Prompted Parables

[Texts:  Luke 10:25-37; 12:13-21, 35-48; 13:23-30; 14:7-11, 12-14, 16-24; Chapter 15; 18:1-8, 9-14; 19:12-27; 20:1-19]

Of the Gospels, it is the seeing-together Synoptics that give us Jesus’ parables.  John, writing much later, did not choose to rehearse the material already covered so well by his brothers; and though his account is still colorful with vines and branches and shepherds and sheep, we do not read in his pages those brief stories that give a familiar once-upon-a-time feel to Jesus’ illustrations.

Of the three Synoptic Evangelists, everybody handles the parables a little differently.  Fast-paced Mark is more concerned with action scenes, so he gets parables out of the way in a happily compressed group as of chapter 4 – except for one confrontational one that completes the picture of Jesus’ entrée into Jerusalem’s highly charged atmosphere in chapter 12.  Matthew lobs parables right and left throughout his account, piling them on in the Galilee narratives, the journey to Jerusalem, and then at the eleventh hour to make sure we get the “get ready” message loud and clear.

Luke does something else entirely.  Twelve of the 21 parables that he records are unique to his account.  Although he distributes them at least as thickly as Matthew does through all three geographical phases of Jesus’ ministry – Galilee, transitional journey, Jerusalem – Luke frames these parables with a deliberateness that is often tied to the particular sandals-on-the-ground moment.  You get the sense that Matthew has arranged his collection with an eye to their common subject matter, while Luke has chosen to remain sensitive to the particular context that prompted each one, letting us in on what motivated the storytelling.

This decision turns out to have been a very enlightening one for Luke’s readers.  For one thing, it gives us a sense of Jesus’ intellectual flexibility, as well as his acute perception of the needs of his listeners at any given moment.  It also allows us a window into the character and concerns of the people who chose to follow this astonishing man: what was on their mind, those first-century Jews from every walk of life?

So it is uniquely from Luke that we learn that parables were sometimes prompted by questions or requests made by someone within earshot of Jesus:  “Who is my neighbor?”“Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!”“Lord, will those who are saved be few?” – “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”  And sometimes it’s Jesus’ own assessment of the listeners that prompts his story, when he notices how they scramble for the best seats at a banquet, grumble over his typical table mates, trust in their own righteousness and despise others, or grow weary and discouraged in prayer.

In fact it is Luke’s habit of including the “parable prompt” that can correct our habit of assuming the parables are always stories told about US.  Sometimes they had a target audience specific to that turbulent time, sometimes even bound to a particular spot on the map.  One of the last of Jesus’ parables in Luke, that of the “ten minas” (or “ten talents,” as Matthew records it), might be released from service to the familiar “steward your gifts” message if we registered Luke’s opening lines:  “He proceeded to tell them a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately…”

There’s our interpretive key.  Thanks, Dr. Luke!

(You might be interested in these original charts:   Luke’s Parable Prompts (.pdf), and a survey of Parables in the Synoptics (.pdf), 1p. each.)


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Filed under Biblical Theology, Gospel of John, Instructing the Body, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels

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