Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lecture 13: Parables: The Form of Jesus' Preaching

Lecture 13: Parables: The Form of Jesus' Preaching


In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share a similar perspective on Jesus and hence are called synoptic, Jesus teaches through simple, brief narratives termed parables. The parables' apparent simplicity, however, belies their sophistication as both theology and literature. Here we'll look at the Parable of the Sower-the first parable Jesus tells-as a model for how all of Jesus' parables seek to engage both the minds and hearts of their audience. And we'll approach this parable through the now-classic definition of the parable genre offered by C.H. Dodd in his 1935 book, The Parables of the Kingdom.

Consider this. . .
1. What is the difference between a parable and a fable?
2. Why did Jesus speak in parables?
3. How does a parable explain the kingdom of heaven?

I. The Form of Jesus' Preaching.
   We begin by reading Mark's version of the Parable of the Sower.

   3. Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow:
   4. And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the
   fowls of the air came and devoured it up.
   5. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and imme­
   diately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth:
   6. But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root,
   it withered away.
   7. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it,
   and it yielded no fruit.
   8. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and
   increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some
   an hundred.
   9. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
   10. And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked
   of him the parable.
   11. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the
   kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these tIJ/ngs (Ire
   done in parables:
12. That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
13. And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye
     know all parables?
14. The sower soweth the word.
15. And these are they by the way side,
where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.
16. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness;
17. And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: after­ward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immedi­ately they are offended.
18. And these are they which are sown
     among thorns; such as hear the word,
19. And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.
20. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred. (Mark 4:3-20, KJV)

A. We'll aproach the Sower through the definition of parable offered by C.H. Dodd: a parable is "a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vivid­ness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its pre­cise application, so as to tease it into active thought."

1. Dodd argued that the parables are metaphors for the kingdom of heaven.


The beginning of the Gospel of John identifies Jesus as the Word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). The KJV's "word" translates John's original Greek logos, a term, originating in Stoic philosophy, for the principle of divine order in the cosmos which manifests itself in language. Jesus may be this logos specifically, but the Bible associates him in a more gener­al way with language, particularly with spoken language. All four evangelists emphasize Jesus' preaching career, and Matthew gives it special attention, organizing his gospel into five ser­mons, of which the first is the famous "Sermon on the Mounf' (Matthew 5-7). The three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke-so called because they share a similar view of Jesus-focus on Jesus' use of para­bles for teaching, though they also show him teaching through other means, including quoting and inter­preting Scripture, direct exhortation, stinging denunciation of his critics, proverbial statements, and prophetic utterance. John gives a somewhat dif­ferent picture of how Jesus preached; he portrays Jesus making explicit the­ological claims about himself, his divinity, and his relationship with his Father. This theology, however, inter­twines with a sort of mystical poetry as Jesus defines his mission by com­paring himself to everyday objects: Jesus is 'Yhe bread of life" (John 6:35), 'Yhe door of the sheep[fold]" (John 10:7), "a light into this world" (John 12:46), 'Yhe true vine" (John 15:1). In his use of concrete metaphors, the theological Jesus of John is not that far from the homely preacher of the synoptics.

3. And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
4. And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
5. Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forth­with they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
6. And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
7. And some fell among thorns; and the thoms sprung up, and
choked them:
8. But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred­fold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
9. Who hath ears to hear, let
him hear.
10. And the disciples came, and said
unto him, Why speakest thou unto
them in parables?
11. He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
12. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abun­dance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
13. Therefore speak I to them in para­bles: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

2. The metaphors of the parables are drawn from common life to
show the reality and achievabili­ty of his messianic kingdom. In the Sower, the common ele­ments of agriculture show the nature of the kingdom.

3. The parable, despite its homeli­ness, contains odd details that complicate it. Its complexity aris­es from the essentially inade­quate nature of the metaphor. No metaphor can completely describe the object it represents. So in the Sower, details suggest that this parable doesn't com­pletely describe God's kingdom. The Sower is like no human sower; he wastes seeds, throw­ing them where they would not grow. Jesus is showing that the Kingdom of Heaven is not like an earthly farm with an
earthly farmer.

4. The purpose of these odd details is to engage the audience intel­lectually, leaving the listener in doubt as to the meaning.

B. But we can go beyond Dodd's definition of the parables, howev­er illuminating it may be. We'll go beyond Dodd, once again by examining the Parable of the Sower, to see that the parables aim to inspire not just intellectual engagement but heartfelt repen­tance and moral action.
   1. The oddest detail in Mark's ver­sion of the Sower is Jesus' claim that he offers deliberately obscure teaching so that his hearers will not be converted.

a. The parable presents itself as obscure. Jesus even rebukes the disciples for not understanding his parable:  As he says in verse 13: "And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye knowall parables?"
He then explains that he is being deliberately obscure so people won't understand:
11. And he said unto them, Unto
you it is given to know the mys­tery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in para­bles:
12. That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
(Mark 4:11-12, KJV)

b. This obscurity doesn't seem to match with other passages in Mark, which suggest that Jesus uses para­bles so that his audience will under­stand and be saved, as in Mark 4:2, for example: "And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine. " Or verse 22: "For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was any thing kept secret, but that it should come abroad. "

2. Jesus' claim of deliberate obscurity is designed to engage the reader, who should come to understand that the parable has to be approached not just intellectually but morally: this parable, like all parables, calls not only for Dodd's "active thought" but also for moral action.

3. This call to action appears in each of Jesus' other parables as well. The Parable of the Sower is the key to the others. All of the parables are about the fruits of action. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, in Luke, teaches repen­tance and forgiveness. The Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to help all those in need regardless of who they are. All of these parables can be studied and interpreted at length, but their main purpose is to inspire action.


Here we've examined the Parable of the Sower as a model for all of Jesus' para­bles. The Sower at first looks deceptively plain: Jesus' simple story of how a farmer sowed seed is almost immediately fol­lowed by his explanation: the seed is the Word of God, and the different sorts of ground represent different classes of audi­ence who hear the Word. This apparent simplicity, however, is interrupted by Jesus' troubling statement that his teach­ing is deliberately obscure. This claim that the parable we're reading is meant to be obscure is perplexing, among other rea­sons, because it contradicts the parable's obvious clarity: the parable broadcasts its own interpretation. Jesus' claim that the parable is obscure can be understood as another odd detail designed by the evan­gelist to attract the contemplation of the reader, who should begin to question whether he or she really understands the parable. In our questioning, we look to the parable again-to discover that true under­standing of the parable entails not just an act of interpretation that shows we under­stand what the parable means, but a com­mitment to act on our understanding of the parable: the good ground in the parable is the only one to "bear fruit" to lead to action. Indeed, all of the parables are designed to produce active fruit, and some of Jesus' most beloved parables are those where the teaching is clearest The Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us to repent our sins as well as to forgive those of others, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches helping all those in need, regardless of who they a

Suggested Reading

Dodd, C.H. The Parables of the Kingdom. New York: Scribner, 1961.
  (volume is out of print but available through
  out-of-print network).

Other Books of Interest

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom. Grace Judgement Paradox. Outrage. and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones. Behind the Texts. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers,
Hultgren, Arland J. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Grand Rapids:
  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.
Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative.
  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.


A certain lawyer tested Jesus by asking him what he must do "to inherit eternal life." Jesus directs him to the law as a guide, and the lawyer responds that the law dic­tates "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Still, the lawyer asks, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus replies with one of his most-loved parables, the Good Samaritan:
30. And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wound­ed him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he
passed by on the other side.
32. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
33. But a certain Samaritan, as he
      journeyed, came where he
      was: and when he saw him, he
      had compassion on him,
34. And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
36. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
37. And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise. (Luke 10:30-37, KJV)

1 comment:

  1. I have read the Book of Revelation twice and I think it might take many more readings to "get it", but this is a very interesting controversial Book of the Bible. I have listened many times to Pastor Haggae who specializes in preaching on the Book of Revelaton with has given me a better understanding!