James J. Tissot, 'The Lord's Prayer' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'The Lord's Prayer' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 8.5 x 6.4 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

As we begin our study of Jesus' parables, we need to specify exactly what we mean by "parable."

What Is a Parable?

The simplest definition of a parable might be stories intended to convey spiritual truths. Indeed, that is how "parable" is usually defined in English.

But some of Jesus' most powerful parables are short, just a verse or two -- hardly long enough to develop into a real narrative. Instead, they set up contrasts that compare well-known practices and situations with spiritual truths. For example,

"He told them still another parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.'" (Matthew 13:33)

It's short. A simple comparison. There is hardly a story line, just a common situation with a spiritual comparison. But Matthew refers to it as a "parable."

The Greek word is parabolē -- "a narrative or saying of varying length, designed to illustrate a truth especially through comparison or simile, comparison, illustration, parable, proverb, maxim."1 Notice that this is much broader than the usual definition of our English word "parable"2 The New Testament parabolē follows the breadth of the Hebrew noun mashal that includes an even wider range of stories, sayings, and comparisons both long and short. (For more on this, see Appendix 3. A Vocabulary for Parables and Analogies.)

One's definition of "parable" is important. Some scholars count about 30 parables. Others over 60.3 Rather than focusing narrowly on the so-called "teaching parables," I'll be exploring over 100 of Jesus' stories, analogies, and sayings. (See Appendix 2. List of Jesus' Parables and Analogies.) Of course, I will be spending more time on parables and analogies central to Jesus' disciple-making ministry, and less on the others.

I've decided to be comprehensive, if not exhaustive. Why? Because many of these more obscure analogies convey powerful truths -- and my goal here is to train modern-day disciples by means of the parables and analogies Jesus used. (I have pulled 14 parabolic sayings out of the lesson text itself, but for the sake of completeness included them in Appendix 4. Miscellaneous Analogies and Sayings.)

Parables in John's Gospel

Some scholars insist that John's Gospel doesn't contain any true parables.4 Indeed, the Greek noun parabolē does not occur in John at all. It is true that the figures of speech in John may differ some from those in the Synoptic Gospels. However, it is wrong to say that John contains no true parables. Hunter identifies about thirteen.5 Brown concludes:

"We must recognize that the illustrations and figures found in both John and in the Synoptics come under the name mashal. The most we can say is that the allegorical element receives more emphasis in John."6

Parables in John often tend to be extended metaphors, reflections on a comparison, with less of a story line. However, I see them as true parables in spite of the differences.

Thus, I have included from John's Gospel such important parables as the Parable of the Vine and the Branches (Lesson 9.3) and the Good Shepherd and the Sheepgate (Lesson 7.4), as well as many shorter parables and analogies.

The scope of this will encompass all the narratives and sayings of Jesus that would be covered by the Greek definition of parabolē that we saw above.

"A narrative or saying of varying length, designed to illustrate a truth especially through comparison or simile, comparison, illustration, parable, proverb, maxim."7

Categories of Parables

Some scholars classify parables into various precise categories.8 I'll often use the term "parable" broadly, but I'll focus on three simple categories:

  1. Sayings, short pithy maxims.
  2. Analogies, any kind of comparison that lacks a plot, such as metaphors and similes.
  3. Parables, stories that usually include some narrative element. But I also use it for a few one-verse figures of speech that are popularly known as parables.

I've also included some Acted Parables that involve deliberate comparisons but are acted out (Bread and Wine, Baptism, Washing the Disciples' Feet).

The Nature of the Kingdom

Many of the parables in the Synoptic Gospels are designed to teach the disciples about the nature of the Kingdom of God. The Jews had been expecting Messiah to come, overthrow the Roman oppressors, and set up David's kingdom on earth. So, Jesus must explain a number of things about the spiritual nature of the Kingdom he brings, often through parables. You'll see some that begin, "The kingdom of God is like ...."

Incidentally, for "Kingdom of God" (Mark and Luke), Matthew substitutes "Kingdom of heaven," since he is writing for Jewish readers who sought by this euphemism to avoid using the word "God." But there is no difference in meaning between the two.

Jesus' Purpose in Teaching via Parables

Why did Jesus' teach in parables? It is complicated. I believe that parables are designed to both (1) clarify truth to those who are seeking after it, and (2) obscure truth for those who are spiritually dull. Let me explain.

1. Parables Are Intended to Clarify Truth to the Spiritually Hungry

Jesus concludes the Parable of Sower (Lesson 8.1) with the words:

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (Mark 4:9)

He wants the spiritually hungry, who have "ears to hear," to understand his teachings.

"The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you." (Mark 4:11)

Clearly, parables were designed to reveal the secrets or mysteries9 of the Kingdom. They compared spiritual truths to familiar objects, people, and situations so that the disciples could understand better what Jesus was saying.

Bare theological statements are uninteresting, boring. But when their meaning is fleshed out in a story or comparison, people are drawn in and begin to understand the nuances Jesus is seeking to convey. Parables function as memory capsules that enable the disciples to recall and refresh their memories of Jesus' teaching.

But parables could sometimes be frustrating for the disciples and difficult for them to understand. On one occasion they tell him with some relief: "Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech"10 (John 16:29).

2. Parables Are Intended to Hide Truth from the Spiritually Dull

On the other hand, parables are meant to obscure the truth to those who are not spiritually hungry, who are only looking for ways to oppose Jesus.

"11 The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,

'They may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'" (Mark 4:11-12)

Jesus explains that the reason he uses parables is for the purpose, "so that" (verse 12a), the blind Israelites won't understand.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 9, as do other New Testament writers.11 Each time the verse is quoted in the New Testament, it is to remind the readers that though Isaiah was called to preach to the Jewish people, most would not listen because they had dull hearts. They don't have ears tuned to hear spiritually. (For more on this, see my exposition of the Parable of the Sower, Lesson 8.1.)

It is possible to hear the gospel many times, but each time you fail to respond positively, your heart becomes that much more calloused and less able to understand the next time. Gospel hardening is a normal effect when the gospel is preached to fallen mankind. Some will seek the light, but the majority will not. Even when Jesus himself preaches the gospel, few follow the way, as he says in the Parable of the Narrow and Wide Gates (Lesson 3.2):

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)

At first, the religious leaders of Jesus' day heard him with curiosity. But after a while, they listened only to trick him, trip him up, and formulate charges against him so they could have him arrested. Jesus' preaching hardened people's hearts.

In other words, Jesus speaks in parables "in order that" spiritually dull people won't really understand what he is saying. Perhaps, this is a way of applying his directive "Do not cast your pearls before swine" (Matthew 7:6; Lesson 8.1). Through parables, Jesus can communicate with the people who are eager to listen, while others won't understand enough to cause immediate trouble. Furthermore, the parables encapsulate nuggets of Kingdom truth that can be remembered, pondered, and communicated to others.

A Long History of Allegorizing Jesus' Parables

Now let's consider how to interpret Jesus' parables. For over a thousand years, the parables were commonly interpreted as allegories, where each element was spiritualized to represent something else. For example, Origen (185-254 AD) and later Augustine (354-430 AD) saw the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37, Lesson 11.3) as symbolizing Christ healing the wounds caused by sin. Every element corresponded to something else.

Wounded traveler Adam
Jerusalem Paradise
Jericho The moon that waxes, wanes, and dies; human mortality

The devil and his angels
Priest The Law
Levite The Prophets
Samaritan Christ
Wounds Disobedience, vices, and sin
Oil and wine Comfort and exhortation
Donkey The Lord's body that bears our sins
Inn The Church
Two Denarii Knowledge of the Father and the Son
Innkeeper The Apostle Paul
Promised Return Christ's Second Coming

If this all sounds outlandish, it is! But allegorizing was the traditional method of interpretation until the Reformers, who sought the "plain meaning" of Scripture. In spite of that, allegorizing still lives today. I once attended a church that considered allegorizing the high priest's garments was leading the congregation to "deeper truth." The problem with allegorizing is that you lose all the restraints of the actual text -- context, history, and use of words. You can make a parable mean anything you want it to mean, if you have an active enough imagination.

Seeking Rules of Interpretation

While Luther and Calvin sought to return to the plain meaning of Scripture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it wasn't until the beginning of the twentieth century that interpreters began to work out rules of interpretation for parables. German Bible scholar Adolf Jülicher (1857-1938) insisted that, in keeping with classical Greek usage, each parable could have only one point of comparison, rather than several, as in an allegory. In reaction to the unbridled allegorization of parables in the Church, he also insisted that Jesus didn't use allegories.12 Since his time, we can see that, though he was on the right track, he overstated the situation.13

While there is no one set of rules that can be applied rigorously to interpret all parables, Anderson gives us a helpful structure to consider, in terms of (1) allegory, (2) the single point, (3) eschatology, (4) structure, (5) literary context, and (6) polyvalence (that is, bearing multiple senses and resisting a singular determinate meaning).14 We'll keep these in mind as we consider at each parable in the pages that follow, but we need to consider three in this introduction -- allegory, the single point, and the first-century context.

Allegory. For the most part, Jesus' parables are not typical allegories like Pilgrim's Progress, where each element corresponds to something else. As mentioned, allegorization led the Church astray for many, many centuries. However, a couple of Jesus' parables actually do indeed have allegorical features. In the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Lesson 2.3) it is rather clear that the vineyard owner represents God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the Jews and Jewish leaders, the owner's representatives are the prophets, and the owner's son is Jesus. There are occasional allegorical elements here and there in other parables.15 However, for the most part, Jesus' parables are not allegories.16

The Single Point. Along with Jülicher's insistence that Jesus' parables were not intended as allegories, he taught that each parable has only a single point of comparison (whereas an allegory would have several). That is helpful, but not entirely the case. Indeed, a few parables may have more than one point. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lesson 11.3), for example, teaches both that (1) our neighbor might be an enemy, and (2) loving means doing practical good to our fellow man. The Parable of the Lost Son (Lesson 1.1) has points about the Father's love, as well as the older son's resentments. We'll consider them in due course. But, usually, parables have only one point. We shouldn't look for more.

First Century Context. It is vital that we understand the historical and cultural context in which Jesus is speaking. Snodgrass cautions, "If we are after the intent of Jesus, we must seek to hear a parable as Jesus' Palestinian hearers would have heard it."17 We'll be watching for this as we examine each parable. Only after we understand parables in their own context, can we accurately apply them to our lives in the present day.

Parables and Storytellers

As we study the parables, we need to understand the longer parables as a product of a storyteller's art. In our culture, stories appear in print or on the screen as fixed, completed. But in an oral culture it is more fluid.

If you've done some public speaking, you know that audiences differ. Some are less spiritually-attuned; others are more responsive. As you get a feel for the audience, you vary your message some -- and your choice of illustrations -- in order to reach that particular group. Jesus' parables are like that. Some seem almost identical in the Synoptic Gospels. But others vary from one Gospel to the other. They can be found in different contexts and even use different words to express the same idea, such as in the Parable of the Guilty Defendant (Lesson 3.2). We must remember that the disciples heard Jesus' parables hundreds of times over three years -- in many different villages and contexts. No wonder we see variations between the Synoptic Gospels.

Gospel Parallels

Long ago when I was a college student, I was required to purchase a copy of Throckmorton's Gospel Parallels for my "Bible as Literature" class. I still have that thin volume, though the cloth binding is frayed around the edges and the pages covered with notes. As a long-time student of the Gospels, I have given it a lot of use! It helpfully compares the texts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in side-by-side columns.

If you are a teacher or pastor, I encourage you to get a volume for your ongoing studies. Since many of the parables are given in two or three Gospels with (usually) minor differences, being able to compare them side-by-side is useful. To make this easy for you, I have included in the headings the section number (§) of the passages as found in Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr. (ed.), Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, a classic since 1949, commonly used in Bible schools and seminaries. You can find this in various editions and Bible translations in "used" condition for about $10 US. All of the Throckmorton editions display identical section numbers.

Jesus' Parables for Disciples, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats

In my discussion of the parables, I generally ignore slight variations in the Synoptic accounts and only comment on the more striking differences. Often, I'll follow Luke's account, since I wrote extensively on the parables in Disciple Training in Luke's Gospel (JesusWalk Publications, 2010, 2020). I've also drawn on parables covered in other studies: Jesus and the Kingdom of God: Discipleship Lessons (JesusWalk, 2010), Sermon on the Mount: the Jesus Manifesto (JesusWalk, 2011), and John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus (JesusWalk, 2015).

That's enough of an introduction. Now let's get into the Scriptures themselves and delight in the parables that Jesus teaches his disciples.


References and Abbreviations

[1] Parabolē, BDAG 759, 2a.

[2] Parable, "A usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle" (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition). Blomberg defines a parable as "A metaphor or simile often extended to a short narrative; in biblical contexts almost always formulated to reveal and illustrate the kingdom of God" (Craig L. Blomberg, "Parable," ISBE 3:655). Dodd says it is "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought" (Dodd, Parables, p. 5). Snodgrass summarizes this way: "In most cases a parable is an expanded analogy used to convince and persuade" (Snodgrass, Stories, p. 9).

[3] Garwood P. Anderson, "Parables," DJG2 651.

[4] Snodgrass (Stories, pp. 22-23) says, "In the technical sense there are no parables in John. They are meshalim such as the Door to the Sheepfold or the Good Shepherd," but nothing like the Synoptic forms.

[5] A. M. Hunter, Parables, pp. 78-79.

[6] Brown, John, 2:668-669.

[7] Parabolē, BDAG 759, 2a.

[8] Snodgrass (Stories, pp. 9-15) classifies parables into 7 categories: (1) aphoristic sayings; (2) similitudes (double indirect), extended similes that lack plot development; (3) interrogative parables (double indirect) that contain questions to draw in the hearer; (4) double indirect narrative parables, analogies dealing with two different realms and with two levels of meaning; (5) juridical parables that include an accusatory element; and (6) single indirect narrative parables. sometimes called "example stories"; and (7) "How much more" parables.

[9] Mystērion, "secret," here, "the unmanifested or private counsel of God, (God's) secret," the secret thoughts, plans, and dispensations of God (BDAG 661, 1a).

[10] "Figures of speech" (NIV, NRSV), "figurative speech" (ESV), "proverb" (KJV) is paroimia, "a brief communication containing truths designed for initiates, veiled saying, figure of speech," in which especially lofty ideas are concealed (BDAG 780, 2).

[11] Matthew 13:14-15; Luke 8:10; Mark 4:12, as well as Acts 28:26-27 and Romans 11:8.

[12] Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (1888, 1899).

[13] Brown, John, 1:390-391. A. Jülicher at the end of the last century "maintained that allegory was an artificial, literary device, and was never used by a rustic preacher like Jesus who spoke in simple parables. The Christian exegetes were the ones who interpreted Jesus' one-point parables as if they were allegory.... In "Parable and Allegory Reconsidered," NovT 5 (1951), 36-45 (NTRE Ch XIII), we have tried to show that, although Jülicher's theory continues to have a considerable following, it is really a gross oversimplification.... He was wrong in drawing a sharp distinction between parable and simple allegory in Jesus' own preaching."

[14] Garwood P. Anderson, "Parables," DJG2, pp. 660-662.

[16] "Parables are allegorical, some more than others." (Snodgrass, Stories, p. 16).

[17] Snodgrass, Stories, p. 25.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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