[Gr., pa·ra·bo·leʹ, a placing beside or together].
The Greek expression has a wider latitude of meaning than our English words “proverb” and “parable.” Therefore pa·ra·bo·leʹ can well be translated “illustration,” an English word that likewise covers a wide range that can include “parable” and, in many cases, “proverb.” A “proverb” embodies a truth in expressive language, often metaphorically, and a “parable” is a comparison or similitude, a short, usually fictitious narrative from which a moral or spiritual truth is drawn.
That the Scriptures use the word pa·ra·bo·leʹ with a wider meaning than the English “parable” is shown at Matthew 13:34, 35, where Matthew points out that it had been foretold concerning Jesus Christ that he would speak with “illustrations” (NW), “parables” (AV, RS). Psalm 78:2, quoted by Matthew in this connection, refers to “a proverbial saying” (Heb., ma·shalʹ), and for this term the Gospel writer employed the Greek word pa·ra·bo·leʹ. As the literal meaning of the Greek term implies, the pa·ra·bo·leʹ served as a means of teaching or communicating an idea, a method of explaining a thing by ‘placing it beside’ another similar thing. (Compare Mark 4:30.) Most English translations simply use the anglicized form “parable” to render the Greek term. However, this translation does not serve to convey the full meaning in every instance.
For example, at Hebrews 9:9 and 11:19 most translations find it necessary to resort to expressions other than “parable.” In the first of these texts the tabernacle or tent used by Israel in the wilderness is called by the apostle Paul “an illustration [pa·ra·bo·leʹ, “figure,” AV; “similitude,” Ro; “symbolic,” AT, RS] for the appointed time.” In the second text Abraham is described by the apostle as having received Isaac back from the dead “in an illustrative way” (NW) (pa·ra·bo·leʹ, “figuratively speaking,” JB, RS). The saying, “Physician, cure yourself,” is also termed a pa·ra·bo·leʹ. (Luke 4:23) In view of this, a more basic term such as “illustration” (NW) serves for a consistent rendering of pa·ra·bo·leʹ in all cases.
Another related term is “allegory” (Gr., al·le·go·riʹa), which is a prolonged metaphor in which a series of actions are symbolic of other actions, while the characters often are types or personifications. Paul uses the Greek word for “allegorize” at Galatians 4:24, concerning Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. It is translated “allegory,” “allegorical utterance” (AV, AT), virtually a transliteration of the word, but is also rendered “symbolic drama” (NW).
The apostle John also used a distinct term (pa·roi·miʹa) as denoting “comparison” (John 10:6; 16:25, 29); it is variously translated “figure,” “figurative language,” “parable,” “proverb” and “comparison” (AT, AV, NW). Peter employed the same term with regard to the “proverb” of the dog returning to its vomit and the sow to rolling in the mire.—2 Pet. 2:22.
Illustrations or parables as a powerful teaching device are effective in at least five ways: (1) They arrest and hold attention; few things command interest like an experience or a story. Who is not familiar with the illustrations of the prodigal son and of the one lost sheep? (2) They stir up the thinking faculty; one of the best mental exercises is to search out the meaning of a comparison, to get the abstract truths thus presented. (3) They stir emotions and, by the usually evident practical application of the truths to the hearer, reach the conscience and the heart. (4) They aid memory; one can later reconstruct the story and make application of it. (5) They preserve the truth, for they are always applicable and understandable in any time and age. This is because they deal with life and natural things, whereas mere words may change in meaning. This is one reason why the Bible truths remain in full clarity today, just as they were at the time they were spoken or written.
The primary purpose of all illustrations is, as shown in the foregoing, to teach. But the illustrations of the Bible also serve other purposes: (1) The fact that a person sometimes has to dig to get their full, deep, heart-reaching meaning tends to turn back those who do not love God, but who have a mere surface interest and therefore do not desire the truth in their hearts. (Matt. 13:13-15) God is not gathering such persons. Illustrations moved the humble ones to ask for further explanation; the proud refused to do so. Jesus said: “Let him that has ears listen,” and though the majority of the crowds hearing Jesus went their way, the disciples would come and ask for explanation.—Matt. 13:9, 36.
(2) Illustrations conceal truths from those who would misuse them and who desire to entrap God’s servants. Jesus answered the Pharisees’ catch question with the illustration of the tax coin, concluding: “Pay back, therefore, Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.” His enemies were left to make the application themselves; but Jesus’ disciples fully understood the principle of neutrality there set forth.—Matt. 22:15-21.
(3) Because the hearer is left to apply the principles of the illustration to himself it can carry to him a clear message of warning and rebuke, at the same time disarming him so that he has no ground to retaliate against the speaker. In other words, as the saying goes, ‘If the shoe fits, wear it.’ When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replied: “Persons in health do not need a physician, but the ailing do. Go, then, and learn what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came to call, not righteous people, but sinners.”—Matt. 9:11-13.
(4) Even when being used to give correction to a person, illustrations could be used to sidestep prejudice on the part of the hearer, keeping his mind from being beclouded by such prejudice, and thereby accomplishing more than would a mere statement of fact. Such was the case when Nathan found a hearing ear in reproving King David for his sin in connection with Bath-sheba and Uriah. (2 Sam. 12:1-14) Also, in the case of wicked King Ahab an illustration caused him, unknowingly, to weigh the principles of his own case when he had disobediently spared King Ben-hadad of Syria, an enemy of God, and to utter a judgment condemning himself.—1 Ki. 20:34, 38-43.
(5) Illustrations can motivate persons to take action one way or another, to ‘show their true colors,’ as to whether or not they are genuine servants of God. When Jesus said: “He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life,” “many of his disciples went off to the things behind and would no longer walk with him.” In this way Jesus ‘weeded out’ those who did not really believe from the heart.—John 6:54, 60-66.
PROPER VIEWPOINT AND APPROACH
Bible illustrations have more than one aspect. They set forth and illuminate principles, and they often have a prophetic meaning and application. Moreover, some had a prophetic meaning for the time when they were spoken or shortly thereafter, and some had, in addition, a fulfillment in the distant future.
There are two general misconceptions that can hinder the understanding of the illustrations of the Bible. One is the viewing of the illustrations as being merely good stories as examples or lessons. The parable of the prodigal son, for instance, is considered by some to be a mere piece of fine literature, the illustration of the rich man and Lazarus as an example of reward and punishment after death.
In this connection it may also be remarked that the illustrations, although drawn from life and natural things, did not necessarily take place in actuality. Although some illustrations begin with expressions such as: “Once upon a time,” “A man had,” “There was a man,” “A certain man was,” or similar phrases, they were devised by the speaker under influence of God’s spirit, and were what they are called, illustrations or parables. (Judg. 9:8; Matt. 21:28, 33; Luke 16:1, 19) Of Jesus Christ, it is said: “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds by illustrations. Indeed, without an illustration he would not speak to them.”—Matt. 13:34; Mark 4:33, 34.
A second obstacle to understanding is the drawing of too fine an application of the illustration, trying to make every detail of the narrative of the literal events fit symbolically by arbitrary application or interpretation.
The proper approach is made, first, by reading the context, ascertaining the setting in which the illustration was spoken, asking, What were the conditions and the circumstances? For instance, when the rulers and people of Israel were addressed as “dictators of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah,” it makes us think of a people who were gross sinners against Jehovah. (Isa. 1:10; Gen. 13:13; 19:13, 24) When the psalmist prays to Jehovah to do to the enemies of God and His people “as to Midian,” it calls to mind the complete rout of those oppressors of God’s people, over 120,000 being slain.—Ps. 83:2, 3, 9-11; Judg. 8:10-12.
Next, a knowledge of the Law, the customs and usages and the idiom of the day is often helpful. For example, a knowledge of the Law helps us to understand the illustration of the dragnet. (Matt. 13:47-50) The fact that fruit trees were taxed in Palestine during that time and that unproductive trees were cut down helps us better to understand why Jesus caused the unfruitful fig tree to wither, so as to use it for illustrative purposes.—Matt. 21:18-22.
Finally, the factors in an illustration should not be given an arbitrary meaning, one gained from a private view or from philosophy. The rule is set forth for Christians: “No one has come to know the things of God, except the spirit of God. Now we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that have been kindly given us by God. These things we also speak, not with words taught by human wisdom, but with those taught by the spirit, as we combine spiritual matters with spiritual words.”—1 Cor. 2:11-13.
An application of this rule can be demonstrated in connection with the prophetic illustration in Revelation chapter six. A white horse is the first of four mentioned here. What does it symbolize? We can turn to other parts of the Bible as well as to the context to get its significance. Proverbs 21:31 says: “The horse is something prepared for the day of battle.” White is often used to symbolize righteousness. God’s throne of judgment is white; the armies in heaven are on white horses and are clothed in white, clean, fine linen. (Rev. 20:11; 19:14; compare Revelation 6:11; 19:8.) We could conclude, therefore, that the white horse represents righteous warfare.
The horseman on the black mount has a pair of scales, and foodstuffs are being weighed out. Famine is here evidently pictured, for in the famine prophecy of Ezekiel he was told: “Your food that you will eat will be by weight . . . and they will have to eat bread by weight and in anxious care, and it will be by measure and in horror that they will drink water itself.” (Ezek. 4:10, 16) Often by understanding Biblical symbolic usage, such as in the case of animals mentioned in illustrations, one can get help and spiritual light.—See BEASTS, SYMBOLIC.
A good number of illustrations are understood by the Bible’s own explanation, often followed by a narrative of events in fulfillment of them. Among these, to name two, are: Ezekiel’s boring a hole through a wall, going out with his face covered (Ezek. 12:1-16; 2 Ki. 25:1-7, 11; Jer. 52:1-15), and Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac but receiving him back by God’s intervention (these illustrations were also actual occurrences, carried out in drama-like manner). (Gen. 22:9-13; Heb. 11:19) Others, particularly many spoken by Jesus Christ, are explained afterward by Jesus himself. In many cases, the understanding of Bible illustrations is aided by modern events in fulfillment.
IN THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES
The Hebrew prophets and Bible writers, moved by Jehovah’s spirit, recorded countless apt illustrations. Illustrative language appears in Genesis, in Jehovah’s promise that he would multiply Abra-ham’s seed “like the stars of the heavens and like the grains of sand that are on the seashore.” (Gen. 22:15-18) To emphasize the sinful state of his people in Judah, Jehovah moved Isaiah to compare it to a loathsome physically diseased condition, saying: “The whole head is in a sick condition, and the whole heart is feeble. . . . Wounds and bruises and fresh stripes—they have not been squeezed out or bound up, nor has there been a softening with oil.” (Isa. 1:4-6) God himself compelled the prophet Balaam against his will to make a “proverbial utterance” of blessing for Israel. (Num. 24:3-9) To King Nebuchadnezzar, Jehovah conveyed prophetic messages with visions of a huge image and a towering tree, and Daniel saw certain governments of earth depicted as beasts.—Dan. chaps. 2, 4, 7.
Frequently the prophets used a word or an expression in speaking of a person or a group with a view to imparting its characteristics to the individual or the group, that is, metaphorically. For example, Jehovah is described as “the Rock of Israel,” as a “crag” and a “stronghold,” so conveying the idea that God is a solid source of security. (2 Sam. 23:3; Ps. 18:2) Judah is said to be “a lion cub.” (Gen. 49:9) The Assyrians are said to be “the rod” for God’s anger.—Isa. 10:5.
On numerous occasions, the prophets acted out the message they had been commissioned to deliver, thus reenforcing the impact of the spoken word. Jeremiah foretold calamity for Jerusalem, and emphasized it by breaking a flask before the eyes of assembled older men of the people and of the priests. He foretold servitude to Babylon, and made it vivid by sending bands and yoke bars to various kings. (Jer. chaps. 19, 27) Isaiah walked about naked and barefoot to emphasize to the Israelites that it would be in this manner that the Egyptians and the Ethiopians, to whom they were looking for help, would be led away into exile. (Isa. chap. 20) Ezekiel engraved an illustration of Jerusalem on a brick, built a siege rampart against it, put an iron griddle between himself and his model and lay on his side facing it, to depict the coming siege of Jerusalem.—Ezek. chap. 4.
At times stories were related to emphasize the point to be conveyed. Jotham did this to show the landowners of Shechem their folly in selecting so vile a man as Abimelech for their king. (Judg. 9:7-20) In the book of Ezekiel an account was woven around two eagles and a vine, to illustrate the course of Judah in relation to Babylon and Egypt. (Ezek. chap. 17) Similarly, Ezekiel used two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, who became prostitutes, to illustrate the course of Samaria (the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel) and Jerusalem (Judah).—Ezek. chap. 23.
The illustrations mentioned here are only a few of the many illustrations of the Hebrew Scriptures. Virtually every Bible writer and prophet used illustrations, some being given to them directly by God himself in the form of visions, some in words, and some by means of actual realities, as, for instance, the tabernacle, which is called an “illustration.”—Heb. 9:9.
IN THE GREEK SCRIPTURES
The Christian Greek Scriptures, too, are filled with vivid illustrations. Jesus Christ, of whom it was said, “never has another man spoken like this,” had the greatest resources of knowledge from which to draw of any man who had ever lived on earth. (John 7:46) He is the one through whom everything was made by God. (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-17) He was intimately acquainted with all creation. Understandably, therefore, his comparisons were most apt, and his portrayal of human emotions reflected deep understanding. He was like the wise man of old, who said: “And besides the fact that the congregator had become wise, he also taught the people knowledge continually, and he pondered and made a thorough search, that he might arrange many proverbs in order. The congregator sought to find the delightful words and the writing of correct words of truth.”—Eccl. 12:9, 10.
Jesus appropriately identified his disciples as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” (Matt. 5:13, 14) He urged them to “observe intently the birds of heaven” and to “take a lesson from the lilies of the field.” (Matt. 6:26-30) He likened himself to a shepherd who was willing to die for his sheep. (John 10:11-15) To Jerusalem he said: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks together under her wings! But you people did not want it.” (Matt. 23:37) Hypocritical religious leaders he called “blind guides, who strain out the gnat and gulp down the camel!” (Matt. 23:24) And concerning a person who would stumble others, he declared: “It would be of more advantage to him if a millstone were suspended from his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”—Luke 17:1, 2.
While the illustrations used by Jesus could be short, terse expressions similar to the “proverbial sayings” found in the Hebrew Scriptures, they were usually longer and often were of story length and character. Jesus generally drew his illustrations from the surrounding creation, from familiar customs of everyday life, from occasional happenings or not-impossible situations, and from recent events well known to his hearers.
Some of Jesus Christ’s prominent illustrations
In the material that follows, you will find helpful information concerning the background and context of thirty of the illustrations used by Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry and recorded by the Gospel writers:
1. The two debtors (Luke 7:41-43)
Spoken in Galilee, 31 C.E. The purpose of the parable of the two debtors, one of whom owed ten times as much as the other, as well as the parable’s application are found in the context, Luke 7:36-40, 44-50.
The illustration was prompted by the attitude of Jesus’ host Simon toward the woman who came in and greased Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil. The presence of such an uninvited person was not regarded as unusual, for it seems that on some occasions uninvited persons could enter the room during a meal and sit along the wall, from there conversing with those reclining at the table in the center of the room. Jesus made fitting application of the situation of the two debtors, pointing out that Simon had failed to provide water for his feet, to greet him with a kiss and to grease his head with oil; these were courtesies customarily accorded a guest. But the woman who had many sins showed the greater love and hospitality toward Jesus, even though she was not his hostess. He then told her: “Your sins are forgiven.”
Spoken at the Sea of Galilee, apparently in 31 C.E. There are no clues to the interpretation in the illustration itself; but the explanation is plainly given at Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:14-20 and Luke 8:11-15. Attention is focused on the circumstances affecting the soil, or heart, and the influences that can hinder the growth of the seed, or the word of the kingdom.
Various means of sowing seed were used in those days. One common way was for the sower to carry a bag of seed tied across his shoulder and around his waist; others would form a pouch for the seed from a part of their outer garment. They would scatter the seed broadcast by hand as they walked. Seed was covered as soon as possible, before the crows and ravens could get it. But when the plowman left footpaths between fields unplowed, or if some seed fell on hard ground alongside the road, the birds ate up the seed that fell there. The “rocky places” were not spots where rocks were merely scattered in the soil; but, as Luke 8:6 says, the seed fell on the “rock-mass” or a concealed rock ledge on which there was very little soil. Plants from these seeds would soon wither in the sun. The soil where the thorns were had evidently been plowed, but it had not been cleaned of weeds, so they grew up and choked out the newly planted seeds. The stated yields of the productive seeds—a hundredfold, sixty and thirty—are well within reason. The sowing of seed and the various types of soil were familiar to Jesus’ hearers.
3. Weeds among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30)
Spoken at the Sea of Galilee, apparently in 31 C.E. Explanation is provided by Jesus, as recorded at Matthew 13:36-43, contrasting the “wheat” or the “sons of the kingdom” with the “weeds,” “sons of the wicked one.”
Oversowing a wheat field with weeds is a deed of enmity not unknown in the East. The “weeds” are usually believed to be poisonous bearded darnel (Lolium temulentum), its poisonous properties generally thought to stem from a fungus growing within these seeds. It has an appearance much like that of wheat until maturity, but then it can be readily identified. If eaten, it can result in dizziness and, under certain circumstances, even death. Since the roots of these weeds readily become intertwined with the roots of the wheat, to uproot them before harvest, even if they could be identified, would result in loss of wheat.
Spoken at the Sea of Galilee, apparently in 31 C.E. The subject is clearly stated to be “the kingdom of the heavens.”
The mustard grain was tiny and so it could be used to designate anything extremely small. (Luke 17:6) When fully developed, some mustard plants actually attain a height of ten to fifteen feet (3 to 4.6 meters) and have sturdy branches, thus virtually becoming a “tree,” as Jesus said. The force of the illustration lies, not in the final size of the “tree” in comparison to trees of the forest, but in the proportion between the smallness of the seed or grain and the large size of the “tree” that develops from it.
5. The leaven (Matt. 13:33)
Spoken at the Sea of Galilee, apparently in 31 C.E. Again, the subject is “the kingdom of the heavens.”
The “three large measures” are three saʹta or three seahs, equaling a total of about three-fifths of a bushel of flour. The amount of leaven would be small in comparison, but just a little can affect everything around it. The leaven was usually a piece of fermented dough left over from the last baking. It would silently cause a transformation of the actual nature of the entire mass of dough to which it was introduced.
6. The hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44)
Spoken by Jesus, not to the crowds, but to his own disciples near the Sea of Galilee, apparently in 31 C.E. (Matt. 13:36) As stated in the text, the subject is “the kingdom of the heavens,” which brings joy to the one finding it; and requires that he make changes and adjustments in his life and seek the Kingdom first, giving up everything for it.
7. The merchant seeking pearls (Matt. 13:45, 46)
Spoken by Jesus to his disciples near the Sea of Galilee, apparently in 31 C.E. He likens the kingdom of the heavens to a fine pearl of such value that a man sells all his possessions to acquire it.
Pearls are precious gems found in shells of oysters and certain other mollusks. Not all pearls are “fine,” however; some may be, not a translucent white, but yellow, or may have a dusky tinge, or they may not be smooth. Among ancients in the East the pearl was prized and brought delight to its owner. In this illustration, the merchant was seeking pearls; he had the discernment to appreciate the surpassing value of this one and he was willing to take the trouble to make all the arrangements needed and to part with all else to acquire it.—Compare Luke 14:33; Philippians 3:8.
8. The dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50)
Spoken by Jesus near the Sea of Galilee, apparently in 31 C.E. With this illustration Jesus describes a separating or culling out of those unfit for the kingdom of the heavens.
A dragnet is a net of rope or flax cords designed to be drawn along the bottom of a body of water. By means of it all kinds of fish would be gathered. The illustration was most appropriate for Jesus’ disciples, some of whom were fishermen. They well knew that some fish were unsuitable and had to be discarded because they did not have fins and scales and so were unclean and could not be eaten, according to the Mosaic law.—Lev. 11:9-12; Deut. 14:9, 10.
9. The unmerciful slave (Matt. 18:23-35)
Spoken in Capernaum, 32 C.E. The situation giving rise to Jesus’ use of the illustration is set out in Matthew 18:21, 22, and the application is stated in verse 35. It emphasizes how small the debts of our fellowmen to us are in comparison to our debt to God. The illustration impresses upon us as sinful humans, for whom God forgives so great a debt by means of Christ’s sacrifice, the need to show forgiveness for the relatively insignificant sins our fellowman commits against us.
A denarius equaled about 16c; so one hundred denarii, the smaller debt, equaled approximately $16.03. Ten thousand silver talents, the larger debt, equaled sixty million denarii, which is equivalent to over $9,600,000. The enormous size of the debt owed the king is indicated in that, according to Josephus, the provinces of Judea, Idumea and Samaria and certain cities together paid taxes in his day amounting to six hundred talents a year; Galilee and Perea paid two hundred. Jesus himself (in verse 35) states the principle expressed in the parable: “In like manner my heavenly Father will also deal with you if you do not forgive each one his brother from your hearts.”
10. The neighborly Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)
Spoken in Judea, apparently near Bethany, 32 C.E. The setting, recorded at Luke 10:25-29, shows that the illustration was given in reply to the question, “Who really is my neighbor?” The proper conclusion to be drawn from the illustration is shown in verses 36 and 37.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho led through wild and lonely terrain that was the scene of frequent robberies. So bad was it that, in time, a garrison was stationed there to protect travelers. Jericho was about fourteen miles (c. 23 kilometers) NE of Jerusalem. The priests, who were assigned to offer the sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem, and the Levites, who assisted them, were under the Law, reference to which gave rise to Jesus’ use of this illustration, to point out who the “neighbor” was toward whom the Law commanded the exercise of love. The Samaritans recognized the Law as expressed in the Pentateuch, but the Jews were not neighborly toward them, in fact, would have no dealings with them. (John 4:9) They viewed the Samaritans with great contempt (John 8:48), and there were those Jews who cursed them publicly in their synagogues and daily prayed to God that the Samaritans might not be partakers of eternal life. Oil and wine, poured into the wounds of the injured man, were often used for healing purposes. The two denarii that the Samaritan left with the innkeeper for the man’s care equaled about two days’ wages.—Matt. 20:2.
11. The persistent friend (Luke 11:5-8)
Spoken probably in Judea, in 32 C.E. The illustration was part of Jesus’ reply to his disciples’ request for instruction on how to pray. (Luke 11:1-4) As shown in verses 9 and 10, the point to be drawn from it is not that God is disturbed by our requests but that he expects us to keep on asking.
Hospitality is a duty in which people of the East love to excel. Even though the guest arrived unexpectedly at midnight, perhaps due to the uncertainties of travel then, his host felt compelled to provide food. Since it is often difficult to judge exactly how much bread a household will need to have baked, there was some borrowing among neighbors. In this case the neighbor had gone to bed. Since some homes, especially those of the poor, might consist of only one large room, his getting up would disturb the whole family, hence the man’s reluctance to grant the request.
12. The unreasonable rich man (Luke 12:16-21)
Spoken probably in Judea, in 32 C.E. The illustration was part of Jesus’ reply to a man who asked him to arbitrate in a matter of inheritance. As shown in verse 15, the point emphasized is that “even when a person has an abundance his life does not result from the things he possesses.” Compare it with what Jesus went on to say to his disciples, beginning in verse 22.
The Law required that two parts of everything belonging to the father be inherited by his eldest son. (Deut. 21:17) Apparently the dispute came about because of failure to respect this law; hence the warning against covetousness.
13. The unproductive fig tree (Luke 13:6-9)
Spoken probably in Judea, late in 32 C.E., a full three years after Jesus’ baptism. Report had just been made about Pilate’s killing some Galileans. Jesus had also cited the case of the death of eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and told the people that, unless they repented, they would all be destroyed. (Luke 13:1-5) Then he went on to use this illustration.
It was common to set both fig and olive trees in the vineyards at certain distances, so that, when the vineyards had a bad year, there would still be some income. New trees grown from cuttings usually produce at least a few figs within two or three years. The parallel between the three years mentioned in the illustration and the three years of Jesus’ ministry that had passed may be significant. The tree evidently appeared from a distance to be productive, but was deceptive. As a taxable item it was a burden, hence deserved to be destroyed.
14. The grand evening meal (Luke 14:16-24)
Spoken probably in Perea, apparently early in 33 C.E. Verses 1-15 give the setting; the illustration was stated at a meal to a fellow guest who said: “Happy is he who eats bread in the kingdom of God.”
It was customary to notify those previously invited to a feast when the meal was actually ready. Those who begged off from this grand evening meal preferred to pursue other interests that would normally seem quite reasonable. However, their responses showed that they had no real desire to be present, nor did they have proper regard for the host. Most of the ones later invited, the poor and crippled and lame and blind, and others finally brought in, are persons viewed by the world in general as unworthy.—Compare verse 13.
15. The one lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7)
Spoken probably in Perea, apparently early in 33 C.E. Luke 15:1, 2 shows that the illustration was prompted by the muttering of the Pharisees and the scribes over the fact that Jesus welcomed sinners and tax collectors. Matthew 18:12-14 records a similar illustration used on a different occasion.
Tax collectors, particularly those who were Jews, were hated because their occupation was to gather taxes for the hated Romans. They were held in scorn. Jesus’ illustration concerning the one lost sheep was one that his hearers would readily recognize from everyday life. A lost sheep is helpless; it is the shepherd who does the searching to recover it. The joy in heaven over the sinner who repents is in marked contrast to the muttering of the scribes and Pharisees over the concern that Jesus showed for such persons.
16. The lost drachma coin (Luke 15:8-10)
Spoken probably in Perea, apparently early in 33 C.E. The setting is found in Luke 15:1, 2, and this illustration immediately follows the one concerning the one lost sheep. Verse 10 points out the application.
A drachma was worth about 14c, almost a day’s wages. However, this lost coin may have had special value as one of a set of ten, perhaps an heirloom or part of a prized string used for adornment. It was necessary to light a lamp to search because the light opening in a home, if any, was usually quite small, and the sweeping would facilitate the search because the floor was generally just clay.
17. The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)
Spoken probably in Perea, apparently early in 33 C.E. The Pharisees and scribes were muttering because Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners and ate with them. Jesus replied by giving the illustrations of the one lost sheep and the lost coin, followed by this parable.
The inheritance of the younger son was half that of the elder brother, according to Jewish law. (Deut. 21:17) As the younger son went to a far country, so the Jews viewed the tax collectors as having left them to take up the service to Rome. To be forced to take up swineherding was degrading to a Jew, since these animals were unclean according to the Law. (Lev. 11:7) On his return home, the younger son asked to be accepted, not as a son, but as a hired man. Such a man was not even part of the estate, as were the slaves, but was an outsider hired, often for just a day at a time. (Matt. 20:1, 2, 8) The father called for a robe, the best one, for the younger son. This was not merely a simple article of clothing, but probably was a richly embroidered vestment such as was presented to an honored guest. The ring and sandals were possibly tokens of dignity and of a free man.
18. The unrighteous steward (Luke 16:1-8)
Spoken probably in Perea, apparently early in 33 C.E. The lesson to be drawn from the illustration is stated in verses 9-13. The steward is commended, not for his unrighteousness, but for his practical wisdom.
The steward was placed in charge of the affairs of his master; it was a position of great trust. (Gen. 24:2; 39:4) In Jesus’ illustration, the steward’s being dismissed meant that he was being sent out of the house, with no means of support. His lowering of the debts of his master’s debtors brought him no money but was done to win friends who might favor him in the future. One hundred bath measures of oil equaled 581 gallons (2,200 liters), and one hundred cor measures of wheat came to 620 bushels (22,000 liters).
19. The rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
Spoken probably in Perea, apparently early in 33 C.E. The setting, in Luke 16:14, 15, shows that the money-loving Pharisees were listening and sneering. But Jesus told them: “You are those who declare yourselves righteous before men, but God knows your hearts; because what is lofty among men is a disgusting thing in God’s sight.”
The “purple and linen” in which the rich man was decked out were comparable to garb worn only by princes, nobles and priests. (Esther 8:15; Gen. 41:42; Ex. 28:4, 5) They were very costly. Hades, to which this rich man is said to have gone, is the common grave of dead mankind. That it cannot be concluded from this parable that Hades itself is a place of blazing fire is made clear at Revelation 20:14, where death and Hades are described as being hurled into “the lake of fire.” The death of the rich man and his being in Hades must therefore be figurative, figurative death being mentioned elsewhere in the Scriptures. (Luke 9:60; Col. 2:13; 1 Tim. 5:6) So the fiery torment was experienced while he was figuratively dead but actually alive as a human. Fire is used in God’s Word to describe his fiery judgment messages (Jer. 5:14; 23:29), and the work done by God’s prophets in declaring his judgments is said to ‘torment’ those who oppose God and his servants.—Rev. 11:7, 10.
Lazarus is a Grecianized form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God has helped.” The dogs that licked his sores were apparently scavengers that roamed the streets and were viewed as unclean. Lazarus’ being in the bosom position of Abraham indicates his being in a position of favor (compare John 1:18), this figure of speech being drawn from the practice of reclining at meals in such a way that one could lean back on the bosom of a friend.—John 13:23-25.
20. Good-for-nothing slaves (Luke 17:7-10)
Spoken probably in Perea, apparently early in 33 C.E. Verse 10 shows the lesson to be drawn from the illustration.
Slaves who worked in the fields of their master also frequently served his evening meal. Not only was it the usual thing for them to wait until their master had eaten before they would do so, but often it was a matter of dispute as to which one of them would have the honor of waiting on him. It was not viewed as an extra burden but as something to which their master was entitled.
21. The widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8)
Spoken early in 33 C.E. As stated in verse 1, the illustration was “with regard to the need for them always to pray and not give up.” Verses 7 and 8 also show application. The illustration emphasizing prayer was particularly appropriate in view of what is stated in the preceding chapter, verses 20-37.
Apparently the judge was not connected with a Jewish tribunal. In the first century there were four Jewish courts: the village court, consisting of three men; a court consisting of seven older men of the village; in Jerusalem there were lower courts consisting of twenty-three persons each, and such courts were established in cities of sufficient size elsewhere throughout Palestine; and the principal court, the great Sanhedrin, consisting of seventy-one members, with its seat at Jerusalem and with authority over the whole nation. But the judge of the illustration does not fit into the Jewish judicial arrangement in which at least a three-man court officiated; so he must have been one of the judges or police magistrates appointed by the Romans. It is plainly stated that he did not fear God nor was he constrained by concern over public opinion. The illustration does not say that God is like the unrighteous judge; rather, it contrasts God with the judge. If this judge would finally do what was right, how much more so would God! Persistence on the part of the widow moved the unrighteous judge to act; God’s servants likewise must persist in prayer. God, who is righteous, will respond in answer to their prayer, causing justice to be done.
22. The self-righteous Pharisee and the penitent tax collector (Luke 18:9-14)
Spoken early in 33 C.E. The setting and the objective of the illustration are found in verses 9 and 14 respectively.
Those who went to the temple to pray did not go into the Holy or the Most Holy, but could enter the surrounding courts. These men, Jews, probably stood in the outer court, the Court of Women, as it was called. The Pharisees were proud and self-righteous, viewing other men with contempt. (John 7:47, 49) Even the designation “Pharisees” means “separated ones.” They fasted twice a week, though this was not required by the Mosaic law. The days they chose for this, it is reported, were the regular market days when many people would be in town and when special services were held in the synagogues and when the local Sanhedrin met; so their piety would be observed. (Matt. 6:16) The Jewish tax collectors were permitted to go to the temple, but they were hated for their service to Rome.
23. The workers paid a denarius (Matt. 20:1-16)
Spoken in Perea, in 33 C.E. The illustration is part of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27: “Look! We have left all things and followed you; what actually will there be for us?” Note also Matthew 19:30 and 20:16.
Grape-gathering time is a season of anxious concern for the owners of vineyards. Some workers are employed for the entire harvesttime; others are hired as the need becomes apparent. Payment of wages at the end of the day was in harmony with the Mosaic law; it was a necessity for poor laborers. (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14, 15) A denarius, which was payment for the day’s work, was a silver Roman coin. Its modern-day value would be about 16c. The day, from sunrise to sunset, was divided by the Jews into twelve equal parts; so the third hour would be about 8 to 9 a.m.; the sixth hour, about 11 a.m. to noon; the ninth hour, about 2 to 3 p.m.; and the eleventh hour, about 4 to 5 p.m.
24. The minas (Luke 19:11-27)
Spoken in or near Jericho, as Jesus was on his way up to Jerusalem for the last time, 33 C.E. (Luke 19:1, 28) The reason for the illustration, as stated in verse 11, was that “they were imagining that the kingdom of God was going to display itself instantly.”
It was a common thing in the Roman Empire for a person of noble birth to travel to Rome in quest of kingly power. Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, had done this, but the Jews sent fifty ambassadors to the court of Augustus to bring charges against him and, if possible, thwart his quest for power. The silver minas, one of which was initially given to each slave, in silver would each be worth $14.09 in today’s values, but equal to eighty-eight days’ wages then.
25. The two children (Matt. 21:28-31)
Spoken in the temple in Jerusalem, Nisan 11, 33 C.E. The illustration was part of Jesus’ reply to the questions in verse 23: “By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?” Having handled their questions, Jesus used some illustrations to show the religious leaders what kind of persons they really were.
Jesus points to the application of his illustration in verses 31 and 32. He indicates that the chief priests and the older men of influence to whom he was speaking were comparable to the first child, professing to serve God but actually failing to do so. On the other hand, the tax collectors and harlots who believed John the Baptist were like the second child, at first rudely refusing to serve God but later feeling regret and changing their course.
Spoken in the temple in Jerusalem, Nisan 11, 33 C.E., just three days before Jesus, God’s Son, was killed. This illustration too was in answer to the question about the source of Jesus’ authority. (Mark 11:27-33) Immediately after the illustration, the Gospel accounts state that the religious leaders realized that he was speaking about them.—Matt. 21:45; Mark 12:12; Luke 20:19.
The fence around the vineyard might have been of stone (Prov. 24:30, 31) or it might have been a hedge. (Isa. 5:5) The wine vat was frequently excavated in the rock and consisted of two levels, the juice flowing from the upper one to the lower. The tower was a lookout place for the guard, who was to keep out thieves and animals. In some cases, the cultivators employed received a certain portion of the fruits. In other cases, the cultivators paid rent in money or agreed to give the owner a definite amount of the produce, the latter apparently being the case in the illustration. By murdering the son, the heir, they may have thought to seize the vineyard as their own, since the one who planted it was out of the country. In Isaiah 5:1-7 the “vineyard of Jehovah” is said to be “the house of Israel.” As shown by the Gospel writers, Jesus quoted Psalm 118:22, 23 as a key to understanding the illustration.
27. The marriage feast for the king’s son (Matt. 22:1-14)
Spoken in the temple at Jerusalem, Nisan 11, 33 C.E. As indicated by verse 1, this illustration is a continuation of the discussion that precedes it and is part of Jesus’ reply to the question about the authority by which he carried on his work. (Matt. 21:23-27) For application, note verses 2 and 14.
Some months before this, Jesus had used a similar illustration concerning a grand evening meal to which many were invited; the invitees then showed preoccupation with other matters and disregard for their would-be host. (Luke 14:16-24) This time, just three days before his death, Jesus speaks, not only of unwillingness to come, but of a murderous spirit on the part of some of those invited. Their murder of the king’s representatives amounted to rebellion; so the king’s armies destroyed the murderers and burned their city. This was a royal wedding, and it is likely that a special garment was provided by the royal host for his guests on an occasion such as this. If so, the failure of one of the guests to be clothed with the marriage garment indicated that he has spurned the garment provided by the king when it was offered to him.
28. The ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13)
Spoken on the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem, Nisan 11, 33 C.E. This illustration concerning the “kingdom of the heavens” is part of Jesus’ reply to the question of his disciples recorded in Matthew 24:3. The purpose of the illustration is plainly shown in Matthew 25:13.
In those days an important feature of the marriage ceremony was the solemn bringing of the bride from her father’s home to the home of her bridegroom or the bridegroom’s father. The bridegroom, arrayed in his best attire, would leave his house in the evening for the home of the bride’s parents, escorted by his friends. From there the procession moved toward the home of the bridegroom accompanied by musicians and singers and usually by persons bearing lamps. The people along the route would take great interest in the procession; some would join it, particularly maids bearing lamps. (Jer. 7:34; 16:9; Isa. 62:5) The procession might be delayed until late, as there was no particular haste, so that some waiting along the way might get drowsy and fall asleep. The singing and exultation would be heard quite a distance ahead, those hearing it making the cry: “Here is the bridegroom!” Then, after the bridegroom and his entourage had gone into the house and closed the door, it was too late for tardy guests to enter. The lamps carried in the procession burned oil, and required frequent refilling.
29. The talents (Matt. 25:14-30)
Spoken on the Mount of Olives, Nisan 11, 33 C.E. This illustration about a man who was about to travel abroad was spoken by Jesus to four of his disciples just three days before his death, not long after which he ascended to heaven. It, too, is part of Jesus’ reply to the question found at Matthew 24:3.—Mark 13:3, 4.
Unlike the illustration of the minas, in which each slave was given just one mina, here the talents are given “to each one according to his own ability.” (Luke 19:11-27) The silver talent, which is apparently referred to here, would be worth $845.64 today, and that is as much as a laboring man could earn in fourteen years in those days. The slaves should all have been interested in the master’s estate and so should have traded diligently and wisely with the master’s goods committed to their care. The least they should have done was to deposit the money with the bankers, so that, if they did not themselves want to increase their master’s goods, the money would not lie completely idle, but would earn interest. But the wicked and sluggish slave hid in the ground the talent committed to him, thereby, in effect, working against his master’s interests.
30. The sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46)
Spoken on the Mount of Olives, Nisan 11, 33 C.E. As stated in verses 31, 32, 41, 46, what is here illustrated is the separating and judging of the people of the nations when the Son of man arrives in his glory. This illustration is part of Jesus’ reply to his disciples’ question concerning the ‘sign of his presence and the conclusion of the system of things.’—Matt. 24:3.
Sheep are sometimes used in the Scriptures to represent God’s people, and appropriately so, since they are easily led and are dependent on their shepherd. (Ps. 100:3; John 10:16) Goats, on the other hand, are more stubborn and independent. The “right hand,” where the “sheep” are put, is a place of honor. (Acts 2:33; Eph. 1:19, 20) The “left,” where the “goats” are put, represents a place of dishonor. (Compare Ecclesiastes 10:2.) Notice that the “sheep,” who are put on the right hand of the enthroned Son of man, are shown to be different from Jesus Christ’s “brothers,” to whom they did acts of kindness.—Matt. 25:34-40; Heb. 2:11, 12.
The book of Revelation
The book of Revelation concludes the Holy Scriptures with one of the most outstanding concentrations of illustrations found in the entire Bible. As the writer John himself relates, it was presented to him “in signs.” (Rev. 1:1) So it can truthfully be said that, from beginning to end, the Bible is outstanding for its use of appropriate illustrations.
Illustrations by Christ’s disciples
Besides recording the illustrations spoken by Jesus Christ, the Christian Bible writers also made good use of such. In the book of Acts, Luke records the fine illustrations used by the apostle Paul when talking to non-Jews in Athens. Paul referred to objects of devotion with which they were acquainted and to the writings of their own poets. (Acts 17:22-31) As a reading of the letter to the Hebrews will reveal, the same apostle (who is generally credited with writing this letter) freely used illustrations from the history of God’s dealing with Israel: To those in Corinth, who were familiar with Greek sports, he likened the Christian course to a race. (1 Cor. 9:24-27) Outstanding is the illustration of the olive tree, with its warning against complacency and its admonition to Christians to perform sacred service to God with their power of reason.—Rom. 11:13-32; 12:1, 2.
Jesus’ half-brother James nicely wove into his writing common circumstances of daily life, referring to a man looking in a mirror, the bridle of a horse, the rudder of a ship, and so forth, to drive home spiritual truths. (Jas. 1:23, 24; 3:3, 4) Peter and Jude drew heavily on earlier inspired writings for incidents to illustrate the message that they were moved by holy spirit to convey. All these fine illustrations, directed by the spirit of God, serve their purpose toward making God’s Word the Bible a living book.