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Introduction to The Parables of Jesus

In this course, I am continually excited at the prospect of uncovering the meaning of some of the most beautiful texts in the Scriptures with you. We shall take a somewhat systematic approach to the parables beginning with some introductory material on the nature of parable. Then we shall begin our study of the parables in earnest looking at the parables of the triple tradition. From there we shall move to the parables of the double tradition. And finally look at the bulk of the parables which occur in only a single source first Mark, then Matthew and finally Luke.

To begin, I would like to look briefly in review at the development of the gospel tradition and in particular the parable tradition. Next I intend on examining the relationship of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke to each other, what is known as the Synoptic Problem. This will form a basis for what follows.

Finally, this morning I will provide a general introduction to the literary form of Parable. How can we spot one? What makes a parable a parable? So Let’s get started!!

The Development of the Gospel Tradition

The Composition of the New Testament Books


The Historical Truth of the Gospels


The Synoptic Problem

Before looking at the literary form of parable, we need to examine the relationship between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, which is known in scholarship as the “Synoptic Problem.” Let’s first take a look at this word Synoptic. It comes from two Greek words, the preposition su\n meaning ‘with’, or ‘together’, and the verb o(ra/w which means to ‘look’ or to ‘see.’ Hence Synoptic means looking or seeing together.

This refers to the practice of many scholars since the 17th century of producing a text in which the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are laid out in parallel columns. Such a text is known as a “synopsis” not because it is a summary, but because you can see the texts of the three Gospels together. When they are laid out in this manner, one discovers striking word-for-word similarities in the Gospel text. This raises the question of the literary relationship between these three texts, a question known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Put plainly, was one of the Gospels a source for the other two? Or was there a common source which was utilized by the authors of all three?

The arguments that have been put forth in solution to the “Synoptic Problem” are intricate and complex. For our purposes here, I will present some basic threads of argument. The arguments in favor a common source such as a primitive version of Matthew in Aramaic are at most conjectural and as such, I will not present them here.

Matthaean Priority     

The other possible solution is that one of the existing gospels is the source for the others. Two possibilities have emerged—Matthew and Mark. The argument for Matthaean priority has been strong since the time of Augustine who was its first proponent. In contemporary scholarship it is held by W.R. Farmer, Bernard Orchard, and C.S. Mann who draw heavily upon the arguments of J.J. Griesbach. One of the primary arguments in favor of Matthaean priority is the explanation of what have come to be known as minor agreements, i.e. texts in the triple tradition (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark.

      Against the thesis of Matthaean priority is the fact that almost 95% of Mark’s text appears in Matthew, Luke, or both. When Matthew and Luke disagree with each other in order of a text in the triple tradition, one of them always agrees with Mark. Finally, if Matthew preceded Mark, then the author of Mark would have to have purposely eliminated many of the great texts of Matthew i.e. the Lord’s prayer and the Beatitudes.

Markan Priority

      As a result, most scholars today will posit Mark as the first of the Gospels to be written. This is the thesis of Markan priority. Mark thus becomes the source for the common material in Matthew and Luke. This can be diagrammed as follows.


                             Matthew                     Luke

Such a hypothesis acknowledges the independence of Matthew and Luke, while at the same time explaining the common sections or “literary dependence” between the three Gospels.

The Q Source

      A further question remains in our discussion of  “literary dependence” in the Synoptic gospels. That is the question of the common elements of Matthew and Luke that do not appear in the text of Mark. This is known as the “double tradition”  There are several texts in Matthew and Luke which are word for word the same that do not appear in the Markan text.  Hence, they cannot have Mark as their source. How does one explain them? Is there yet another common source that would have been used by the authors of Matthew and Luke in addition to Mark in the composition of their gospels? Scholars have posited that there is such a source,  the “hypothetical” source Q. It receives its name from the German word for Source, “Quelle.” This produces the classic “Two source theory” It can be diagrammed as follows.

                             Mark                         Q

                             Matthew                     Luke

      The “two source theory” is a plausible solution to the Synoptic Problem as long as one does not push it too far. Scholars have lined up the texts of Matthew Mark and Luke in parallel columns and have isolated the sections of Matthew and Luke which are word for word the same. Through such “hypothetical reconstruction” they have isolated (what they think is) the source Q. That is well and good. However, there are some who then submit that hypothetical reconstruction to further analysis seeking to discover its sources etc. This seems a bit constrained. How can one do a source analysis on a hypothetical document.

      Some have theorized that this “hypothetical” document must predate the Gospels and thus be a source of early Christian understanding. It contains neither infancy narrative, nor resurrection narratives. Hence the infancy and the resurrection traditions must be later traditions “invented” by the early Christian community. It seems to me that by very definition, the document cannot contain them. They must not appear in Mark, and they must be word for word the same in Matthew and Luke. Is it not possible that Matthew and Luke had more sources at their disposal? They could thus choose infancy and resurrection traditions that were from different sources. Does that mean the events they narrate are a community invention?  I really don’t think so.

The Four Source Theory

      The question of material in Matthew and Luke not accounted for in the two source theory led scholars to posit that indeed they had other sources. For lack of a better nomenclature, they chose to identify these sources as M (Matthew’s specific material) and L (Luke’s specific material). Joining these to Mark and Q, we have the classic “four source theory.” It can be diagrammed as follows.

                                   Mark                          Q

            M                    Matthew                     Luke                     L



      The generally accepted solution to the Synoptic Problem today is the Four Source theory. It allows for Markan priority, it explains the common material between Matthew and Luke not in Mark, and it accounts for the material that is unique to Matthew and Luke. Further, there is nothing in the theory that would preclude some material from M or L being in Q. However, by definition of Q, that would not be possible. You now can see how the division of our series came about. It is based on the four source theory. Each week we will look at parables in one of the four sources.

The Literary Form of Parable

Now that we have some idea of the development of the Gospel Tradition and the Synoptic Problem, I would like to give an example of parable in a contemporary form.

It is an Irish rebel song entitled, “Four Green Fields.” Some of you may have heard it, but I would suspect that many have not. That makes it a good candidate for this exercise.

(Hand out the words, and play the tape of “Four Green Fields”)

Can anyone tell me what this song is about? Can anyone tell me what this song means? [Continue discussion] What is the point of the Song? [continue discussion] In the song, we have seen that the situation of a woman with four fields has been used to illustrate the contemporary situation of Ireland. The woman is Ireland, the fields are the four provinces of Ireland, one of which is in bondage. The sons are the Irish people who have fought, and will continue to fight to release the province in bondage and allow a united Ireland to rise once again. To those who know the secret of the parable, this can be a very powerful, and very emotional song. To those who do not, it is simply a nice little song about a woman and her farm.

The Literary Form of Parable

That is precisely what a parable does it takes something which is ordinary and commonplace and uses it to illustrate something which is hidden or unknown. That is precisely the meaning of the Greek word from which the English parable comes—parabolh\. The Greek preposition, para\ means beside, and the Greek verb ba/llw means to throw, or more genteelly, to put. Hence parabolh/ is a putting, or a placing of two things beside each other for the sake of comparison, or illustration. There are thus three components to a parable—a) the unknown that is being illustrated known in German as Die Sache “the matter (to be explained)”, b) the known that is compared to it for illustration known in German as Das Bild “the picture” (which illustrates). And the point of comparison, known as the tertium comparationis which is the point of communality between the “matter” and the “picture”. In other words, the tertium comparationis is the meaning of the parable. Thus we can say that a parable “is a recounting of a common incident from daily life in a concise, figurative form to illustrate a truth.”

In our lyric example, the matter, Die Sache would be the situation of Ireland vis-à-vis England and the current situation of the North. The picture, Das Bild, would be the woman with four green fields. The tertium comparationis would be the desire for a United Ireland brought about by the song.

In ancient rhetoric, as well as English grammar comparisons have taken two forms, the simile and the metaphor. In a simile one thing is compared to another through the expressed term of comparison “as”. Jesus sends his disciples out “as lambs in the midst of wolves.” (Luke 10:3) Or from ancient literature. “Achilles rushed on like a lion.” In both of these examples, the two things being compared are explicitly named, (disciples/lambs), (Achilles/lion). There can be no error in interpretation. Lambs can expect trouble when they wander into a pack of wolves. Thus, Jesus’ disciples can expect trouble when they go out on the mission. A lion is quick, strong and ferocious. So also is Achilles as he rushes into battle.

The second form of comparison in the metaphor from the Greek, metaferei=n, to carry over or across. In a metaphor the qualities of one thing are ascribed to another without explicit comparison. Again from the Jesus tradition, “You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world” referring to the disciples. Or from the classical tradition, in speaking of Achilles, the text would say “a lion rushed on”. IN the metaphor, two things are compared but only one is named. The hearer must know the missing term of comparison in order to grasp the meaning. Without the proper contextual information to fill in the second term, the metaphor becomes a mystery. Hence, a metaphor needs to be deciphered.

Another way of looking at the parable would be to say that it is an extended simile. Note that many of the Gospel parables are introduced with the formula, “…the kingdom of heaven is like….” The object of the parable’s comparison is not a single word but rather the entire situation that is envisioned, a farmer sowing seed, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a mustard seed, a king who settles accounts, etc. In each of these situations, a comparison is made. But it would wrong to say that the kingdom is like a king. Rather the parable compares the kingdom of God to the process of generous forgiveness exhibited by the king who settles accounts.

It has been understood by parable interpreters that a parable as an extended simile would have one and only one point of comparison. Thus, the parable requires that one take the central idea or dominant theme from the known or familiar picture and apply it to the comparable matter that up to that moment was unclear to him.

If a parable is an extended simile, then an extended metaphor would be an allegory. An allegory has as many points of comparison as it has metaphors. Thus an allegory must be decoded. As with a single metaphor, one need a key to decipher the meaning in order to express the meaning non-allegorically. Parables thus have a single point of comparison, tertium comparationis while allegories have many. The only problem is that both the New Testament and the early church have tended toward interpreting Jesus’ parables as though they were allegories. Let’s take a quick look at Augustine’s interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho;  Adam himself is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace, from whose blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means the moon, and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, an dies. Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely; of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half-dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead; he is therefore called half-dead.  The priest and the Levite who saw him and passed by, signify the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament which could profit nothing for salvation. Samaritan means Guardian, and therefore the Lord Himself is signified by this name. The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast is the flesh in which He deigned to come to us. The being set upon the beast is belief in the incarnation of Christ. The inn is the Church, where travelers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage. The morrow is after the resurrection of the Lord. The two pence are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of this life and of that which is to come. The innkeeper is the Apostle (Paul). The supererogatory payment is either his counsel of celibacy, or the fact that he worked with his own hands lest he should be a burden to any of the weaker brethren when the Gospel was new, though it was lawful for him “to live by the gospel”[1]

As one can see, there is a multiplicity of metaphors in this allegorical interpretation of Augustine. For the most part, we shall be looking at the parables seeking a single point of comparison, rather than looking at them allegorically.

       The Parable of the Sower

So on to the parables of the triple tradition. Our prime focus will be on the parable of the Sower which is found in Mark 4:3-9. As I read the parable, I would ask that you put out of your heads any thoughts that may come from prior experience of this parable; rather, listen to it anew and ask the following questions. What is the “picture” of this parable? What is the “matter” of this parable?  What is the “point of comparison?” And, what is this parable trying to tell me?

      (Read the Parable)

So what is the “picture” of this parable?

It is a sower going to sow seeds. It is taken from a farming milieu. (By the way, a great number of Jesus’ parables are taken from either a farming or a business milieu). Jesus is speaking to people who have an understanding of farming. The moment that he says that the sower goes to his field to sow, several images come into the listeners’ heads. Jesus has evoked a real life situation which the listeners can identify with readily

Now what is the “matter” of this parable? What is it that Jesus is using the situation of the sower to illustrate?

Ultimately it is the Kingdom of God. The question may be asked, why doesn’t he just come out and explain the kingdom and leave the story of the sower out of it? Well, let me ask you, how many of you would be that straightforward in discussing the kingdom of God? When we talk about God, the kingdom etc, we necessarily adopt a parable type mode of expression. When we want to get across God’s great love and concern for us, we refer to God as father—a parable mode of expression. Even the notion of kingdom of God has a certain parable force to it. We all know what a kingdom is—a particular form of government, rule. And so we speak of God’s rule over our lives in terms of kingdom. Here we have yet another comparison to further illustrate what God’s rule is like.

What is the “point of comparison”, the meaning of the parable? Or in this case, what does this parable tell us about God’s rule?

! Four Green Fields

What did I have? Said the fine old woman

What did I have? This proud old woman did say

I had four green fields, each one was a jewel

      but strangers came and tried to take them from me.

I had fine strong, sons, they fought to save my jewels.

They fought and died and that was my grief said she.

Long time ago, said the fine old woman

Long time ago, this proud old woman did say

There was war and death, plundering and pillage

      My children starved by mountain, valley and sea

And their wailing cries, they shook the very heavens

My four green fields ran red with their blood said she.

What have I now? said the fine old woman

What have I now? this proud old woman did say

I have four green fields, one of them’s in bondage

      in strangers’ hands, who tried to take it from me

But my sons have sons, brave as were their fathers

My four green fields will bloom once again, said she. 


[1] Augustine, Quaestiones Evangeliorum, II, 19 –slightly abridged as cited in Dodd, C.H., The Parables of the Kingdom  (New York: Scribners, 1961), pg. 1-2.

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