The parables of Jesus are found in the Synoptic Gospels and some of the non-canonical gospels. They form approximately one third of his recorded teachings.
Jesus’s parables are seemingly simple and memorable stories, often with imagery, and all teach a lesson in our daily lives. Scholars have commented that although these parables seem simple, the messages they convey are deep, and central to the teachings of Jesus. Christian authors view them not as mere similitudes that serve the purpose of illustration, but as internal analogies in which nature becomes a witness for the spiritual world.
Purpose of Jesus’ parables
Jesus’ parables were more than mere illustrations. They were stories designed to make people think, and often the hearers had to work out the meaning for themselves. The crowds that followed Jesus were often a hindrance, as many of the people were more interested in seeing him perform miracles than in making a spiritual response to his ministry. Jesus’ parables helped separate those who were genuinely interested from those who were merely curious ( Mark 4:1-2; Mark 4:11-12).
This separation occurred as people exercised their minds to work out the meaning of the parables. Those who desired to know more of Jesus and his teaching found the parables full of meaning. As a result their ability to understand the teaching increased. Those who had no real interest in Jesus’ teaching saw no meaning in the parables at all and so turned away from him. As a result their spiritual darkness became darker, and their hardened hearts harder. Because their wills were opposed to Jesus, their minds could not appreciate his teaching. Their sins therefore remained unforgiven ( Matthew 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12).
Although the teaching of parables may have caused the idly curious to lose interest in Jesus, the basic purpose of a parable was to enlighten, not to darken. A parable was like a lamp, and a lamp was put on a stand to give people light, not hidden under a bowl or a bed to keep people in darkness. The more thought people gave to Jesus’ teaching, the more enlightenment and blessing they received in return. On the other hand the less thought they gave to it, the less chance they had of understanding any spiritual truth at all ( Mark 4:21-25).
Parables of the kingdom
Because Jesus’ parables separated between the true and the false, many of them were concerned with the subject of the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom had, in a sense, come in the person of Jesus Christ. He announced the kingdom, and people’s response to his message determined whether they entered the kingdom ( Matthew 13:18-23; Matthew 21:28-33; Matthew 21:42-43; Matthew 22:1-14;).
This was seen clearly in the parable of the sower, where the different kinds of soil illustrated the different responses that people made to the teaching of Jesus. Only those who wholeheartedly accepted it were God’s people ( Matthew 13:1-9; Matthew 13:18-23). This parable was the key to understanding the others ( Mark 4:13). When the Jews, for whom the kingdom was prepared, rejected Jesus, Gentiles were invited and there was a great response ( Matthew 22:1-10). Thus Gentiles, who in Old Testament times had not received the preparation for God’s kingdom that the Jews had received, entered into its full blessings along with believing Jews ( Matthew 20:1-16).
Jesus pointed out that in the present world there will always be a mixture of those who belong to God’s kingdom and those who do not. When the final judgment comes, however, only the genuine believers will share in the triumphs of the kingdom ( Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:34-43; Matthew 13:47-50; Matthew 25).
God’s kingdom, then, is assured of final victory. From its insignificant beginnings among the ordinary people of Palestine it spreads throughout the world ( Matthew 13:31-33). It is of such value that to enter it is worth any sacrifice ( Matthew 13:44-46). It is something that reaches its fulfilment through the work of God himself ( Mark 4:26-29).
Further characteristics of the parables
Whether or not Jesus’ parables are directly related to the subject of the kingdom in the manner just outlined, Jesus usually intended them to teach only one or two points. In some cases he mentioned these points ( Matthew 21:43; Luke 12:21; Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10), but in others he left the hearers to find out for themselves ( Mark 12:12-13; Luke 7:40-43; Luke 19:11-27). Likewise instead of giving a direct answer to a question or criticism, Jesus sometimes told a parable by which the hearer himself could work out the answer ( Luke 10:29-30; Luke 15:2-3).
It is therefore important, in reading a parable, to find the chief purpose for which Jesus told it, and interpret the parable according to this purpose ( Luke 18:1; Luke 18:9). There is no need to find meanings for all the details within the parable, as these are often nothing more than parts of the framework of the story. Indeed, it can be misleading to interpret some of these details, because in doing so we may miss, or distort, the meaning that Jesus intended.
For example, in the parable of Matthew 20:1-15 Jesus was not teaching that an employer should give his workers equal pay for unequal work. Rather he was showing that even the most unlikely people enter God’s kingdom and, by God’s grace, they receive its full blessings ( Matthew 20:16). Similarly in the parable of Luke 16:1-17 he was not advising people to use cunning or dishonesty in their business dealings. Rather he was teaching that if believers use their material possessions wisely, they are guaranteed heavenly riches of permanent value ( Luke 16:9-11).
Whatever the main point of each of Jesus’ parables may have been, Jesus was inevitably forcing his hearers to a decision. He wanted people to listen and think ( Matthew 18:12; Matthew 21:28; Luke 10:36), but more than that he wanted them to decide and act ( Matthew 18:35; Matthew 21:45; Luke 10:37). And the challenge that Jesus brought through his parables is still relevant today ( Matthew 13:9; Matthew 13:43).
The following parables of our Lord are recorded in the New Testament
- Wise and foolish builders, Matthew 7:24-27
- Children of the bride-chamber, Matthew 9:15
- New cloth and old garment, Matthew 9:16
- New wine and old bottles, Matthew 9:17
- Unclean spirit, Matthew 12:43
- Sower, Matthew 13:3-18 Luke 8:5-11
- Tares, Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
- Mustard-seed, Matthew 13:31-32 Luke 13:19
- Leaven, Matthew 13:33
- Treasure hid in a field, Matthew 13:44
- Pearl of great price, Matthew 13:45-46
- Net cast into the sea, Matthew 13:47-50
- Meats defiling not, Matthew 15:10-15
- Unmerciful servant, Matthew 18:23-35
- Laborers hired, Matthew 20:1-16
- Two sons, Matthew 21:28-32
- Wicked husbandmen, Matthew 21:33-45
- Marriage-feast, Matthew 22:2-14
- Fig tree leafing, Matthew 24:32-34
- Man of the house watching, Matthew 24:43
- Faithful and evil servants, Matthew 24:45-51
- Ten virgins, Matthew 25:1-13
- Talents, Matthew 25:14-30
- Kingdom divided against itself, Mark 3:24
- House divided against itself, Mark 3:25
- Strongman armed, Mark 3:27 Luke 11:21
- Seed growing secretly, Mark 4:26-29
- Lighted candle, Mark 4:21 Luke 11:33-36
- Man taking a far journey, Mark 13:34-37
- Blind leading the blind, Luke 6:39
- Beam and mote, Luke 6:41-42
- Tree and its fruit, Luke 6:43-45
- Creditor and debtors, Luke 7:41-47
- Good Samaritan, Luke 10:30-37
- Importunate friend, Luke 11:5-9
- Rich fool, Luke 12:16-21
- Cloud and wind, Luke 12:54-57
- Barren fig tree, Luke 13:6-9
- Men bidden to a feast, Luke 14:7-11
- Builder of a tower, Luke 14:28-30,33
- King going to war, Luke 14:31-33
- Savor of salt, Luke 14:34-35
- Lost sheep, Luke 15:3-7
- Lost piece of silver, Luke 15:8-10
- Prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32
- Unjust steward, Luke 16:1-8
- Rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31
- Importunate widow, Luke 18:1-8
- Pharisee and publican, Luke 18:9-14
- Pounds, Luke 19:12-27
- Good shepherd, John 10:1-6.
- Vine and branches, John 15:1-5.