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What Is a Parable in the Bible? The What, Why, and How of Jesus’ Parables

Let’s consider the what, why, and how of Jesus’ parables in the Bible. What are parables? Why does Jesus speak in parables? How should they be interpreted? These are important questions, and the answers can be both simple and challenging.

What Is a Parable?

Imagine how hard it would be to teach the concept of electricity to Shakespeare, or to explain the internet to Julius Caesar. Either of these would pale in comparison to Jesus’ task of explaining God’s kingdom to people who understood only the physical world. But since the God who created the physical world is also the God of the spiritual world, there are often parallels between the two. This fact enabled Jesus to use the physical world to illustrate the spiritual.

The word “parable” is taken from the Greek word parabole, meaning literally “a throw alongside.” A parable is a comparison from daily life, thrown in to illustrate something abstract. This solid connection with everyday reality gives parables a “ring of truth.”

Parables are found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, parables were twice directed individually at King David. The prophet Nathan used a parable of a man and his pet lamb (2 Sam. 12:1-4) to show David his guilt in taking Bathsheba from Uriah. Later an unnamed wise woman told David a story to convince him to bring back his banished son (2 Sam. 14:1-21). The Song of the Vineyard (Is. 5:1-7) is also much like a parable, complete with an explanation and a warning.

What is a parable in the Bible? “The word ‘parable’ is taken from the Greek word parabole, meaning literally ‘a throw alongside.'”

Jesus’ parables, on the other hand, are almost always for the masses. They are easily recognizable snips of everyday life, chosen to illustrate the truths about God’s kingdom. Jesus speaks of fig trees and mustard seeds, sheep and goats, poor beggars and rich fools. The common man can readily hear the ring of truth in the simple stories of Jesus.

The parables of Jesus can be in the form of either a simile or a metaphor. A simile says one thing is “like” or “as” something else: you are like a ray of sunshine, you are pretty as a picture. Many parables begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like. . . .”

A metaphor, on the other hand, makes a more direct connection: you are an angel, you are my sunshine. Jesus uses brief metaphor parables in statements such as, “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14).[1]

What is a parable in the Bible? “They are easily recognizable snips of everyday life, chosen to illustrate the truths about God’s kingdom.”

Sometimes a parable is lengthy, extending the comparison in several particulars. A good example of this is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the longest and most detailed of all Jesus’ parables. (As a side note, it should be observed that even the longest of Jesus’ parables can be easily recited in less than three minutes!)

Why Does Jesus Speak in Parables?

Let us imagine that you have only one shot to accomplish your mission: you must find a way to explain God’s kingdom in words that will make sense in every century, in every language, in every culture. Your message must be so interesting and vibrant that people will want to listen. And your words must not only make sense; they must change hearts. This is the challenge that Jesus faces in his mission to save mankind. This is why he speaks in parables.

But there is more. Jesus also must speak in parables because part of the audience he faces is openly hostile. The Pharisees, the teachers of the law, and the chief priests are often listening—not to learn, but to condemn (see Luke 11:53-54). Until the end of his ministry (as in Matthew 23), Jesus almost always refuses to give them the clear statements they seek. He is both avoiding a premature showdown with these enemies of God’s truth and refusing to “throw . . . pearls to pigs” (Matt. 7:6).

“Let us imagine that you have only one shot to accomplish your mission.”

The religious leaders may sneer after hearing the parable of the Shrewd Manager (see Luke 16:1-14), but they have no actual words they can quote against Jesus. Matthew observes (21:45) following the Triumphal Entry that when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, “They knew he was talking about them.” (They miss the lessons; they catch only the insults!) In spite of so many parables the leaders reject him; in spite of so many miracles they disbelieve him (see John 12:40).

Parables Both Reveal and Conceal

The parables of Jesus, then, can both clearly reveal and deliberately conceal. It all depends on who is listening. As Jesus puts it at the end of the Parable of the Sower, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:1-9).

For our purposes, the listeners can be divided into three categories. First, the religious leaders are like the hard-packed soil that refuses to make room for the seed. Second, the eager masses are like the soil that accepts too easily, but often without lasting results. To them Jesus provides simple truths, “as much as they could understand,” and does “not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:33-34). Third, Jesus’ own disciples are the good soil, men with noble and good hearts, who hear the word and retain it (see Luke 8:15). To the disciples, Jesus explains everything (Mark 4:34b), noting that “the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (Matt. 13:11).

The different kinds of soil must be considered as we attempt to understand the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10, which the three Synoptic Gospels quote (Matt. 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10) in this immediate context. Mark and Luke seem to use the Isaiah passage to highlight the hard soil: “So that, they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding.” Matthew’s use of the Isaiah passage, on the other hand, seems to take a kinder view: “This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”

What is a parable in the Bible? “The parables of Jesus, then, can both clearly reveal and deliberately conceal.”

On the technical side, two specific observations can be made about translating the quotation from Isaiah. First, Matthew uses hoti to introduce the passage: “because seeing, they do not see.” This allows a more compassionate view of the hearers, their blindness being a regrettable circumstance. Second, both Mark and Luke use hina to introduce the quotation: “so that they may be seeing but never perceiving.” This word hina usually shows intended purpose (as in “so that they may have life”), but sometimes it can show as unfortunate consequence (“so that their son was born blind”) (see John 10:10 and 9:2).

How Should Parables Be Interpreted?

Mistakes to Avoid:

1. A parable is not a fable: it has no magic, no talking animals, no fairy tales. A parable is a slice of everyday life that teaches an eternal truth. If the slice of life does not ring true, neither will the spiritual teaching.

2. A parable is not an allegory: it does not call for reading between the lines to assign some kind of arbitrary hidden meaning to every detail. This was the mistake of many early Church Fathers. Origen, for instance, turned the Parable of the Good Samaritan into a creative allegory: the wounded man (Adam) was traveling from Jerusalem (heaven) to Jericho (the moon) when he fell among robbers (hostile powers). A priest (the Law) and a Levite (the prophets) ignored him, but the Samaritan (Jesus) put him on his donkey (Jesus’ physical body) and took him to an inn (the church). Others added more interpretations: the Samaritan treated the wounds with oil (the Holy Spirit) and wine (Christ’s blood) and gave the innkeeper (the apostle Paul) two coins (the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper).[2]

What is a parable in the Bible? “A parable is a slice of everyday life that teaches an eternal truth.”

3. A parable is not always a single truth. In reaction to the ever-growing possibilities that came from creative allegorizing, scholars such as Adolf Jülicher in the 19th century went to the opposite extreme and convinced generations of Bible students that a parable was intended to teach only one truth. This approach avoided the fanciful explanations of the Church Fathers, but only at the loss of many truths. (For instance, is the Parable of the Prodigal Son about the son’s repentance, the father’s forgiveness, the older brother’s resentment, or the friends’ rejoicing? Are not all these true and vital? Are they not all essential components of the parable?)

Principles to Use:

1. Consider the audience. Using Luke 15 as an example, it should be noticed that the Pharisees and teachers of the law are criticizing Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners. So this group—both righteous and unrighteous—forms the audience for this parable. Other parables are told to sincere inquirers, to the disciples in private, etc.

2. Consider the introduction. The Parable of the Rich Fool comes as the answer to a man who wants Jesus to force his brother to divide an inheritance (Luke 12:13-21). The introduction to the Parable of the Widow and the Judge (Luke 18:1) describes both the audience (his disciples) and the intended lesson (to pray without giving up). The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9) gives the audience (people confident of their own righteousness) and the problem to be corrected (looking down on everyone else.)

3. Consider similar parables, especially when found in proximity. For instance, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost (Prodigal) Son are told in sequence. They all emphasize lostness, seeking, finding, and rejoicing. Similarly, the parables in Matthew 13 are all showing related truths about the kingdom of heaven.

“The parables in Matthew 13 are all showing related truths about the kingdom of heaven.”

4. Consider the interpretation provided in the text. Following the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:3-9), for instance, Jesus himself provides a step-by-step explanation of the sower, the seed, and the types of soil. Likewise, the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt. 18:10-14) and the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:23-35) are both followed by a summation of truth by Jesus.

5. Determine the main characters or elements. Which parts are essential to the story and the lesson? Which parts are incidental? In the Parable of the Pearl (Matt. 13:45-46), is it significant that it is a pearl and not a gem? Does it matter that the buyer is a merchant, who by definition buys and then resells his stock? There is almost no end to the number of irrelevant insights a creative mind can find!

6. Verify that the interpretation is consistent with the rest of Scripture. A parable not only has an immediate context of audience, introduction, surrounding text, etc.; it also is set into the larger context of all of Jesus’ words—indeed, the context of all the Bible. No interpretation is correct if it contradicts these.

And some final observations:

1. The word “parable” never occurs in the Gospel of John.

2. There are approximately 40 parables of Jesus in the three Synoptic Gospels: 7 are in all three, 6 are in two, 15 are only in Luke, 11 are only in Matthew, and 1 is only in Mark (see Mark 4:26-29).

3. Scholars usually say that “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) is not a parable, but “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14) is a parable. (Go figure!)

4. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke16:19-31) is not called a parable by Luke. If it is a parable, it is the only one that gives the name of any of the characters.

[1] Scripture references are NIV (1984).

[2] See Origen, Homily 34, paragraph 3; Augustine, Quaestiones Evangeliorum II, 19.

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