Podcast Episode

Finding Meaning in the Parables

How do you determine the meaning of a parable? And how should you apply it to your life? In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss how to identify the meaning and significance of the parables of Jesus.

Episode 6
1hr 22m
Apr 20, 2020
Play Episode
Show Notes


Essentially, the way we understand Jesus’ meaning is to identify the main characters of a parable and note that each character is embodying some point—some part of the message.


  • Parables carry both meaning and significance. The meaning is what Jesus originally meant by the parable in his context, while the significance is how we experience that meaning. Both are essential to understand the parables.
  • One of the main ways to interpret the parables is to identify the main characters/objects in them. These characters each embody a part of the main message.
  • We honor Jesus and the tradition of his parables when we adapt their meaning and significance to our world today.

The Parables in Context

In part one (0:00–10:20), Tim and Jon recap the series so far. Tim explains that the word “parable” is a compound word in Greek meaning “to set alongside.” The parables are set alongside the reality of Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God, not just as moral ideals.

Many people grew up reading the parables through the lens of personal relationship with God. While this misses the original context, we should ask ourselves: how do Jesus’ parables about him in his world speak to people outside his context?

The Gospel authors recorded the parables because they saw enduring value in them. The original context can become a guide to the significance we pull from it today.

Meaning and Significance in the Parables

In part two (10:20–17:45), Tim and Jon discuss the difference between meaning and significance in the parables. Tim explains that meaning is what is intended to be understood while significance is how we experience that meaning. We should always strive to understand meaning while realizing that different people will experience the significance in different ways.

Tim shares that many Bible readers tend to listen for significance first, bypassing original meaning. How do we bridge both meaning and significance today?

Characters in a Parable

In part three (17:45–33:45), Tim and Jon talk about characters as a key way to identify meaning within the parables.

Parables have historically been interpreted between two extremes, allegorical and creative realism—either that meaning is in the eye of the reader, or there is only one main point to every parable. Jesus seems to interpret his own parables differently.

When Jesus tells parables, he identifies main characters in the story. The parable of the sower, for example, identifies one main character (the sower of the seed) with four sub-characters (the four soils) and a counter-character for each (the birds, rocks, thorns, and fertile ground). Craig Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables) prescribes this as the main way for understanding Jesus’ meaning in the parables—by seeing each character as embodying a part of the main message.

One way to tell whether an object is a character in a parable is to ask whether it is indispensable to the main plot. Characters can also serve together as composites (for example, the parable of the hired workers).

Tim and Jon walk through a few three-character parables. Many of these have an authority figure (father, king, master, landowner), usually embodying Jesus or God. Along with this authority figure are two subordinates, usually contrasting a positive and negative response (a slave, subject, son, debtor, etc.). The parable of the prodigal son is a classic example that is easy to understand and come away with the main meaning.

A Surprising Parable

In part four (33:45–49:15), Tim and Jon unpack two-character parables in the Bible. The first kind contrasts two opposite characters (like a tax collector and a Pharisee). These are similar to three-character parables, except in these cases, the listener serves as the evaluator. The second kind of two-character parable includes an authority figure and a subordinate.

Tim and Jon dive into a parable that has confused Jon for a long time—the parable of the shrewd manager.

Luke 16:1-13
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.

“For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

This parable shows a character who has to make a decision. He deals shrewdly with his master’s wealth, and in a surprise twist, the master commends him for his shrewdness. Jesus compares this to how those in the world deal with one another. Then Jesus brings a twist by pointing out that the manager was commended for valuing relationships over money.

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager: The Meaning

In part five (49:15–61:00), Tim and Jon continue to unpack the parable of the shrewd manager.

In Jesus’ mind, relationships are more important than money and should be served by money rather than the other way around. This is why the master praises the manager—not because he stole his money, but because the manager didn’t allow money to distract him from the greater goal of relationships. This is how Jesus views money and calls his followers to view it.

This parable forces the listener to decide what it is they trust.

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager: The Significance

In part six (61:00–67:30), Tim and Jon talk about the significance in the parable of the shrewd manager.

Tim points out that the rich man forces a choice. Whether we live for Jesus and his Kingdom forces a moment of decision on us. Will we trust that Jesus is more trustworthy than all the economic structures around us? If those who don’t know Jesus cheat one another because they know the value of relationships over money, then how much more should we use the money God has freely given us by God for the benefit of others?

Adapting the Parables

In part seven (67:30–end), Tim and Jon conclude the conversation with a review.

To read the parables well, first pay attention to the narrative context of the Gospel authors, namely Jesus announcing the Kingdom of God in the first century. Then, understand the significance of the parable for readers beyond the Gospel. Look for how the characters or other indispensable elements in the parables correspond to characters in the narrative. This whole package helps to define the parable’s significance for us today.

Finally, once you have the basic plot arc of the parable, understand the basic meaning and significance, Tim says that we owe it to Jesus to adapt these parables to our own day, just as he adapted the parables to his audiences.

Additional Resources

Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables

Show Music

  • Defender Instrumental by Tents
  • Ocean Patio bu Philanthrope x Dayle
  • Instrumental by Kaleidoscope
  • Jumping off the Porch by Broke in Summer
  • My Room Becomes The Sea by Sleepy Fish
  • doing laundry by weird inside

Show produced by Dan Gummel.

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Scripture References
Luke 18:10
Luke 16:1-15
Luke 15:2
Luke 8:1-3
Matthew 5:14
Isaiah 2:5
Luke 18:1-8
Matthew 6:26

Parables E6 Final
Finding Meaning in the Parables
Podcast Date: April 20, 2020
Speakers in the audio file:
Jon Collins
Tim Mackie


Jon: This is Jon at the BibleProject, and this is the last episode of our discussion on how to read the parables. In this conversation, we're going to look at some strategies for taking the ancient parables of Jesus and adapting them to our modern lives.

Tim: It seems to me that we owe it to him to give as much attention to how we translate them into our own cultural contexts, which means I think adaptation. You can watch Jesus adapting parables in the Gospels. A version of it in Matthew and a version in Luke will be a little bit different. And so if you get the main idea, I think it ought to inspire new creative adaptations of the parables in our own setting.

Jon: We're also going to look at one of my favorite parables, the parable of the dishonest and shrewd manager. In this parable, a manager finds out that he's going to get fired by his master. And so before he leaves, he comes up with a plan. He calls up all the people that owe his master money and he cooks the books for their benefit. And when the master finds out what this guy did...

Tim: The narrative says he was a dishonest manager. Jesus is perfectly clear. But it's like a joke that has a twist at the end. Instead of getting taken to court, the manager says, "You're still fired, but you're going to get ahead." So I think it's because the master commends him at the end, that's what leads us maybe to think, "Oh, this is a parable of praising certain kinds of behavior, namely, dishonesty."

Jon: What is going on here? Why did Jesus tell this parable? And if we can understand it, how can we apply its wisdom? Thanks for joining us. Here we go.

We're going to finish this conversation about how to read the parables. Tim: The parables of Jesus.

Jon: The parables of Jesus specifically.

Tim: Specifically. Yeah, that's right. There's lots of other parables in the Bible. In fact, we've now started this conversation so many days ago. Remember the word "parable"?

Jon: Oh, no.
Tim: Did we talk about the word "parable"?
Jon: The word parable.

Tim: How is it that I'm not bringing this up until the very last episode? I'm sorry.

Jon: Maybe it's perfectly timed.

Tim: It's a compound Greek word. "Parable" is from the Greek word "parabolē".

Jon: What's that called when it's just you're saying the word in English? That's the Greek word?

Tim: Well, it's a transliteration. "Parable" is a transliteration of the Greek word "parabolē". It's compound. "Para" is a Greek preposition "next to", and then "bolē" comes from a verb "cast" sometimes or "to set". To set alongside,.

Jon: To set alongside. It's a little parable in and of itself.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. It's a figure of speech. A parable refers to a saying, a teaching, or a story that sits alongside another reality. It's actually the same concept of metaphor, which is also a compound Greek word. But to set alongside. So Jesus wants to talk about how his Israelite audience faces a decision about his offer of the kingdom of God. So you have Jesus offering the kingdom to good people. So he tells a story about a king giving resources to some managers or stewards. So Jesus, king, money equals the offer of the kingdom; stewards equal his listeners for Israel at that moment.

Jon: So the thing that's happening in Jesus' life is something...
Tim: The reality.
Jon: The reality. And then the parable is set next to that.

Tim: Yeah. It's a little parallel reality that he weaves that helps you gain new insight through the parallel story into the real thing. It's set alongside. Remember our conversations about metaphor. This is from George Lakoff.

Jon: Metaphor.

Tim: We have a target that we want to describe or give new insight into. And so we borrow from a source domain to describe a target. I want to talk about, remember time, so our experience of time, which is very amorphous. But then the moment you take from the source domain of possessions, you can begin to form metaphorical themes alongside our reality of experience of time. So time is something that we spend, we lose it, we save it...

Jon: By comparing it to possession, you begin to understand it.

Tim: Basically, parables are extended metaphors. Instead of a short phrase or one word or image, the whole story of a parable becomes a large metaphor. So anyway, parabolē - set alongside.

Jon: Set alongside. However, we did go out of the way to show that if you tried to take every element of a parable and turn it into part of the metaphor, a metaphoric scheme, you could definitely go way beyond what Jesus was intending.

Tim: Correct. Last conversation, we'll talk about one of the most helpful kind of guidelines or controls on keeping our interpretations grounded. But we've already talked about a few. First of all, this is like going into recap mode.

Jon: Yeah, recap mode.

Tim: First of all, the parables were one of the most common ways Jesus communicated, not to talk about some other set of ideas of universal religious truths or moral ideals. The parables were in the service of his larger project, which was to announce and inaugurate God's reign and rule here on earth as it is in heaven.

Jon: Through him.

Tim: Through himself. And to form a group of people who were living under God's reign in this new and surprising way.

Jon: He was telling parables to explain what he was up to.

Tim: That's right. The parables are a commentary on what Jesus is doing in the actual stories in which he's telling the parables?

Jon: And then in our last episode, we talked about the parable of the...

Tim: What's called sometimes the talents or the king and his servants.

Jon: And it was so hard for me to unwind the way that I have read a parable, to then use that principle of what was Jesus doing in that moment, and why did he tell that parable to those people to explain what he was up to. And that Luke actually gives you the massive hint. Like Jesus was doing this because he saw his disciples were misunderstanding what it meant for him to go become king. So then he tells that parable.

And then we read that parable, I had that in my mind, "Okay, that's what this parable's about and I still couldn't follow it. I was like, "Whoa, I can't do it." But then we walked through that and it was really helpful, and still hard for me to let that become the way I'm understanding that parable.

Tim: It's as if our instincts are trained, and it's true in much of the Christian tradition, that the parables are about Jesus is talking about something else other than himself, and that the parables...that my first set of questions that I should ask, this is our expectation, I think is that they're about me and God. Jesus is telling a story about me and God. Because I'm one of his followers, this is his teaching. He teaches about how people relate to God, right? That's what moral religious teachers do. So it's a whole new context.

And ironically, it's the one that's been sitting there for 2000 years just patiently waiting for us to pay attention to the actual context. And I should say this isn't like a brand new idea. There are many people throughout church history who have been, I think, responsible for the parables, but it's tended to be a minority.

Jon: This reading of - what was that parable? Where was that at?

Tim: Luke 19.

Jon: Luke 19. One thing that this did to the parable, which is interesting to me, is it made it less mysterious and less like a riddle and made it in a way...Well, maybe that's not fair. But because it's not about me, it becomes less interesting.

Tim: Oh, interesting.
Jon: You know what I mean?
Tim: Okay, interesting.

Jon: When it was about potentially me, then I could put myself into that parable. Now I just want to like sit in it and think about it. But if we go, okay, so this was about the people around Jesus and these reactions to the king were all about the specific types of reactions that his followers and the people who are against him we're going to be doing in the next couple of weeks, and that this whole idea of more will be given and being wise with what you already have was for the disciples to prepare them to go out and be commissioned by Jesus, that's helpful. But then it just kind of makes me to be like, "Okay." Kind of neuters it a little bit for me.

Tim: Sure. I hear that. And I think that's because we haven't taken the last step yet, which is to ask, how do Jesus' parables about himself given to his contemporaries, how does Jesus' story and those parables, how do they speak to people who aren't sitting there in that moment? And do they at all?

Jon: Because Luke wrote it for someone who's not sitting there.

Tim: Yes, that's exactly the point. Luke obviously thinks all these parables in Matthew and Mark have enduring value beyond just the moment when Jesus spoke them to his contemporaries. That's why they're in the Gospels. It's dual, though. They're not just in there because they think now they can speak to us only. They're in there because one, they give us a window into what Jesus was actually saying and claiming about himself.

How do we bridge that gap? Actually, this is the very next step that we're going to talk about. But the first most important thing is that we understand what Jesus meant by this parable in the moment when he speaks it in the narrative context that the Gospels have provided. And that should be our guide to its meaning, which can then bridge us to the next step to say, "Okay, what is the significance of what Jesus was saying to them? What is its significance to me?


Tim: As we're making that transition, I realized I think we've had...this is a pretty meta conversation in biblical interpretation about the meaning of meaning. Where do you locate the meaning of a text like the Gospels? I'm going to make this not too theoretical.

[crosstalk 00:11:09]

Tim: A helpful distinction in history of literary interpretation and biblical interpretation in the mid-20th century, it's a guy named E.D. Hirsch. I think he coined it. This is very handy distinction that's been very helpful to me, the difference between meaning and significance. I don't think we've talked about this.

Jon: No.

Tim: Okay. It's really, actually simple. Meaning is what I intend you to understand from the words that I'm speaking to you. So it's author or communicator-focused or sourced. Let's make this very practical. When you're listening to your wife Tristen talk, in theory...

Jon: She has a meaning behind the words.

Tim: ...she's trying to communicate something to you, and you will do well to discern not what you think she means. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

No, you'd listen because she might be saying something new you've never heard her say before. So it's communicator-focused. So when you're looking at a literary text, we don't have access to the person behind it anymore, but we assume that the literary text embodies the meaning they want to communicate.

Hirsch drew a distinction between that and what he called significance. Significance is more listener and reader-focused, which is if you just get home from work and Tristen is communicating, what she doesn't know yet is the kind of day you've had. And so she can't predict the significance that her meaning will have based on the day that you had. So it could be that you're just in such a great mood and whatever, she tells you something, and it just you light up in a way that she didn't anticipate because it makes you so excited. And that's because her meaning, which was something she could comprehend and try to get to you but she had no idea the significance of how that might land with you. Because that has to do with you and your experience. There you go. That's the idea of meaning versus significance.

Jon: Meaning is what I intend as the communicator. Significance is now that you understand my meaning, what does that mean to you or how does that affect you?

Tim: In English, we can actually say, what does that mean to you? What we really intend is what's the significance of that for you. Because it's not like the person now means something different. It's not what the person meant...

Jon: Here's what they meant.

Tim: Here's what they meant.

Jon: And that's one thing. Get to that...

Tim: Honor that.

Jon: ...and now, how does that affect you?

Tim: That's right. And in theory, we should care about what people mean just because we care about other people and care about what they mean.

Jon: Right. It's a kind way to live in the world.

Tim: However, none of us listen without interests. We typically start paying attention at the moment we think that something matters to me and is significant to me, sadly. Oh, gosh, this happens all the time. I am incapable of listening to two streams of communication at the same time.

Jon: Oh, yeah, I don't think anyone can do that.
Tim: Well, my wife does it regularly.
Jon: Really?

Tim: Oh, yeah. She can listen to what I'm saying and what both sons are saying like at the same time and like sort it out. This happens regularly where one of my sons is singing and the other son is listening to an audiobook and then Jessica is trying to communicate something to me. This happed the day before yesterday. And she just gets like a minute into telling me something, it's probably important, and I just have to choose at that point, like, "Okay, am I going to just go along with this or do I just, you know, "Sweetie, I'm sorry. I didn't hear anything. You've been talking for so long, and I didn't hear any of that."

Jon: It's the last thing that your wife wants to hear.

Tim: And it's usually when I start to clue in like, "Oh, what she's telling me, I have to like do something or respond." I'm interested. And I realize, "This has huge significance for me," and so then I respond and start listening.

Jon: Yeah, that's interesting. I'm really bad at that. I am constantly being distracted by things. I would guess way more than the average person am I in a situation where someone's talking to me and I realize, "I've no idea what they're saying right now." I was somewhere else. And I have to make the decision, "Do I stop them and make them start again or do I just try to pick it up and figure it out." And I usually just try to pick it up and figure it out. It usually works. But I think people could tell like, "I don't know if Jon's a pretty good listener."

Tim: The whole point is our listening is more complicated than we often think.

Jon: No. The whole communication theory thing is very complicated. I can appreciate this distinction. I have a meaning and when I communicate, and when that lands for you, it has a meaning beyond my meaning.

Tim: Correct. I like how Hirsch uses a different word because then it makes the word "meaning" less confusing. Right?

Jon: It has a significance.

Tim: Because all of a sudden, I feel like for me it's helpful to...Man, you could footnote this with many books about the problem of defining meaning. There are some problems in defining meaning only in terms of the speaker's intention or the purpose. But I just want to set that aside. I think the instinct that most Bible readers are trained to look for first is significance. And what we tend to do is bypass or ignore meaning and just cut right to significance.

Jon: What did Jesus mean and what's the significance of it for me?

Tim: For me, yeah. Those are distinct but related realities, and I want to make sure that the significance I'm drawing is really what Jesus intended.

Jon: Cool.

Tim: That was simple. We could have had a 45-second conversation about that. But I think it's a valuable point. So how do we begin to draw significance that's connected to Jesus' meaning?


Tim: We know that there are two extremes in the history of interpretation of the parables. We talked about this. There's the allegorical field day where every single little detail is given symbolic significance and the decodering is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. The other extreme is to say, listen, it's all just creative realism. There's only one main from any given parable.

However, when Jesus explains his own parables, which he does a few times, it's clear that he does see different symbols that stand for different things. The parable of the four soils. So let's just take Jesus' method as a guide. What has Jesus done? What he's done is identified the main characters in his story.

So you have a farmer sowing seed. That's the word of the kingdom implied. He's the farmer sowing seed. Sowing God's seed. And then each soil is like a character. And then there's a counter character for each character. You have a main character, the soil, and then you have the birds or the thorns or the rocks. That kind of thing. There may be other details in the parable, but notice Jesus, he's just drawing attention to the key focal character points of the story. That's how he unpacks it.

Jon: Got it.

Tim: Craig Blomberg in his very helpful book, "Interpreting the Parables", turns that into kind of like a rule of thumb. That essentially the way we understand Jesus' meaning is to identify the main characters of a parable, and note that each character is embodying some point, some part of the message. And he advocates that that's the surest and most reliable guide that we don't go overboard.

Jon: Because you could take any element of Jesus' parable and say, "Maybe this has some sort of hidden meaning."

Tim: That's right.

Jon: But then you can get out of control and have a field day. So how do you know what parts of Jesus parable actually do have meanings that you're supposed to clue into? And what you're saying is one sure-fire solution is to focus on characters. It acts like a character, it's embodying...

Tim: One of the key messages of the story.

Jon: ...a key message.

Tim: Sometimes there's only one character. You know, a woman hides leaven. However, even there there's two elements to that character. There's what Jesus is actually comparing the kingdom of God to is the leaven.

Jon: Was leaven a character then? Tim: The leaven becomes the character.

[crosstalk 00:20:53]

Jon: ...when does an object become a character?

Tim: I think it's fairly intuitive about a woman placing leaven in the dough. That's what the kingdom of God is like. So there the woman is God and the leaven is like a character. So I guess you'd say that's like a very simple two-character parable.

Jon: The leaven is a character.

Tim: Yeah. Sheep are characters, coins are characters.

Jon: I mean, anything can become a character. But when does something become a character?

Tim: I think when it's crucial to the plot. Take that element out of the plot, the story falls apart.

Jon: Really?
Tim: Mm hmm.
Jon: Now I feel like we're just using the word "character" pretty loosely.
Tim: Oh, okay. I guess you're right. Characters or objects crucial to the plot.\

Jon: Objects crucial to the plot.

Tim: Yeah, it's like a diagnostic. It's to say, "Hmm, did Jesus mean something by this parable?"

Jon: Element in the period?

Tim: Does Jesus mean something by this particular detail? Well, if I took this detail out, does it change the nature of the story? Does it change the plotline? If you take the leaven out...

Jon: And I'm sure if you take a character out, it will. Unless the character was just some random flourish.

Tim: That's right. In the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan puts the injured man on his donkey and binds his wounds with oil.

Jon: So is the donkey a character?

Tim: Is the donkey a key symbol? What does the donkey symbolize? What does the oil symbolize? At its basic in that story, there's the man who gets injured, there's a Levite, there's a priest, and then there's a helper - the Samaritan. That's it. That's the plotline. And then the helper has all kinds of different little agents and instruments. A donkey, oil, the innkeeper, and so on. But all of those just serve as one corporate character.

Jon: So the point you're making now is, is the character or object or I suppose you could even now talk setting, is any of those elements crucial to the plot?

Tim: Indispensable.

Jon: Indispensable.

Tim: Without that element that it would be a different story altogether.

Jon: Maybe the reason why you lead with characters is that generally speaking...

Tim: Most often.

Jon: ...most often a character is indispensable to the plot. In fact, maybe we couldn't even think of an example in a parable, a character is dispensable.

Tim: And that's because in narratives in general characters are the conveyors of narrative's meaning.

Jon: I mean, we could come up with examples of narratives, even really good narratives where you could take a character out and the plot still works.

Tim: Sure. In which case you would say they're minor characters. And then typically, they are little sub-elements of a larger...sometimes characters are composite. For example, of the generous, the guy who goes out and hires people all day long, he hires people at the beginning of the day and then all these hours of the day. But in the end, it's the guys who came first, who got hired first in the day, they're the ones who speak up, and they're angry at everybody who came after them. So then all of a sudden, it's a three-character parable.

Jon: Got it.
Tim: It's the landowner, the grumpy guys...
Jon: Guys that worked the longest.

Tim: ...and then everybody else got hired later, which is a composite character. Really it's a three-character parable. But character slots can sometimes be composite and have other indirect, have a donkey, have some oil, have an innkeeper. That kind of thing. I love this about you. In your search for clarity, you problematize everything which is wonderful. I love it. That's what I love about our conversations because you're helping me clarify even more.

Let's just look at some examples. Jon: Okay

Tim: Let's just quickly survey some three-character parables. Something we've looked at already. A huge number of Jesus' parables have an authority figure: Father, king, master landowner, and usually they embody or symbolize either himself or the God of Israel. And of course, that's on purpose that those are kind of blurred together often in the parables. And then that usually there's two subordinates of some kind contrasted as one positive, one negative. So a slave, a subject, a son, a debtor, a manager, that kind of thing.

So if you think through that each character embodies a main point, it's pretty intuitive. Let's take the prodigal son, for example. So you got two contrasting sons. The character who gets the most airtime in Jesus' space is the foolish, younger son. So they embody a main principle that Jesus is trying to get across. There are people who are foolish, completely foolish, who don't deserve some - decide - generosity, mercy, grace, forgiveness.

Jon: Foolish and self-focused in a way that ruins relationships.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. He cuts himself off from his family. You've got a surprisingly generous merciful father, who wants to reintegrate his son back into the family. Then you have the older brother who holds a grudge, and so on, against his younger brother. I think it's it's fairly intuitive. Each one of those communicates something.

So here's how Blomberg summarizes that. He says, "Like the foolish prodigal son who returns and finds forgiveness, even the most serious human failure doesn't close the door on God's mercy." So notice what he's done there. In the context, Jesus is talking about his reception of people that the Pharisees have put on outside of Israel. Tax collectors, sex workers, many of the poor, and destitute. So he's taken Jesus' parable commentary on them and he's turning it into a larger principle.

Jon: He's finding the significance?

Tim: I think so.

Jon: If I remember correctly, this parable is part of the lost...

Tim: The three lost.

Jon: The three lost parables. Lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. These were all told in the context of - was this...? It was the context?

Tim: Yeah. Religious leaders who think that Jesus should be ashamed of himself.

Jon: Was it when the woman comes to...No, no, that's different.

Tim: No, this is just they see Jesus throwing Kingdom of God parties for all these people who are changing their ways and following the way of Jesus. And they resent Jesus.

Jon: So the meaning that Jesus has for this parable is he wants them to understand that what he's doing is he's extending God's generous love and forgiveness of God to those people, those outcasts in his immediate context?

Tim: Yeah. The people who look like failed Israelites, they are failures of keeping the covenant.

Jon: So much so that you compare them to someone who squandered inheritance in a foreign land and has nothing to show for it. He's even defiled himself by raising pigs, which he shouldn't do.

Tim: That's right. We're seeing in that character that's an ethos to the Jesus movement that continues right on through into the Jesus movement, that the church is founded by the apostles. And it should be a part of the ethos of a Jesus movement. There is nobody who's too far gone. There's nobody who's to failed as a human.

Jon: So you just turned it into what's the significance for the Jesus movement?

Tim: Yeah, I just turned it into like a theological principle for the Jesus movement at large. But that's truly what Jesus is trying to do with a story like this is communicate a core ethic of the kingdom of God. There's nobody who's too failed to be human being to receive God's mercy and find a new start.

Jon: That's interesting. So Jesus is, through these characters, explaining a core ethic of the kingdom of God. It has a meaning for his context right then. But then anyone who hears it, even if they're in that context or beyond, can see that meaning and see the ongoing significance of it.

Tim: Totally. It's actually so intuitive that we forget that Jesus actually meant something by it in a historical context. We immediately go to the significance for me and all people of all time. Usually that's where we go first. And in the prodigal son, it's not that hard.

Jon: No, it's one of the easiest ones to do.

Tim: Totally. That's why I'm doing it first. The same about the generous father. It's such a patent image of Jesus' description of the God of Israel. Generous, indiscriminate...

[crosstalk 00:29:44] Jon: Foolishly generous.

Tim: Yeah, totally. And then the image of the grumbling older brother who resents...It's actually such a universal image of having a sibling that you resent because your parents did something for them. That's such a universal...I guess it depends on if you have a family and siblings. But it's a pretty widespread phenomenon to have siblings and if your sibling blows it...

Jon: To feel like there's some favoritism?

Tim: Yeah. Or just your sibling blows it and you feel like they don't deserve the mercy or forgiveness that your parents give them.

Jon: It's a common human condition to think that other people don't deserve forgiveness.

Tim: Totally. And that's even more universal. That's right.

Jon: This shows up a lot in siblings.

Tim: Totally. I'm just saying that the actual narrative image of a sibling resenting their other sibling for something that parents do is pretty widespread experience.

Jon: In the way that Blomberg says the old brother should not have begrudged his brother's restoration. So those who claim association with God shouldn't elevate themselves but those who are supposedly undeserving of God's grace.

Tim: Yeah, that's his summary. I think that's exactly right. The prodigal son, there's a reason why it's one of the most famous parables of Jesus. So intuitive how Jesus' meaning speaks a significant message. And notice what he's done is he's located each of the three characters.

So there are other things in the story and actually, things that I think are significance. A Jewish storyteller talking to a Jewish audience, meant to assumed a Jewish characters, he goes out to the Gentiles, he's becomes a slave feeding pigs, which is like the iconic animal of people dividing line between kosher and non-kosher Jew and non-Jew. He returns home. So I think there are echoes of the story of Israel here on a large scale level, but I wouldn't, therefore, say the pigs symbolize the Gentile nation. I think we're probably pressing it too far. The pea pods or the carob pods or whatever that he longs to eat symbolize this or that.

Jon: Or the ring that the father gives him symbolizes something specific.

Tim: Yes. My Greek teacher used to say this. He said, "The good ship Exegesis is flown by the seat of our pants." And it took me so long to understand what that means.

Jon: I don't know what that means.
Tim: Let's say you're sailing a ship called Exegesis.
Jon: Which is how you interpret?

Tim: Which is a fancy word for interpretation. It means to bring out meaning. So the good ship Exegesis is flown, which is the sailing term for sailing. Though, now that we have planes we think it means flying.

Jon: Sailing is a lot of fun.

Tim: So good ship Exegesis is flown by the seat of our pants. Which you know, he would smirk, and then we would spend one hour parsing all the verb and paragraph or something. Which is not flying by the seat of your pants. That's being very methodical. The point is that there is an element of judgment call in all interpretation. So what we're looking for is just using our best historically informed, sensibilities. And I think Blomberg really helps us here. That landing on the main characters is a really reliable guide to the main message that is meant by Jesus in a parable. Three character parables.

Jon: Yes, there are three character parables. Tim: Let's look at some two character parables.


Tim: Often, there's two types of two-character parables for Jesus. Sometimes he'll contrast a good or positive character or object with the negative one. So a tax collector and a Pharisee go up to the temple to pray. The tax collector says, "Lord have mercy on me."

Jon: This is the one that always sound like a joke setup.

Tim: That's right. And the Pharisees says, "Oh, God, thank you that I'm not like that tax collector." And so it's just become very clear. Each of the characters embodies a message or a character type that you do and don't want to be like. Those are contrasting ones.

You have a wise builder of a house on the rock, foolish builder of the house on the sand. You have a house owner who locks up his house, and if he knows there's a thief in the neighborhood, he stays up and he's alert. Then you have the thief who wants to break in and only take for himself. That kind of thing. Those are fairly intuitive. The contrast is usually between people's motives, or behavior, their values, and the outcome.

Oh, this is interesting. This is the point Blomberg makes. The difference between those type of two-character parables where you have to contrasting characters, it's very similar to the three-character parables. Like a foolish son and then a begrudging son. That kind of thing. Or you have a good servant and a bad servant. In the three-character parables, you have an authority figure who evaluates. In two-character parables, the listener is the evaluator. You become the authority figure. So it's like the balls in your court to evaluate.

Jon: Which is wiser.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. And this relates to another type of two-character parable, which is oftentimes there is an authority figure and a subordinate figure. But often these are some of the most difficult parables because once again, you're trying to figure out and evaluate the authority figure's evaluation of the subordinate. The one of the parables you puzzle over the most it's in this category.

Jon: The shrewd manager.
Tim: The shrewd manager.
Jon: Cool. We get to talk about it?
Tim: Let's do it right now. Do you want to read it?

Jon: Sure. Three character parables, authority figure, someone under the authority. Two people, one that usually is good, one that is bad generally. Two character parables, there's two types we're talking about. One is there's no authority figure. There's just two contrasting subordinates. And then there's another type where there's actually an authority figure and just one subordinate. So there's no subordinate to compare them to. There's the interaction between the authority figure and the subordinate.

Tim: Yeah, you're just watching. So you're watching and you're paying attention to how the authority figure evaluates the subordinate. And then you yourself are trying to evaluate the subordinate. And there's an interesting interplay. These are amazing parables because it's the interplay. The authority figure in the parable and the listener become different evaluators of the subordinate. And sometimes it makes a fascinating parable. This is sounding abstract. This will be perfectly clear once we read the parable.

Jon: This is Luke 16. "Jesus said to his disciples, 'There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him (the manager) that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.' He's terminated. He got fired.

Tim: Yeah, he got notice.

Jon: "The manager said to himself, 'What am I going to do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.'

So, he summoned his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master? He said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' The manager said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' He said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.' The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. "One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?" Puzzling parable.

Tim: It's a great parable. Jesus tells this immediately after the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son. The next sentence is, "And he also said to his disciples..." It's the next thing. So if you're reading a red-letter Bible, Luke 15 is almost all red letters. And then you move right into the red letters of this teaching right here.

Right after you finish reading, Jesus has this famous line: "No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Now the Pharisees loved money. They were listening to Jesus talk about this and we're making fun of him, scoffing at him. And so he said to them..." And then he goes on, and he gives another long speech.

But so the point is, is that this is a follow up still addressing the Pharisees about the questionable company that he meets. Remember?

Jon: Yeah.

Tim: 15, what we just talked about. And then also the response to this is people thinking Jesus has an unrealistic view of money, they make fun of him. I just want to say that's the response to this parable. Whatever Jesus is doing with this parable, we need to make sense of both the narrative context before...

Jon: And after.

Tim: ...and what people take away from it. Which is to say, "This guy's crazy. What a ridiculous view of money this guy has."

Jon: And his thing about two masters. That's interesting. Okay.

Tim: We're doing step one, which is to honor the narrative context of the parable. So whenever I come across the parable of Jesus, I scan up to see what's the last narrative moment, and is that significant? I scan down. Is there a narrative after this that helps me understand. In this case, we get two. We get it on both sides.

Jon: And the one before is about - we already talked about it - Pharisees think Jesus is being too loose and he's being generous too in offering God's forgiveness. They are too outside, and he tells the story of the lost sheep, lost coin, and the parable of the lost son. And then immediately, he goes into this next parable, which seems unrelated.

Tim: Yeah, at first. We'll ponder it, and see how it is or isn't related.
Jon: But he tells it to his disciples not to the Pharisees.
Tim: True. However, the Pharisees do overhear...
Jon: They're listening.

Tim: ...and they respond.

Jon: So it's like he tells the stories to the Pharisees, or is he talking to his disciples the whole time?

Tim: No. Back in chapter 15, "The Pharisees were grumbling saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'" He told them this parable.

Jon: Okay. So he tells the three parables to the Pharisees. He turns to His disciples and then he tells them a fourth parable. And this fourth parable has two characters. An authority figure (the rich man), and the subordinate (the manager). The rich man is firing the manager.

Tim: This is good. Notice, Jesus doesn't want us to think about the reasons why. Jesus is rushing everything to the moment of getting fired and the guy's response.

Jon: The reason why he was wasting his possession.

Tim: That's right. Wasting his possessions. Why and how? Well, we don't know. But it does set a context for what he is also about to do. Wasting, well, I mean, that could mean so many things. But Jesus apparently doesn't want us to focus on that.

Jon: If you're managing someone's wealth, then your expectation is your wealth will grow or at least maintain

Tim: Maintain or grow.

Jon: And if you say like, "Hey, this manager I have less wealth this month and last month. And even last month before. Something's wrong with this manager."

Tim: "I got to fire him."

Jon: "I got to fire him." It makes perfect sense.

Tim: It makes perfect sense.

Jon: He's mismanaging.

Tim: The rich man isn't necessarily a good guy or a bad guy. He's a neutral character doing something sensible.

Jon: And we don't know if the managers just was doing it on purpose, just had a bad run of market bets.

Tim: Although Jesus' disciples, we know a lot of them were made up of lower class. So they would have a negative view of people with a lot of wealth.

Jon: Oh.

Tim: That's just the nature of the social situation. Rich landowners and managers are not popular to the majority of craftsmen and day laborers and the poor in Galilee in Jesus' time. It's totally different economic setup.

The guy gets fired. And then we get a window into his psyche. What am I going to do?

Jon: Can polish up my resume.

Tim: So notice we're back to this theme. An authority figure brings a moment of reckoning that forces a crisis of decision on the character. Huge motif in Jesus' parables. So we're in that neighborhood of an authority figure...

Jon: So this is a crisis parable?

Tim: The parable about this guy had to make a decision. Sometimes, yeah, that's right.

Jon: What were the three categories again? There was parables about the nature of God's kingdom, the surprising nature...

Tim: The surprising nature or...

[crosstalk 00:44:11]

Jon: The ethic of God's kingdom.

Tim: Second is parables about the value set, the upside-down value system, and ethic.

Jon: And the third is about a crisis.

Tim: Is the focus on the crisis of decision that God's kingdom forces on Israel of his day and what you're going to do about it.

Jon: I think this is a third category.

Tim: Well, I'm just saying, it's about a character whose authority figure forces him to make a decision.

Jon: It's interesting because I've always read it in terms of ethic one. Like, "Oh, so there's something about how I should be behaving?"

Tim: Okay. Yeah, yeah, got it. Good. That's a great example of the assumptions that we bring too. Jesus' teachings are, well, either moral religious truths about God and me, or their ethical truths about how I should live.

Jon: So what's so confusing about this

Play Episode

7 Episodes

Episode 7
Parables in Context – Parables Q+R
Why didn’t Paul use more parables? Is the parable of the four soils about salvation, or something else? In this episode, Tim and Jon answer these and other excellent audience questions on the parables of Jesus.
51m • Apr 23, 2020
Episode 6
Finding Meaning in the Parables
How do you determine the meaning of a parable? And how should you apply it to your life? In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss how to identify the meaning and significance of the parables of Jesus.
1hr 22m • Apr 20, 2020
Episode 5
Decoding the Parables
Tim and Jon talk about the first of three questions to ask ourselves when reading parables and look at the symbols Jesus wove into his parables.
1hr 11m • Apr 13, 2020
Episode 4
The Crisis of Decision
The parables of Jesus force a choice for his listeners. Will they embrace the upside-down value system of the Kingdom of God, or will they refuse to participate in the party? In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss two additional themes of the parables.
52m • Apr 6, 2020
Episode 3
Parables as Subversive Critique
Jesus often used parables as a means of indirect communication to critique and dismantle his listener’s views of the world in order to show them the true nature of God’s Kingdom. In this episode, Tim and Jon talk about the role of the parables in persuading listeners through subversive critique.
1hr 3m • Mar 30, 2020
Episode 2
Jesus and the Parables of the Prophets
Many of Jesus’ parables sound oddly similar to the parables of the prophets. This isn’t coincidence. Jesus saw himself as fulfilling the role of a prophet to Israel’s leaders. In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss the parables as part of Jesus’ prophetic role to Israel.
1hr 14m • Mar 23, 2020
Episode 1
The Purpose of Parables
Parables are a common tool, even today, for teaching morals through short stories. But is this how Jesus used them? In this first episode of a new series, Tim and Jon talk about what parables are and how Jesus used them in surprising ways.
1hr 11m • Mar 16, 2020
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