then we must sort out many terrible inconsistencies and alarming contradictions. This is inescapable. A few simple examples follow:


   The parables in Matthew 13 are the most clearly explained by Jesus himself. In response to his disciples, who asked “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus replied that it was to them, and not the crowds that the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” were to be revealed. Jesus then went on to explain some of the keys to interpreting the parables, in the parable of the sower, and of the tares and wheat:


The wicked hear the gospel but Satan destroys the message

Some hearers lack determination, some endure

Worldliness and pleasure choke the resolution of some

The sower is God’s son (and Christians who copy him)

The field is the world, planet Earth, geographically

The tares are the followers of Satan, the wheat the followers of God

The harvest is the end (or consummation) of the age

The reapers are the angels

The kingdom will be cleansed of rebels who have up till then been resident in the kingdom, but are now rooted out and punished.


   So already we have a clear indication that the parable is a story which uses symbols to represent something true, and not an actual literal event, or historical reality which represents something true. The true meaning is hidden behind symbolic language, which is entirely consistent with all prophetic language in both Old and New Testaments.


   I will now deal with (as an example of many others) the parable of the hid treasure in more depth because, like all the parables, it deals with national events, and at the same time illustrates how difficult it is to draw doctrinal teaching from most of the other parables.


   Matthew 13: 44 – the parable of the hid treasure.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man has found, he hides, and for joy thereof goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field”.


   First of all, Jesus cannot be the treasure (as is sometimes suggested), because He is not “hidden”. He is the best known or heard of personality in the world. He is proclaimed by the Church. He is published, and filmed, and taped, and preached, and his Name is held up to all the nations through many types of media. He can rightly be called ‘treasure’ but he is certainly not ‘hidden’.

   Secondly the treasure cannot be the gospel (as is also sometimes suggested) because it is the message to be proclaimed. God has never tried to hide it, nor has the true Church. It would be absurd to think that God intends Christians to find the gospel, or Christ, and then somehow ‘bury’ it, or hide it from other people.


   And further, what can it mean for Christians to joyfully sell all their possessions in order to buy the whole field? Does God want the Church to buy the world? I’m sure Jesus told Christians not to lay up their treasures on Earth, so why would he tell a parable in which he encouraged Christians to buy the “field”?


   These very difficult problems are resolved when we consider the parable in the light of its correct context – a story about the kingdom – a national application solves all the difficulties.


   In Ex.19:5 God said to Israel “You shall be to me a peculiar treasure to Me”. This statement relates to the “treasure” in the parable when we follow the subsequent history of Israel. The nation, or treasure, went into captivity, and became scattered among the nations. As a treasure she was now hidden in the field (the world).

   But God knew where His ‘treasure’ was (Amos 9:8-15, Ez.20:33-37 – tells us about God sorting and gathering His people. Hos.13:14, Is.25:8 – tells us how God intends to ransom His people)

   The ‘man’ in the parable is the Lord Jesus, who came to “seek and to save that which was lost” – Mat. 18:11, Luke 19:10, and when he (Jesus) found His people, he “for joy thereof goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field”. Jesus gave his very life for his people (John 10:11) but in doing so he had to buy the whole field in which his people were. This is why we preach the gospel to all the world, and this is why we say, with John 3:16 “For God so loved the world . . .”


   The interpretation of the parables in terms of the kingdom is worth a whole separate study, but these two examples should be enough to set the parables in their correct context, and also give the correct method of interpreting them.


   Another area worthy of a separate study is the use of different idioms, or types, or methods, or devices of presentation of truth throughout Scripture. For example ‘prophetic language’, which uses a sort of code. Only those who know the code can correctly decipher the true meaning of prophecy. It is because of the present day Church’s failure to correctly decode prophecy that the false doctrine of Futurism is so widespread. Those who fail to approach Scripture with the correct attitude, or with insufficient study, usually miss the meaning, and stumble.


   Along with all this we have the fact that the Bible is a collection of many selective histories, poems, proverbs and other forms of literature. It is in fact a vast collection of many different subjects, interwoven with  past customs and cultural ideas, all written by many different people, amended in places, sorted and rewritten in other places, inserted with quotes, diced with foreign words and phrases, and abbreviated, and all pulled together into one hugely entertaining package, whose compilation spans many thousands of years. This is not to say that the Bible is the work of Man. God has overruled in every detail, and what we have in our hands today is the perfect, inspired Word of God, but God is an entertainer as well as a Teacher. He has given us a book in which He is revealed, but His revelation comes in an interesting and attention-grabbing way.


   It is with this in mind that we approach the parables. Once we understand that God is presenting something true to us through a certain form of language, then we have a better chance of understanding what that hidden truth is. But if we fail to identify the form of language in which God is trying to communicate, then we will inevitably wind up in all manner of difficulties.

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