When Jesus spoke parables to explain the kingdom of heaven, He spoke the classic parable structure but would apply adaptations and modifications. The basic parable contains six sections, each integral to the whole. The first part is the prolegomenon to announce a parable is imminent. A typical beginning by Jesus would be “The kingdom of heaven is like...” The next part would introduce the characters in the story. This could range from a single individual, such as the farmer in The Wheat and the Tares to three individuals in The Father and The Prodigal Sons. Once the cast is set, the third component is the plot. In this portion, the story draws the attention of the audience and encourages mental and emotional participation.

The conflict or confrontation is the fourth part of the narrative. This could be a number of things such as the unjust judge versus the widow, the laborers in the vineyard versus the hiring manager, or the individuals who pass by the traveler who had been robbed and assaulted. The fifth step in the parable is the conflict resolution. Here, the parable teller calls on the audience to make a decision or to apply the lesson. By their very nature, the first and last parts of the story are more oriented to the speaker and the audience. In the parables of Jesus, “frequently one or more of these elements is lacking.” [1] Rabbinical parables would include the Scriptural reference upon which the teaching or instruction was based. Another common practice was when a rabbi would speak a parable he would cite precedent to lend credibility to his message. In similar fashion, Jesus quoted or made hints or remez to Old Testament passages, but because He claims the necessary authority from the Father to speak, He did not include precedents as did the scribe or rabbi.

The parables of Jesus and the rabbis would use stock characters to aid the communication of the message. This is because the parable has “no time for extensive character development. Rather they rely on the cultural associations brought by the hearers to the evocation of these stock figures.” [2] “Among the most important stock characters are father, king, judge, or shepherd to represent God; a vineyard, vine, or sheep for God's people; an enemy for the devil; a harvest or grape-gathering for the final judgment; and a wedding, feast, or festive clothing for the Messianic banquet in the age to come.” [3] The inclusion of such symbolism was to aid in the listener's understanding of the parables. We can see how character types are immediately defined in the plays of Shakespeare and sit-coms, movies, and even commercials. Skillful use of such symbolism allows the teller to depict a scenario quickly with multiple level of meaning the audience quickly comprehends. Another parable characteristic is its brevity. “A narrator of parables does not necessarily carry an analogy through in all its detail on the narrative surface side. In his narrative, he can focus on the first eye-catching detail and then simply allow the rest to follow.” [4] A long, elaborate, drawn out story full of adverbs and adjectives, despite possibly having comparisons or contrasts, does not qualify.

While Jesus utilized the basic concept of the classic parable, He introduced new aspects or techniques of telling parables. Probably the most striking change the placement of the emphasis at the end of the narrative. This is seen The Unmerciful Servant, The Workers in the Vineyard, The Talents, and The Wicked Tenants. Another adaptation found in many of His parables is the triad, referring to the number of characters in the story. The triad would include only pertinent participants and ignore other characters as unnecessary to the story. We can see this in The Servant Entrusted with Authority, The Ten Virgins, The Father and the Prodigal Sons, and The Friend at Midnight. To further stress the uniqueness of the teaching of Jesus, many of His parables contain an unusual twist or surprising element. For example, a foreman would not pay a day laborer who worked for a mere hour the same as another who toils the full day. Another surprising twist is the guests conjuring inane excuses such as examining recently purchased property or testing teams of oxen to avoid a dinner invitation. However, when we read these parables today because we do not have an understanding of life at the time of Jesus, we overlook these unusual twist or element that adds both mirth and insight to the story. Another feature is that their components are compared, but not precisely defined. The phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like...” introduces a comparison between the kingdom and something the audience could relate to and understand.

Jesus is speaking, for the most part, of spiritual things unfamiliar to His audience, so He has to provide ways to enable His listeners to comprehend what He is seeking to communicate. Other ways to express this transition are “from known to unknown,” “from general to specific,” and “from simple to complex.” Using parables, Jesus can encompass this essential step in the process in a way the audience would readily grasp and use as a bridge to comprehend the new teaching. “For the parables, like Jesus' other teachings about the kingdom, involve old and familiar things juxtaposed with new elements.” [5] It is for these reasons it is essential to have an awareness of the world of Jesus including the culture, political, and religious history of the Jews, the state of Judaism during this time of the Jewish nation, and the Messianic hopes of the Jews. Because of the parable's spiritual nature, those who were not given the explanation of His words only heard narratives or illustrations extolling virtuous and godly living. While the p’shat message could be easily discerned, many of His parables could not be fully understood by those listening, and this was a purposeful choice of Jesus.


Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.