An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus is an expanded version of Robert Stein’s chapter on Jesus’ teachings of Parables in The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (although I believe AIttPoJ came first). What are parables and why did Jesus use them? How were they interpreted? How are they supposed to be interpreted, especially when we live 2,000 years away from the culture and writing? Why couldn’t Jesus simply give the plain facts?
Robert Stein taught at Bethel Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He wrote this book to help stabilize the church’s understanding on the Gospel parables.
1. What Is a Parable?
2. Why the Parables?
3. Whence the Parables?
4. How the Parables Were Interpreted
5. How the Parables Are Interpreted
6. Interpreting the Parables Today
7. The Kingdom of God as a Present Reality
8. The Kingdom of God as a Demand – The Call to Decision
9. The God of the Parables
10. The Final Judgment
What is a parable? Is it “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”? Stein believes this is only partly true. Yet actually defining a parable is much harder than one might think. “[A] parabolḗ is an illustration, a comparison, or an analogy, usually in story form, using common events of everyday life to reveal a moral or a spiritual truth” [pg. 16]. Seeking to find the meaning of a parable, Stein looks for where parabolḗ is found in the Septuagint to discover the Hebrew word is mashal [mashal -› parabolḗ -› parable] which can refer to a proverb, satire, a taunt, a riddle, a story, or an allegory.
In the New testament a parable can be in the form of a proverb, metaphor, similitude, story parable, example parable, or an allegory. Parables represent a large portion of Jesus’ teachings. “What is clear is that we possess approximately fifty sayings or stories which by any biblical understanding of the term must be called ‘parables'” [pg. 26].
Within this section Stein gives examples of each kind of parable (in the OT and NT), and also lists every parable described as a ‘parable’, where it is clearly a parable, and where it is possible it is a parable.
Stein shows the need for context in the why and where the parables were used. Jesus used parables to conceal His teachings from those outside (Mk. 4.10-12). If His own disciples didn’t understand His messiahship (Mk. 8.32), how much more would the Jewish leaders and Rome misunderstand His Messiahship? Why couldn’t Jesus give the plain facts? “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.”
Jesus concealed His parables with stories set in Galilee, in Israel, in the first century. Because we are so far removed in time, geography, and occupation (many of us don’t deal with agriculture as an occupation), a study of the parables is immensely important to us.
The Chocolate Milk
Stein shows how the parables were, are, and should be interpreted. Although seeing six similar (and somewhat different) allegorical interpretations given to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Chapter 4 was good for seeing just how long the allegorical interpretation had effected the church. So many parables (and OT stories) were interpreted allegorically with no basis behind them. And it wasn’t really until 1888 (aside from Calvin, and sort of Luther) that there was a breakthrough in a better parabolic interpretation:
1. Seek for one main point
2. Seek for what Jesus meant in the original setting
3. Seek to understand how the [gospel’s author] interpreted the parable in his setting of life
4. Seek to understand what God is teaching us today through this parable [which should flow from having sought the answer to the first three propositions]
Stein gets into the meat of the book: looking at the parables themselves! Among these chapters are discussion on how Jesus showed the Kingdom was a present reality in His day (which would not be fully consummated until His second coming), the pervasive mustard seed and the spreading leaven, parables showing the need for an immediate decision, the God of the parables is a loving, gracious God who seeks out sinners, yet in the end will bring a judgment to all those who reject Him.
In these chapters a parable is pulled out as an example, and Stein looks at the historical setting, the main point, the interpretation by the gospel’s author, and then gives a smaller examples of a few more parables.
The Spoiled Milk
As usual, my one complaint with Stein is this: his over-use of textual criticism in his writings. I understand it in a commentary, but in a book like this there’s much more of a struggle to read through it. Many (myself included) aren’t too concerned with the “numerous non-Lukan grammatical and vocabulary traits” [pg. 117] that a parable may or may not have. I want to know how to read and understand this parable, not how some take it to be inauthentic, why they do, and why they’re wrong.
Some people don’t think Mt. 20.16 was original to the parables pre-Matthean tradition. I’ve never been too worried about the pre-Matthean condition of parables. Stein believes the authors of the NT letters and gospels to be inspired and I do too. My concern isn’t with the authenticity of sentences based on ore-gospel traditions, but on the form that I have in my Bible now. These discussions can often take up time, space, and in the end lead back to what I originally thought. Some people might find it interesting, but I don’t, especially not for an introductory book on the parables.
Definitely. This book is from 1981, and it has a wealth of information in it. I’d certainly want to read an updated version of this book 33 years later! But until then, this book will have to suffice (and how it does). I have heard it said that one should teach for 30 years before teaching on the parables.
While I agree the parables can be difficult and are more than “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”, at least if you read this book you won’t have to wait 30 years to teach on them. This book won’t tell you everything you need to know about parables, but it does lay an important foundation on how to read parables and how not to read them. Stein’s book (and Stein himself) would be good to have in any teacher and students library.
++++Paperback: 184 pages
++++Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press; 1st edition (Jan 1, 1981)
[Special thanks to WJK Press for sending me this book for review! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]