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THE PARABLES OF THE GOSPELS

Supplemental Commentary:

THE PARABLES OF THE GOSPELS

Name and Nature.  The term parable is a Greek loan-word which, in the proper sense, meant a juxtaposition, in the metaphorical sense, a comparison.  But in the Synoptic Gospels the Greek word has a wider significance than comparison.  Elsewhere in the New Testament it occurs only in Heb. 9, 9 and 11, 19; in the former case it means a "type" or "symbol" certainly, in the latter case probably.  Our Lord, speaking in Aramaic, probably used a term akin to the Hebrew word mashal which was ordinarily translated into Greek by the word parable.  It is understandable that the Evangelists should choose the same Greek word to translate the Aramaic expression used by Jesus.

Now, mashal could be used in Hebrew to describe almost any saying which departed from the plain, prosaic, pedestrian; almost any manner of imparting a lesson by indirection, although the element of comparison is seldom completely lacking.  Mashal was employed indiscriminately for those distinct figures of speech which we call similitude, metaphor, allegory, riddle, proverb and maxim, as well as for "parable" in the restricted modern sense of a fictitious but plausible narrative used to impart or illustrate a religious truth by means of an expressed or implied comparison.

It is, however, generally agreed that to deserve the name of parable a saying must contain a complete thought or narrative in figurative language which imparts or illustrates a religious truth by means of an expressed or implied comparison between the figurative example and the religious reality.  It is not necessary that the saying be long; in fact very short sayings are called parables in the Gospels.  But the briefer parables may at times be abbreviations of more developed sayings of our Lord.  The parable differs from the allegory by the fact that the element of comparison is absent from the latter; in the allegory one thing is described on the surface but the reference is really to another as in the beautiful allegories of St. John's Gospel, (10, 1-16; 15, 1-8).  It should be noted that these distinctions were not rigid in ancient writings or in the Gospels; the parable sometimes contained allegorical elements and the allegory parabolic features.  The successful combination of these two forms was considered in antiquity to be an achievement which proved more than ordinary artistic power.  The parable is also distinct from the fable which is a fictitious but implausible narrative in which animals and plants may be made to speak and the lesson conveyed is ordinarily one of purely human wisdom.  There are two fables in the Old Testament (Judges 9, 8-15; 4 Kings 14, 9), none in the New.

This parabolic manner of teaching, so closely associated in our minds with our Lord who used it with such incomparable mastery and artistic perfection, was not His invention.  The parable has been used among almost all peoples and has from time immemorial enjoyed great popularity in the Orient where the imagination is more highly developed.  The very mystery and apparent obscurity of this method of instruction makes it much more attractive and stimulating there than the plainer and more direct manner of speech to which we of the West are more inclined.

Interpretation.  The parable is basically a comparison and to discover the lesson of the parable we must know both terms of the comparison.  Usually to find the principal lesson it suffices to reduce the parable to these two terms, e.g., just as a prudent man builds his house on rock and not on sand, so an aspirant to the Kingdom must not only listen to Christ's message but also put it into practice.  When the comparison is not explicit we must seek in the introduction or conclusion the clue to the nature of the truth which the parable is meant to illustrate.  Not every detail in the story need to be taken up in the application; some of these are at times without significance.  So it is not necessary in the parable of The Good Samaritan to give a meaning to the road to Jericho, the inn, the innkeeper, the ass, the oil and the wine: these details are added to the story mainly to make it more lively, attractive and interesting.  But it is lawful to try to detect a spiritual significance in these details and parabolic exegesis of this kind has been very helpful in the development of the tradition of Christian spirituality.  Thus, in the parable of The Prodigal Son it is permissible and useful to consider the fatted calf as the symbol of all the graces, including the Eucharist, which God showers on the repentant sinner.  But it would be wrong to maintain that this is the meaning of the fatted calf which is introduced into the story only to show in a vivid manner the joy of the father over the return of his son, which joy is but a pale image of the happiness of God over the repentance of a sinner.

At times it may be found difficult to make the parable fit the application which seems to be contained in the conclusion.  In this case the Commentary should be consulted.  But it may be pointed out here that the Evangelists have sometimes added to the parables, as to other sections of our Lord's teachings, sayings originally uttered in other circumstances and placed alongside the parables only because of some similarity of subject.

Most of the parables are not difficult.  This is true especially of those which contain no admixture of allegorical traits and of those which teach a moral lesson.  No one could fail to grasp the point in the parable of the Miser (Luke 12, 16-21), of the Godless Judge (Luke 18, 1-8) or of the Two Houses (Matt. 7, 24-27), for it is immediately obvious that they are splendid illustrations of the vanity of riches, the power of persevering prayer and the absurdity of a superficial and insincere attachment to God's message.  In the majority of the parables, the main idea is clear enough to be grasped by the attentive reader, especially if he is a Christian well-grounded in his religion which is the realization of the Kingdom on earth.

Two pertinent questions might be asked concerning certain of the parables: Did Jesus ever describe a real incident in a parable?  Did He ever repeat a parable?  The first is commonly, and probably correctly, answered in the negative, although there are still some who think that Jesus may have been describing real incidents in the parables of The Good Samaritan and The Rich Man and Lazarus.  To the second it may be replied that it is antecedently probable that our Lord did repeat some of His parables and did not hesitate to change either details or application of the story.  This is probably the case with the two parables contained in Luke 19, 12-27 and Matt. 25, 14-30 and also with the other two in Matt. 22, 1-14 and Luke 14, 16-24.

Number and Classification.  In many recent studies on the parables, there is a noticeable tendency to limit their number to thirty odd.  Such a list really includes no more than the longer parables, but it is arbitrary to make length an essential factor.  Among those authors who do not limit the concept of parable by length there is no agreement on the exact number of parables.  Likewise no agreement exists on the principle according to which the Gospel parables should be classified.

Happily, these questions are of slight importance.  Our Lord has left no scientific definition of the parable and there is no evidence that the Evangelists had any idea of arranging them systematically when they recorded them in the Gospels.  The accompanying list is rather more inclusive than is customary today but there is justification for calling every saying in it a parable unless the concept be needlessly restricted.  The parables in the list are divided into complete and condensed, and the former are classified according to their principal lesson, a system which is reasonably satisfying.  The division and arrangement were suggested by Father Prat's Jesus Christ, I, 553 f, but the list has been enlarged in accordance with the suggestions of Father Holzmeister, Biblica, 14 (1933) 367 f; 15 (1934) 548.

Purpose.  One reason why our Lord adopted the parable method of teaching may have been His wish to awaken His followers to the revelation of God in nature, and to form, in them and in His Church, an awareness of that mysterious harmony with the unseen which God had implanted in nature when He made it good.  He seems to have acted thus when He pointed out that the lesson of God's loving care for us was to be learned in the splendor of the lilies of the field and the carefree existence of the birds of the air.  Certainly, the lessons thus drawn by Him from the natural sphere to illustrate the supernatural have contributed largely to the formation of the Christian habit of seeing the eternal through the transitory and the invisible wonders of God in the visible world, a habit which reached a surpassing perfection in Christians so far apart in time, dispositions and training as St. Francis of Assisi for whom the birds were brothers and Cardinal Newman from whom the grass could not hide the angels.  St. Thomas (Summa Theol. 3, 1, 1) says that the world was made for this purpose: "It is highly fitting that the invisible realities of God should be made known by visible things: for this end the whole world was made as is clear from the words of the Apostle (Rom. 1, 20)."

But this purpose is, at the most, only accessory.  It seems obvious that our Lord used parables, as teachers have always used them, to enlighten His hearers, and, to be more specific, to enlighten them on the nature, future and destiny of the Kingdom of God and on the dispositions which were needed in those who wanted to become or remain its members.  It was observed above that the very mysteriousness of the parables was stimulating for the Oriental mind but this mystery was present only as long as the point of comparison was undisclosed.  In other words, the obscurity ended with the removal of the suspense.  The lesson once revealed, the figure served mainly to fix it permanently in the memory.

There would be need for no further comment on the purpose of the parables if our Lord had not once uttered words, recorded in slightly different terms by three of the Evangelists (Matt. 13, 10-17; Mark 4, 10-12; Luke 8, 9-10).  The words, "That . . . hearing they might hear, and not understand" (Mark 4, 12), do appear incompatible with the obvious intent of the parables.  Our Lord seems to mean that He adopted the parabolic method not to enlighten but to darken the minds of the multitude; not to complete their religious formation but to hinder it and thus to fulfill the terrible words in which God announced to Isaias the tragic result of the mission which the prophet was about to begin (Isa. 6, 9 f).  The Commentary should be consulted for an explanation of this difficult passage in the Gospels.  Here the following observations may be of use.  (a) Parables are not of their nature obscure and the point of many of the parables of Jesus is readily grasped.  (b) The words are used only with relation to parables treating of the nature of the Kingdom: these present special difficulties of interpretation, not so much for us who have a clear idea of the Kingdom but for the Jews whose ideas concerning it were not only obscure and imperfect but also false.  (c) The disciples and "those outside" are not to be considered as definitely fixed groups: individuals could pass from one to the other so that there can be no question of consigning certain people to a condition in which it would be impossible for them to receive the religious instruction necessary for eternal salvation.  (d) The Apostles did not understand the parables without Christ's explanation which they received for the asking as the multitudes might have, had they not been content to applaud the popular orator without seeking the full truth which the divinely accredited Master was willing to give them.  (e) Catholic interpreters are agreed that our Lord did, in fact, continue to the very end trying to do good to the people by instructing them: His failure to speak openly about the mysteries of the Kingdom was part of a general plan not to arouse their false hopes and yet not to turn them away abruptly by directly presenting ideas so opposed to all their Messianic expectations.  (f) If He foresaw that they would abuse the greater light given to the disciples, this reticence was a merciful disposition which saved them from a greater sin.

In the final analysis the real difficulty lies in the text of Isaias (6, 9 f) which must be interpreted in the light of God's character, the idiom of the Hebrew language and the Hebrew concept of divine causality.  Then it becomes clear that any hardening or blinding of men begins in men and that this is the result of the refusal of men to embrace the light and grace which God offers in abundance.  It is not only the God of the New Testament who is "rich in mercy" (Eph. 2, 4), throughout the Old also His mercy is to His justice as a thousand to four (Ex. 20, 5 f), and His will is the conversion of the sinner to life (Ezech. 18, 23).  It may also well be that the text is in some degree the ironical expression of the disappointed love of God provoked by His knowledge that Isaias' contemporaries were going to reject the clearly divine message of the prophet.
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LIST AND CLASSIFICATION

I. Complete Parables

(a) Dogmatic

1. The Sower . . . Matt. 13, 3-23; Mark 4, 3-20; Luke 8, 4-15.
2. The Weeds . . .  Matt. 13, 24-30.
3. The Mustard Seed . . . Matt. 13, 31-32; Mark 4, 30-32; Luke 13, 18-19.
4. The Leaven . . . Matt. 13, 33; Luke 13, 20-21.
5. The Treasure . . . Matt. 13, 44.
6. The Pearl . . . Matt. 13, 45-46.
7. The Net . . . Matt. 13, 47-50.
8. The Seed Growing of Itself . . . Mark 4, 26-29.

(b) Moral

9. The Two Houses . . . Matt. 7, 24-27.
10. The Two Debtors . . . Luke 7, 41-43.
11. The Good Samaritan . . . Luke 10, 29-37.
12. The Persistent Friend . . . Luke 11, 5-8.
13. The Rich Fool . . . Luke 12, 16-21.
14. The Barren Fig Tree . . . Luke 13, 6-9.
15. The Lost Sheep . . . Matt. 18, 12-14; Luke 15, 4-7.
16. The Lost Coin . . . Luke 15, 8-10.
17. The Prodigal Son . . . Luke 15, 11-32.
18. The Unjust Steward . . . Luke 16, 1-13.
19. The Rich Man and Lazarus . . . Luke 16, 19-31.
20. The Godless Judge . . . Luke 18, 1-8.
21. The Stubborn Children . . . Matt. 11, 16-19; Luke 7, 31-35.
22. The Pharisee and the Publican . . . Luke 18, 9-14.
23. The Unmerciful Servant . . . Matt. 18, 21-35.

(c) Prophetic

24. The Laborers in the Vineyard . . . Matt. 20, 1-16.
25. The Two Sons . . . Matt. 21, 28-32.
26. The Wicked Vine Dressers . . . Matt. 21, 33-46; Mark 12, 1-12; Luke 20, 9-19.
27. The Marriage Feast . . . Matt. 22, 1-10.
28. The Great Supper . . . Luke 14, 16-24.
29. The Wedding Garment . . .  Matt. 22, 11-14.
30. The Ten Virgins . . . Matt. 25, 1-13.
31. The Gold Pieces . . . Luke 19, 11-27.
32. The Talents . . . Matt. 25, 14-30.

II. Condensed Parables

33. Physician, Cure Thyself . . . Luke 4, 23.
34. The Salt . . . Matt. 5, 13; Mark 9, 49; Luke 14, 34-35.
35. The Lamp on the Lamp-stand . . . Matt. 5, 14a-15; Mark 4, 21; Luke 8, 16; 11, 33.
36. The City on a Mountain . . . Matt. 5, 14b.
37. The Opponent on the Way . . . Matt. 5, 25-26; Luke 12, 58-59.
38. The Lamp of the Body . . . Matt. 6, 22-23; Luke 11, 34-36.
39. Serving Two Masters . . . Matt. 6, 24; Luke 16, 13.
40. Pearls Before Swine . . . Matt. 7, 6.
41. Son Asking His Father . . . Matt. 7, 9-11; Luke 11, 11-13.
42. As the Tree, so the Fruit . . . Matt. 7, 16-20; 12, 33-37; Luke 6, 43-45.
43. The Clients of the Physician . . . Matt. 9, 12-13; Mark 2, 17; Luke 5, 31-32.
44. The Bridegroom and Wedding Guests . . . Matt. 9, 14-15; Mark 2, 18-20; Luke 5, 33-35.
45. Old and New Garments . . . Matt. 9, 16; Mark 2, 21; Luke 5, 36.
46. Old and New Wine-skins . . . Matt. 9, 17; Mark 2, 22; Luke 5, 37-38.
47. Old and New Wine . . . Luke 5, 39.
48. Harvest and Laborers . . . Matt. 9, 37-38; Luke 10, 2.
49. Speaking from the Housetops . . . Matt. 10, 26-27; Mark 4, 22; Luke 8, 17; 12, 2-3.
50. Disciple and Teacher . . . Matt. 10, 24-25; Luke 6, 40.
51. Servant and Master . . . Matt. 10, 24-25.
52. Household and Master . . . Matt. 10, 25.
53. Divided Kingdom . . . Matt. 12, 25-28; Mark 3, 23-29; Luke 11, 17-23.
54. Attacks of the Unclean Spirit . . . Matt. 12, 43-45; Luke 11, 24-26.
55. The Prudent Householder . . . Matt. 13, 52.
56. True Defilement . . . Matt. 15, 10-20; Mark 7, 14-23.
57. Uprooted Plant . . . Matt. 15, 13.
58. Blind Guides of the Blind . . . Matt. 15, 14; Luke 6, 39.
59. Children and Dogs . . . Matt. 15, 26-27; Mark 7, 27-28.
60. The Last Place at the Supper . . . Luke 14, 7-11.
61. Building a Tower . . . Luke 14, 28-30.
62. Going to War . . . Luke 14, 31-33.
63. King's Son Free from Tribute . . . Matt. 17, 24-25.
64. The Watchful Servants . . . Mark 13, 34; Luke 12, 35-40.
65. The Faithful Steward . . . Matt. 24, 45-51; Luke 12, 42-48.
66. The Closed Doors . . . Luke 13, 25-30.
67. Unprofitable Servant . . . Luke 17, 7-10.
68. The Body and the Eagles . . . Matt. 24, 28; Luke 17, 37.
69. The Thief . . . Matt. 24, 43-44; Luke 12, 39-40.
70. Fig Leaves a Sign of Summer . . . Matt. 24, 32-35; Mark 13, 28-29; Luke 21, 29-31.
71. Shepherd and Sheep . . . Matt. 26, 31; Mark 14, 27.

III. Gospel of St. John

(a) Allegories

72. The Good Shepherd . . . John 10, 1-16.
73. The Vine and the Branches . . . John 15, 1-11.

(b) Condensed Parables

74. The Mysterious Wind . . . John 3, 8.
75. The Light of the World . . . John 3, 19-21; 8, 12; 9, 5; 12, 35-36.
76. The Living Water . . . John 4, 10-14.
77. Sowers and Reapers . . . John 4, 37.
78. Walking in the Day . . . John 11, 9.
79. The Grain of Wheat . . . John 12, 24-25.
80. Washing after a Bath . . . John 13, 10.
81. Joy of Motherhood . . . John 16, 21.

John F. McConnell, M.M.