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Using Parables for Teaching
by Rabbi Nick Liebenberg


In This Lesson
Effective Teaching | Using Parables for Teaching
The Meaning of "Parable" | The Purpose of Parables
The Reason Yeshua Taught in Parables


Effective Teaching
The Hebrews knew something about teaching their children about YAHWEH. The key: Effective teaching relates truth to life. They were extremely successful at making YAHVEH and religious training an integral part of everyday life.

The reason for their success was that religious education was life-oriented, not information-oriented. They used the context of daily life to teach about YAHVEH.

"You must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again." (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

The key to teaching your children to love YAHVEH is stated simply and clearly in the above verses. If you want your children to follow YAHVEH, you must make YAHVEH a part of your everyday experiences. You must teach your children diligently to see YAHVEH in all aspects of life, not just those that are church-related.

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Anyplace, Anytime
The verse in Deuteronomy 6 not only instructs us to bring teaching into every facet of life — from morning until night, from meals to travel — it also assumes that all these events present opportunities for teaching.

One Generation away from Extinction
"The truth is always one generation away from extinction." I don't know who said that, but I know it's true. Recent events have taught us and are teaching us that it's true. If you don't believe me, just look around you and notice how far the last two generations have slipped away from God's truth. Satan's lies have replaced truth — from creation science to astrological "signs", from God's plan for marriage to homosexual marriages and adoptions, from respect for life to the legal murder of 3000 unborn babies a day! And the list goes on. Certainly, the last 30+ years have proven the above statement's claim: that the truth is always one generation away from extinction...

"After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the LORD or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel." (Judges 2:10) One generation died and the next did not follow YAHVEH. Judges 2:10-3:7 is a brief preview of the cycle of sin, judgment, and repentance that Israel experienced again and again. Each generation failed to teach the next generation to love and follow YAHVEH. Yet this was at the very centre of YAHVEH's Law (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

More Caught than Taught
Teaching truth to the next generation is the responsibility of every Christian.

It is tempting to leave the job of teaching God's truth and values to others (i.e., the church or Christian schools). Yet YAHVEH says that the responsibility for this task belongs primarily to the family. Because children learn so much by our example, faith must be an everyday family matter. In other words, these truths — about God, about our roots in Judaism, about our history and prayer and ministry to others/ and God's involvement in our everyday lives, etc. — are primarily caught, not taught!

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Yeshua Consistently Modeled Effective Teaching
"After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the LORD or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel." (Judges 2:10) Yeshua was teaching, preaching, and healing. These were the three main aspects of His ministry. Teaching shows Yeshua's concern for understanding; preaching shows His concern for commitment; and healing shows His concern for wholeness. His miracles of healing authenticated His teaching and preaching, proving that He truly was from YAHVEH.

Obedience First, then Teaching
Teaching has not been effective until obedience has begun.

"Anyone who listens to my teaching and obeys me is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock." (Matthew 7:24) To build "on solid rock" means to be a hearing, responding disciple; not a phony, superficial one. Practicing obedience becomes the solid foundation to weather the storms of life.

Jesus' brother, James, gives us great counsel on putting into practice what we hear.

22"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
23For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.
24For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
25But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
26If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.
27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."
(James 1:22-27 emphasis added)

Like a house of cards, the fool's life crumbles. Most people do not deliberately seek to build on a false or inferior foundation; instead, they just don't think about their life's purpose. Many people are headed for destruction, not out of stubbornness but out of thoughtlessness. Part of our responsibility as believers is to help others stop and think about where their life is headed and to point out the consequences of ignoring HaMashiach's message.

The Quality of the Teacher
The quality of the teacher often determines the quality of the teaching.

"The Lord's servants must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone. They must be able to teach effectively and be patient with difficult people. They should gently teach those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people's hearts, and they will believe the truth." (2 Timothy 2:24-25)

As a teacher, Timothy helped those who were confused about the truth. Paul's advice to Timothy and to all who teach YAHVEH's truth, is to be kind and gentle, patiently and courteously explaining the truth. Good teaching never promotes quarrels or foolish arguments. Whether you are teaching church school, leading a Bible study, or preaching in church, remember to listen to people's questions and treat them respectfully, while avoiding foolish debates. If you do this, those who oppose you will be more willing to hear what you have to say and perhaps turn from their error.

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Using Parables for Teaching
A parable is a practical, usually fictitious, life story used to teach. According to the Gospels, Yeshua often used this teaching style. An understanding of parables is essential to understanding the teachings of Yeshua. Parables make up approximately 35% of His recorded sayings.

At no point are the vitality, relevance, and appropriateness of His teaching so clear as they are in His parables. While the parable form is not unique or limited only to Yeshua, He was certainly a Master at using them as a way of teaching. The parables are not merely illustrations for Yeshua's preaching; they are, to a great extent, the preaching. They also are not simple stories intended to entertain. They have been described as both "works of art" and "weapons of warfare". Interpreting the parables is not always an easy task. The way a person understands the nature of a parable and the essence of Yeshua's message obviously will determine the method he or she used to interpret.

History of Interpretation
Over the centuries the parables have been interpreted with radically different approaches, but the questions that underlie all interpretations are the same:

  • How much of the parable is really significant; all the details or only one point?

  • What is the meaning of the parable in the teaching of Yeshua?

  • Of what relevance is the parable to the interpreter?

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The Allegorizing Approach
From the second century even to the present, many people have allegorized the parables. They turn a parable (story with one point) into an allegory [a detailed comparison to a body of truth]. In an allegory, every detail in the account is significant, and the meaning and relevance of a parable are to be found in the way it portrays Christian theology.

This method, often identified as the Alexandrian school of interpretation, is best illustrated by a classic example that comes from Augustine (A.D. 354-430), the scholar who, despite his allegorizing, was a great theologian. His interpretation of the parable of the "Good Samaritan" views HaMashiach as the good Samaritan, the oil as the comfort of good hope, the animal as the flesh of the Incarnation, the inn as the Church, and the innkeeper as the Apostle Paul (to say nothing of the other details).

Obviously, Augustine's interpretation has nothing in common with Yeshua's intention, but rather reads into the story ideas that belong only to the interpreter, not to the One telling the story. Such an approach can sound good theologically, but it can impede the hearing and receiving of the truth.

Medieval interpreters went even further than the allegorizing approach by finding multiple meanings in the text. Usually there were four:

  1. The literal meaning.

  2. An allegorical meaning relating to Christian theology.

  3. A moral meaning giving direction for daily life.

  4. A heavenly meaning indicating something about future life.

Not all of the historical Church has been given to these kinds of interpretations. The school of Antioch was known for its common-sense approach to interpreting parables, but its influence was limited compared to the Alexandrian school. Except for a few exceptions, most of the Church's efforts at understanding the parables over the centuries have involved allegorizing the stories.

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The Approach of Adolph Julicher (1867-1938)
Julicher was a German scholar who published two volumes on the parables toward the end of the 19th century. His major contribution was the complete rejection of allegorizing as a means of interpreting the parables.

In his reaction against allegorizing, Julicher went to the opposite extreme to say that a parable of Yeshua has only one point of contact between the story and the fact being portrayed. He believed that this one point alone is important in interpretation and that it will usually be a general religious statement. Julicher went so far as to say that not only was allegorizing wrong but that Yeshua did not use allegories, since they tend to hide rather than reveal. He said that any allegory appearing in the New Testament comes from the writers of the Gospels rather than from Yeshua.

Julicher was correct to reject allegorizing (making an allegory of what was not intended to be allegory), but the rejection of allegories altogether as a legitimate means of communication for Yeshua is unfounded and extreme.

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The Historical Approach
Twentieth-century study of the parables, particularly the work of C. H. Dodd (1884-1973) and Joachim Jeremias, has rightly emphasized the historical context in which the parables were originally told. These men placed the focus on cultural factors that help in understanding the details of the parables and on the context of Yeshua's original preaching about the Kingdom of YAHVEH.

Usually this approach has assumed that the first-century church changed the original thrust of some of the parables to meet its own needs, and consequently, various procedures have been proposed to recover the original intent. It is true that the parables have been shaped, edited and collected in units by the Gospel writers — for instance, the collection of eight parables in Matthew 13:1-52. The aim of an interpreter should be to hear the parables as they were originally intended by Yeshua and as His original audience heard them. This is a delicate task, though, and some of the procedures proposed need to be questioned. The extent to which one can read into the writing style and motivations of the Gospel writers is limited.

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Modern Trends in Parable Research
In the past few decades a number of new approaches have been suggested to preserve the power of the parables (lost in Julicher's approach) and their effect on today's hearers (who were ignored in the historical approach).

Over time, different approaches have placed less focus on the historical meaning of the parables and more emphasis on their artistic, experiential, and poetic effects. Yeshua's parables are regarded as works of art that can be open-ended as far as meaning is concerned. A parable, then, would have an original meaning as well as the potential for a series of further possible meanings.

We can learn a great deal from modern approaches, especially from their concern to make sure that the parables speak to our day with their original vitality. However, there is also the danger of abusing the parables yet again.

Those allegorizing the parables in the history of the Church were not bound by the meaning of Yeshua and found their own meaning. Modern interpreters, too, can find their own meaning, and even though the explanations may sound convincing (as no doubt Augustine's did to his hearers), they may very well not be a communication of the Word of YAHVEH. If YAHVEH and His ways are revealed by and in Yeshua, then we fail if we do not hear His parables as He intended us to hear them. We hear them most effectively when Ruach confronts us with the parable as Yeshua intended it for His hearers.

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The Meaning of "Parable"
The usual definition of a parable as "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning" is not enough for understanding Yeshua's parables. Nor are parables merely comparisons or illustrations of what Yeshua wanted to say. The situation is much more complex with regard to the biblical meaning of the word "parable". In fact, one must distinguish between three uses of the word "parable" in biblical studies.

The Greek word for "parable" and its Hebrew counterpart are both broad terms and can be used for anything from a proverb to a full-blown allegory, including a riddle, a dark saying, an illustration, a contrast, or a story.

For example, the Greek word for "parable" is used in Luke 4:23 with reference to the saying "physician, heal yourself", and most translations render it as a "proverb". In Mark 3:23 "parable" is used with reference to the riddles Yeshua asks the scribes, such as: "How can Satan cast out Satan?" Similarly, Mark 13:28 uses "parable" of a simple illustration. In Luke 18:2-5 the unjust judge is contrasted with YAHVEH, who brings justice quickly.

If one compares the Hebrew Old Testament and the Septuagint [an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament], the word for parable is used most frequently with reference to a proverb or dark saying.

Thus, the broad meaning of, or word "parable", can...

  • ...refer to any of the following methods used to stimulate thought;

  • used of any story with two levels of meaning (literal and figurative) that functions as religious and/or ethical speech.

  • used technically in modern studies to distinguish a story from other types of stories, such as similitude, exemplary stories, and allegories. In this case, a parable is a fictitious story that narrates a particular event and is usually told in the past tense, like the parable of the lost, or "prodigal", son.

    1. A similitude, however, is a comparison that relates one or more typical or recurring events in real life and is usually told in the present tense. For example:
      "He put another parable before them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'" (Matthew 13:31-32 emphasis added).

    2. An exemplary story is not a comparison at all; rather, it presents character traits as either positive or negative examples to be imitated or avoided. For example, we read the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke, chapter 18:
      9"He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10'Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get." 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.'"
      (Luke 18:9-14)

      Three other exemplary stories are: the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), the rich fool (Luke 12:16-20), and the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

    3. Usually an allegory is defined as "a series of related metaphors".

      A metaphor is an implied comparison that does not use "like" or "as". This definition is used broadly, but it is not entirely satisfactory. It does not indicate whether obscurity is an essential element in allegory.

      Some view allegory as needing to be decoded and as being understandable only to a select few. It also does not specify how much of the story is important as related metaphors.

      If only two or three points of the story are related metaphors, would the story be an allegory? At the other extreme, do minor details in the story (such as the three levels of harvest in the parable of the sower) have significance? An example of an allegory would be the parable of the sower in Matthew, chapter 13:
      3"And he told them many things in parables, saying: 'A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.'" (Matthew 13:3-8)

      This raises the question of the difference between a parable and an allegory. On definitions one and two above, allegory is included in the parable. But on definition three, a distinction is made between them because the parable is not a series of related metaphors. For example:

      In the story of the lost [prodigal] son, the details (the swine, the far country, etc.) do not stand for something else as they would if they were in an allegory. Rather, they convey in dramatic terms the depths to which the son had sunk. However, a parable is not limited to one point of comparison between the story and the fact being portrayed.

      There may be several items that need to be mentioned from a particular parable. The parable of the lost son emphasizes the rejoicing that takes place at repentance (note the repetition of this theme in Luke 15:24, 32), but the receptivity of the father obviously parallels the grace of YAHVEH and the younger and elder sons reflect sinners and religious authorities, respectively. The distinction between parable and allegory is vague at best and will vary, depending on what definitions are assigned the terms.

      One should note that what can be said about a "parable" usually can also be said about an "allegory".

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The Purpose of Parables
Parables primarily focus on YAHVEH and His Kingdom; and in doing so, they reveal:

  • what kind of God He is;
  • by what principles He works; and
  • what He expects of humanity.

Because of the focus on the Kingdom, some parables reveal many aspects of Yeshua's mission as well; for example the parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21:33-41.

It is helpful to also discuss the characteristics of parables. Typical characteristics of a parable include:

  1. Parables are usually concise and symmetrical. Items are presented in twos or threes. They are usually short with unnecessary people, motives, and details omitted.

  2. The features in the story are taken from everyday life and the metaphors used are frequently common enough that there is an immediate context for understanding. For example, the discussion of an owner and his vineyard would naturally make hearers think of YAHVEH and His people because of the Old Testament use of those images.

  3. Even though the parables speak in terms of everyday life, often they contain elements of surprise or exaggeration. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) introduces a Samaritan in the story where one would probably expect a lay person. The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-34) puts the debt of the first servant at millions of dollars (NLT), an unbelievable sum in that day.

  4. Parables require their hearers to pass judgment on the events of the story and, having done so, to realize that they must make a similar judgment in their own lives.

    The classic example is the parable of Nathan to David (2 Samuel 12:1-7), where David judges the man in the story as worthy of death and then is told that he is the man. Because they force one to decide, to come to a moment of truth, the parables force their hearers to live in the present without resting on the laurels of the past or waiting for the future.

    The parables are the result of a mind that sees truth in concrete pictures rather than abstract terms and teaches that truth in a compelling way.

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The Reason Yeshua Taught in Parables
There is little doubt that Yeshua taught in parables because they are both interesting and compelling and, therefore, are one of the most effective means of communicating.

When one reads Mark 4:10-12, however, it seems that Yeshua taught in parables in order to keep people from understanding. It seems that there is a mystery that is revealed to the "in" group and that the "out" group is prohibited from learning.

The content of the mystery is not explained here, but from Yeshua's teaching on the Kingdom elsewhere, it probably refers to the fact that the Kingdom is present in Yeshua's own words and actions. Thus, if they don't understand/perceive that the Kingdom is "at hand" [the Messiah in their midst], then it is impossible for them to understand the truths hidden in some parables.

The other factor crucial for understanding this passage is that the word "parable", in biblical usage, has a broad meaning referring to any striking speech or dark saying intended to stimulate thought. Yeshua did not spoon-feed His hearers; rather, He taught in such a way as to bring about a response and where there was a response, He gave additional teaching.

Consequently, it is not merely that parables are interesting, poetic, and arresting — as important as those characteristics are. Parables also stimulate thought and demand a response, provided hardness of heart does not prevent it. It is as if Yeshua were saying, "If you cannot hear what I am saying, I will reveal My thought in parables." When He received a response to His initial teaching, He then went deeper in His explanations.

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