The traditional definition of the parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” The Greek word for parable literally means “thrown alongside.” It suggests a side-by-side comparison between something everyone knows and understands and something that is more opaque and enigmatic. According to Mark 4, Jesus intended for parables to both illuminate and obscure simultaneously. For seekers, a parable caused them to think more deeply than they would otherwise and helped them to remember the lesson in a striking way. For people closed to Jesus, parables only hardened their hearts. Both functions were part of Jesus’ purpose in telling parables.
Story parables versus allegorical parables
In the past, interpreters consistently explained parables in terms of allegory: details of the story had symbolic meaning. This method of interpretation is thought to have originated in Alexandria, Egypt, where over generations, practitioners became more and more sophisticated in its application. During the Middle Ages, people who expounded the parables engaged in highly subjective and thus highly questionable exegesis.
For example, the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) was thought by some to have this meaning: the man on the journey (Adam) was beaten and robbed (by Satan in the Fall) and then ignored by the priest and Levite (the Law and the Prophets), but he was rescued by the compassionate Samaritan (Jesus), who got down (the incarnation) and put the man on his own donkey (the Substitutionary Atonement) and took him to the inn (the Church), paying the innkeeper (the Pope) to take care of him until the Samaritan returned (the Second Coming).
More recent scholars rightly rejected this uncontrolled allegorization, but in the process may have gone too far in the opposite direction. Some of them dismiss from parables any kind of allegorical features, claiming that each of Jesus parables has only a single meaning. Others ascribe to the early church any parables with allegorical features, refusing to accept that Jesus himself may have assigned their symbolic meanings.
Yet we have only to examine the parable that Nathan the prophet told to King David (2 Sam. 12: 1-4) 1000 years before Jesus to dispel the notion that allegory is outside the boundaries of what Jesus might have said. In Nathan’s story, the poor man stands for Uriah, the rich man for King David himself, and the lamb the rich man stole and murdered – perhaps it stands for Bathsheba and perhaps for the marriage Uriah and Bathsheba shared.
I will discuss allegorical parables in greater detail next week. For now, we will look at some of Jesus story parables. He always told them in past tense and made them very short, stripped of virtually all embellishments.
What makes a good story?
As any teacher of creative writing would confirm, a good story involves memorable characters, action, conflict, and resolution. Many stories have three characters, though some have only two. If the storyteller can devise something surprising in the story, so much the better. The parables that Jesus told are masterpieces in their brevity, their beauty, and especially in the punch that they deliver at the end.
A number of Jesus’ stories contain surprises – things that go against the grain of the audience’s expectations. For example, in Jesus’ day and society, a Jewish audience would assume that the storyteller would make the Jew the hero of the piece. Jesus, however, focuses on the merciful Samaritan, making the semi-conscious Jew the passive recipient of his attentions.
In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), Jesus surprised his audience by making those who worked the least the greatest beneficiaries of the owner’s generosity, while those who worked the hardest and longest speak lines that reveal their jealousy and bitterness.
In a culture shaped by the blessings and curses of the covenant (Lev. 26 and Deut. 28), people assumed that the rich enjoyed God’s special blessing, while the poor were under his curse. Yet Jesus pictures the beggar Lazarus in paradise one of the rich man suffers the torments of hell (Luke 16:19-31). Another rich man hears God’s pronouncement, “You fool!” followed by his own death sentence.
Such surprises have the function of upsetting the hearers’ long-held assumptions, prompting them to rethink their understandings and to reorder their priorities. Astonishment drives the story deep into the heart, where it remains embedded forever.
List of Jesus parables
Here is a list of the parables of Jesus, including the passages in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John where they are recorded. As you work your way through the list, ask yourself whether you are able to tell each story in your own words. Think about the ending of the parable. Does Jesus resolve all of the conflict, or does he leave the resolution open ended? Occasionally, you will find a one sentence summary of the moral lesson at the end of the parable. Sometimes, it occurs at the beginning and the end, as in the case of the Parable of the Sower and the Soils (Mark 4:3 and Mark 4:9; Matt. 19:30 and Matt. 20:16). In at least one case, Jesus provides a whole array of lessons based on the preceding parable (Luke 16:8-18).
Are you a good storyteller?
Try your hand at creating a parable. You may find that it is much harder than you first assumed. Start at the end, with the moral lesson, and then try to imagine a story that illustrates that lesson. The more you work at it the better you will become.
Want to go deeper?
For further reading on the parables of Jesus, see the following resources:
Robert Stein. The Methods and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Philadelphia, Penn.: Westminster, 1978.
Stein has an excellent introduction to parables as a teaching method, with particular application to the parables of Jesus.
Kenneth E. Bailey. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2008.
Having spent virtually all of his adult life in the middle east, Bailey shares what he has learned about the parables of Jesus from people who live in a culture quite similar to first century Palestine. His insights are remarkable, backed up as they are by scholarly studies.
Gary Smalley and John Trent. The Blessing. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1986. Reprint: New York: Pocket Books, 1990.
Trent and Smalley apply the art of story-telling to the needs for individuals and families to draw closer together. This is a great book teaching a great method that facilitates great healing.