Jesus’ parables are among the most influential, loved, and compelling aspects of his or any other religious teachings. Approximately one-third of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels is in parables, and they are the primary way that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God. Jesus used the parables to prompt thinking and stimulate response in obedience to God.
Jesus’ parables were prophetic tools intended to instruct and confront his people, just as prophets before him, in the Hebrew Bible, had done. Parables occur too in later Jewish literature, especially in rabbinic writings, but there they are used more for scriptural explanation than for prophetic confrontation. Parables occur as well in virtually all cultures, especially as a way to teach wisdom.
What is a parable? The term translated as “parable” in both Hebrew and Greek (mashal and parabole respectively) covers everything from simple proverbs to questions to long narratives like Jesus’ story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). A parable is a disarming form of indirect communication designed to make you look one way—to a sower sowing a field—in order to grasp a meaning elsewhere—responses to God’s word. A parable acts like an extended analogy that directs your gaze away from “what it is” (reality) to enable you to see “what it is like” (analogy). For example, the prophet Nathan tells David about a rich man who killed a poor man’s beloved sheep. David is incensed at the story (reality), until he realizes the story is just like (analogy) his own recent murder of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba (2Sam 12:1-7).
Jesus’ parables are typically brief and symmetrical. They do not usually give unnecessary information such as motives for action. They are quite diverse in form, length, and function. They feature normal aspects of ancient Palestinian life such as family, master-servant relations, and workers. They use everyday features, but they are not about everyday occurrences. They are more pseudorealistic than realistic and often have elements of exaggeration or surprise. Sometimes they force a reversal of expectations, such as having to admit that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, is righteous (Luke 18:9-14).
How are parables to be understood? Jesus’ parables have often been distorted by being interpreted apart from their first-century context. For much of the church’s history, the elements in a parable were each assigned some theological significance, usually unrelated to Jesus’ original intent. Against this approach, other interpreters took the stance that each parable makes only one point. In truth, neither interpretive approach does justice to Jesus’ parables. Key issues in getting at the meaning of a parable are (1) how and why the story works in Jesus’ first-century teaching and in terms of his confrontation with various groups, and (2) what Jesus intended to say to his first hearers.
The Gospel writers arranged the parables according to subject (the kingdom, Israel, future judgment, money, prayer, etc.), with most of them appearing in Matt 13, Matt 18, Matt 20-22, Matt 24-25; Mark 4, Mark 12; and Luke 7-8, and Luke 10-20. Parables of Jesus are found only in the Synoptic Gospels; the Gospel of John does not contain any narrative parables, though it does present Jesus using analogies that fit with the broad Hebrew word translated as “parable.” A few apocryphal gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas, contain parables as well, most of them parallel to synoptic parables.