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Explaining Biblical Words

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"An earthly story with a heavenly meaning." That is how my Sunday School teacher in St Cuthbert's explained the nature of parable. Much later I learned that the word "parable" comes from a similar sounding Greek word which means "parallel". 

Telling parables was a common teaching method used by Jewish rabbis and not unique to Jesus. Alongside his parables Jesus used brief metaphors or similies which have no story line but which appeal to our imagination or sense of humour e.g. " Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own". (Matt 7: 3) 

The background to the parables of Jesus is the daily life of Palestine. The characters are farmers, fishermen; housewives and merchants; kings, landowners and judges; a woman searching for a lost piece of silver; squabbling children. Sometimes it may be possible to detect an actual event as the inspiration for the parable. Perhaps when Jesus spoke of a thief breaking into a house there had been a burglary in the village where he was teaching. (Luke 12: 39) 

Jesus's parables are witty, succinct, crowded with people, sharply observant of human behaviour and marked by a deep insight into human nature. The people in his stories are recognisable and the human situations they find themselves in understandable. The well-known and loved stories of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), found only in Luke, are examples of stories whose characterisation, plot and solution hold the attention. Jesus expected men and women to see the point he was making. 

In his parables Jesus was teaching about the nature of God and his kingdom; how men and women could become citizens of that kingdom by right worship and prayer and caring for the well-being of their neighbours. He was also alerting his hearers to the future of the Israel they knew and to the Day of Judgment. 

The parables have been interpreted over the centuries as allegories in which every detail has been given a moral or theological meaning. Such interpretations are still heard but biblical scholars now see a parable as having one basic meaning and teaching purpose. However, the parable of the Sower and the Seed (Luke 8: 4-15) and the Vineyard (Luke 20: 9-18) are exceptions where every detail has a meaning. 

While we have to be careful about drawing contemporary parallels the parables of Jesus have a timeless quality and can be used to illustrate modern issues. Alan Dale in an article on the ministry of Jesus writes "These stories are explanations of the meaning of love as the working principle of human action".  

Christian Education Committee, 2004


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