What did Jesus’ parables mean?

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What are the parables?

Despite their absence in Johannine and Pauline memory, parables epitomized Jesus’ ministry to Israel (cf. Mark 4:33-34). In conjunction with casting out demons and healing the sick, Jesus signaled the approach of God’s kingdom through parabolic speech, that is, through prophetic stories meant to encapsulate and explicate his central message: “The wait is over, God’s kingdom has come near; repent, and believe the tidings of victory” (Mark 1:15).

Wading upstream from Jesus’ parables we find the visions of prophets like Amos, Ezekiel, and Daniel; seers who “saw” the words of the Lord and who cast Israel’s future onto a vibrant tapestry of symbols and signs (cf. Amos 7-9, Ezekiel 16-17, Daniel 7-8, 4 Ezra).

Like their predecessors then, Jesus’ parables were not chiefly concerned with the usual suspects: wisdom, ethics, theology, christology, justification by faith, etc. Instead, they were signposts set before first century Israel, pointing the people toward either life and prosperity or death and disaster (Deuteronomy 20:15). They were at heart prophetic speech and prophetic interpretation meant to steer Israel through a pivotal historical moment.

What did they mean?

When we peer at the parables through these historical-prophetic lenses, interpretation becomes much more straightforward. In a prophetic context the parables begin to resonate to the same frequency.

Below I have attempted to outline their meanings, dividing them into two batches: parables spoken primarily to first century Israel, and parables spoken primarily to Israel’s messianic remnant, the churches.

Parables for Israel

The parables spoken to Israel vacillate between invitation and judgement. Will the kingdom deliver or crush Israel? By the end of his ministry, Jesus was quite certain the latter was more likely.

Mustard seed, Growing Seed, Leaven: God’s reign, though tiny and unseen during Jesus’ ministry, will overcome the world. The kingdom will be established over the nations; now is the time to act accoridngly.

Sower, Treasure, Pearl, Rich fool: Those who accept Jesus’ prophetic message of the kingdom will be marginalized, persecuted, and tempted by the comforts of the present age; but those who endure will receive extraordinary reward in the age to come.

Lost sheep (Luke), Lost coin, Lost son, Workers in Vineyard, Two sons, Pharisee and tax collector: Through Jesus God is calling Abraham’s wandering children to repentance. Israel’s leaders should be overjoyed that their brothers are being restored to the covenant on the heels of the kingdom. Instead, their arrogance spells their doom.

Good Samaritan, Rich man and Lazarus: Israel’s religious classes have utterly failed to shepherd God’s sheep with compassion as stipulated by the Law. The nation’s priests, lawyers, and Pharisees have treated their fellow Jews worse than do Samaritans. They have neither instructed nor restored their Israelite brethren. For this they stand condemned.

Wicked tenants, Wedding feast/Great banquet, Wise and foolish builders: God’s son, the last prophet in a long line of prophets, will be rejected by the shepherds of Israel. The nation’s current authorities will therefore be judged and replaced by those who heed the prophet’s call. The kingdom will proceed without Israel proper.

Parables for the churches

The parables spoken to the churches instruct, warn, and encourage. In light of the difficult and impending transition between the present evil age and the age of the kingdom, these parables call believers to unity, diligence, and hope.

Unforgiving servant, Lost sheep (Matthew): Those Christians who do not love and forgive their fellow believers will be excluded from the kingdom. Believers must not allow the world’s lawlessness to chill their love for one another and thus bring about the dissolution of the churches (cf. Matthew 24:12).

Wheat and weeds, Catch of fish: The children of the kingdom are not to remove evildoers from the world and thus jeopardize the church’s survival. The son of man will remove them when he comes in his fiery kingdom at the close of the age. The son of man will burn away those forces propping up the “rulers of the age:” second temple Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism.

Friend at Night, Widow and judge: God will reward the persistent prayers of his servants, both before and after the coming of the son of man.

Talents/Minas, Ten Virgins, Doorkeeper: On the day of the Lord Jesus will reward his servants for their prophetic diligence. Have they faithfully witnessed to the coming kingdom of God and the future lordship of Christ in hostile lands?

Sheep and goats: Those nations which reject Jesus’ apostles will be destroyed at the coming of the kingdom. But those nations that accept the message with joy and kindness will inherit life in the age to come.

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