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 Vol. 9, No. 3 

March 2007

~ Page 13 ~

Keys to Understanding the Parables

By T. Pierce Brown

Image Although we do not claim to be brilliant or scholarly, we think that a majority of brilliant and scholarly men have made a common and simple mistake in giving an exegesis of some of the parables of Jesus. Let us give a few examples.

Perhaps the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew 18 and Luke 15 are two of the most significant ones. Matthew 18:12-14 says, "How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish." Burton Coffman says, "The parable suggests the earthly mission of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who left the joys of heaven to wander amid the bleak scenes of earth to recover lost and sinful people." Coffman is right in saying, "the parable suggests," for a parable may "suggest" any number of things. But most commentaries interpret the parable as if the shepherd in the parable represents Christ. That is not so. The subtle difference in the parable teaching that the concern of a shepherd for his sheep is compared to the concern of God and Christ for the lost, and that the shepherd himself represents God or Christ may be too subtle for most persons to note, but is important.

Let us emphasize that point with reference to this story and the same idea in Luke 15:4-6. Most of us have seen pictures supposing to represent the Good Shepherd who has gone into the wilderness to find the sheep and lays it on his shoulder and brings it home. Let us raise some questions about this concept.

Does Christ have to leave the faithful (99) in order to save the lost one? Surely you know the answer to that. Does Christ wonder where this lost sheep is and have to wander around searching for it before he finds it? Does Christ pick up the lost sheep and bring it back even if it does not want to come (as Calvinistic theologians teach)? The truth is that the parable is not teaching that the shepherd represents Christ, but that the concern of the shepherd represents the concern of Christ and God for the lost.

Let us note the same sort of things in the triad of parables in Luke 15. First he gives this parable of the Lost Sheep and then in verse 7 tells the meaning, " I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance." Then he gives the story of the woman who has ten pieces of silver. Surely anyone who thinks carefully will realize that she cannot represent Christ or God. We have preached and heard others preach as if the sheep might be lost through wandering away, the coin might be lost by the carelessness of someone (perhaps the woman), and although that is true, it is not a proper exegesis of the parable. Surely no one would say that a person was lost through the carelessness of Christ or God. The woman did not know where the coin was. Do God and Christ know where the lost person is? We remember reading an exegesis somewhere that the woman sweeping represents Christ or the Holy Spirit sweeping away the traditions and suppositions of the Jews in order to find the lost. As we have said, a parable may "suggest" many lessons, but to speak or write as if this is an exegesis of the parable is not sound reasoning or proper exegesis. The point of this parable is the same as the other: That is, the joy or concern of any woman for her lost coin is compared to the joy in heaven over one sinner that repents, and the concern of God and Christ for the lost sinners.

Perhaps the story of the Prodigal Son has been most often used and misused. It is generally accepted that the father in the story represents God. We deny that. The point of the story is the same as in all the others. That is, the concern of the father for his wayward son is compared to the love of God for his children, but that does not mean the father himself represents God. For example, where and when did God ever divide his living with a son and give him his inheritance whenever he asked for it? The father is often pictured as one who stood each day, looking down the road, wondering about the welfare of his son, where he is, and when he might return. Surely no thoughtful student of God's Word can picture God wondering about the condition of his children. Of course the picture of the father having compassion and running to meet his son represents the compassion of God and his yearning for our welfare. But we need to see the difference between the parable representing the love and concern of God, and the parable representing the person of God. The whole point of all these parables is that as the shepherd has concern and love for his sheep, as the woman has concern for her lost coin, as a father has love and concern for his child, so God has love and concern for us. But the father in the parable no more represents God than does the woman who lost the coin.

All these are similar to the parable of the Unjust Judge in Luke 18:2ff. Here was a judge that feared not God nor regarded man. It is easy to see that he could not represent God, but what he did represented what God does. That is, even an unjust judge will pay attention to one who continues to petition him for help. So will God do for those who "cry unto him day and night" for help.

In Matthew 18:23ff there is the Parable of the Two Debtors. Because Jesus starts of saying "the kingdom of heaven is like unto a king," many may assume that the king represents God. A careful student will notice that this king commanded that he, his wife and children, and all that he had be sold to pay the debt. God never did anything similar to that. Again, the lesson is not a story about God himself, but about the need for us showing compassion and forgiveness on those who need it as God shows compassion on us. We could go on with other parables and illustrations, but the main point in this article is to help us to see that we should understand the point of the parable and not try to drag lessons into it that are not there. It may be appropriate to say, "The parable suggests this thought," but it is not appropriate to try to make the parable teach something that was not intended by Jesus when he gave the parable.Image

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