The parables of Jesus are among the great treasures of the Bible. Opinions vary, however, about the nature of their message and how they communicate it. Many are familiar with (and have laughed at) Augustine’s interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan, in which he interprets the Samaritan as Christ Himself, the inn as the Church, and the innkeeper as the Apostle Paul! But it is easy to laugh; it is less easy to articulate exactly where Augustine went wrong. His, after all, is only an extreme example of the way many people approach the parables. The parables are the creation of a master teacher; what we need is an understanding of how they do their teaching.
Surprisingly, a parable that Jesus didn’t tell is a helpful place to start. The prophet Nathan told this parable to king David. In one of David’s worst actions, he got another man’s wife pregnant and then had the man killed in battle to cover up. Soon afterwards Nathan came to David and told him the following story:
“There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb which he bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom, and was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; rather he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
David’s reaction to the story was understandable:
Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. . . ” Nathan then said to David, “You are the man!” (II Samuel 12:1-7)
How is Nathan’s parable working? He starts by painting a vivid and understandable picture. David knows people like these: the poverty and simple comforts of the one man; the wealth and callous greed of the other. The story evokes a sense of injustice, and David gets very angry. When Nathan says “You are the man,” he is drawing an analogy designed to take David’s breath away. The sense of outrage David feels over the story of the sheep is the sense of outrage he ought to feel over his own monstrous act. The dynamic of the story is the same as that of his own life.
The key word to explain how the parable works is analogy. The story of the sheep is like David’s story in significant ways; by comparing them (in a powerfully dramatic way) Nathan is reminding David of the truths David is hiding from in his own life. Notice that the details of the two stories do not all correspond. If we set out merely to “decode” Nathan’s story, we might identify David, Uriah, and Bathsheba as the rich man, poor man, and sheep, respectively. But who is the traveler? And why isn’t the poor man killed, the way Uriah was? Obviously, Nathan’s parable is not a coded retelling of David’s precise story. Its power is due to the fact that David’s life is like this story; David understands the story, but is self-deceived about his own life; when Nathan throws the switch which connects the parable with David’s life, David sees his own sin through Nathan’s eyes.
The parables of Jesus communicate in the same way. Jesus wants to teach us something about life, about the kingdom of God, about Himself. To do this He tells a story, vivid and understandable. He then invites us to consider how life is like His story in some way. The power of parables is in the connection our imaginations draw between His story and our reality. Setting out to “decode” the elements of the story is premature and perhaps pointless. A simple example is found in the parable of the mustard seed:
He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)
Some people approach this parable asking, “What do the birds stand for?” The task, as they see it, is to “break the code.” They find the answer-key in the previous parable of the sower, where Jesus Himself explains that the birds who eat the seed represent “the evil one.” This breaks the code for the mustard seed parable as well: birds = the evil one. The mustard seed parable then is explained as follows: as the church grows from the first “seed” that Jesus planted, Satan will infiltrate it and the church will never be pure in this age.
However, to ask “What do the birds stand for?” is to ask the wrong question. The birds may not “stand for” anything. Our first task is to think about the story itself and understand it. In the earlier parable of the sower, any farmer could tell you that the birds are the bad guys; they are little thieves who steal precious seed. If Jesus had never explained the parable, we could probably have figured out that the birds represented evil. But in the parable of the mustard seed, what harm are the birds doing to the mustard plant? Again, most of Jesus’ audience could tell you that birds and trees get along very well. Nothing in the story suggests anything wrong with the birds! So what function do the birds serve? Well, in a story about how the smallest seed grows into the largest plant, the birds highlight the dramatic change: A seed so small it can barely be seen has become so large it can house birds. The change is not just dramatic, but it is surprising as well; the larger seeds, from which one might have expected the most growth, don’t grow that big; they don’t provide houses for birds. But the smallest, most easily underestimated seed has grown into something more substantial than all the others.
Now, having seen the dynamic of the story–the surprising and ironic twist that the smallest seed becomes the largest plant–we can think about the analogy Jesus is making; we can think about the kingdom of God and how that same dynamic applies to it. At the time Jesus spoke, people already had their own conception of the kingdom of God. King Messiah would sweep in with the armies of God and wipe out the Romans, freeing Israel to live under His rule in peace and prosperity. The kingdom parables of Jesus were designed to show them (and us) the true nature of that kingdom. The King actually came in humility and obscurity, with a rag-tag band of disciples who deserted Him when He was executed. Jesus and His gospel of the kingdom was the “smallest seed.” In comparison with all those bigger “seeds” of the garden, who would have guessed that this penniless, friendless nobody would establish a kingdom that would outstrip every empire this world has ever known? The irony of the mustard seed is the irony of the kingdom; the seed which everyone would have picked to grow into the smallest and humblest plant ends by towering over the rest of the garden; the stone which the builders rejected has become the very cornerstone.
The parables have great power because Jesus makes an emotional connection between what we need to know and what we already know. He does this in two steps: (1) He tells a story that brings out some striking feature of human experience: we see something surprising or ironic or shrewd or inspiring or outrageous or whatever. Because He uses situations His audience understands, they can say, “Yes, that is surprising/shrewd/outrageous/whatever, isn’t it?” (2) Jesus either draws the analogy or else leaves us to figure out the analogy for ourselves. In either case He is saying, “Trust me, I know; the kingdom, which you don’t understand, is like this story, which you do understand. My kingdom is just as surprising, My disciples must be just as shrewd, My enemies are just as outrageous as what you see in this story.” The power of the parables ultimately derives from the authority of Jesus Himself; the more we trust His judgment, the more the parables carry an emotional punch.
Understanding a parable is less like breaking a code and more like getting a joke. The punch-line of a joke is not funny unless you have been properly “set up” by what precedes it; the point of a parable doesn’t really pay off emotionally unless you have been properly set up by the story. Wrapping your mind around the story itself is always the first step. This is true for even the simplest one-verse parable:
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)
The wrong thing to do is to start asking “What does the field stand for?” Instead, start by thinking about the story. A man finds a treasure in a field, a field that does not belong to him. If he takes the treasure out, then it will become known where he got it, and the treasure would belong to whomever owns the field. So he shrewdly puts the treasure back in the field. He knows it’s there, however; although it costs him everything he has, he gladly pays the price to acquire the field, because that way the ownership of the treasure will go to him. Now, normally, selling everything you have in the world to buy an empty field would not be considered shrewd; it would be proof of mental incompetence. Anyone observing the man would have to think he was totally nuts: He lost everything; now he can spend the rest of his life lying around in the dirt and the mud in his field. But when the man looks at the field, he sees something very different: That field is just the big, dirty wrapping around a wonderful present. In losing everything to get the field, he is actually becoming rich beyond his wildest dreams; he knows he is losing nothing.
Jesus is telling us the kingdom of heaven is like that treasure in a field. People expected the kingdom would come immediately, with a power and glory obvious to even the dullest eye; in contrast to that expectation, Jesus is saying the kingdom is coming in a form that could easily be overlooked. The kingdom is, in fact, a treasure beyond counting, but most people see only the dirty field. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will find the treasure hidden in the field, and they will rejoice over it. The more they come to understand the value of that treasure, the less valuable the things of this world will seem to them. What does this world have to offer that even approaches the value of an eternal life of righteousness, finally freed from the corruption and stain of sin? We know, if we had to lose everything to gain that treasure, we would in fact be losing nothing. But to the world around us we are fools. We are losing our chance to grab for the gusto, and we are gaining nothing for all our loss. Only time will tell who was truly the fool.
Analogies are among the most potent tools for communication in all of human language. Often nothing gets the point across as well as saying, “Well, it’s like . . .” Human knowledge grows by moving from what we do understand to what we don’t understand. The person who gives an analogy is a trailblazer; he’s up ahead, with a knowledge of the terrain that those behind can’t yet share. But he can give them a feel for the land by describing it in terms of what they already know: “Well, you’ll find there’s a ditch to jump, but heck, it’s no bigger than that one back at Miller’s Crossing.” Jesus is our trailblazer; He’s been where we are going. To help us understand what’s ahead, He created some of the most profound and beautiful analogies ever heard. They are like seeds themselves, which expand in the mind when watered. To know why the widow kept going back to that judge, why the steward shrewdly changed his master’s accounts, why the pearl merchant sold everything he had is to know something of the mind of God Himself.