The parables of Jesus are (relatively) short, made-up stories about everyday people and things that teach a spiritual truth. Jesus didn’t invent the parable, but he did use this teaching tool extensively throughout his ministry. In literary terms, parables are extended metaphors that are often dominated by the use of naturalistic imagery. Jesus often spoke about farmers, servants, land-owners, seeds and plants, and birds and trees in order to help the faithful, and often the skeptical, to understand the messiah, salvation, and the kingdom of God.
Jesus spoke in parables both to reveal and to obscure. Often, Jesus used parables so that his enemies and critics, the Pharisees, might better see him and themselves in a spiritual light. In Matthew 21, for example, Jesus tells a story about some wicked workers in a vineyard who kill the heir of the owner in order to seize the vineyard for themselves. Both the crowd standing by (Mt 21:41) and the Pharisees themselves (Mt 21:45) understand that Jesus was speaking about them. They were the wicked workers who were going to kill the “son” to claim what wasn’t theirs.
Often, however, Jesus spoke in parables about “mysteries,” particularly the mysteries of the kingdom of God. These parables were designed by Jesus to communicate a particular meaning to faithful believers. After Jesus teaches the parable of the sower, for example, in Matthew 13, Jesus meets privately with his disciples. They ask him why he teaches in parables and he says,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Mt 13:11-13)
Jesus was not interested in teaching the mysteries of the kingdom of God to people who were openly rejecting him. They saw the miracles and heard his teaching and refused to understand and believe. In some cases, Jesus spoke past them in parables to speak to the faithful to help them understand.
Parables in the Gospels
Scholars find as many as 37 distinct parables in the New Testament. The debate over this number centers on 1) whether two versions of a parable in two different Gospels are, in fact, the same parable (e.g. the Parable of the Minas in Lk 19 and the Parable of the Talents in Mt 25), 2) whether short, metaphorical sayings qualify as parables (e.g. “The Lamp under a Basket” in Mk 4:21-25), and 3) whether longer, “story” texts (e.g. Luke 16:19-31) are parables at all.
The Parables of Jesus are only found in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Jesus, in the Gospel of John, uses metaphorical language and extended analogies (e.g. the story of the Good Shepherd in Jn 10), but scholars don’t generally classify these as parables. The parables of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often found in different historical settings and are deployed by the authors themselves for different purposes. Jesus, no doubt, used these parables on multiple occasions and for very different audiences. Some parables are found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some are found only in a single Gospel.
Making Sense of the Parables
In this blog series I am going to survey a dozen or so of Jesus’ parables, both to show the variety of teaching in Jesus’ parables and to give my take on how to interpret them. Next month, I am going to post my own take on how many parables there are and where you can find them in the Gospels. Then, with each of my posts on specific parables, I am going to show how I think both Jesus and the Gospel writers tailored the parables to fit the circumstance before them, principles for interpreting a parable, and how modern readers should apply these parables to the Christian life.
If you want a preview, revisit my post on how to interpret a parable from 2017 HERE.
If you’d like to get ahead on some essential reading, you can revisit my post on resources for interpreting the Bible HERE.
As we take this year-long journey together, remember that parables are telling spiritual truths. These are not morality tales that teach us to be nice to people or else we’ll get into trouble. The parables have deep gospel roots and often have little meaning to those who have rejected that gospel. The parables of Jesus are dramatic, powerful, and deeply spiritual conveyers of truth in terms so plain that only those who are intentionally spiritually blind cannot see. As you read the parables with us this year, pray that God would open your eyes and change your life through his word.