The Parables of the New Testament,
William Bacon Stevens, 1857
This work is designed to be, as its title indicates, a practical unfolding of the Parables of our Lord.
The author has not attempted to give the several explanations which various writers, in different ages, have made of these Parables, for that would require many volumes. Nor has he sought to store up in these pages the treasures of exegetical criticism which have been accumulating since the days of Origen and Augustine. Neither has he inlaid his interpretations with those numerous gems of classical lore which tempt the scholar on every hand by the beautiful and pertinent illustrations which they furnish in support of the propriety and truthfulness of these Parables. Such a plan would have made the book more valuable to the student and the theologian — but it would have made it less acceptable to the popular mind, which it has been his special aim to reach, enlighten, and expand.
Waiving all these, he has kept steadily in view his original aim, and believing that there is a deep spiritual meaning in each one of these similitudes, which it befits us as Christians to know and understand — he has sought to develop this with clearness and fidelity. If he shall be the means of alluring others to a more earnest study of these inimitable Parables, these "apples of gold in pictures of silver," and to a better understanding of their precepts and doctrine — he shall devoutly thank God, and feel that his labor has not been in vain in the Lord
Presentation of moral truth in the form of Parables, is one of the most ancient as well as one of the most interesting forms of literature.
Parables are found as far back in the earliest ages of the world; they exist in most of the cultivated languages of the East; they are used by the poet, the historian, and the philosopher; they are listened to with delight by all classes of people, and, as Jerome has well said — are among the favorite vehicles for the conveyance of moral truth throughout the Oriental world.
Many of these ancient parables are happily couched, and possess both point and beauty. Many of them are picturesque and forcible to a high degree; but a careful study of all merely human parables, from whatever source gathered and by whoever uttered — will soon show how superior to them all, in every point — are the Parables of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
To these Parables we shall confine ourselves, not only because they embody every parabolic excellence — but also, and chiefly, because they present to us by means of a series of exquisitely wrought pictures, the great truths which lie at the foundation of man's salvation from sin, and his final condition beyond the grave.
We have a personal interest in these Parables. There is not one from which we may not gather a personal lesson — for, though addressed to men who lived eighteen centuries ago, yet . . .
so analogous are our spiritual needs to theirs,
so similar our relations to God, and
so applicable to all the phases of humanity, and all the changes of time, with a divinely perpetuated and self-adapted vitality — that they are just as important to the Church now, as when first uttered!
They embody truths that cannot die;
they illustrate principles that must ever operate on society;
they afford directions that are ever needed; and
they minister reproof and comfort with as much freshness and pungency today — as when first uttered by our blessed Lord.
The study of the Parables, therefore, cannot fail to prove deeply interesting. They are so many portraits of the duties and principles of the Christian religion; and they hang around the four walls of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — as pictures drawn by a heavenly artist to embody heavenly truth.
And as, in recommending to a young student of sculpture, the statue of Apollo Belvidere as the most perfect specimen of art, the teacher adds, "Go and study it; and if you see no great beauty in it to captivate you, go again; and if you still discover none, go again and again: go until you feel it, for be assured it is there."
So we say to the student of the Parables, "go and study these parables, and if you see not their beauty at first, go again and again, gaze at them, ponder upon them, pray over them, until you feel them — then will they impress their lineaments upon your own soul, and be the model of your daily walk and conversation.
The word Parable means a similitude taken from natural things — in order to instruct us in spiritual things. It has been defined as a "fictitious narrative, invented for the purpose of conveying truth in a less offensive or more engaging form, than that of direct assertion."
In this respect, the Parable is not unlike the FABLE — yet they are essentially distinct. The genuine Fable does not move at all in the field of actual existence. It allows irrational and inanimate things from the kingdom of nature — to think, act, speak, and suffer. But the Parable derives its material only from within the range of possibility and truth, and from events and scenes that have their likeness in the occurrences of every day life.
"The Parable is constructed to set forth a spiritual and heavenly truth. This the Fable, with all its value, does not do; it is essentially of the earth, and never lifts itself above the earth. It never has a higher aim than to inculcate maxims of prudential morality, industry, caution, foresight; and these it will sometimes recommend even at the expense of the higher self-forgetting virtues."
The Parable also is essentially different from the ALLEGORY. The Allegory is a figurative sentence or discourse, in which the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances.
That exquisite passage in the eightieth Psalm, where David portrays Israel as a vine which God brought out of Egypt; and that more precious declaration of our Lord in the 15th chapter of John, where, alluding to the same natural object, he says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener," etc., are specimens of the Allegory, which carries its own interpretation along with it. While the Parable must be interpreted by its author, or by its resemblance to the truths with which it is placed side by side.
Several instances occur in the Bible where the Parable is spoken of as synonymous with the PROVERB. The Proverb is a short, condensed sentence, full of pith, and barbed with a distinctive point. But the Parable is elaborate, figurative, fictitious, and its meaning lies parallel with the whole current of its narrative.
"Physician, heal yourself" is termed by Luke a Parable — it is in rhetorical strictness a Proverb. The same may be said of other passages of the New Testament. "To sum up all, then, the Parable differs from the fable, moving as it does in a spiritual world, and never transgressing the actual order of things natural. It differs from the proverb, inasmuch as it is longer carried out, and not merely accidentally and occasionally — but necessarily figurative. It differs from the allegory, comparing as it does one thing with another, at the same time preserving them apart as an inner and an outer, not transferring, as does the allegory, the properties and qualities and relations of one to the other."
In using Parables as the media of instruction, our blessed Lord conformed to ancient usage and to the constitution of the human mind, which is so much more influenced by the senses, than by abstract ideas. Parabolic writing . . .
is naturally adapted to engage attention,
is easily comprehended,
is suited alike to the lowest and to the loftiest capacity,
leaves strong impressions on the mind,
gives great force to truth by strikingly personifying it,
and enables one to unfold doctrines distasteful to the natural heart, by images which attract the mental eye, which convey the truth directly to the soul, before passion and prejudice have time to array themselves against its reception.
This was peculiarly the case in reference to the doctrines which Christ promulgated. The Jewish mind was not prepared for their reception — certain truths, such as . . .
the bringing in of the Gentiles,
the dispersion of the Jews,
the abrogation of the temple service,
the atonement and death of Christ,
the resurrection and ascension,
the final judgment —
could only be gradually unfolded, and must first be taught in Parables; for had our Lord spoken plainly, the multitude would not so easily have listened to his words; but being insensibly drawn by the happy incidents, the touches of history, the beautiful illustration, to hear his discourses — they were taught many doctrines and truths to which their hearts would have offered malignant resistance, had they been conveyed in any other form.
The perfection of the Parables of Christ is evident to the most casual observer. They are perfect and inimitable models, "apples of gold in baskets of silver."
There is nothing superfluous, nothing gaudy. Each is a picture to the mind's eye — complete in all its lights and shadows, and perfect in its groupings and design.
With reference to the Parables, we may say what Luther does of the Bible at large, that "it is a garden of God, with many a lovely tree laden with lordly fruit; and that, often as he had shaken the boughs and received the delicious fruit into his bosom — yet had he ever found new fruit when he had searched and shaken them anew."
Admirably, then, did our Lord adapt his instructions to the mental and moral necessities of his hearers; and we might appeal to his Parables alone, in proof of the divinity of his mission.
The fables and allegories of the heathen world, were interwoven with their fictitious history, with their debasing mythologies, with their poetic extravagancies — and were designed to support that idolatry and polytheism which it was the object of the gospel to destroy. The moral instruction, if any was intended, must be dug out from the rubbish of poetical images and superstitious conceits. A very slight comparison of the abstruse allegories of Plato, the monstrous fables of the Jewish Talmud or the Asiatic Vishnu — with the Parables of the gospel, will suffice to show, that while delicacy, wit, virtue, truth, are continually violated in the former — that purity, elegance, pathos, point, and sublime power are found in the latter. The former, like the ignes fatui, are born in the foul fens and marshes of man's depraved nature — and are earthly, sensual, devilish. The latter, like the guiding pillar of fire in the camp of the Israelites — is heavenly, spiritual, and divine.
But a quality which distinguishes them above all other parables, is the universality of their application, and the perfect, real value of their instruction. In their original delivery, they were wisely adapted to the people and the time at which, and for whom, they were spoken. Yet they are equally valuable now, and in all parts of the world, "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." They never weary the mind, never become distasteful to the soul, never grow old and obsolete, never lose their force or beauty — but will ever be read with delight, ever be studied with interest, and ever be esteemed the most precious as well as most beautiful and instructive passages of God's Holy Word.