I teach middle-school, and let’s face it, eleven- and twelve-year-olds aren’t always the most attentive listeners. However, one guaranteed way to cause a hush to fall on the room is to say, “Want to hear a story?” Suddenly all eyes are locked on me and if the story is good enough, it brings the whole group together. I am a “good enough” teacher, but Jesus was a great teacher. Crowds flocked to hear him speak. “He spoke with authority, unlike their teachers of the Law.” Clearly, he wasn’t droning out long theological treatises. If you read the Sermon on the Mount discourses in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, he shocks, he questions, he unsettles, but above all, he tells unforgettable little stories people had to puzzle over. We call these parables, which literally means comparison in Greek.
Jesus didn’t invent the parable, but he used them so often and so effectively he’s become synonymous with this genre of story. But what makes a parable a parable? Why did Jesus rely on this type of story to get his message across?
What I find funny is that Jesus parables are so compelling we often forget the characters didn’t really exist. You mean, the Prodigal Son wasn’t a real person? The unforgiving servant didn’t really try to strangle his co-worker? The good Samaritan didn’t really help that guy out? That’s what makes the parables of Jesus different from the fables of Aesop. A fable is, well, fabulous, made-up, full of talking animals: The Tortoise and the Hare, The Sparrow and the Hare, The Wolf and the Lamb. At the end, there’s no puzzling over the meaning; it is spelled out loud and clear: Slow and steady wins the race, Misery loves company, Tyrants need no excuse.
In contrast, Jesus’ parables often don’t have an explicit moral, though the message is often clear, and there are many parables that say the same thing differently, such as the Lost-and-Found trio in Luke 15: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Lost Son(s).
But why parables? Jesus was not speaking to rowdy middle-schoolers, trying to get everyone’s attention. Why did Jesus veil his message and risk people misinterpreting it or not understanding it at all? The disciples wondered the same thing and confronted Jesus in Matthew 13:10, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus’ answer makes us a little uncomfortable. Quoting Isaiah, he basically says, “Their hearts are hard, therefore I speak but they don’t hear, I show them, but they don’t see, lest they turn back to God.” So the parables are like a secret code that those on the inside of the Kingdom understand, but those on the outside don’t. Hidden in plain sight.
The titles of the parables and their messages will give us a clue to what Jesus was concealing in these stories.
Notice how Matthew has structured this group of parables. There are eight, including a preface and a conclusion. There’s the preface, The Sower, then two parables per main message. The Weeds and the Net are like bookends for The Mustard Seed and The Leaven and The Hidden Treasure and The Pearl, and last, the conclusion, New and Old Treasures. To schematize this, we could say, A, B, C, C, D, D, B, A’. Jesus is telling us that our response to the message has eternal consequences. Are we willing to give up everything for the Kingdom?
There are more parables in Matthew.
On to Mark, who gives us ten parables in all.
Luke gives by far the greatest number, 24 or so.
What about John? He uses metaphors and signs instead of parables. I think on a whole he is more concerned with Jesus’ divinity than with the coming Kingdom of God compared to the synoptic Gospels.
What makes a parable different from a fable or a tale, however instructive they may be, is that a parable is about something that does happen (turning the house upside down to find a lost coin), or could happen (a Samaritan taking pity on a wounded Jew).
The tables above give us a sense that, really, there is only one overarching theme of the parables: how Jesus calls us to relate to God and others. God yearns for you to return to him like a father, who against all cultural norms, accepts his immoral son with open arms. Love and forgive others. Consider carefully how you will respond to Jesus' message because there are life or death consequences. And all these messages are expressed through illustrations about people, plants or objects and one lost sheep.
So, to sum up, here's my attempt at defining a New Testament parable:
It’s a comparison
of a spiritual reality
to people, plants, or objects
to illustrate the truth
or conceal it
depending on whether you’re
in or out
of the Kingdom.
What do you think? Do all the parables above fit this definition? Did I miss any parables?
In another post, I’ll discuss parables in the Old Testament.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.