In Mark 4:2, we are told that Jesus taught the multitude many things by parables. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record many parables spoken by Jesus. The gospel of John, though different in design from the synoptic gospels, also records some of Jesus’ parabolic teaching. There are likely more parables in the four gospels than you realize. When we think of the parables, some that we are well acquainted with no doubt come to mind, but as we go through this series, I think you may be surprised to see how often Jesus spoke to the people in parables. I was!
I’m hesitant to put in print how many parables we can find spoken by the Lord in the gospels. Perhaps it will be sufficient to say there are many. Some believe the word “parable” needs to be in the text to confirm that a teaching is in fact a parable. Though it is true the writers will often state that the Lord spoke a parable, they don’t always do so. To require all parables to be specifically identified as such shows ignorance in the one making the requirement of what a parable is, and disqualifies several statements made by the Lord which are parabolic in nature.
So, what is a parable? We will begin with Merriam-Webster, which defines a parable as:
An usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude
or a religious principle. (m-w.com)
If we check a variety of lexicons, concordances, and Bible dictionaries, we find the Greek word parabole involves a comparison or a similitude (Thayer’s, Vine’s, Strong’s, Young’s). Parables provide spiritual insight by using earthly experiences or observations. Each new image that Jesus presents in the kingdom parables begins with the statement, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” (Matthew 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52). He used characteristics of a mixed crop, the mustard seed, leaven, a hidden treasure, a beautiful pearl, a dragnet in the sea, and a householder discovering treasure among his goods.
As indicated already, it is not always announced by the gospel writer that a parable is present. Add to this the knowledge that they’re simply earthly truths used to discover a spiritual truth; maybe our awareness of parables in the Bible will be heightened. Also, parables do not need to be long. The hidden treasure parable in Matthew 13 is one verse.
A parable can be difficult to understand. After hearing the parable of the sower the apostles asked Jesus to explain it to them. Some of the parables are explained, but most are not. Thus, we must carefully consider the text and determine what the spiritual lesson is.
Vine’s dictionary gives an important warning when it comes to the interpretation and application of parables. It reads:
Two dangers are to be avoided in seeking to interpret the
parables in Scripture, that of ignoring the important features,
and that of trying to make all the details mean something.
It is also important to look at the context in which the parable is found, as often the context can help us determine what spiritual principle or lesson is being taught. Look for individuals in the context whom Jesus is answering or teaching. Consider the implications of the physical elements of the parable (ie. expanding nature of leaven, expected result of scattering seed on a variety of soils, etc.). The spiritual application of such features will likely mirror in some respect what we see in the physical realm.
Concerning the parables, Jesus said to the apostles:
To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom
of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in
parables, so that ‘Seeking they may see and not perceive,
and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they
should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.’ (Mark 4:11-12)
The worldly will not understand the parables. They are foolishness to them. But even the apostles had difficulties (Mark 4:13). If you struggle to understand a parable, don’t get discouraged. Be patient, read, study, pray, ask others. May God bless our studies.