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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Circumstantiality in the Parables

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CIRCUMSTANTIALITY IN THE PARABLES.—A parable consists of two members, viz. an illustration and a didactic part, which, according to the view we hold, may be called either the interpretation or the application. Both members are necessary to make the parable complete, though the didactic part need not be expressly stated, the circumstances in which the illustration is given making its purpose plain. Unfortunately the parables of Christ are mostly preserved only in fragmentary form. We have the illustrations, but not the lessons they were designed to enforce; and as we are uncertain as to the connexion in which those illustrations were given, it is sometimes difficult to make sure what Christ intended to teach by them. But if the Evangelists give little, sometimes even a misleading, light as to the context in which the parables were spoken, they record the illustrative portions of them with much fulness of detail. Particularly is this the case with those parables in which the illustration is in the form of a narrative. The story is told with much circumstantiality. Many little touches are introduced to heighten the effect. We are almost inclined to forget, at times, that the story is told with a purpose, so fully and circumstantially are its details narrated. Among the Evangelists, St. Luke is the most pronounced in the circumstantiality with which he reproduces the stories which Christ introduced in His parables. He likes to linger over them. He elaborates with a fulness of detail that brings the scene vividly before the mind. But though St. Luke is pre-eminent in this respect, all the Synoptists present the illustrative portion of the parables with move or less circumstantiality. And this feature of the parables suggests some questions which we may consider under the following heads:—(1) In how far is the circumstantiality of the narratives authentic? (2) If we accept the traditional principle of parabolical ‘interpretation,’ can we fix a limit beyond which it is illegitimate to interpret the details? (3) If we reject this principle of parabolical ‘interpretation,’ can we meet the objection that the circumstantiality of the illustrations is empty ornament?

1. The question of the authenticity of the circumstantiality of the illustrations is in many cases forced upon us by the fact that details which are recorded by one Evangelist are omitted by another For instance, in the parable of the Sower, St. Matthew and St. Mark say of the seed that fell by the wayside, that the fowls came and devoured it up, but St. Luke adds that it was trodden down (Luke 8:5). Again, in the parable of the Patch on the Old Garment, St. Matthew and St. Mark describe the patch as a piece of undressed cloth, while St. Luke heightens the folly of the proceeding by making the patch first be cut out of a new garment (ἀπὸ ἱματίου καινοῦ σχίσας, Luke 5:36). In many cases we find the explanation of such variations in the details of the parables in the desire of the Evangelists to emphasize the point and heighten the effect of the illustration. Such is possibly the case with the examples just given, and many other instances of the same tendency might be cited. To give a few more,—in the parable of the Supper (Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:15-24), St. Matthew merely says that the guests made light of the invitation and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise (Matthew 22:5); while St. Luke puts various excuses into the mouth of the guests (Luke 14:18-20). In the parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:4-7), St. Luke represents the owner as taking the lost sheep, when he has found it, upon his shoulders. In the parable of the Houses built upon the Rock and upon the Sand (Matthew 7:24-27, Luke 6:47-49), St. Matthew says merely that the wise man built upon the rock and the foolish upon the sand; but St. Luke represents the one as having to dig and go deep to find a foundation, while the other builds without a foundation, upon the earth. But in other cases we must assign a different motive for the variation in the details of the parables. Many seem due to an allegorizing tendency on the part of the Evangelists. They regarded the characters and events of the narratives as the counterparts of like characters and events in the religious sphere, and introduced details from this latter sphere into the illustration. Thus, for instance, when we compare St. Matthew’s version of the parable of the Supper with St. Luke’s (Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:15-24), many of the new features in St. Matthew appear to be due to this tendency. The Supper of St. Luke has become the marriage-feast of the king’s son, i.e. the Messiah; the king, in spite of the refusal of the guests, sends them a second invitation (Matthew 22:3-4); they ill-treat and slay the servants who bring the invitation, and the king sends forth his armies to destroy them and to bum their city (Matthew 22:6-7). Evidently these details are suggested by the thought of Israel’s behaviour towards her God, and the fate that overtook her. Again, in the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, St. Mark relates that they took the son and slew him and cast him out of the vineyard; while St. Matthew and St. Luke reverse the order, and make them first cast him out and then slay him, with evident reference to the fate of Jesus (Matthew 27:31-33, cf. Hebrews 13:12). Again, in the parable of the Watchful Servants (Mark 13:33-37, Luke 12:35-38), St. Luke represents the master as girding himself and making them sit down to meat and serving them, though he has himself borne witness (Luke 17:7 ff.) to the unlikelihood of such conduct on the part of any ordinary master. Such extraordinary condescension is probably an allegorical feature introduced with reference to the Parousia.

2. If we accept the traditional principle of parabolical ‘interpretation,’ in how far are we justified in seeking to interpret the circumstantial details so largely present in the parables? There are some who insist that every little detail is significant, and who regard that as the true method of interpretation which seeks to find some spiritual truth to correspond to every item of the illustration. ‘Quanto enim plus solidae veritatis,’ says Vitringa (quoted by Trench, ch. iii.) ‘ex Verbo Dei eruerimus, si nihil obstet, tanto magis divinam commendabimus sapientiam.’ Teelman (quoted by Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, i. p. 270) insists that in every parable every word must be significant. And Petersen (ib. p. 271) maintains that Christ never introduces the slightest detail into any parable which is not designed to correspond to something in the interpretation. On the other hand, it has been generally recognized that there are limits beyond which the details of the illustration must not be pressed. ‘Sunt autem quae et simpliciter posita sunt,’ says Tert. (de Pudic. 9), ‘ad struendam et disponendam et texendam parabolam.’ Chrysostom (in Mt. Hom. lxiv. 3) lays down the rule: οὑδὲ χρὴ πάντα τὰ ἐν ταῖς παραβολαῖς κατὰ λέξιν περιεργάζεσθαι, ἀλλὰ τὸν σκοπὸν μαθόντας, διʼ δν συνετέθη, τοῦτον δρέπεσθαι καὶ μηδὲν πολυπραγμονεῖν περαιτέρω. But great difference of opinion exists, even among those who profess to observe Chrysostom’s canon, as to where the πολυπραγμονεῖν begins. Indeed, if the principle of ‘interpretation’ be admitted at all, if the parables, as such treatment of them involves, in spite of all protest to the contrary, are really allegories, it is difficult to see on what ground a line can be drawn beyond which it is illegitimate to interpret the details. The more perfect the allegory, the more will it admit of interpretation down to the minutest circumstance. And so long as the significance attached to these details is relevant to the tenor of the whole, the interpreter may well demand on what ground it may be objected that the details in question are not to be regarded as symbolical. The artificiality of the method and the unsatisfactoriness of the conclusions may be urged as an objection to the general principle of parabolical ‘interpretation’ underlying such method, but on that principle the method itself appears thoroughly defensible.

3. If we reject the principle of parabolical ‘interpretation,’ does not the circumstantiality of the illustrations become mere useless ornament? This is an objection raised against those who contend that the parables are not to be regarded as allegories of which we have to seek the interpretation, but as comparisons between the principle involved in some case taken from everyday life and a similar principle which it is desired to establish in the spiritual sphere. Those who maintain this view insist that it is only the principles or relations involved in the two different spheres that are compared, not the details on either side. There is only the one point of comparison between the two cases, only the one lesson enforced by the parable. In answer to the objection that this seems to reduce the fulness of detail with which the illustrations are elaborated to mere useless ornament, it is replied that though the details are not regarded as significant in the symbolical sense, they are yet full of significance as serving to bring out with force and clearness the thought which it is the purpose of the parable to enforce. Were the illustrations not presented with such circumstantiality, they would not be so convincing as they are. The scene is brought vividly before our eyes; our interest is awakened, our sympathy enlisted. Many of the details which cause such trouble to the allegorical interpreters, as, e.g., the injustice of the Judge (Luke 18:1-8) and the fraudulence of the Steward (Luke 16:1-12), may easily be explained from this point of view. The injustice of the Judge serves to bring out more forcibly that it was the importunity of the widow that overcame him; the fraud of the Steward emphasizes the fact that it was for his wisdom alone that he was commended. And so with all the details with which the parables are supplied. There is no useless ornament. Every little touch serves to bring out more clearly the central thought enforced by the illustration, and so contributes to the effect of the parable.

Literature.—See the list at the end of article Parable.

G. Wauchope Stewart.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Circumstantiality in the Parables'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/circumstantiality-in-the-parables.html. 1906-1918.

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Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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