(1) Most teachers, especially those in the Middle East, have used some form of parable in their instruction, but none so exclusively as Jesus at one period of His ministry. During part of the Galilean ministry the record states that “without a parable spake he not unto them” (Mark 4:34). From our Lord’s words (Matt. 13:13–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10) we learn the reason for this method. It was to veil the meaning. The parable conveys to the hearer religious truth exactly in proportion to his faith and intelligence; to the dull and uninspired it is a mere story, “seeing they see not,” while to the instructed and spiritual it reveals the mysteries or secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Thus it is that the parable exhibits the condition of all true knowledge. Only he who seeks finds.
(2) The word parable is Greek in origin and means a setting side by side, a comparison. In parables divine truth is presented by comparison with material things. The Hebrew word, mashal, which parable is used to translate, has a wider significance, and is applied to the balanced metrical form in which teaching is conveyed in the poetical books of the Old Testament. See Matt. 13:35.
(3) Interpretation of parables. It is important to distinguish between the interpretation of a parable and the application of a parable. The only true interpretation is the meaning the parable conveyed, or was meant to convey, when first spoken. The application of a parable may vary in every age and circumstance. But if the original meaning is to be grasped, it is important to consider its context and setting. The thought to which it is linked, the connection in which it is placed, the persons to whom it is addressed, all give the clue to the right interpretation. Other rules of interpretation are: (a) Do not force a meaning on subordinate incidents. (b) Do not regard as parallel parables that are connected by superficial likeness of imagery. (c) Bear in mind that the same illustration does not always have the same significance—for example, leaven signifies a principle of good as well as a principle of evil. (d) Remember that the comparison in a parable is not complete, does not touch at every point. Thus, the characters of the unjust judge or the unjust steward or the nobleman who went into a far country—possibly referring to the infamous Archelaus—do not concern the interpretation of the parable. The parable draws a picture of life as it is, not as it ought to be, and compares certain points in this picture with heavenly doctrine. (e) Observe the proper proportions of a parable, and do not make the episode more prominent than the main line of teaching.
(4) Classification of parables. The greatest importance should be attached to the grouping of the parables by the writers themselves. In Matthew three main lines of teaching are illustrated by parables: (a) The Church of the future—its planting and growth, internal and external, the enthusiasm for it, the mingling within it of good and evil, the final judgment of it (Matt. 13). (b) The Jewish Church and nation, its history, and the causes of its fall (21:18–19, 23–46; 22:1–14). (c) The ministry of the Church in the parables given on the Mount of Olives, addressed especially to the Apostles, on work and watchfulness (25:1–30). The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (19:30–20:16), in answer to a question of the Apostles, may be classed under (a).
Mark follows the lines of Matthew in (a) Mark 4:1–34 and (b) 12:1–12; but in each division fewer parables are reported, and in (b) one only. In (a), however, occurs the one parable peculiar to this Gospel.
Luke also omits the parables given on the Mount of Olives (c), but compare Luke 12:35–48; 19:11–28, and illustrates (a) and (b) less copiously than Matthew. His independent reports, however, are numerous. These may be classified generally as illustrating: (1) Prayer and earnestness in religious life (11:5–8; 16:1–13; 18:1–8). (2) Forgiveness and the love of God (7:41–43; 15). (3) Reversal of human judgment, as to just and unjust (10:25–27; 12:16–21; 18:9–14); rich and poor (16:19–31).
John has no true parables but presents two allegories: the good shepherd (John 10:1–16) and the vine and the branches (15:1–7).
Parables peculiar to each Gospel
Matthew. (1) The tares. (2) The hidden treasure. (3) The pearl of great price. (4) The draw-net. (5) The unmerciful servant. (6) The laborers in the vineyard. (7) The two sons. (8) Marriage of the king’s son. (9) The ten virgins. (10) The talents.
Mark. The seed growing secretly.
Luke. (1) The two debtors. (2) The good Samaritan. (3) The importuned friend. (4) The rich fool. (5) The barren fig tree. (6) The lost piece of silver. (7) The prodigal son. (8) The unjust steward. (9) Lazarus and the rich man. (10) The unjust judge. (11) The Pharisee and the Publican. (12) The ten pieces of money.
The parable of the 10 pieces of money (minae) (Luke 19:11–27) is an interesting example of historical groundwork in a parable. (The reference is possibly to the journey of Archelaus to Rome.) But probably in other parables similar historical allusions, now lost, must have added vividness to the narrative. Of these the royal marriage feast, the great supper, and the good Samaritan are possible examples.