The word parable (Hebrew mashal; Syrian mathla, Greek parabole) signifies in general a comparison, or a parallel, by which one thing is used to illustrate another. It is a likeness taken from the sphere of real, or sensible, or earthly incidents, in order to convey an ideal, or spiritual, or heavenly meaning. As uttering one thing and signifying something else, it is in the nature of a riddle (Hebrew khidah, Gr. ainigma or problema) and has therefore a light and a dark side ("dark sayings", Wisdom 8:8; Sirach 39:3), it is intended to stir curiosity and calls for intelligence in the listener, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear" Matthew 13:9. Its Greek designation (from paraballein to throw beside or against) indicates a deliberate "making up" of a story in which some lesson is at once given and concealed. As taking simple or common objects to cast light on ethics and religion, it has been well said of the parable that "truth embodied in a tale shall enter in at lowly doors." It abounds in lively speaking figures, and stands midway between the literalism of mere prose and the abstractions of philosophy. The derivation of the Hebrew is unknown. If connected with Assyrian mashalu, Arabic matala, etc., the root meaning is "likeness". But it will be a likeness which contains a judgment, and so includes the "maxim" or general proposition bearing on conduct (Greek "gnomic wisdom"), of which the Book of Proverbs (Meshalim) is the chief inspired example. In classic Latin, the Greek word is translated collatio (Cicero, "De invent.", i-xxx), imago (Seneca, "Ep. lix."), similitudo (Quintil., "Inst.", v, 7-8). Observe that parabole does not occur in St. John's Gospel nor paroimia (proverb) in the Synoptics.
Likeness and abstraction enter into the idea of language, but may be contrasted as body and spirit, standing as they do in a relation at once of help and opposition. Wisdom for the practice of life has among all nations taken a figurative shape, passing from myth or fable into the contracted sayings we term proverbs and arriving in the Greek schools of philosophy at ethical systems. But system, or technical metaphysics, does not appeal to the Semite; and our Sacred Books were never written with a view to it. If, however, system be not made the vehicle of teaching, what shall a prophet employ as its equivalent? The image or comparison remains. It is primitive, interesting, and easily remembered; and its various applications give it a continual freshness. The story came into use long before the system, and will survive when systems are forgotten. Its affinity, as a form of Divine speech with the "Sacrament" (mysterion) as a form of Divine action, may profitably be kept in mind. Neither can we overlook the points of resemblance which exist between parables and miracles, both exhibiting through outward shows the presence of a supernatural doctrine and agency.
Hence we may speak of the irony which must always be possible in devices adapted to human weakness of understanding, where heavenly secrets are concerned. Bacon has said excellently well, "parables are serviceable as a mask and veil, and also for elucidation and illustration" (De sap. vet.). Of Scripture parables we conclude that they illustrate and edify by revealing some Divine principle, with immediate reference to the hearers addressed, but with more remote and recondite applications in the whole Christian economy to which they belong. Thus we find two lines of interpretation, the first dealing with Our Lord's parables as and when they were spoken let this be termed critical exegesis; and the second bringing out their significance in the history of the Church, or ecclesiastical exegesis. Both are connected and may be traced to the same root in Revelation: yet they are distinct, somewhat after the fashion of the literal and mystical sense in Scripture generally. We cannot lose either out of sight. The parables of the New Testament refuse to be handled like Aesop's fables; they were intended from the first to shadow forth the "mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven", and their double purpose may be read in Matthew 13:10-18, where it is attributed to Christ Himself.
Modern critics (Jülicher and Loisy) who deny this, affirm that the Evangelists have deflected the parables from their original meaning in the interest of edification, suiting them to the circumstances of the primitive Church. In making such accusations these critics, following the example of Strauss, not only reject the witness of the Gospel writers, but do violence to its text. They overlook the profoundly supernatural and prophetic idea on which all Scripture moves as its vital form--an idea certified to us by the usage of our Lord when quoting the Old Testament, and admitted equally by the Evangelists and St. Paul. That they run counter to Catholic tradition is manifest. Moreover parables thus detached from a Christological significance would hang in the air and could claim no place in the teaching of the Son of God. A valid exegesis will therefore be prepared to discover in them all not only the relevance which they had for the multitude or the Pharisees but their truth, sub specie sacramenti, for "the Kingdom", i.e., for Christ's Church. And on this method the Fathers have expounded them without distinction of school, but especially among Westerns, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory the Great, as their commentaries prove.
Of the proverb not an ill definition might be that it is a closed or contracted parable: and of the parable, that it is an expanded proverb. An instance, hovering on the verge of both, occurs Matthew 11:17: "We have piped to you, and you have not danced; we have lamented, and you have not mourned." The words were taken from some child's game, but they are applied to St. John the Baptist and to Our Lord, with a gnomic moral, "Wisdom is justified by her children." In a myth or allegory, fictitious persons, gods and men, are introduced; and the significance lies within the story, as in Apuleius, "Eros and Psyche". But a parable looks at life as it is lived, deals in no personifications, and requires to be interpreted from without. Fable is marked by giving speech and thought to irrational or inanimate objects; parable as our Lord employs it never does so. Examples or "histories with a moral" have at least a core of reality—the instances occurring in Scripture and allowed by critics are such as Esther, Susanna, Tobias; but a parable need not quote individual persons, and except in the doubtful case of Lazarus, we shall not light upon instances of this kind among the stories told in the Gospels. A type consists in the significance given by prophecy to a person or his acts, e.g., to Isaac as the lamb of sacrifice, and the symbolical deeds of Ezechiel or Jeremias. But the parable brings in no types directly or in its immediate sense, and no determined persons. Metaphor (Latin translatio) is a vague term, which might be applied to any short parabolic saying but does not fit the narrative of an action, such as we mean by a parable in the New Testament. The Socratic myth which adorns the "Gorgias", "Phaedo", and "Republic", is confessedly a fable, whereas in our synoptic Gospels whatever illustrations we meet are chosen from daily occurrences.
The Hebrew genius, unlike that of the Hellenes, was not given to myth-making; it abhorred the personifications of nature to which we are indebted for gods of the elements, for Nereids and Hamadryads; it seldom pursued an allegory to any length; and its "realism" in treating of landscape and visible phenomena strikes most forcibly on the modern imagination. Theism was the breath of its nostrils; and where for a moment it indulges a turn for ancient folklore (as in Isaiah 13:21) it is far removed from the wild Pantheon of Greek nature worship. In the parables we never come across enchanted stones or talking beasts or trees with magical virtues; the world which they describe is the world of every day; not even miracles break in upon its established order. When we consider what Oriental fancy has made of the universe, and how it is depicted in cosmogonies like that of Hesiod, the contrast becomes indescribably great. It is in the world which all men know that Christ finds exemplified the laws of human ethics, and the correspondences on which His kingdom shall be carried to its Divine consummation. Seen with purged eyes nature is already the kingdom of God.
No language is more concrete in its presentation of laws and principles, or more vividly figured, than that which the Old Testament affords. But of parables strictly taken it has only a few. Jotham's apologue of the trees choosing a king (Judges 9:8-15) is more properly a fable; so is the scornful tale of the thistle and the cedar in Lebanon which Joas of Israel sent by messengers to Amasias, King of Juda (2 Kings 14:8-10). Nathan's rebuke to David is couched in the form of a parable (2 Samuel 12:1-4) so the wise woman of Thecua (2 Samuel 14:4); so the Prophet to Achab (1 Kings 20:39); and the song of the vineyard (lsaiah 5:1-8). It has been suggested that chapters 1-3 of Osee must be construed as a parable, and do not contain a real history. The denunciation of woe on Jerusalem in Ezekiel 24:3-5, is expressly named a mashal, and may be compared with the Gospel similitude of the leaven. But our Lord, unlike the Prophets, does not act, or describe Himself as acting, any of the stories which He narrates. Hence we need not take into account the Old Testament passages, Isaiah 20:2-4;2 Jeremiah 25:15; Ezekiel 3:24-26, etc.
That the character of Christ's teaching to the multitude was mainly parabolic is clear from Matthew 13:34, and Mark 4:33. Perhaps we should ascribe to the same cause an element of the startling and paradoxical, e.g., in His Sermon on the Mount, which, taken literally, has been misunderstood by simple or again by fanatical minds. Moreover, that such a form of instruction was familiar to the Jews of this period cannot be doubted. The sayings of Hillel and Shammai still extant, the visions of the Book of Enoch, the typical values which we observe as attaching to the stories of Judith and Tobias, the Apocalypse and the extensive literature of which it is the flower--all betoken a demand for something esoteric in the popular religious preaching, and show how abundantly it was satisfied. But if, as mystical writers hold, the highest degree of heavenly knowledge is a clear intuition, without veils or symbols dimming its light, we see in our Lord exactly this pure comprehension. He is never Himself drawn as a visionary. The parables are not for Him but for the crowd. When He speaks of His relation to the Father it is in direct terms, without metaphor. It follows that the scope of these exquisite little moralities ought to be measured by the audience whom they were designed to benefit. In other words they form part of the "Economy" whereby truth is dispensed to men as they are able to bear it (Mark 4:33; John 16:12). Since, however, it is the Lord that speaks, we must reverently construe His sayings in the light of the whole Revelation which furnishes their ground and context. The "real sense of Scripture", as Newman points out in accord with all the Catholic Fathers, is "the scope of the Divine intelligence", or the scheme of Incarnation and Redemption.
Subject to this Law, the New Testament parables have each a definite meaning, to be ascertained from the explanation, where Christ deigns to give one, as in the sower; and when none such is forthcoming, from the occasion, introduction, and appended moral. Interpreters have differed importantly on the question whether everything in the parable is of its essence (the "kernel") or anything is mere machinery and accident (the "husk"). There is an obvious negative rule. We must not pass over as unmeaning any detail without which the lesson would cease to be enforced. But shall we insist on a correspondence at all points so that we may translate the whole into spiritual values, or may we neglect whatever does not seem to compose a feature of the moral to be drawn? St. John Chrysostom (In Matt., lxiv) and the School of Antioch, who were literalists, prefer the latter method; they are sober in exposition, not imaginative or mystic; and Tertullian has expressions to the like purpose (On Pudicity 9), St. Augustine, who holds of Origen and the Alexandrians, abounds in the larger sense; yet he allows that "in prophetic narrations details are told us which have no significance" (City of God XVI.2) . St. Jerome in his earlier writings follows Origen; but his temper was not that of a mystic and with age he becomes increasingly literal. Among modern commentators the same difference of handling appears.
In a problem which is literary as well as exegetical, we must guard against applying a hard and fast rule where taste and insight are required. Each of the parables will need to be dealt with as if it were a poem; and fulness of meaning, refinement of thought, slight but suggestive hints and touches, characteristic of human genius, will not be wanting to the method of the Divine Teacher. In the highest criticism, as Goethe warns us, we cannot divide as with an axe the inward from the outward. Where all is living, the metaphor of kernel and husk may be often misapplied. The meaning lies implicit in the whole and its parts; here as in every vital product the ruling spirit is one, the elements take their virtue from it and separately are of no account. As we move away from the central idea we lose the assurance that we are not pursuing our own fancies; and the substitution of a mechanical yet extravagant dogmatism for the Gospel truth has led Gnostics and Manichæans, or latter-day visionaries like Swedenborg, into a wilderness of delusions where the severe and tender beauty of the parables can no longer be discerned. They are literary creations, not merely hieratic devices; and as awakening the mind to spiritual principles their intent is fulfilled when it muses on the deep things of God, the laws of life, the mission of Christ, of which it is thus made intimately aware.
St. Thomas and all Catholic doctors maintain that articles of faith ought to be deduced only from the literal sense of Scripture whenever it is quoted in proof of them but the literal sense is often the prophetic, which itself as a Divine truth may well be applicable to an entire series of events or line of typical characters. The Angel of the Schools declares after St. Jerome that "spiritual interpretation should follow the order of history". St. Jerome himself exclaims, "never can a parable and the dubious interpretations of riddles avail for the establishment of dogmas" (Summa I-II:10; St. Jerome, In Matt., xiii, 33). From a parable alone, therefore, we do not argue categorically; we take it in illustration of Christian verities proved elsewhere. It was this canon of good sense which the Gnostics, especially Valentinus, disregarded to their own hurt, and so fell into the confusion of ideas miscalled by them revelation. Irenaeus constantly opposes church tradition or the rule of faith, to these dreamers (II, xvi, against the Marcosians; II, xxvii, xxviii, against Valentinus). In like manner, Tertullian says, "Heretics draw the parables whither they will, not whither they ought", and "Valentinus did not make up Scriptures to suit his teaching, but forced his teaching on the Scriptures." (See On Pudicity 8, 9; De Praescript., viii; and compare St. Anselm, "Cur Deus homo", I, iv.)
We learn what the parables signify, on this showing, from "the school of Christ"; we interpret them on the lines of "apostolic and ecclesiastical tradition" (Tertullian, Scorpiace 12; Vinc. Lerin., xxvii, Conc. Trid., Sess. IV). The "analogy of faith" determines how far we may go in applying them to life and history. With Salmeron it is allowed to distinguish in them a "root", the occasion and immediate purpose, a "rind", the sensible imagery or incidents, and a "marrow", the Christian truth, thus conveyed. Another way would be to consider each parable as it relates to Christ himself, to the Church as His spiritual body, to the individual as putting on Christ. These are not different, still less contrary elucidations; they flow out of that great central dogma, "The Word was made flesh". In dealing on such a system with any part of Holy Writ we keep within Catholic bounds; we explain the "Verbum scriptum" by the "Verbum incarnatum". To the same principle we can reduce the "four senses", often reckoned as derivable from the sacred text. These medieval refinements are but an effort to establish on the letter, faithfully understood, implications which in all the works of genius other than scientific, are more or less contained. The governing sense remains, and is always the standard of reference.
There are no parables in St. John's Gospel. In the Synoptics Mark has only one peculiar to himself, the seed growing secretly (4:26); he has three which are common to Matthew and Luke: the sower, mustard seed, and wicked husbandman. Two more are found in the same Gospels, the leaven and the lost sheep. Of the rest, eighteen belong to the third and ten to the first Evangelist. Thus we reckon thirty-three in all; but some have raised the number even to sixty, by including proverbial expressions. An external but instructive division parts them into three groups:
Although, according to most non-Catholic writers, Sts. Matthew and Luke are founded upon St. Mark, it is natural to begin our exposition of the parables in the first Gospel, which has a group of seven consecutively (13:3-57). The sower with its explanation, introduces them; the draw net completes their teaching; and we cannot refuse to see in the number seven (cf. St. John's Gospel) an idea of selected fitness which invites us to search out the principle involved. Men favourable to what is known as an "historic and prophetic" system of exegesis, have applied the seven parables to seven ages of the Church. This conception is not foreign to Scripture, nor unfamiliar in patristic writings, but it can scarcely be pressed in detail. We are not qualified to say how the facts of church history correspond, except in their general features, with anything in these parables; neither have we the means of guessing at what stage of the Divine Economy we stand. It may be enough to remark that the sower denotes the preaching of the Gospel; the tares or cockle, how it meets with hindrances; the mustard seed and the leaven its noiseless yet victorious growth. From the hidden treasure and the pearl of price we learn that those who are called must give up all to possess the kingdom. Finally, the draw net pictures God's judgment on His Church, and the everlasting separation of good and bad.
From all this it appears that St. Matthew has brought the parables together for a purpose and he distinguishes between the "multitude", to whom the first four were chiefly addressed, and the "disciples", who were privileged to know their prophetic significance. They illustrate the Sermon on the Mount, which ends with a twofold comparison, the house on the rock typifying Christ's Church, and the house on the sand opposed to it. Nothing can be clearer, if we believe the Synoptics than that our Lord so taught as to enlighten the elect and to leave obstinate sinners (above all, the Pharisees) in their darkness (Matthew 13:11-15; Mark 4:11-12; Luke 8:10). Observe the quotation from Isaiah (Matthew 13:14; Isaiah 6:9, according to the Septuagint) intimating a judicial blindness, due to Israel's backslidings and manifest in the public troubles of the nation while the evangelists were writing. Unbelievers or Modernists, reluctant to perceive in the man Christ Jesus any supernatural powers, look upon such sayings as prophecies after the event. But the parable of the sower contains in itself a warning like that of Isaias, and was certainly spoken by Christ. It opens the series of His Messianic teachings, even as that of the wicked husbandman concludes them. From first to last the rejection of the Jews, all except a holy "remnant", is contemplated. Moreover, since the Prophets had constantly taken up this attitude, denouncing the corrupt priesthood and disparaging legalism, why should we dream that language of similar import and contents was not heard from the lips of Jesus? And if anywhere, would it not be found in His parabolic delineations of the New Law? There is no solid reason why the double edge of these moralities should be ascribed to a mere "tendency" in the recorders, or to an edifying afterthought of primitive Christians. If the "allegory" i.e., the application to history, be intended by all three evangelists (which we grant), that intention lay at the root of the parable when it was delivered. Christ is "the Sower", and the seed could not escape the divers fortunes which befell it on the soil of Judaism. Even from the modernist point of view our Saviour was the last and greatest of the Prophets. How then could He avoid speaking as they did of a catastrophe which was to bring in the reign of Messias? Or how shall we suppose that He stood alone in this respect, isolated from the seers who went before Him and the disciples who came after Him? It is certain that, for the Evangelists, "He that hath ears to hear let him hear" did not signify merely a "call to attention"; we may compare it to the classic formulae, Eleusinian and other, which it resembles, as carrying with it an intimation of some Divine mystery The more an esoteric meaning is put upon the Gospels as their original scope, so much the more will it be evident that our Lord Himself made use of it.
Dismissing the minute conjectural criticism which would leave us hardly more than a bare outline to go upon, and not regarding verbal differences, we can treat the parables as coming direct from our Lord. They teach a lesson at once ethical and dogmatic, with implications of prophecy reaching to the consummation of all things. Their analogy to the sacraments, of which our Lord's Incarnation is the source and pattern, must never be left out of view. Modern objections proceed from a narrow "enlightened" conception as of the "reasonable man", teaching general truths in the abstract, and attaching no importance to the examples by which he enforces them. But the Evangelists, like the Catholic Church. have considered that the Son of God, instructing His disciples for all time, would commit to them heavenly mysteries "things hidden from the foundation of the world'; (Matthew 13:35). So perfectly does this correspondence with history apply to the tares, the good samaritan, the "watching" parables, to Dives and Lazarus (whether a real incident or otherwise), and to the wicked husbandmen, that it cannot be set aside. In consequence, certain critics have denied that Christ spoke some of these "allegories", but the grounds which they allege would entitle them to reject the others, that conclusion they dare not face (cf. Loisy, "Ev. synopt.", II, 318).
All orthodox writers take the sower as a model both of narrative and interpretation, warranted by the Divine Master Himself. The general likeness between teaching and sowing is found in Seneca, "Ep. lxxiii"; and Prudentius, the Christian poet, has thrown the parable into verse, "Contra Symmachum", II, 1022. Salmeron comes near the method suggested above by which we get most profit from these symbols, when he declares that Christ is "the Sower and the Seed". We are immediately reminded of the Greek Fathers who call our Redeemer the seed sown in our hearts, (logos spermatikos), who comes forth from God that He may be the principle of righteousness in man (Justin, "Apol.", II, xiii, Athan., "Orat., " ii, 79, Cyril Alex., "In Joan.", 75; and see Newman, "Tracts", 150177). 1 Peter 1:1-23, reads like an echo of this parable. Note that our Lord does not use personifications, but refers good and evil alike to persons; it is the "wicked one" who plucks away the seed, not a vague impersonal mischief. The rocky bottom, the burning wind and scorching sun, tell us of Palestinian scenery. We find "thorny cares" in Catullus (lxiv, lxxii) and in Ovid (Metamorp., XIII, 5, 483). Theologians warn us not to imagine that the "good and perfect heart" of the receiver is by nature such; for that would be the heresy of Pelagius; but we may quote the axiom of the Schools, "To him that does what he can God will not deny His grace." St. Cyprian and St. Augustine (Ep. lxix, Serm. lxxiii) point out that free will acceptance is the teaching of the Gospel; and so Irenaeus against the Gnostic forerunners of Lutheranism (V, xxxix).
Whatever be meant by zizania word, found only here in the Greek Scripture, is originally semite (Arabic zuwan). In the Vulgate it is retained and in popular French Wyclif renders it "darnel or cockle", and curiously enough the name of his followers, the Lollards, has been derived from a Latin equivalent, "lolium." In the Reims New Testament we have "cockle", for which compare Job 31:40: "Let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley." It is pretty well determined that the plant in question is "lolium temulentum," or bearded darnel; and the mischievous practice of "oversowing" has been detected among Easterns, if not elsewhere. The late weeding of the fields is in "substantial agreement with Oriental custom", at a time when good and evil plants can be fully distinguished. Christ calls Himself the "Son of Man"; He is the sower. Good men are the seed; the field is indifferently the Church or the world, i.e., the visible Kingdom in which all kinds are mingled, to be sorted out in the day of His coming. He explains and fits in detail the lesson to the incidents (Matthew 13:36-43), with an adaptation so clear to the primitive age of Christianity that Loisy, Julicher, and other modern critics, refuse to consider the parable authentic. They suppose it to be drawn out of some brief comparison in the original lost "source" of Mark. These random guessings have no scientific value. Historically, the moral which recommends sufferance of disorders among Christians when a greater evil would follow on trying to put them down, has been enforced by the Church authorities against Novatus, and its theory developed in St. Augustine's long disputes with those hard African Puritans, the Donatists. St. Augustine, recognizing in Our Lord's words as in the spiritual life a principle of growth which demands patience, by means of it reconciles the imperfect militant state of His disciples now with St. Paul's vision of a "glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle" (Ephesians 5:27). Such is the large Catholic philosophy, illustrated by the Roman Church from early times, despite men like Tertullian; from the medieval condemnation of the Cathari; and from the later resistance to Calvin, who would have brought in a kind of Stoic republic or "Kingdom of the Saints", with its inevitable consequences, hypocrisy and selfrighteous pharisaism. Yet Calvin, who separated from the Catholic communion on this and the like motives, calls it a dangerous temptation to suppose that "there is no Church wherever perfect purity is not apparent." (Cf. St. Augustine, "In Psalm. 99"; "Contra Crescon.", III, xxxiv; St. Jerome, "Adv. Lucifer" and Tertullian in his orthodox period, "Apol.", xli "God does not hasten that sifting out, which is a condition of judgment, until the world's end.")
If in the tares we perceive a stage of Christ's teaching more advanced than in the sower, we may take the mustard seed as announcing the outward manifest triumph of His Kingdom, while the leaven discloses to us the secret of its inward working. Strange difficulties have been started by Westerners who had never set eyes on the luxuriant growth of the mustard plant in its native home, and who demur to the letter which calls it "the least of all seeds." But in the Koran (Sura xxxi) this proverbial estimate is implied; and it is an elementary rule of sound Scripture criticism not to look for scientific precision in such popular examples, or in discourses which aim at something more important than mere knowledge. The tree, salvadora persica, is said to be rare. Obviously, the point of comparison is directed to the humble beginnings and extraordinary development of Christ's Kingdom. Wellhausen believes that for the Evangelists the parable was an allegory typifying the Church's rapid growth; Loisy would infer that, if so, it was not delivered by our Lord in its actual form. But here are three distinct yet cognate stories, the mustard seed, the leaven, the seed growing secretly, occurring in the Synoptics, contemplating a lapse of time, and more applicable to after-ages than to the brief period during which Christ was preaching; shall we say that He uttered none of them? And if we allow these prophetic anticipations at all, does not the traditional view explain them best? (Wellh., "Matt.", 70; Loisy, "Ev. syn.", III, 774-3.) It has been questioned whether in the leaven we should recognize a good influence, answering to the texts, "you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world" (Matthew 5:13-14), or the evil to be "purged out" according to St. Paul (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Better to take it as the "good seed", with consequent applications, as St. Ignatius does (Ad Magnes., x) and St. Gregory Nazianzen (Orat., xxxvi, 90). By the "three measures" were understood in the Gnostic system the "earthly" "carnal", and "spiritual" classes among Christians (Iren., I, viii). Trench admirably describes these two parables as setting before us the "mystery of regeneration" in the world and the heart of man. For the "leaven of the Pharisees", consult authors on Matthew 16:6.
The hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44
The pearl of price (Matthew 13:45)
With Origen we may term these "similitudes"; in one the object is found as if by accident (Isaiah 65:1; Romans 10:20: "I was found by them that did not seek me"); in the other a man seeks and buys it deliberately. Under such figures would be signified the calling of the Gentiles and the spiritual strivings of those who, with Simeon, waited "for the consolation of Israel." There is surely an allusion to the joy of martyrdom in the first (Matthew 10:37). The concealed treasure is a widespread Eastern idea (Job 3:21; Proverbs 2:4); pearls or rubies, which may be represented by the same Hebrew (Job 28:18; Proverbs 3:15, etc.) will mean the "jewel" of faith, our Lord Himself, or everlasting life; and Christians must make the great surrender if they would gain it. No keeping back is possible, so far as the Spirit is concerned, a man must give the whole world for his "soul", which is worth more, hence he rejoices. Here as elsewhere, the comparison does not imply any judgment on the morality of the persons taken by way of figures; the casuistry of "treasure trove", the possible overreaching in business, belong to the "rind" not the "marrow" of the story and yield no lesson. St. Jerome understands the Holy Bible to be the treasure; St. Augustine, "the two Testaments of the Law", but Christ never identifies the "Kingdom" with Scripture. A strange interpretation, not warranted by the context, looks on the Saviour as at once seeker and finder.
The draw net completes the sevenfold teaching in the first Gospel. The order was chosen by St. Matthew; and if we accept the mystic signification of the number "seven", i.e., "perfection", we shall perceive in this parable not a repetition, as Maldonatus held, of the tares, but its crown. In the tares separation of good and bad is put off here it is accomplished. St. Augustine composed a kind of ballad for the people against the Donatist schismatics which expresses the doctrine clearly, "seculi finis est littus, tunc est tempus separare" (see Enarration on Psalm 64, no. 6). The net is a sweeping net, Lat. verriculum, or a seine, which of necessity captures all sorts, and requires to be hauled on shore and the division made. For the Jews, in particular, the clean must be taken and the unclean cast away. Since it is distinctly stated that within the net are both good and bad, this implies a visible and a mixed congregation until the Lord comes with His angels to judgment (Matthew 13:41; Apocalypse 14:18). The Evangelist, Loisy observes, has understood this parable, like the others quoted, allegorically, and Christ is the Fisher of men. Clement of Alexandria perhaps wrote the well-known Orphic hymn which contains a similar appellation. The "fiery furnace", the "tears and the gnashing of teeth", going beyond the figures in the story, belong to its meaning and to Christian dogma. In the conclusion "every scribe" (13:52) points to the duty which Our Lord's Apostles will hand on to the Church of bringing forth to believers the hidden spiritual sense of tradition, "the new and the old". Specifically, this does not serve as a distinction of the Testaments; but we may compare, "I came not to destroy but to fulfil", and "not one jot, or one tittle" (Matthew 5:17-18). Modernist critics attribute the whole idea of a Christian "scribe" to St. Matthew and not to our Lord. The expression "instructed" is literally, "having been made a disciple", matheteutheis and is of rare occurrence (Matthew in loco; 27:57-28:19; Acts 14:21). It answers to the Hebrew "Sons of the prophets" and is thoroughly Oriental (2 Kings 2:3, etc.)
The unmerciful servant, or "serve nequam" might be summed up in two words: "Forgiven, forgive". This chapter 18 resumes the parabolic teaching; Christ sets the little child in the midst of His disciples as an example of humility, and tells the story of the Good Shepherd (verses 11-13) which St. John's Gospel repeats in the first person. Undoubtedly, Christ said "I am the Good Shepherd", as He says here, "The Son of man is come to save that which was lost" (11). St. Peter's question, "How oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?" brings out the very spirit of Jewish legalism, in which the Apostle was yet bound while it provokes a statement of the Christian ideal. Contrast, frequently employed to heighten the effect of our Lord's teaching, is here visible in the attitude taken up by Peter and corrected by His Master. "Until seventy times seven times", the perfection of the perfect, signifies of course not a number but a principle, "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good" (Romans 12:21). That is the "secret of Jesus" and constitutes His revelation. St. Jerome read a curious variant, plainly a gloss, in the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" (Loisy, II, 93). The proverbial number is perhaps taken from Lamech's song of revenge (Genesis 4:24) where however the King James Version reads "seventy and sevenfold". This parable is the first in which God appears and acts like a king, though of course the title is frequent in the Old Testament. As regards the persons, observe that Our Lord does not give them names, which makes the story-telling more difficult. The "wicked servant" may be a satrap, and his enormous debt would be the tribute of his Government. That he and his were sold into slavery would seem natural to an Eastern, then or later. "Ten thousand talents" may refer to the Ten Commandments. "A hundred pence" owed by his "fellow servant" graphically depicts the situation as between man and man compared with human offences towards God. The "prison" in which torture is to wring from the culprit all he possesses, represents what has ever taken place under the tyrannies of Asia, down to recent times. "Till he paid" might signify "never", according to a possible sense of "donec", and was taken so by St. John Chrysostom. Later theologians construe it more mildly and adapt the words to a prison where spiritual debts may be redeemed, i.e., to purgatory (Matthew 5:25-26, closely corresponds). The moral has been happily termed "Christ's law of retaliation", announced by Him aforetime in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48), and the Lord's Prayer makes it a condition of our own forgiveness.
The labourers in the vineyard has become celebrated in modern economical discussions by its pregnant phrase "To this last." Calderon, the Spanish poet, renders its meaning well, "To thy neighbour as to thee". But among parables it is one of the hardest to work out, and is variously expounded. In the main it is an answer to all Pharisees and Pelagians who demand eternal life as a recompense due to their works, and who murmur when "sinners" or the less worthy are accepted, though coming late to the Divine call. It might seasonably introduce the Epistle to the Romans, which proceeds on identical lines and teachers the same lesson. Yet no one has denied its authorship to Christ. (Cf. Romans 3:24-27; 4:1; 9:20, esp. "O man, who art thou that repliest against God?") The attitude of Christ towards publicans and sinners which gave offence to the Pharisees (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30), affords the clearest comment on the parable as a whole. Some critics reject the last sentence, "Many are called", as an interpolation from the parable of the marriage feast. Early mystical views understand the labourers to be Israel and the heathen, Irenaeus Origen, Hilary adapt the different hours to stages of the Old Covenant. St. Jerome compares the prodigal son, for which this may be St. Matthew's equivalent lesson. Note the "evil eye" and other references to it (Deuteronomy 15:9; 2 Samuel 18:9; Proverbs 23:6).
The two sons begins in Matthew a series of denunciations addressed to the Pharisees. Its drift is plain. These "hypocrites" profess to keep God's law and break it; hence their scorn of the Baptist's preaching; whereas "publicans and harlots" were converted; therefore they shall go into the Kingdom before the others. But if it be accommodated to Jews and Gentiles, who is the elder son who the younger? From the text no reply can be drawn and commentators are not agreed. In some manuscripts the order is reversed, but without foundation. (See Luke 7:29-30, 37-50)
This remarkable challenge to the "chief priests and Pharisees", occurring in all the Synoptics, and foretelling how God's vineyard shall be transferred from its present keepers, reminds us of the good samaritan and the prodigal son, with which it harmonizes, though severe in its tone as they are not. However, its extreme clearness of application in detail has led the modernist critics to deny that Our Lord spoke it. They call it an allegory, not a parable. The "vineyard of the Lord of Hosts" is in Isaiah 5:1-7, and the prophecy in both cases analogous. That Jesus foresaw His rejection by the "chief priests" cannot be doubtful. That He contemplated the entrance into God's Kingdom of many Gentiles is apparent from Luke 13:29, as from parables already quoted. This, indeed, was boldly pictured in the Old Testament (Isaiah 2:1-4, 19:20-25; Micah 4:1-7). In the first Gospel our Lord addresses the Pharisees; in the third He speaks to the "people". The "tower" is Mount Sion with its temple; the "servants" are the Prophets; when the "beloved son" is murdered we may think of Naboth dying for his vineyard and the crucifixion comes into sight. Christ is the "heir of all things" (Hebrews 1:2). We must grant to Loisy that the anticipation of vengeance is an apocalypse in brief while upholding the genuineness of the larger view in Matthew 24, which his school would attribute to a period after the fall of Jerusalem. For the "stone which the builders rejected" and which "is become the head of the corner;', see Psalm 117 (Hebrew 118), 22, 23, and Acts 4:11. The reading is from the Septuagint, not the Hebrew.
Also known, though less accurately, as the parable of the wedding garment. If, like Maldonatus and Theophylact, we identify this with the great supper in St. Luke (14:16), we must allow that the differences observable are due to the inspired reporters who had in view "not history but doctrine". Or we might hold that the discourse had been varied to meet another occasion. Read St. Augustine, "De consensu evang.", II, lxxii, who is for distinguishing them. The Lucan story would be earlier the present, spoken in wrath when all hope of Christ's acceptance by clergy or scribes is at an end, reveals the mood of severe sadness which overshadowed our Lord's last days. Naturally the mythical school (Strauss and even Keim, with recent Modernists) discovers in the violence of the invited guests and their punishment an apologetic tendency, due to the editors of the original tale. "These additions", says Loisy, "were made after the taking of Jerusalem by Titus; and the writer had never heard Jesus, but was manipulating a text already settled" (Ev. synopt., II, 326). That the reign of the Messias, following on the rejection of Israel, was always meant in this story, is incontestable. Catholic faith would of course allow that the "servants" maltreated were, in our Lord's mind, such as St. John Baptist, the Apostles, the first martyrs. The feast, in our commentaries, may well be the Incarnation; the wedding garment is sanctifying grace, "put ye on the Lord Jesus" (Romans 13:14). Thus Iren., IV, xxxvi; Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh 27, etc.
The ten virgins may be considered as first of several parables declaring that the advent of the Kingdom will be unexpected. These are all comments on the text, "of that day and hour no one knoweth, no not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone" (Matthew 24:36). It is a "watching" parable, and is not in praise of virginity as such, though applied by the Fathers, as St. Gregory Martyr, to the duties of the virgin-state. St. Augustine writes "souls that have the Catholic faith and appear to have good works" (Serm. xciii, 2); St. Jerome, "they boast the knowledge of God and are untainted with idolatry". There seems to be a reminiscence of this parable in Luke 12:36, wrought into the admonition to men "that wait for their Lord". Wellhausen's idea that St. Matthew composed it from St. Luke is untenable. In the East it is usual that the bride should be conveyed with honour to the bridegroom's house; but there might be exceptions, as here. Mystically, Christ is the bridegroom, His parousia the event, and the preparation by faith shining out in Christian deeds is imaged in the burning lamps or torches. For the "closed door" see Luke 13:25. The conclusion, "Vigilate", is a direct lesson and no part of the story. St. Methodius wrote the "Banquet of the Ten Virgins", a rude mystery play in Greek.
The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30
The Pounds or the Minae (Luke 19:11-27)
Whether we shall identify or divide these two celebrated apologues can scarcely be determined. St. Mark (13:34-36) blends his brief allusion with a text from the ten virgins. The circumstances in the first and third Gospels differ; but the warning is much the same. Commentators note that here the active life is extolled, as in the virgins a heedful contemplation. No argument for the lawfulness of usury can be drawn from verse 27. The "servant" was a bondslave; all that he had or acquired would be his master's property. "To him that hath shall be given" is one of the "hard sayings" which, while disclosing a law of life, seems not to harmonize with Christian kindness. Yet the analogy of God's dealings--not "mere" benevolence, but "wise and just" recognition of moral effort is hereby maintained. If our Lord, as tradition tells, said, "Be ye good money changers" (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21), the same principle is commended. Ethically, all that we have is a trust of which we must give account. For the diversity of talents, note St. Paul, I Corinthians 12:4 and the reconciliation of that diversity in "the same spirit". Both parables relate to Christ's second coming. Hence Loisy and others attribute to the Evangelists, and especially to St. Luke, an enlargement, founded on later history, perhaps taken from Josephus, and intended to explain the delay of the Parousia (Ev. synopt., II, 464-80) . Not accepting these premises, we put aside the conclusion. Maldonatus (I, 493), who treats the stories as variants, observes, "it is no new thing that our Evangelists should appear to differ in circumstances of time and place, since they consider only the general outline (summam rei gestae), not the order or the time. Where else we find them seeming to disagree, they wish to explain not Christ's words but the drift of the parable as a whole". Leaving St. Matthew, we note the one short story peculiar to St. Mark, of the seed growing secretly (4:26-29). We have already assigned it to the group of the mustard tree and the leaven. Its point is conveyed in the Horatian line, "Crescit occulto velut arbor aevo" (Odes, I, xii, 36). The husbandman who "knows not how" the harvest springs cannot be the Almighty, but is the human sower of the word. For homiletic purposes we may combine this parable with its cognate, "unless the grain of wheat die" (John 12:24) which applies it to Christ Himself and His Divine influence.
In St. Luke the two debtors is spoken by our Lord to Simon "the leper" (Mark 14:2-9) on occasion of Mary Magdalene's conversion, with its touching circumstances. At least since St. Gregory the Great, Catholic writers have so understood the history. The double saying "Many sins are forgiven her, for she loved much", and "to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less", has a perfectly clear human sense, in accordance with facts. We cannot deduce from such almost proverbial expressions a theory of justification. The lesson concerns gratitude for mercies received, with a strong emphasis on the hard arrogance of the Pharisee over against the lowly and tender bearing of the "woman who was a sinner". Thus, in effect, St. Augustine (Serm. xcix, 4). The contrast between dead faith and faith animated by love--which Maldonatus would introduce--is not directly meant. And we need not suppose the latter portion of the story artificial or pieced together by St. Luke from other Gospel fragments. With the problem of the four narratives (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 7; John 12) the present article is not concerned.
The good samaritan is certainly authentic; it can be explained mystically in detail, and is therefore as much an "allegory" as a parable. If it was spoken by our Lord so was the wicked husbandmen. It does not exactly reply to the question "Who is thy neighbour?" but propounds and answers a larger one, "Whom in distress should I like to be neighbour to me?" and gives an everlasting instance of the golden rule. At the same time it breaks down the fences of legalism, triumphs over national hatreds, and lifts the despised Samaritan to a place of honour. In the deeper sense we discern that Christ is the Good Samaritan, human nature the man fallen among robbers, i.e., under Satan's yoke; neither law nor Prophets can help; and the Saviour alone bears the charge of healing our spiritual wounds. The inn is Christ's Church; the oil and wine are His sacraments. He will come again and will make all good. The Fathers, Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, are agreed in this general interpretation. Mere philanthropy will not satisfy the Gospel idea; we must add, "the charity of Christ presseth us" (2 Corinthians 5:14).
The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8
The Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8)
The friend at midnight and the unjust judge need no explanation. With a certain strength of language both dwell on the power of continued prayer. Importunity wins, "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away" (Matthew 11:12). Dante has beautifully expressed the Divine law which these parables teach (Paradiso, xx, 94-100).
The Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21
Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
The rich fool and Dives and Lazarus raise the question whether we should interpret them as true histories or as instructive fictions. Both are directed against the chief enemy of the Gospel, riches loved and sought after. The rich fool ("Nabal", as in 1 Samuel 25) was uttered on occasion of a dispute concerning property and Christ answers "Man, who hath appointed me judge, or divider, over you?" Not injustice, but covetousness, "the root of all evil", is here reprehended. Read St. Cyprian, "De opere et eleemosyna", 13.
The story of Lazarus, which completes this lesson by contrast, appears to have no concealed meaning and would therefore not fulfil the definition of a parable. Catholics, with Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine, and the church liturgy, regard it as a narrative. The modern school rejects this view, allows that our Lord may have spoken the first half of the recital (Luke 16:19-26) but considers the rest to be an allegory which condemns the Jews for not accepting the witness of Moses and the Prophets to Jesus as the Messias. In any case our Lord's resurrection furnishes an implied reference. "Abraham's bosom" for the middle state after death is adopted by the Fathers generally; it receives illustration from IV Mach. 13:17. St. Augustine (De Gen. ad Litt., viii, 7) doubts whether we can take literally the description of the other world. On the relation, supposed by rationalizing critics, of this Lazarus to John 10, see GOSPEL OF JOHN and LAZARUS.
Passing over the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9) which gave a plain warning to Israel; and just referring to the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7) and the lost groat or drachma (Luke 15:8-10), none of which need detain us, we come to the great supper. That this parable concerns the calling of the Gentiles is admitted and is important, as bearing on the universal commission, Matthew 28:19. "Compel them to enter", like the strong sayings quoted above (importunate widow etc.), must be taken in the spirit of Christianity, which compels by moral suasion, not by the sword Matthew 26:52).
The prodigal son, so called from verse 13, has a deep ethical meaning, but likewise a dogmatic, in which the two sons are the Israelite, staying at home in his father's house, and the Gentile who has wandered away. As the message of pardon it deserves to be called the very heart of Christ's gospel. We have justified these parallel lines of interpretation, for ethics and revelation, which were both visible to the Evangelist. Tertullian's narrow use of the story is uncritical. St. John Chrysostom and the Church always have applied it to Christian, i.e., baptized penitents. The "first [or best] robe" is naturally assumed by theologians to be "original justice", and the feast of reconciliation is our Lord's atoning sacrifice. Those who grant a strong Pauline influence in St. Luke's Gospel ought not to deny it here. The "jealousy of good men" towards returned prodigals, which has exercised commentators, is true to life; and it counted for much in the dissensions that finally clove asunder the Church of Israel from the Church of Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). The joy over a sinner's conversion unites this parable with those of the lost sheep and the lost drachma.
The unjust steward is, beyond question, the hardest of all our Lord's parables, if we may argue from the number and variety of meanings set upon it. Verses 10-13 are no part of the narration but a discourse to which it gives rise. The connecting link between them is the difficult expression "mammon [more correctly 'Mamon'] of iniquity "and we may suppose with Bengel that Christ was speaking to those of His followers, like Levi, who had been farmers of the taxes, i.e., "publicans". In the contrast between the "children of this world" and the "children of light" we find a clue to the general lesson. Mark the resemblance to St. John's Gospel in the opposition thus brought out. There are two generations or kinds of men—the worldling and the Christian; but of these one behaves with a perfect understanding of the order to which he belongs; the other often acts foolishly, does not put his talent to interest. How shall he proceed in the least Christian of all occupations, which is the handling of money? He must get good out of its evil, turn it to account for everlasting life, and this by almsgiving, "yet that which remaineth, give alms; and behold, all things are clean unto you" (Luke 11:41). The strong conclusion follows, which lies implicit in all this, "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Luke 16:13).
A lack of wisdom has been shown by commentators who were perplexed that our Lord should derive a moral from conduct, evidently supposed unjust, on the steward's part; we answer, a just man's dealings would not have afforded the contrast which points the lesson--that Christians should make use of opportunities, but innocently, as well as the man of business who lets slip no chance. Some critics have gone farther and connect the hidden meaning with Shakespeare's "soul of good in things evil", but we may leave that aside. Catholic preachers dwell on the special duty of helping the poor, considered as in some sense keepers of the gates of Heaven, "everlasting tents". St. Paul's "faithful dispenser" (1 Corinthians 4:2) may be quoted here. The "measures" written down are enormous, beyond a private estate, which favours the notion of "publicani". The Revised Version transforms "bill" happily into "bond". It may be doubted which is "the lord" that commended the unjust steward. Whether we apply it to Christ or the rich man we shall obtain a satisfactory sense. "In their generation" should be "for their generation", as the Greek text proves. St. Ambrose, with an eye to the dreadful scandals of history, sees in the steward a wicked ruler in the Church. Tertullian (De Fuga) and, long afterwards, Salmeron apply all to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles, who were indeed debtors to the law, but who should have been treated indulgently and not repelled. Lastly, there seems no ground for the widespread belief that "mammon" was the Phoenician Plutus, or god of riches; the word signifies "money."
This short apologue may be considered a parable, but it needs no explanation beyond St. Paul's phrase "not of works, but of Him that calleth" (Romans 9:11). This will be true equally as regards Jews and Christians, in whose merits God crowns His own gifts.
The lesson is driven home by contrast, once more, between the pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14), disclosing the true economy of grace. On the one hand it is permissible to understand this with Hugo of St. Victor and others as typifying the rejection of legal and carnal Judaism; on the other, we may expand its teaching to the universal principle in St. John (4:23-24) when our Lord transcends the distinction of Jew and heathen, Israelite and Samaritan, in favour of a spiritual Church or kingdom, open to all. St. Augustine says (Enarration on Psalm 74), "The Jewish people boasted of their merits, the Gentiles confessed their sins". It is asked whether those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others" were in fact the pharisees or some of the disciples. From the context we cannot decide. But it would not be impossible if, at this period, our Saviour spoke directly to the pharisees, whom He condemned (at no time for their good works, but) for their boasting and their disdain of the multitude who knew not the law (cf. Matthew 23:12, 23; John 7:49). The pharisee's attitude, "standing", was not peculiar to him; it has ever been the customary mode of prayer among Easterns. He says "I fast twice in a week", not "twice on the Sabbath". "Tithes of all that I possess" means "all that comes to me" as revenue. This man's confession acknowledged no sin, but abounds in praise of himself—a form not yet extinct where Christians approach the sacred tribunal. One might say, "He does penance; he does not repent". The publican is of course a Jew, Zacchaeus or any other; he cannot plead merit; but he has a "broken heart" which God will accept. "Be merciful to me" is well rendered from the Greek by the Vulgate, "Be propitious", a sacrificial and significant word. "Went down to his house justified rather than the other" is a Hebrew way of saying that one was and the other was not justified, as St. Augustine teaches. The expression is St. Paul's, dikaiousthai; but we are not required to examine here the idea of justification under the Old Law. Mystically, the exaltation and abasement indicated would refer to the coming of the Kingdom and the Last Judgment.
It remains to observe, generally, that a "double sense" has always been attached by the Fathers to our Lord's miracles, and to the Gospel history as a whole. They looked upon the facts as reported much in the light of sacraments, or Divine events, which could not but have a perpetual significance for the Church and on that account were recorded. This was the method of mystical interpretation, according to which every incident becomes a parable. But the most famous school of German critics in the nineteenth century turned that method round, seeing in the parabolic intention of the Evangelists a force which converted sayings into incidents, which made of doctrines allegories, and of illustrations miracles, so that little or nothing authentic would have been handed down to us from the life of Christ. Such is the secret of the mythical procedure, as exemplified in modern dealing with the multiplication of the loaves, our Lord's walking on the sea, the resurrection of the widow's son at Naim, and many other Gospel episodes (Loisy, "Ev. synopt.", passim).
Parable, in this view, has created seeming history; and not only the Johannine document but the synoptic narratives must be construed as made up from supposed prophetic references, by adaptation and quotation of Old-Testament passages. It is for the Catholic apologist to prove in detail that, however deep and far-reaching the significance attributed by the Evangelists to the facts which they relate, those facts cannot simply be resolved into myth and legend. Nature also is a parable; but it is real. "The blue zenith", says Emerson admirably, "is the point in which romance and reality meet" . And again, "Nature is the vehicle of thought", the "symbol of spirit"; words and things are "emblematic". If this be so, there is a justification for the Hebrew and Christian philosophy, which sees in the world below us analogies of the highest truths, and in the Word made flesh at once the surest of facts and the most profound of symbols.
APA citation. (1911). Parables. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11460a.htm
MLA citation. "Parables." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11460a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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