The Parables in their Setting - Part 1

Denis Clapham, Birmingham

Part 1 of 6 of the series The Parables in their Setting

In this series of short papers we shall review some of the Lord's parables which have been preserved for us in the divinely inspired Gospel records, and make it our aim to trace the development of His teaching in those parables that are recorded by the apostle Matthew. This was the apostle who was called from the pay of an alien power, and from the service of a foreign king, to write the history of the King of the Jews, However, it was not for the Jews alone that he wrote about their King, but also that all nations might know that the King which the Jews had rejected God had raised from among the dead, giving Him a mandate to universal rule in accordance with the prophetic Old Testament Scriptures, such as Genesis 49. 10; Psalms 2 and no, etc.

Seeing it is Jehovah the Saviour who is King we shall not be surprised to find in our review that the authoritative words of the King are expressed in a variety of ways, all of which are in keeping with what we know to be consistent with the divine ideal for kingship. Does the true King, then, legislate? Yes, for we read of the laws of His kingdom in Matthew 5.1 to 7.29. Since it is the honour of kings to search out matters, even that which it is to God's glory to conceal, it is not to be wondered at that in Matthew 13. 1-52 God's King brings hidden things to light. When sentence must be pronounced on a people about to be punished for their wilful and persistent refusal of God's claims, who but the meek and lowly One could utter such solemn things as are written in Matthew 21. 12 to 23. 39? Moreover, has God given His King judgments to foretell in order that every nation on earth might fear Him? Indeed, He has! Witness the record of those things which are certain to come upon the earth, foretold in Matthew 24. 1 to 25. 46 by the word of the King. It is against this background, or in this setting, that we are to view the parables, remembering that the written records are God-breathed, infallible and authoritative, and therefore to be approached reverently and humbly. They are obviously orientated to the kingdom, and are largely prophetic.

Various classifications of the parables have been made; of those which we have seen no two are identical. We venture to give yet another in tabular form, to show at a glance those parables which we intend to consider. It includes all the main parables, as well as some which may be called "lesser parables", totalling twenty-four. See page 123.

In confining ourselves to a consideration of the Lord's spoken parables we do not overlook the fact that many of the Lord's miracles are really parables in action, and should there­fore be studied together with His spoken parables far more closely than has generally been done. But, while recognizing this, and the importance of regarding the Gospel narratives as being perfect in their scope and arrangement, we have chosen to note just the part that the parables play in the first act of the revelation of the King and the kingdom, and the wonderful way in which, we believe, they were divinely chosen to that end.

Before looking at the parables in their setting let us be clear what sort of a saying constitutes a parable. The oft-repeated Sunday School definition of a parable, "An earthly story with a heavenly meaning", is true as far as it goes, but the student will be looking for something more. In the Authorized Version of the Old Testament the word mashal is translated "parable" in Numbers 23. 7, 18; 24. 3, 15, 20, 21, 23; Job. 27. 1; 29. 1; Psa. 49. 4; 78. 2; Prov. 26. 7, 9; Ezek. 17. 2; ("parables" in Ezek. 20. 49); 24. 3; Mic. 2. 4; Hab. 2. 6. It is also translated "proverb(s)" in all passages where that word occurs in the Authorized Version. But when these references are examined, it will be seen that mashal has a number of different meanings, such as: similitude, comparison, sentiment, maxim, byword, satire; coupled with which is the idea of speaking with authority, so as to command reverence. This will suffice to show the difficulty of trying to define narrowly a term with such a breadth of meaning. In the Authorized Version of the New Testament the Greek word parabole (para - beside; hallo - to throw, or lay), is consistently transliterated "parable", except in Luke 4. 23, where it is translated "proverb", (but "parable", R.v.). It is significant that in the one Old Testament reference in which mashed occurs, Ps. 78. 2, and which is quoted in the New Testament, Matt. 13. 35, mashal is repre­sented by parabole. From this we may conclude that the wealth of meaning surrounding the Old Testament term is carried into the New Testament.

Unhappily not all expositors of the Scriptures are agreed on the reasons why the Lord Jesus so often expressed Himself in parables; yet, it would seem, we are told quite plainly why. First, it was in order that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled: "I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world", Matt. 13. 35 r.v. And, second, in relation specifically to the mysteries or hitherto unrevealed secrets of the kingdom, He spoke to the multitudes in parables because it was not given to them to know what they were. Therefore, in them Isaiah's prophecy was fulfilled, "By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive; for this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should turn again, and I should heal them", 13. 14-15 R.v. Happily, to the disciples, as to all who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, "it is given to know", 13. 11, the things which prophets and righteous men in Old Testament times longed to understand, but never did.