Chapter 7: Teaching by Parables

Jesus in the First Three Gospels
by Millar Burrows

Chapter 7: Teaching by Parables

The visit of Jesus mother and brothers is followed in Mark and Matthew by a group of parables (Mk 4:1-34: Mt 13:1-52; Lk 8:4-18; 13:18-21), which with some additions constitutes Matthew’s third discourse. Luke gives some of the same material earlier and some with Jesus getting into a boat and speaking to the crowd on the shore (Mk 4:1: cf. 3:19). Mark says, "Again he began to teach beside the sea"; but in chapter 3 Jesus went to a house, and there has been no indication meanwhile of his leaving it. Matthew says: "That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea" (13:1).

"And he taught them many things in parables" (Mk 4:2; Mt 13:3; cf. Lk 8:4). The distinction between parables and sayings cannot be drawn sharply. The Greek noun parabole means simply a comparison. Once the KJV so renders it (Mk 4:30). In another place (Lk 4:23) our English versions translate it "proverb." It does not necessarily refer to a story, but is applied also to comparisons in the form of general statements.

Jesus’ parables, however, are often brief narratives. Usually the story as a whole has one point. Special meanings in details are not intended. A story in which each character, place, or act stands for something is not a parable but an allegory. Jesus’ parables are not allegories, though a few of them have significant details.

The parable of the sower (Mk 4:3-9; Mt 13:3-9) verges on allegory. The crop varies according to the kind of ground on which the seed falls. I have seen a Palestinian farmer sowing seed by hand on just such variegated ground as this story envisages. Jesus’ parables reflect the everyday life of his country, which until recently had hardly changed from what it was in his day.

When the crowd had gone after hearing this parable, the disciples questioned Jesus about it (Mk 4:10-12; Mt 13:10-15: Lk 8:9-10). According to Matthew they asked. "Why do you speak to them in parables?" Such a question was actually unnecessary for Jesus’ hearers or the disciples. There was nothing strange or new in his use of stories. The great Jewish teachers of his time used such stories much as he did. Experienced speakers know that there is no better way to make a point than to use an apt illustration, and a good story that fits the point is the most effective kind of illustration.

There is a strong reaction at present against this understanding of the parables on the ground that as "aesthetic objects" they are self-sufficient. The contention is not that they are art for art’s sake, to be enjoyed with no thought of meaning, but that their meaning is to be found in their own form and content, not in anything outside of themselves. This seems fair enough: the applications of the principle that are offered, however, are generalizations that strangely resemble the "lessons" drawn from Scripture by an old-fashioned Sunday school teacher. At the same time they are sometimes so involved, not to say far-fetched, that one cannot imagine Jesus expecting his hearers to see them. In fact, it is explicitly stated that these stories mean more than Jesus meant by them.

Jesus’ reply to the disciples, indeed, as the Gospels report it (Mk 4:11; Mt 13:11; Lk 8:10), suggests that the parables were intended not to elucidate but to obscure the truth. The gospel, it seems, is a mystery that the parables convey to the initiated without giving it away to the crowd. This is utterly contrary to the essential nature and obvious purpose of Jesus’ parables. The language of the whole verse recalls Isaiah 6:9-10, where the prophet’s mission seems to be represented as preventing Israel from being converted and healed. In Matthew, Jesus says explicitly, "With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says" — and then quotes the two verses (13:14-15).

That Jesus spoke of the gospel of the kingdom as a mystery is not impossible. The Greek noun appears frequently in the epistles and in Revelation (Rom 11:25; 16:25; Eph 1:9; 3:9; Rev 1:20; 10:7; 17:5, 7), usually with reference to a secret purpose of God that has now been revealed. The Septuagint uses this word six times in Daniel 2 (vv 27-30, 47) to translate an Aramaic noun that Jesus could have used. It appears often in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The idea of a mystery was therefore familiar to the Jews of Jesus day. The Greek word, however, appears nowhere else in the Gospels. That, together with the fact that it is associated with an idea that we can hardly attribute to Jesus, makes the authenticity of the whole passage doubtful.

Possibly, however, it originally had quite a different meaning, not incompatible with Jesus’ purpose and attitude. What Jesus said may have been misunderstood by the Greek translator. Mark says that, "for those outside," parables are used "so that they may indeed see but not perceive," etc. (4:12). Luke too says "so that seeing they may not see," etc. (8:10). Matthew, however, says "because seeing they do not see," and so on (13:13), that is, Jesus used parables not to prevent people from understanding but because they did not understand. His reply to the disciples’ question then amounted to this: "God has given you the ability to understand the secret of his kingdom; but these poor people cannot comprehend it unless it is put in the simplest possible form. I use stories to make things clear to them."

The Aramaic language expresses purpose and cause by the same conjunction, which also serves as a relative pronoun. The same words may mean "so that they may not understand." "because they do not understand," or "who do not understand." Mark and Luke have taken the conjunction in one sense, Matthew in another. Either rendering is literally correct, but Matthew’s expresses the meaning Jesus probably intended.

Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah makes the people’s lack of understanding a matter of fact rather than purpose (Is 6:10). This is not actually what the Hebrew text says. What is really meant, however, is surely not that Isaiah’s mission was to prevent repentance and healing. His bitterly ironical language reflects what proved to be the actual result of his preaching.

Mark almost refutes his own theory when he says at the end of his group of parables (4:33), "With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it." His misconception, however, leads him to add (v 34), "he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything." The parables are thus regarded as riddles. Matthew also says, "Indeed he said nothing to them without a parable." but instead of mentioning private explanations to the disciples he gives his own view of Jesus’ use of parables (13:34-35).

At this point Matthew introduces a saying that Luke gives much later (Mt 13:16-17; Lk 10:23-24). It follows naturally the quotation from Isaiah. "But blessed are your eyes," Jesus says, "for they see, and your ears, for they hear." Jesus goes on to remind the disciples that there have been many prophets and wise men (prophets and kings, Luke says) who desired to see what the disciples are seeing and to hear what they are hearing, but did not have that privilege. Obviously the reminder is intended to evoke not pride but humble gratitude.

Next in all the Synoptic Gospels there is an interpretation of the parable of the sower (Mk 4:13-20; Mt 13:18-23; Lk 8:11-15), explaining it as a picture of four different kinds of people who respond to the gospel in different ways. Those in the first group do not take it in at all; therefore Satan immediately snatches it away. Hearers of the second kind receive the word gladly but fall away as soon as the going gets hard. The third group consists of those who accept it but allow it to be overgrown and choked out by the concerns of everyday living. Only the hearers of the fourth kind — those who receive and retain the word — are fruitful.

Commentators have long questioned the authenticity and accuracy of this explanation, holding that it converts the parable into an allegory and changes its meaning to one relevant for the church in later generations. After accepting this argument for many years, I now find it unconvincing. The interpretation does describe the situation of the later church, and indeed of all generations of church history; but it describes also the situation that confronted Jesus himself.

The enthusiasm of the great crowds who heard him gladly was not shared by all his hearers, nor did it last long in all those who felt it. He faced a general failure of his own people to believe his proclamation and repent. The parable of the sower was his answer to questions that must have seemed like the voice of Satan saying, "If you are the Son of God." He could sow the seed, but he could not make it take root in poor soil or protect it from the things that made people unable or unwilling to receive it and nourish it to maturity.

It is true that a typical parable has just one point, to which everything else is subordinate. Scholars who insist that this must always be so take the first three kinds of soil together as indicating the obstacles encountered by the gospel. The abundant crop from the good soil then signifies that the word will prevail and accomplish its purpose (cf. Is 55:11), and this is taken to be the only meaning intended by Jesus. If that explanation is correct, the story itself was much expanded in the course of its transmission. A simpler assumption is that here, as in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus used a more elaborate story than usual to convey a more elaborate idea. The moral, both for the disciples and for Jesus himself, was, "Don’t be discouraged; this is what we have to expect, but the good soil will produce a great harvest."

After the interpretation of this parable, Mark and Luke have the saying used by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount about putting a lamp under a bushel or a bed (Mt 5:15; Mk 4:21; Lk 8:16), followed by the statement, "For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light" (Mk 4:22; Lk 8:17). Matthew and Luke also have this in another context (Mt 10:26; Lk 12:2). For Mark’s "except to be made manifest" and "except to come to light," Luke has here "that will not be revealed" and "that will not be known." This is probably another reflection of the ambiguous Aramaic word that serves both as a conjunction and as a relative pronoun. Mark understands the saying to mean that anything now hidden will be made known sooner or later, but perhaps what Jesus meant was that everything that had hitherto been hidden would be revealed now.

Mark continues (Mk 4:24; Lk 8:18), "And he said to them, ‘Take heed what you hear,’" Matthew omits this; in Luke it becomes, "Take heed then how you hear." The insertion of "then" and the change from "what" to "how" suggest that since everything secret will come to light, listening carefully to obscure sayings will be rewarded. Mark and Luke give here a saying that Matthew has already used (Mk 4:25; Lk 8:18; Mt 13:12): "For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away" (Luke reads, "even what he thinks that he has").

Mark’s second and third parables (4:26, 30) are introduced by the words, "And he said," as though Jesus was still speaking to the disciples; but what follows these parables (vv 33-34) shows that they were delivered to the people. Matthew says explicitly (13:34), "All this Jesus said to the crowds." The first of the two, the parable of the seed that grows of itself (Mk 4:26-29), is the only one recorded by Mark alone. A common interpretation of it exemplifies the error of seeing meanings in details. The words, "first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear," are thought to indicate a gradual extension of the kingdom of God in the world. The point of the parable, however, is that while man sows the seed and reaps the harvest, the growth comes by a process for which he can only wait. For those who look for the kingdom of God, this is a word of both encouragement and warning: God’s power, not yours, will accomplish his will. The kingdom is not yours but his.

Where Mark has this parable, Matthew gives the parable of the weeds (KJV, tares), the first of five in this chapter that are not found in Mark or Luke (Mt 13:24-30). The plant referred to is more exactly darnel (so JB, NEB), which grows wild in wheat fields and resembles wheat in appearance. To this day in Palestine women and children go through the wheat fields before harvest and pick it out by hand. In the parable, the owner of the field has to contend not only with what has grown naturally. An enemy has come by night and sowed darnel so thickly that it cannot be weeded out without destroying the wheat. To save his crop the owner must let grain and weeds grow together and have his servants sort them out after the harvest. The meaning of this must be considered together with the parable of the dragnet (Mt 13:47-48), which comes a little later.

Mark’s third parable, the story of the mustard seed, is somewhat condensed in the other Gospels (Mk 4:30-32; Mt 13:31-32; Lk 13:18-19). Its subject is the contrast between a small beginning and a great consummation. Elsewhere (Mt 17:20; Lk 17:6) Jesus speaks of "faith as a grain of mustard seed," obviously meaning "even a tiny bit of faith." The wild mustard of Palestine, which is said to be abundant beside the Sea of Galilee, has a minute seed but grows to almost twice the height of a man.

This parable too has suffered from over-interpretation. Birds in the branches of a tree, for example, are used in rabbinic literature as a symbol of Gentiles who in the last days will seek shelter in the shade of Israel. Some scholars have therefore seen in this parable a reference to the conversion of the Gentiles. The birds here, however, are simply a part of the picture, emphasizing the size of the bush.

Other expositors are guilty of under-interpretation. They hold that neither the beginning of the growth nor the process itself is compared with the kingdom, but only the outcome. The contrast between the small seed and the large bush only points up the greatness of the result. But the tiny seed belongs to the comparison also. Not merely the greatness of the end, but the contrast between it and the small beginning, is the point of the parable.

In what sense can God’s kingdom be said to have a beginning as small as a mustard seed by comparison with its glorious consummation? If the kingdom can be taken here to mean the community of subjects of the heavenly King, then the contrast may be between the little band of disciples and the vast host expected to share in the final redemption. Possibly Matthew understood the parable in this sense. More in accord, however, with what other evidence indicates as Jesus’ conception of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 12:28; Lk 11:20; 17:21) is the view that the seed represents the power of God already manifesting itself by the casting out of demons, and the bush is its ultimate triumph.

In Matthew and Luke this story is followed by the parable of the leaven (Mt 13:33; Lk 13:20-21), which Mark does not have at all. No explanation of this parable is offered by either evangelist. The kingdom is said to resemble "leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened." No significance need be sought in the amount of flour used, though it is more than a woman would ordinarily use for a batch of bread. The verb "hid" is unexpected in this connection. It suggests the invisible, mysterious working of the yeast. Having leavened her dough, the housewife has only to wait until the fermentation is complete.

In the enthusiasm of the early days of the "social gospel" it was natural to take these two parables as referring to a gradual transformation of all social relations and institutions according to the will of God. This was a part of the optimistic idea of natural and inevitable progress, an expectation that was rudely shattered by the world wars of the twentieth century. Like the parables of the sower and the seed growing of itself, the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven were certainly not intended to represent a process of social reform. That interpretation, however, was not entirely mistaken, as is often supposed in the disillusioned mood of our day. Jesus did teach that the royal power of God was already at work and that ultimately it would be manifest to all the world in a final victory of God over Satan. But this was not something that men could build or establish; it was the kingdom of God.

Mark’s concluding sentence (4:33-34) has already been noted. Matthew condenses it and characteristically appends a reference to prophecy (13:34-35). In this instance what Matthew says was "spoken by the prophet" is from one of the Psalms (78:2).

Instead of Mark’s brief statement that Jesus explained everything privately to his disciples, Matthew says that Jesus "left the crowds and went into the house," and the disciples asked him to explain the parable of the weeds (13:36). He responded with an elaborate interpretation that makes the parable virtually an allegory (vv 37-43). It must be admitted that the story lends itself easily to such treatment. But do the parable and the explanation belong together? If Jesus told this story, did he give this interpretation of it? The parable is concerned with the kingdom of heaven, and in the explanation the good seed is said to represent "the sons of the kingdom," who will shine "in the kingdom of their Father." Yet the owner of the field, who sows the good seed, is the Son of man; and he, not the Father, will send "his angels" to reap the harvest and gather the weeds out of "his kingdom."

The idea of the kingdom of the Son of man occurs elsewhere in Matthew; his glorious throne is mentioned twice, and he is twice called "the King" (Mt 16:28; 19:28; 25:31, 34, 40). Other expressions and ideas that are peculiar to Matthew, or to his special source, appear in the explanation of the parable. This does not prove that they cannot have come from Jesus himself; but the fact that Matthew alone records them, and does so repeatedly, at least raises the question whether they represent the views and interests of some group in the church rather than the words and thinking of Jesus.

The same misgivings are aroused by the parable of the dragnet (Mt 13:47-48), also reported only by Matthew. Here the place of the field is taken by "a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind," both good and bad. When it was full, it was drawn ashore and the bad fish were sorted out and thrown away. This time the interpretation immediately follows the parable (vv 49-50), which again is explained as referring to the separation of the righteous and the wicked at the final judgment. A remarkable implication is that the wicked who are to be weeded out are now in the kingdom. To be sure, it is the kingdom of the Son of man (v 41) that is to be rid of "all causes of sin and all evildoers," but it is the kingdom of heaven that is said to be like the man who sowed good seed and the net that gathered both good and bad fish. One is reminded of the references to persons who are least in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:19; 11:11; Lk 7:28).

These explanations of the twin parables understand the kingdom of heaven to mean the Christian church, not as an institution but as the community of those who have accepted the royal authority of God and devoted themselves to doing his will as Jesus has revealed it. In this community there are degrees of greater and less; there are even "causes of sin and evildoers." What to do with such unworthy members of the fellowship must have become a problem very early. That it was a matter of special concern to Matthew is evident in other places also (Mt 22:11-14; 16:17-19; 18:15-18). Eventually a system of church discipline was developed, including excommunication. As interpreted by Matthew, these parables signify that it is safer and wiser to leave the sorting out of good and bad for the angels to accomplish at the last judgment. This surely presupposes a more developed community than existed during Jesus’ lifetime.

Is there then any way to interpret these parables that fits better the situation during his ministry? No feature of that situation is better attested or more characteristic than the scandal caused by his free association with tax collectors and sinners. Why did he not exclude from his fellowship such unhallowed companions and gather about him a select, exclusive band of pure and dedicated souls, as the Pharisees and the Essenes did? If we may take the parables of the weeds and the dragnet as Jesus’ answer to such questions, they mean something like this: That is not the way God governs his world. He lets good and evil men live in it together, and it is not for us to judge and try to separate them. He will attend to that when the time comes. This goes with what I have proposed as the meaning of the parable of the sower. Just as we cannot restrict our sowing to what we judge to be good soil, or expect all that we sow to be productive, so while the crop is growing we must not try to separate the grain and the weeds.

So interpreted, these parables reveal another facet of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. It is the divine administration of the universe, the way God rules his creation. As Samuel told the people of Israel (1 Sam 10:25 KJV), "the manner of the kingdom," Jesus shows by the parables of the kingdom how God runs the world, and what a difference it will make when his sovereign authority is fully established. Thus the parables, like the sayings, show how to be acceptable citizens of God’s kingdom, both now and in the coming age.

Three times in his explanations of these two parables Matthew uses an expression that occurs two more times in his Gospel and only once anywhere else in the New Testament (Mt 13:39-40, 49; cf. 24:3; 28:20; Heb 9:26). It is the expression translated "the end of the world" in the KJV, "the close of the age" in the RSV. The Greek word translated "age" (KJV "world") and the adjective derived from it (usually translated "eternal") are both used often in the New Testament in various connections. Back of them is a Hebrew word that appears often in the rabbinic literature, especially in the expression "this age," meaning the present, final period of world history, and "the coming age," meaning the new, eternal order that will follow the resurrection of the dead and the end of "this age."

That Jesus used this expression is inherently probable, even if the particular passages in which Matthew uses it were not spoken by Jesus. The conception of history as a succession of eras leading to a final denouement, in which the purpose of creation will be realized, is especially characteristic of the "apocalyptic" point of view represented by the visions of Daniel and Revelation, as in many Jewish compositions just before and during the New Testament period.

Four other distinctively Matthaean expressions appear in the explanations of the parables of the weeds and the dragnet: "the sons of the kingdom"; "the sons of the evil one"; "the furnace of fire"; and "there men will weep and gnash their teeth." The Semitic idiom, "Sons of the kingdom," has been encountered already in the story of the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:12; cf. Lk 13:28). The term "furnace of fire" recalls the "burning fiery furnace" of Daniel 3 (vv 6-26, 8 times). Whether it comes from Matthew or from Jesus himself, the echo of Daniel is probably intentional. Jesus made use of the book of Daniel elsewhere in his teaching. The statement, "there men will weep and gnash their teeth," occurs at four other points in Matthew (8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The first of these has a parallel in Luke (13:28).

Four more parables reported by Matthew alone conclude his third discourse (Mt 13:44-52; cf. 6:33; Lk 12:31). All are brief and given without explanation. The parables of the treasure found in a field and the precious pearl go together and have the same meaning: the kingdom of heaven is worth the sacrifice of everything else a man may have. Efforts to find other meanings in these simple little stories seem to me uncalled for and misleading.

The last parable in Matthew’s series (13:52) is a very brief and obscure one comparing "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven" to "a householder who brings out of his treasures what is new and what is old." The verb translated "trained" is from the same root as the noun translated "disciple." Being trained or educated for the kingdom of heaven might therefore mean being trained for discipleship; but it is hard to think of any sense in which Jesus’ disciples would be called scribes.

Some scholars take the Greek word to mean "made a disciple." It is, in fact, a form of the verb so translated elsewhere. Thus instead of "trained for the kingdom of heaven," the meaning is "made a disciple of the kingdom of heaven" (cf. 28:19). The scribe is then a Jewish scribe who has become one of Jesus’ disciples. The new and old treasures are his legal learning and the new teaching of the gospel. There are two other sayings in which a scribe is mentioned favorably (Mt 8:19; cf. Lk 9:57; Mk 12:28-34; Mt 22:35 Lk 10:25). The commendation of a scribe who became a disciple of the kingdom of heaven may therefore well be an authentic expression of Jesus’ respect for at least some of the scribes.