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4 Big Lessons from Lesser-Known Parables

4 Big Lessons from Lesser-Known Parables

Over the course of His ministry, Jesus delivered dozens of parables about the new way of life He was ushering in. Sources list between 27 and 70 parables, depending on how they’re counted. Many have even made their way into popular culture, such as The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son.

With so many parables, there are bound to be some that go oft unused in sermons and literature. However, these parables still hold valuable lessons. Below are four lesser known parables that give important insights into the kingdom of God.

1. Completely made new: The new cloth and old garment

This parable is recorded in Matthew 9:16-17 and Mark 2:21-22. Jesus says, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:21-22).

No, this isn’t Jesus giving fashion or culinary advice. Rather, Jesus is making a point about mixing the old with the new.

As often happened, the self-righteous Pharisees, the Jewish leaders, were heckling Jesus about his actions. Jesus responded with three parables, of which the above was one.

Anyone with sewing experience knows that sewing a new patch on an old garment is going to cause problems; the patch will shrink once wet or washed, ripping the old garment again.

Likewise, people of Jesus’ day would have understood that new wine had to be put in new wineskins. Fresh skins would expand with the fermenting wine, but old skins would already be stretched out and brittle, and thus would burst from the expanding gases.

Jesus was telling the Pharisees that He wasn’t there to bolster the Law, putting a new patch on an old garment. Rather, He was there to do something completely new, a new kingdom with a new covenant; a new garment.

As for their old way of life, full of laws and rules, it was not going to work with His new kingdom. The kingdom of God was not going to fit within their ritualistic parameters (metaphorically, the wineskins). This new wine of the kingdom needed a new covenant, or new wineskin, to contain it.

Of course, this can be extended to an individual’s life. Using Christianity as a patch to fix outward behavior isn’t enough; God wants to make us completely new people. Also, pouring Christianity into the old wineskin of a sinful life won’t work well; a new life is needed.

2. More than we deserve: The laborers in the vineyard

This parable is recorded in Matthew 20:1-16. Though a better understanding will come from taking a moment to closely read the parable, it might be summarized something like this:

A landowner has a vineyard and wants men to work it. He goes out in the morning, finds some men standing around, and agrees to pay them a denarius (a generous wage) to do it. They go. Then he goes out three more times, at noon, three, and five. Each time he finds more men and hires them.

At the end of the day, the landowner gives every man a denarius. The ones hired in the morning who worked all day grumble that they receive the same as those who only worked an hour in the evening. However, the landowner rebukes them, saying, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  (Matthew 20:13-15).

So what does this parable mean? On first glance, it seems unfair that the men who worked all day don’t get paid more than those who worked an hour. However, they received what they were promised. The issue here seems to be that the laborers who came late are getting more than what the laborers who came early believe they deserve.

The landowner, in this case, represents God, and the laborers those He calls. Some people may serve God their entire lives, while others, like the thief on the cross (Luke 29:39-43), may make a last-minute conversion at the end of their life. However, both receive forgiveness and eternal life.

The point of this parable is that it is indeed unfair, but in the best way. God lavishes His blessing even on those who did nothing, because it is His blessing to give. But this does not neglect those who serve Him all their lives; rather, they too receive a generous reward, the reward they were promised. His grace to the late laborers does not diminish His generosity to the early laborers.

Basically, Jesus is saying we’re all getting way more than we deserve, and we have no right to protest that someone else doesn’t deserve it.

3. For the humble: The rich man and Lazarus

In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the parable of a rich, selfish man and the poor man who died at his doorstep, hoping for scraps from his table.

The poor man, Lazarus, died and went to heaven, while the rich man died and went to hell. The rich man looks up to see Lazarus standing with Abraham. The rich man is in agony and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to help him and give him water. However, Abraham reminds him that the reverse was true on earth, and Lazarus cannot help him.

The rich man responds by asking Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them so that they won’t go to the place of torment. But Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

This parable has many layers, but two points stand out. First, even in the afterlife, the rich man treats Lazarus as his servant; he is still selfish. He does not think to ask God for forgiveness, but instead is still trying to do things on his own. He still hasn’t learned.

Second, Abraham states that those who didn’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, that is, the Bible up to that point, would not repent even if they saw a miracle. The specific miracle he mentions is someone rising from the dead; this points to Jesus’ resurrection. If the Hebrew Bible wasn’t enough, not even Jesus rising from the dead will convince the unfaithful.

What does this teach the modern reader? The kingdom of God requires humility. Life situations like rich or poor don’t matter, faith does. The kingdom of God is for the humble, those who hear the Gospel, receive it, and live it out (e.g. by caring for the poor). At some point, there are no more excuses; if we would not believe all the testimony before us, nothing could convince us.

4. Open to anyone: The tenant farmers

Jesus returns to vineyard metaphors for this parable found in Matthew 21:33-45 and Mark 12:1-12. Before continuing, it is recommended to read one of these passages.

In summary, a landowner lets out his vineyard to tenants and goes away. When it’s time to collect some of the vineyard’s fruit, the landowner sends a servant to retrieve it, but the tenants beat him and send him away. The landowner sends other servants, but each one is beaten, killed, or stoned. Finally, the landowner sends his beloved son; surely the son will be respected. But the tenants kill the son as well. Therefore, the landowner returns, destroys the tenants, and brings in new, trustworthy tenants.

This violent parable is a parallel to history. The landowner here is God, the vineyard is His kingdom, and the tenants are the Jewish religious leadership. The servants are the prophets and other true believers that God sent to the people. But they rejected these messengers, to the point that God had to send His own Son, Jesus, to them. Here Jesus predicts His own death at the hands of the Jewish leaders. They even kill the Son of the Master. Because of this, Jesus says that God will bring in new tenants.

Who are these new tenants? They are the Gentiles, all of the non-Jews. In this parable to the Pharisees, Jesus is warning them that their time is up. God is now opening His kingdom to anyone who will bear its fruit, Jew or Gentile, a horrendous thought to the ethnocentric Pharisees.

What can we learn from this now? It doesn’t matter who we think we are. The kingdom of God will go to those who are obedient.

These four parables have far more depth than what could be discussed here, but they certainly point to the following:

  1. The kingdom of God is wholly new.
  2. It’s more than we deserve.
  3. It’s based on faith, not on worldly appearances.
  4. It’s open to anyone who will accept it.

These parables can help us see God’s vision for His people more clearly.

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