The Purpose of Parables
Most of us think in three-dimensional word pictures. When the name of a friend or relative is mentioned, the mind immediately frames a picture of them. Few people can comprehend abstract teachings. To say that “God is love” is a generic thought, but the story of a prodigal son beautifully illustrates it (Lk. 15). Parables begin with that which is familiar in order that we might understand that which is less familiar. Parables incorporate things that are known in order to reveal what is spiritually unknown. They awaken the conscience to reveal the relation between this world and the next. They are framed in natural settings in order to reveal the supernatural. Parables instruct us by means of analogies which exist between the secular and spiritual worlds and display the divine wisdom which fashioned them both.
A tried and proven way to gain people’s attention is to begin telling them a story. Every parable is a narrative with an opening, a drama and a conclusion. Stories about people have an absolutely universal appeal. They are down-to-earth stories with heavenly meanings. Each conveys one or more moral truths. All parabolic lessons concern divine and human interrelations. Parables show the character of God and what he expects of His followers. They depict how God views our attitudes and actions. Through the use of parables, we discover God is like a gentle shepherd, a humble sower or a powerful king. Parables arrest and hold our interest, inviting further inquiry into the things of God.
Parables are not riddles meant only to tease or amuse. They are not myths or fairy tales taught for entertainment. Neither are they fables, for fables cannot lift us above human morality. When Jesus tells a story, there are no dragons, talking trees, flying horses or superheroes. In Jesus’ parables, animals and plants do nothing outside their natural abilities. Parables prove that God’s natural world is better suited for illustrating His wisdom than human imagination.
The Hebrew word for “parable” is masal, a deep saying intended to stimulate thought. In Greek it is translated parabole, something placed alongside something else for the purpose of comparison. Parables are intended to expose truths much deeper than those that appear on the surface. Parabole is used in the Synoptic Gospels to refer to proverbs (Lk. 4:23), riddles (Mk. 3:23), comparisons (Mt. 13:33), and simple stories (Lk. 13:6-9).
For the most part, the background of parables is drawn from rural life in Israel. They are stories about ordinary people and everyday life. If Jesus’ parables were recondite or absurd, His listeners could not have identified with them. While it is difficult to grasp abstract concepts, people relate to parabolic stories for they are plausible. Parables do not document factual events. Whether or not any of these narratives actually occurred is irrelevant. Because Jesus delivered His parables orally, they had to be simple enough to be easily remembered. People in His parables are often characterized by their actions, such as a good Samaritan, an unmerciful servant, a prodigal son, or an unjust judge. Every parable is a mirror which allows us to see ourselves more clearly.
Because parables are part of God’s Word, they convey spiritual truths that induce us to change attitudes and behavioral patterns. Because parables attract us, they hold our attention and call us to action. At the end of the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus commands us to “go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:37). Their messages are not easily ignored. The hearer must accept or reject the truth or truths the parable teaches. They are given for the purpose of revelation, evangelization, maturation, and edification.
Jesus and His Parables
The Synoptic Gospels contain most of the parables, the majority of which are in Luke. In the Gospel of John we find no parables, but lengthy analogies, such as the Good Shepherd and the True Vine. Prior to the parables in Matthew 13, Jesus’ parabolic teachings were embryonic. Many confuse His short analogies and illustrations as parables. For example, Jesus’ passing thought concerning wolves clothed as sheep does not have sufficient content to be classified as a parable (Mt. 7:15). His brief mentions of salt and light, birds and lilies, building on sand, and the blind leading the blind fall under the category of proverbial expressions.
Parabolic teaching was uncommon prior to Jesus’ ministry, but He perfected the use of parables as a didactic method. About one third of His teachings fall under this category. His parables are beautiful, concise, appealing and original. They became His most frequently used teaching device. Each is a miracle of instructive power. Jesus’ parables reveal His attitudes toward a lost human race, struggling to relate to God and to each other.
When the disciples ask why He taught in parables, He supplies them with a lengthy answer (Mt. 13:10-17). Each parable conceals truth from those who are indifferent and reveals truth only to hungry hearts. Jesus rarely explains the meaning of a parable, for they are intended to withhold truth from unbelievers (v. 15). When a parable is read, it either educates a saint or disciplines a sinner. Those who miss the application of a parable miss the Lord’s intention for giving it. If a listener is skeptical, it is his own fault if he does not fathom the truth the parable is intended to convey.
When the Pharisees start to openly oppose Jesus teachings, He begins to use parables more frequently. His teachings expose their hypocrisy. We are specifically told the religious rulers “perceived that He had spoken this parable against them” (Lk. 20:19). The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is taught to those who trust their own self-righteousness to save them (Lk. 18:9). Jesus’ clever use of parables makes it impossible for His enemies to bring specific charges against Him.
Because each parable is drawn from daily life, at first it may not seem to specifically address a particular controversial issue. But the listener is drawn into His story and allowed to view things from a new perspective. His parables become bridges that span the raging river of opposition against Him. They penetrate hard hearts and heal broken ones.
Jesus often teaches a parable for its shock value. A ten thousand talent debt is mentioned in one of His parables (Mt. 18:24). Some parables require a reversal of one’s thinking. A despised Samaritan is seen as kind and compassionate (Lk. 10:34-35). Some parables are marked by sharp contrasts. We find obedient and disobedient sons (Mt. 21:28-30), wise and foolish virgins (Mt. 25:2) and Pharisees and publicans (Lk. 18:10). To give his stories a universal appeal, Jesus speaks of vineyards, wheat, weeds, grain, chaff, fish and sheep. In the parables, we find brothers, servants, widows, tax-collectors, and farmers. Jesus encourages His followers to ponder His parables deeply (Mt. 13:18 & 18:12).
Parables and the Kingdom
Many parables serve as gates through which we can enter the Kingdom of God. The numerous “Kingdom Parables” in Matthew 13 answer many questions. What is required of members of the Kingdom? How can the Kingdom co-exist with the evil in the world? How can the Kingdom be real when so few respond favorably to it?
The true value of God’s Kingdom is seen in parables such as the Pearl of Great Price and the Hidden Treasure. What it will cost to gain access to the Kingdom is seen in the story of the barren fig tree (Lk. 13). The question of who can enter the Kingdom is answered through the wedding parables (Mt. 22 & Lk. 14).
Parables teach that the Kingdom of God cannot be separated from discipleship. To enter the Kingdom of God is to enter the kingdom of responsibility. Parables teach the Kingdom of God is a present reality, not just a future hope (Mt. 12:28). They also verify the Kingdom faces opposition, for Satan must be bound (v. 29). The Kingdom Parables emphasize loyalty and obedience to the King.
The difficulties we face in interpretation stem from the fact that the amount of symbolical detail differs greatly from one parable to another. However, the following list contains the primary keys to proper interpretation.
1. Determine the occasion and the audience of the parable.
2. Note any cultural features that provide insight.
3. Keep it within the context of Jesus’ current ministry.
4. Analyze the wording of the parable.
5. Determine the central truth the parable is intended to convey.
6. Do not get lost in the details.
7. Keep the parable within the context of Jesus’ other teachings.
8. Do not carry the parable past what it is clearly intended to teach.
9. Pay special attention to how the parable ends.
10. Note the effect of the parable upon the listeners.
Rather than introducing new doctrines, parables serve to illustrate established truths. While parables are not a primary source of doctrine, doctrines are often confirmed by them. Through these inspired stories, eternal doctrinal truths are preserved and protected. The setting or context in which a particular parable is told often contains clues to its meaning. For example, when a man asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus asks the hearers to decide which of the three men in His story acted like a true neighbor (Lk. 10:29 & 36). The hearers must ponder the story in order to answer His question.
Parabolic teachings place the responsibility of interpretation on the person who reads them. But we are not left alone to sort out their meanings. Jesus promises the precious Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth (Jn. 16:13).
1. List the purpose of parables provided in this essay:
2. The parables of Jesus are largely based on:
A. rural life
B. abstract notions
C. events that actually occurred
D. Old Testament characters
3. When studying a parable, it is important to interpret every small detail. True or false?
4. Jesus responded to His disciple’s question concerning why He spoke in parables in Matthew 13:10-17. Paraphrase His answer.
5. Define the following words:
6. How does Nathan interpret his parable (II Samuel 12:7-12)?
7. Interpret the parable Jesus taught in John 10:1-18.
8. Quote the Psalms that predicts the Messiah will speak in parables (Mt. 13:35).
9. According to Luke 20:19, what did the religious rulers realize about Jesus’ parable?