INTRODUCTION: Of Rabbinics and Yeshua the Messiah
Throughout the centuries, the parables (or mashalim in the Hebrew language) of Scripture have been a source of great delight and inspiration. Nearly all of the Biblical parables use the common words and images of everyday life to express sublime and eternal truths. Arguably and depending upon the criteria of definition, there are no less than thirty-one parables in the teachings of Yeshua the Messiah. Estimates place fully one-third of the teachings of Yeshua in the category of the mashal or an interpretation of a mashal. Consequently we can begin to surmise the importance parables held in the expression of His teachings to the populace that so often surrounded him and followed His every movement during His ministry.
Yeshua spoke in parables to the rich and poor alike. His parables were addressed to leaders and servants alike. To those hearers, overwhelmingly of Jewish (Hebraic) background, the use of parables was not foreign. The opposite indeed was true; parables were a familiar way to exemplify b’al peh (orally) the hidden depths of spiritual knowledge and to encourage the listeners to "seek first the kingdom of GOD and His righteousness". (Matthew 6:33) Many were inspired to do exactly that.
During the period Yeshua was on earth and especially afterwards, the parable was widely used by the rabbis and teachers of Israel to express the truths of the sovereign rulership of the GOD of Israel. The rabbis considered parables to be of great value in opening a door of understanding to the Torah. Rabbi Hanina stated:
"Let not the parable be lightly esteemed in thine eyes, since by its means one can master the whole of the words of the Torah."
Rabbinical writings also contain a parable of sorts to describe the role of a parable in teaching heavenly truths!
"Just as one uses a candle, which is indeed almost worthless, to find a precious stone, so parables should not be lightly esteemed."
Most rabbinical parables began with a simple formulation of words:
A Parable: to what can this matter be compared to?
The use of this formula became so widely employed and understood among the general populace that eventually just the simple words: ‘compared to’ were employed to alert the hearers (and eventually the readers after the committing of the rabbinical teachings to writing) that a parable was being presented for consideration and instruction.
Upon closer examination of the major rabbinical parables we realize that the most common subjects employed in rabbinical parables were clearly everyday objects and topics. Three areas of didactic usage among the rabbis were predominant in their parables: upholding the Kingship of the GOD of Israel, lessons derived from the use of allusions to the animal kingdom and parables reflecting commonly experienced matters of nature and the natural elements. In that sense we can readily understand why many of the narrative sections of the Gospels have been interpreted as dual in meaning or ‘parable-like’. For example, the incident of the raging storm found in Mark 4:35-41 has often been interpreted as a real life ‘parable’ depicting the life of an individual with and without the intervention of the Living Word. Ironically, the very next incident in the Mark narrative, the incident of the exorcism among the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1-20), with its netherworld backdrop of tombstones, isolation and a herd of swine has been viewed as a ‘parable’ depicting the essentiality of the Son of GOD in the deliverance of individual men and women. Such applications of Scripture stretch perhaps the truest meaning of the Hebrew language term mashal. Yet at the same time, these plentiful applications of incidents in real life terms affirm that men and women still respond to the ideas of hidden truths concerning the kingdom of GOD. That such eternal truths can be learned through the simplicities or complexities of life circumstances causes us to be thankfully aware of Messiah, our Teacher and His influence upon our lives. It seems indisputable therefore, that the use of parables was firmly established as a distinct, recognized form of Hebraic instruction at the time of the initial salvific advent of Messiah Yeshua. Furthermore, the use of parables by Yeshua was highly effective in conveying the kingdom mysteries to ‘those who had ears to hear.’ Appropriately, the parable paradigm of instruction had the inherent ability to convey to the attentive hearer spiritual truths exactly in accordance to his or her level of receptivity to true spiritual revelation. Yeshua seemed well aware of this aspect of His parables as verified in Matthew 13:13-15, Mark 4:12 and Luke 8:10. One might use by application the words of Yeshua Himself to further characterize the impact of parables to one whose heart sought GOD: "the one who seeks shall find."
Problem Area: INTERPRETATION VERSUS APPLICATION
When we begin to understand the derivation of the word parable we also uncover some of the problems parables may create when misperceived, misapplied or mistaught. The Greek language idea of the word parable denotes a setting side-by-side, a comparison. Although the Hebrew language idea of a parable does include the Greek concept, the Hebrew word mashal has a wider scope of significance. For starters, let us not think the parable form of illustrating Divine truth is present only in the Brit Hadashah. Rather, there are a number of wonderful examples of parable usage within the Tanach.
One of the finest examples of a mashal tanachi may be the parable uttered by Nathan the prophet, the counselor-friend of King David. This powerful parable of Nathan, found in Second Samuel 12:1-15, was directed towards King David after his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. As is so often the case in the Biblical record, this parable of Nathan involves simple elements. It is also presented to the king face-to-face, is interpreted for him and is applied to him on a life changing personal level. The impact of such Divine intervention ushered in, as it were, on the wings of a parable, can hardly be overstated!
For our purposes, it remains highly important to distinguish between the interpretation of a parable and the application of the parable to the prevailing matter at hand. The most faultless interpretation of a parable is the meaning of the parable as it was intended by its original fabricator. As a result, the application of a parable can be varied according to its further usage even as the initial meaning can only be determined by what the speaker of the parable originally intended to convey. Applications of a parable may vary but the original and purposeful meaning remains with its inception and its fabricator.
One pitfall in parable interpretation involves the injecting of meanings drawn from a later historical period into the original message of the parable. How we apply a parable uttered by the Messiah to our current historical twenty-first century existence, though instructive, may be at variance with its original premise. Learning of the ‘Jewish roots’ of our faith, now more in vogue than ever anticipated, could potentially be helpful when we reexamine and frequent the tremendous truths underlying the parables of Yeshua, pondering what their meaning may have been for a first century Jewish audience always under the watchful, menacing eyes of the Romans.
GUIDELINES FOR EXAMINING THE PARABLES OF SCRIPTURE
It is advisable to examine the parables of the Bible with six guidelines of interpretation and application in mind. Doing so allows us to enjoy the beauty and depth of the parables while not falling into false or twisted interpretations of them.
With the many ‘winds of doctrine’ that tend to whip through the Body of Messiah, it should be our purpose and goal to remain doctrinally sound and centrist in our Biblical expository teaching and preaching. Yet, the wealth to be gleaned from the Biblical parables is highly exciting and, if you pardon the expression, can be enjoyable and fun when approached appropriately. The converse may also be true: user beware, be wise, be sound in doctrinal approach to the gist of the parable. Don’t throw caution to the wind in an effort to extract truths from the mashalim of the kingdom of GOD.
The following are six suggested guidelines for the interpretation of the parables of the Scriptures.
1. Be careful not to force a meaning into or out of a parable based on subordinate usage of words or ideas that seem similar to the language of the parable being considered. Splicing the elements of a parable to the elements of another Biblical passage of similar language can create a theological ‘monster’.
2. Refrain from regarding as parallel those parables that seem connected by similar imagery. Their respective meanings and subsequent applications, although ostensibly appearing to be parallel may NOT be parallel at all.
3. Bear in mind that the same object of illustration does not always have the same significance. One example that comes to mind is the Biblical usage of the term, leaven. Amazingly, leaven is used to signify that which could be termed as both good and evil. The use of the word leaven in the Hebraism ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ of Matthew 16:6,11 has a totally different application than the term leaven found in the parable of the kingdom just a few chapters earlier in Matthew 13:33. Yeshua Himself uttered both of the above pronouncements and used the same term (leaven). Yet, despite the exact same main object (leaven) within the pronouncements, He obviously had very different meanings and applications in mind.
4. The comparison in a parable may not always be a perfect or complete comparison. The parable draws a picture of life as it is and not how it should be, comparing certain pictures with corresponding Kingdom truths. All the characters within a given parable may not be designated as having special significance. Generally the main object or characters of the parable are the vessels meant to exemplify the intended truths of the speaker.
5. Parables must be maintained within the proper proportions of the requisite truths being expressed. In other words, if we attempt to extrapolate the central truth of a parable to every image invoked in the parable we may be guilty of overstating the clearest line of the teaching of the parable. The interpretation of a parable is often related to its simplest, most obvious meaning. Maybe the best approach is the oft-employed k.i.s.s. approach: keep it simple student.
6. Parables are not meant to be the wellspring of doctrine in Scripture. Instead they serve as a means of validating, amplifying and at times aptly illustrating the essential truths of the Kingdom of GOD. Was the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) really meant to serve as a primary source of the extra-Biblical doctrine of purgatory as some theologians propose? Or instead, was the intention of the parable geared more to the final statement of the parable, where it is said: "If they do not listen to Moshe and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead." Was purgatory the thesis idea of the parable or the soon to occur resurrection of the Promised Messiah from the dead and the need to be responsive to it? The answer seems abundantly obvious.
THE GREAT DISTINCTIVES OF THE PARABLES OF YESHUA
Why do His parables exceed all the rest?
HIS MASHALIM WERE UTTERED WITH ETERNAL AUTHORITY
Over the last century, much has been written about the parables of Scripture. Some of the theological studies have considered the question: Are the parables of Yeshua an extension of the rabbinic parables of His day or to be considered on a different level altogether? Upon further examination it seems clear that some significant differences exist between the parables of the Gospels and those of rabbinic literature which most often were uttered during a post-Incarnation of Yeshua timeframe. One highly significant difference between the parables of Yeshua and the rabbinic counterparts could be termed, the issue of ‘distinctive authority’. This concept involves recognition of the unique authoritative viewpoint that Yeshua brought to all of His teachings including His mashalim. In the Mark narrative in the Brit Hadashah this distinctive authority in contrast to the ‘authority’ being wielded around Him is a significant issue noted barely half way through the first chapter of the text.
‘Yeshua entered the synagogue and began to teach, and they were amazed at his teaching: for He was teaching them having authority and not as the Scribes.’ (Mark 1:21b-22) To state this premise another way, one might say that Yeshua spoke as the King not about the king. Or, Yeshua proclaimed that which He knew firsthand and not that which He only thought to be true. This distinctive authority, exemplified in the powerful parables themselves, is indeed different than any authoritativeness encountered in the known rabbinic parables. Such parables, though often full of wisdom and worthy of consideration, do not have the authoritative voice that one might call irrefutably binding. Whereas the teachings of Yeshua, including the parables but not only such, are likened to eternal Divine decree. Yeshua seemed quite aware of this great distinction. To quote from the Scriptures to illustrate this point:
‘Heaven and earth may pass away but My words (that is, the words of Yeshua Himself) will never pass away’. (Matthew 24:35)
THE MASHALIM OF YESHUA WERE A FULFILLMENT OF PROPHECY
There was a general wonderment among the hand-picked disciples of the LORD concerning a number of questions. One of these questions involved His use of parables in teaching the people. As Matthew expresses it in Matthew 10:10: ‘And the disciples came to Yeshua and asked, Why do you speak to them in parables?’ A major portion of the response of Yeshua to their query centers upon His statement in verse 14: ‘In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled...’
Other passages reflect the keen awareness that Yeshua had of the active fulfillment of Scripture through Him before His vicarious sufferings. (See, for examples: Matthew 26:56; Luke 4:21, 18:31, 22:37, John 17:12) This aspect of prophetic fulfillment is unparalleled by any other person not to mention written or spoken parables. Succinctly, Yeshua was the Promised One and His actions fully verify that to be true.
"SHOCK IT TO THEM"
In their excellent book on rabbinic parables, "THEY ALSO TAUGHT IN PARABLES", authors MacArthur and Johnson opine: "It is the upsetting quality of the typical gospel parable that provides the clearest contrast with that of the rabbinic literature. Jesus the parabler was a subversive."
Indeed, many of the parables uttered by Yeshua go against the proverbial flow and strike at core issues in a manner that seems to upset the apple cart. By such shock language and curves in what seemed like a straight course, Yeshua beckons all to not conform to the world. Rather, He calls all to follow Him and to seek the praise from Above and not that of men.
Examples of parables that shock the sensitivities of the readers (or hearers when originally uttered) are quite extensive. A couple of examples should suffice to illustrate the point. A primary example would have to be the parable commonly termed, ‘The Parable of the Good Samaritan.’ The rift that existed between the Samaritans and the Jewish people of the first century is amply documented. Yet, Yeshua in His parable elevates the Samaritan as the hero of His parabolic teaching and the others, including the Levite, as nearly the Samaritan’s antithesis.
As well, Yeshua weaves a parable lesson in Matthew 21: 28-32 in the ‘Parable of the Two Sons,’ based on the reception of ‘street people’ and such into the kingdom of heaven above those perceived as a ‘lock’ to enter.
A parable with a similar shocking pronouncement is found in the ‘Parable of the Great Feast,’ in Matthew 14:15-24. Here we encounter what many consider shocking and unforgettable pronouncements: "Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and the crippled and blind and lame...for I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner."
SOME FINAL WORDS ABOUT THE MASHALIM
The mashalim remain an intriguing part of the Scriptures. Within their everyday terms and language can be found great insights into the mysteries of the kingdom of GOD. Yeshua of Nazareth remains the standard bearer when we consider those who taught in parables. His supreme authority, His eternal call to follow the ways of the Kingdom and His ability to shock the hearers into a deeper understanding of what it meant to follow Torah have all been an inspiration to those who love the King. As was the case in the first century when the disciples of the LORD cried out to gain understanding of His parables, so we must seek first the kingdom of GOD and His righteousness. With increasing numbers of individuals and religious groups desiring to know the Scriptures as seen through the ‘eyes’ of first century Jewish expression, the parables of Yeshua the Messiah should remain a focus of discussion, challenge, warning, encouragement and great reward.
"Be dressed in readiness and keep your lamps alight...you too, be ready: for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not suspect" Luke 12: 35, 40 "Therefore beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless...grow in the grace and knowledge of our LORD and Savior Yeshua the Messiah. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen." 2 Peter 3:14, 18
The following sources were used in developing the ideas of this paper:
The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
They Also Taught In Parables
Harvey K. MacArthur & Robert M. Johnston, Zondervan
Cambridge Study Edition, New American Standard Bible
The NIV Complete Concordance
The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
The Encyclopedia Judaica
Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words