Quibbling about Parables

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

Parable of the prodigal son.

I am having a spot of bother with parables – nothing serious, you understand; nothing to worry about. Some of them, however, do seem just a little dated.

There is that famous puzzle about the workers in the vineyard, for example – enough to spark a general strike. And what about the story of the lost sheep? I wonder why the shepherd didn’t return to find the rest of his flock scattered over the wilderness. I am also concerned about the humble guest at the banquet: what was the poor fellow supposed to do if all the lowest places were already taken?

The parable of the talents is likewise hardly fair-play and could have turned out very badly: in a less favourable economic climate the investor could have been very glad to find at least part of his capital still intact. Sorry, but I think the whole story simply demonstrates that life is a risky business. I’m not entirely sure about the unforgiving servant either: he was, after all, desperately anxious to pay off his own debt and was prepared to go to any length to do so.

Then there is that strange yarn about a king trying to arrange a wedding feast, only to find that the guests all had prior engagements. The king’s reaction was, to put it mildly, a bit excessive, especially towards the fellow who eventually turned up inappropriately dressed.

But enough of my silly quibbles. The parables, I suggest, were never intended as watertight arguments. I imagine they were throw-away anecdotes delivered off-the-cuff. They make their points brilliantly. I can pick no holes in the parable of the sower, or the prodigal son, or the good Samaritan, or the man who built his house upon a rock.

There are others also that clearly reveal an inspired man speaking plainly to the people of his own time. It is perhaps tempting to reflect on what imagery Jesus might use today if he were speaking to us, now that insurance has softened so many of the blows that life throws at us.

Some scholars, however, would have us believe that there is much more to it than that. The Parables go much deeper, they say, and every word is filled with holy meaning for all time and beyond. One such writer was the prolific 18th century visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg.

He reckoned that this life is some sort of spiritual training ground – nothing very original there! But he went on to say that once established in the next world, our abiding character, for good or evil, is fully formed and thereafter unchangeable. If so, it is surely sensible to make the most of any flexibility this world may have to offer. We need to ‘invest’ in spiritual values while we have the opportunity and not stubbornly nurse our prejudices.

Anyway, that is Swedenborg’s slant on the parable of the talents. Where evil predominates any remnants of goodness will fall away. (i.e. “are given to the one who has ten talents.”) So the parables might all be interpreted as profound psycho-spiritual cameos.

Over the centuries parables have perhaps become shrouded in stifling holiness, but they were certainly never meant to be taken literally at all. It is a neat idea.

Copyright 2010 G Roland Smith

Good Samaritan

Spiritual Meaning of


 Good Samaritan

He who understands the internal sense of the Word is able to know why it was said by the Lord that the Samaritan bound up the blows, poured in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast. For by the Samaritan in the internal sense is meant one who is in the affection of truth, by binding up the blows is signified the healing of this affection when injured, by pouring in oil and wine is signified the good of love and the good of faith, and by setting him on his own beast is signified uplifting him by virtue of his own intellectual. Thus by these words is described charity toward the neighbor; naturally for man in the world, and spiritually for the angels in heaven; naturally in the sense of the letter, and spiritually in the internal sense. The reason why a Samaritan denotes one who is in the affection of truth, is that Samaritan in the Word signifies this affection. That oil denotes the good of love, (AC 886, 3728, 4582); also that wine denotes the good of faith, (AC 1798, 6377); and that a beast of burden denotes the intellectual, (AC 2761, 2762, 2781, 3217, 5391, 5741, 6125, 6401, 6534, 7024, 8146, 8148). In this manner spake the Lord; but few apprehend this, for they believe that such things were said merely for the sake of giving the parable the connection of a narrative; but in this case they would not be words from the Divine. All words from the Divine have within them such things as belong to the Lord, heaven, and the church, and this is the case in every jot (AC 9049).

from AC 9057


Concerning the oil and wine in the Lord’s parable about the Samaritan, in Luke:–

A certain Samaritan as he journeyed, and seeing him who had been wounded by thieves, was moved with compassion, wherefore coming to him he bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine (Luke 10:33, 34);

here pouring in oil and wine signifies that he performed the works of love and of charity. Oil denotes the good of love, (AC 886, 3728). The like was meant by the ancients pouring oil and wine upon a pillar when they sanctified it (Gen. 35:14); (AC 4581, 4582).

That wine signifies the good of mutual love and of faith, is plain also in John:–

I heard a voice out of the midst of the four animals saying, Hurt not the oil and the wine (Rev. 6:6);

where oil is the good of celestial love; and wine, the good of spiritual love.

from AC 6377


That the neighbor is according to the quality of the good, is plain from the Lord’s parable of the man who fell among thieves, whom, while half dead, the priest passed by, and also the Levite; but the Samaritan, when he had bound up his wounds and poured in oil and wine, set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him; and he, because he exercised the good of charity, is called the neighbor (Luke 10:29-37). Hence it may be known that they are the neighbor who are in good; whereas they who are in evil are indeed the neighbor, but in quite a different respect; and for this reason they are to be benefited in a different way.

from AC 6708