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Jesus taught through vivid images and parables

Jesus taught through vivid images and parables

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

A feature of the way in which Jesus taught was that he liked to present images and parables that people would not easily forget.

Let us study the image of the overflowing measure. We find it in all three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Matthew 7,1-2

Mark 4,24

Luke 6,37-38

Do not judge in order not to be judged


Do not judge and you will not be judged.

for by the norm you judge by you will be judged.


Don't fault and you will not be faulted. Forgive and you shall be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you: a good measure, pressed down and running over, will be poured into your lap.

and the measure by which you measure shall be measured out to you.

The measure by which you measure shall be measured out to you; and you will be given more.

For the measure by which you measure shall be measured to you in return.

The text I want to concentrate on is the verse about the `measure'. The image is clear. People were often paid with a measure of corn. If, when paying others, we use a generous, `pressed down and running over' measure, we will be treated likewise.

What was the occasion of this teaching? None of the three Gospels mentions it. It has been omitted, as in most sayings passages, because the disciples were more interested in what Jesus had said than in the when and where. But since the tradition is so strongly linked to `do not judge' in Matthew and Luke, we may well imagine that Jesus gave the teaching after an episode like his meeting with the woman caught in adultery (John 18,2-11).

A close study of this verse reveals other characteristics of Jesus' way of teaching. First, Jesus' language was Aramaic and he was skilled in coining rhythmic and poetic phrases that people could not easily forget. A reconstruction of the original verse sounded as follows:

bimekîletâ de'attûn mekîlîn bah

(with the measure which you measure with)

mittekal lekôn

(it will be measured you)

Reconstruction by G.DALMAN, Jesus - Jeshua, London 1929, p.225; J.JEREMIAS, New Testament Theology, London 1971, p.26.

Notice the alliteration in the k's, t's and l's. The rhythmic metre is the so-called kina: the first line has three beats, the second two. The kina metre arose from the lament for the dead. The singer led the lament with longer cries (3 beat) to which the women responded with a shorter (2 beat) echo. Examples of this metre is Jesus' words: Luke 23.31; Mark 8,35; 12;17; Matthew 5,17; 11,17; 12,30; 20,16; 24,28. Other statements have straightforward two-beat, three-beat or four-beat metres.

Secondly, Jesus' teaching enshrines a short parable drawn from everyday life. It could well be the conclusion of a story he may have told; perhaps, on these lines: A stingy landlord used to dole out rations to his servants with a mean measure. When he lost his property and became a slave himself, he received his food with the same measure'. The parallel statement `To him who has, more shall be given' -- which occurs five times: Matthew 13,12; 25,29; Mark 4,25; Luke 8,18; 19,26 -- is the conclusion of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25,14-30, see verse 29; Luke 19,11-27, see verse 26).

Speaking in such parables and images was a unique feature of Jesus' teaching. ‘We find nothing to be compared with the parables of Jesus, whether in the entire intertestamental literature of Judaism, the Essene writings, in Paul or in Rabbinic literature’.

See: J.JEREMIAS, New Testament Theology, London 1971, p.29; id., The parables of Jesus, London 1954.

The Gospels retain forty-one full parables of Jesus and at least thirty brief images that imply parables. Some are handed on in all of them. Others only by one or the other evangelist. See, for instance:

This style of teaching: narrating parables, presenting vivid images and coining memorable phrases, made Jesus an exciting person to listen to. He was no stuffy academic thinker; rather a man of the people with a razor-sharp mind who at all times kept both feet on the ground.

John Wijngaards

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