What is a parable?
Yes, it’s a story…but what kind of story? What is its purpose? Why did Jesus tell so many parables? How can we better understand parables so that we can better understand (and thus reconstruct) the Parable of the Shrewd Manager?
Let’s begin at the beginning. Jesus told a lot of parables; I bet Jesus told more parables than those which exist in the Bible. Why did he tell so many of these little stories? For one thing, stories are easy to remember. Stories are also very effective at conveying large and complex ideas with relatively simple language. For an itinerant preacher who was trying to change the world, no better tool existed than the parable!
According to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, the word parable originally comes from the Aramaic word “mathelin” in Mark 4:10, which means “riddles”. “Mathelin” was later translated into the Greek word “parabole” which can mean “riddle” or “puzzle”. Fee and Stuart point out that there are at least four types of parables: True parables, similitudes, metaphors, and epigrams.
- The parable of the Good Samaritan is a “true parable”; it is a simple story, nothing more
- The parable of the Yeast in the Dough is a “similitude”; what is true of the ‘yeast’ in the parable is always true of yeast
- The parable of the Salt of the Earth is actually a metaphor
- The parable of Picking Grapes From Thorn Bushes is an epigram
Fee and Stuart contend (and I agree) that the true reason Jesus used parables was that the purpose of a parable is to “call forth a response on the part of the hearer.” Jesus wasn’t just trying to paint word-pictures or impart truth; He was trying to get people to DO SOMETHING.
But to understand what Jesus wants us to do we must first understand the “points of reference” in each parable. Luckily, our earlier analysis of the Characters in this parable did this work for us. Do you remember the main characters called out in the parable?
- The Rich Man
- The Shrewd Manager
- The Debtors
The meaning of this parable also lies in understanding who the original audience was, and yes, we’ve covered this ground as well in our analysis of the Setting! Based upon the text (and the preceding three parables in Luke) the primary audience was probably a gathering of Jesus’ disciples and a separate group of Pharisees.
- When you look at the list of characters in the story (Rich Man, Shrewd Manager, Debtors) and the people who were probably present at the original telling of this parable (Jesus, Disciples, Pharisees) what stands out to you? Do you see Jesus drawing any comparisons between the “points of reference” in this parable and His audience?
- What kind of parable is the Parable of the Shrewd Manager? How should this influence our interpretation?