What Are Parables? 5 Things Jesus Teaches Us
- Kendra Fletcher
- 2019 28 Aug
When Jesus was with us on earth and ministering to his followers, he often told them stories called parables that would illustrate an important point. Jesus, as the author and finisher of our faith, knew that by telling engaging and interesting stories, he would draw the crowd to him and communicate difficult or perhaps painful truths in a way they could easily grasp, or at least digest as they went on with their daily lives.
What Are Parables?
We call the stories that Jesus told “parables” because they illustrate a spiritual lesson in the life of the characters. In this way, parables are different from fables which also can impart a moral imperative, because they are about people and real-life situations (whereas fables, like those written by Aesop, often employ the use of animals and mythical creatures).
Jesus knew how to get to the heart of a story, and he knew that his listeners would strain an ear to hear the compelling conclusion to his messages. Stories, and in particular parables, have that kind of power; it’s just plain more poignant to hear the truth about our own sinful selves than it is to hear about someone else who shares our same struggles and sin. We don’t mind so much when we hear the truth about someone else, even if it applies to us.
Similarly, we tend to be able to grasp spiritual truths and the beauty and reality of our salvation by Christ’s atoning work on the cross if we are told a story that paints a parallel illustration.
The Parables Jesus Told
In all, Jesus told 22 parables that were recorded in the book of Matthew, 10 parables in the book of Mark, and 10 in the book of Luke. Take a look at this excellent breakdown of all 42 parables, organized book-by-book.
If we take them at face value, the parables Jesus told can seem like nice tales of morality and read like a “how-to”, no more potent than Aesop’s Fables. But as Alfred Edersheim illustrates in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, the parables served another purpose:
“But suddenly, when the crowds come to hear Him, He hops into a boat and speaks in parables, stories about sowing seeds and gathering wheat (Matthew 13).
When the disciples ask Him why, since they obviously noticed the change, His answer may seem even more astonishing: ‘To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been granted’ (Matthew 13:11). In other words, the parables are meant to divide the crowd. While this may seem as if Jesus denied some people access, the difference He means is not in the message—but in the response.
The parables themselves present clear stories from everyday events that many in the crowd would recognize. Jesus did not code His teaching to prevent some people from understanding, since all equally would understand the imagery. All those gathered there certainly comprehended the aspects of the stories related to their everyday lives. Instead, His teaching divided the listeners into two groups based on their own responses.
His miracles had attracted many, and others had perhaps been astonished by His earlier teaching. But the parables themselves, just as in the story of the seed falling on various places (Matthew 13:3-9), revealed the true nature of their responses and their real decisions. Those committed to the Kingdom of God would seek and find further understanding. But those uncommitted—perhaps listening only because of the initial excitement—would reject the teaching as unintelligible.”
So for those whom Christ was transforming by his life and words, the parables would do their work to soften and instruct, but to those who had merely been enamored by, say, Jesus’ miracles and sensational reputation, the stories would have no deeper meaning, much as the Bible holds deeper revelation for those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells but not for the unredeemed.
What Can We Learn from Jesus’ Parables?
Besides the obvious “moral of the story”, there is much to be learned in the parables about the nature of God and the redeeming love of Christ. Here are five things parables and stories teach us:
1. Great stories teach us something about God.
In the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), we are reminded how easy it is to judge one another, but so hard for us to know the actual truth about a person. We can be reminded that only God serves as the judge of the hearts of mankind, and that’s a freeing truth.
In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells a parable about a lost sheep, which once found, is rejoiced over by the shepherd. “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Is that not a stunning picture of a loving, tender, merciful God who loves to save the lost and restore them to himself? Look for God as you read the parables because ultimately, every word written in the Bible is a signpost pointing to him.
2. Great stories teach us something about ourselves.
And sometimes the truth hurts. While a story like the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) may be the encouragement we need to recognize that we, too, have talents given to us for the glory of God and our fulfillment, a story like that of the beggar at the marriage feast told just before it in Matthew 22:1-10 might garner a personal reaction closer to, “Ouch.”
I never loved the story of the beggar being slighted at the lavish marriage celebration and then given the place of honor because I recognized in my own heart the tendency to rank people and treat them according to my earthly and flawed “tiers of importance”. My uncomfortable response to the story of the marriage feast is exactly the reaction the parables are meant to elicit, for our own betterment. Yes, the truth hurts, but it’s the kind of barb that gets under our skin and causes real, heart-level change.
3. Great stories illustrate our need for something.
Our greatest need, of course, is that of redemption. Our sin guarantees our death without something—someone—to stand in our place and make it all right.
The parables so beautifully illustrate our sinful nature (i.e., the wayward and reckless prodigal son, the unforgiving servant, the son who told his father one thing and did another) and remind us of our own struggles. Jesus told his listeners in a crowd that included both his disciples and the Pharisees that the sinful heart of man is what defiles him (Matthew 15:10-20), not the things that he chooses to do (or put into his mouth, as it were). The Pharisees went away grumbling and offended because they could not see that they were sinners in need of a Savior and they could not, try as they might, add anything to the Savior’s work.
In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35), Jesus tells of a man who owed the king a large sum of money, and when he could not pay it back, the king ultimately spared his life and forgave him his debt. But that same man would not forgive the small debt another man owed to him, and when the king learned of this, he had him thrown in jail because he would not show the same kind of mercy that the king himself had extended.
Jesus was showing us our need for forgiveness and redemption, but the Pharisees could not understand that they were grasping for a savior who did not look like Jesus. They wanted more, they wanted some credit for their hard work toward their own salvation, and they missed the whole point entirely.
4. Great stories serve as a guide.
In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus tells the parable of the marriage feast. Here, the parable serves to guide us to the truth that there are those who know of Christ but refuse him as Lord and Savior. In the end, he tells us, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” With that kind of guidance, our choice to follow Christ gains clarity and perhaps resolve as well.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So, go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
5. Great stories tell us who the hero is.
Ultimately, every story has a hero. A fighter. Someone who comes along and saves the day. Here, in the parable of the tenant farmers (Mark 12:1-12), we know who that hero is. Jesus makes sure that the Pharisees and chief priests understand that Jesus—the hero, the long-awaited Savior—is the one whom they are rejecting.
“A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:
'The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.”
The parables, as with all of the stories in the Bible, remind us of our need for the Savior and point us back to him as our ultimate hope. Isn’t it remarkable that God has given us Jesus over and over again in his Word? Even more so, isn’t it good and right that the Creator of all things has written a beautiful narrative in which to show us our need for him? Parables are a compelling means by which the Good Shepherd gently leads his people to him.
Kendra Fletcher is a mother of 8, speaker, author, and podcaster. She is the author of Lost and Found: Losing Religion, Finding Grace, and Leaving Legalism, and she regularly writes for Key Life Ministries. The Fletchers reside in California, where they play in the Pacific Ocean as often as possible. Find her here: www.kendrafletcher.com
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