Parables

Preaching and Worship Resources about Parables

Parables as told by Jesus drew on familiar, everyday images and situations in order to convey less familiar truths about the kingdom of God, God's grace, and God's judgment. Although we tend to think parables were always intended to make hard-to-understand concepts easier to grasp, many parables confused the original listeners and seemed designed to foment deeper reflections in listeners as they pondered just how a given parable's metaphor, simile, and/or narrative revealed something new about the nature of God and of salvation.

In Scripture

The parables of Jesus are found only in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The gospel of John contains no parables and, in fact, the Greek word parabole does not occur there nor anywhere else in the New Testament outside the synoptics.

Sometimes Jesus introduced his parables by overtly labeling them as such (or the gospel writer did so on Jesus' behalf), whereas other times the actual word "parable" may be absent in favor of Jesus' saying simply, "The kingdom of God is like. . . ." Sometimes Jesus just launches into a story: "There was a man who had two sons. . . ."

Parallel gospels Luke contains 24 parables, Matthew contains 23, and Mark contains eight, though many of these parables are parallel accounts. Only a few parables (like The Parable of the Sower) are in all three synoptic gospels. But some of the most famous parables are found in only one gospel, such as the parables of The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan, which are found only in Luke; or the parable of The Great Banquet, which occurs in only Matthew.

Points to Ponder

Categories of Parables. Some parables resist tidy classification into one category or another, but broadly speaking, Jesus told parables that described 1) the kingdom of God. 2) the grace of God that leads to forgiveness. 3) the judgment of God against sin/parables related to the end times.

Of course, in one sense all the parables -- even those that did not overtly make a comparison of something to the kingdom of God — described God's kingdom, even as many parables contained both notes of grace and judgment. The story of The Prodigal Son is a lyric story of grace, but the attitude of the elder brother was a vignette of something to be judged wrong. The parable of The Sheep and The Goats contained good news for unsuspecting sheep who did not realize they had been ministering to Jesus, yet that same parable contained very bad news for unsuspecting goats who did not realize that all the people they had failed to minister to had been Jesus in their midst all along.

Parables, then, may resist tidy classification, but in aggregate the parables consistently revealed the nature of God, God's kingdom ways, and the nature of God's salvation and how they intersect with this fallen and needy world.

Parabolic Surprises. Over-familiarity with Jesus' parables leads many Christians to treat these images and stories as routine, as obvious, as inevitable. But, in fact, in their original context Jesus' parables routinely taught listeners startling and surprising truths that were not the least bit expected. Parables pulled the rug out from under listeners, leaving them flat on their backs and wondering what they had just heard. Or, to use a Eugene Peterson image, parables were "narrative time bombs" that lodged in people's hearts. It seemed like Jesus had just told a homely little story about farmers and seeds, but then, halfway on their way home after hearing Jesus, people found that the parabolic time bomb went off with a shocking "BOOM." "Hey, he wasn't talking about farmers and seed — he was talking about us and God, and we didn't come off very well!"

In parables, the kingdom of God was regularly described as hidden, unexpected, tiny, and unimpressive. Common sense was upended, as when lazy bums who worked one hour in a vineyard got the same pay as the early-bird-gets-the-worm types who toiled twelve hours under a hot sun. Characters in the parables who seemed to be stand-ins for God or for Jesus often behaved in unexpected ways: an unjust judge who fears neither God nor people (Luke 18), a ruthless king who orders his enemies slaughtered in his sight (Luke 19), a shrewd manager who is rewarded for being underhanded and devious (Luke 16). Preachers and teachers today who treat Jesus' parables as anything other than remarkably surprising and unexpected may fail to appreciate the real pedagogical punch that these stories pack.

Allegories and the Meaning of Parables: For the vast majority of church history — right up until the dawn of the 20[th] century — the dominant approach to interpreting parables was via allegory. Every detail, narrative element, and character was scrutinized to see what it stood for in real life or in history. This approach was known to lead to some wild extremes, at least to our modern minds. Augustine once claimed that in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the traveler represented the first man, Adam, who had left the heavenly city of peace only to be assaulted by the devil and his hosts (the robber), who led him to sin. The unhelpful priest and Levite were the Law and the prophets, the Samaritan was Christ (and the donkey was the body of Christ), the inn was the church, and the innkeeper entrusted to care for the man until the Samaritan's return was the apostle Paul.

Most people no longer believe that Jesus intended that level of allegorical hidden meaning. Though in many parables it is clear that certain characters stood for certain people (the elder brother in The Prodigal Son was parallel to the critical Pharisees whose judgment of Jesus kicked off the trio of lost-and-found parables in Luke 15), in other parables there are no such clear connections. For instance, although the unjust judge in the Persistent Widow parable of Luke 18 could be seen as a stand-in for God, that judge's poor moral character and arbitrary reasons for finally answering the widow's plea probably ought not to be projected onto God in some neat 1:1 correspondence. Most people believe that viewing Jesus' imagery and/or the narrative at its most basic level is enough to understand the new thing Jesus was trying to teach: the kingdom seems invisible like yeast once it's in the dough; God rejoices in seeking those whom the rest of us might deem not worth looking for; grace may not seem fair by our ordinary ways of calculating merit and worth but it is God's way to bring people into his kingdom; and so on.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.