The Parables of Jesus: Lesson 1, Introduction

Parables of Jesus Christ 2What are Parables?

To introduce a parable, Jesus often used this phrase, “The kingdom of God is like …”  In a non-parable-like fashion, Jesus revealed the structure of a parable: A comparison.  The term “parable” comes from the two Greek words.

  • Para,” a preposition meaning “alongside” or “together with,” as in parallel.
  • Balo,” a verb, which means “to cast” or “to throw,” as in casting a net.


1 The Meaning of Parable


The Challenge of Living in 21st Century America

A parable should require no external key to explain what its elements—the understandings, experiences, and objects—mean.  For the comparisons Jesus used were part of the culture of His day.  Not so for us.  So, when Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to something, the “something” He used may almost be as mysterious to us as the Kingdom of Heaven.

Who here has farmed—using the methods common in first-century Judea, with is climate, soil types, aridity, tools, etc.?  What about vine dressing or dealing with Samaritans from a Jewish, ethnocentric worldview?  How can we fathom the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” if we don’t understand how Samaritans and Jews related to each other?

Likewise, we also need to grasp the cultural expectations of fathers and sons, how day laborers and vineyard owners made their contractual obligations.  What about who went to the Temple to pray and why?  Do the societal roles of women impact our perceptions?  If we don’t understand the examples Jesus’ uses or mistake the setting and context, we’ll misunderstand His parables, as well!

In this class, we’ll do our best to develop a first-century Jewish ear with its biases, challenges, and religious worldviews.  For if we don’t bother to understand the mind of the listeners to whom Jesus spoke, then we will be guessing and making stuff up as we go along.  The parables of Jesus are too precious to treat so cavalierly, to bend them into what we wish them to say.  The parable’s text—without the context—becomes but a pretext for making Christ’s instruction into whatever you want.

Now, if you’re not too scared to press on, welcome to this class!


Inherited Baggage

Throughout the history of the Church, biblical interpretation became more formalized and structured.  Though such systematizing helps us put similar ideas into recognizable groupings, these constructs also box us in, often limiting our ability to understand.  So, we need to recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of what we inherit, or our understandings may hold us hostage.

For instance: Some Christians understand that works do not save a person.  We Lutherans not only do not disagree with their understanding but will nod our heads in agreement.  In trying to protect the idea of salvation by grace, some then conclude that baptism can’t save.  Why?  They understand baptism to be a work.  However, Scripture says, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).

  • How does their categorizing of the Christian Faith (what is a work and what isn’t) hold them hostage so they disagree with Scripture?


  • If “Baptism now saves you,” who then must be doing the work?


Over the centuries, understanding the Bible developed into fourfold interpretational matrix.  By the time Luther came along, the Church of Rome taught each Bible passage had these teachings within.

  • Literal: “Just the facts,” man.
  • Allegorical: What you should believe.
  • Moral: What you should do.
  • Anagogical: Where you are or should be headed.

With the parables, the allegorical interpretations ran rampant.  For example, the fatted calf in the Parable of the Prodigal Son became symbolized to represent Christ.  Was not the calf was killed, like Christ on the cross?  The question is not if allegory is or is not acceptable.  The proper question is, “Was Jesus pointing forward to His death on the cross by the fatted calf in the parable?”

Much confusion took place.  The meaning of a Bible passage became subject to the interpreter, not the writer.  So, these ideas began to ring out within the Church of Rome: “How futile to use [parables].  For they will only support the confirmation of truths, received and believed on other grounds [allegorical interpretation]” (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 1.4).  Allegory became so overused that this proverb also took hold: “You cannot even point to God from the circumstances of a parable” (theologia parabolica non est theologia argumentative).

So, over time, parables became less valuable to teach Christian doctrine, focusing instead on ethics.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan evolved into helping the stranger with the doctrinal underpinnings of the Faith, which Jesus taught, stripped away.

  • How many of you grew up hearing the Parable of the Good Samaritan preached primarily as a lesson on ethics (help the stranger in need)?


Toss Out your Preconceptions

Read Matthew 13:10-12

  • Who are the “you” (plural, “y’ins,” “y’all”) in these verses?


  • To Jesus’ disciples, what were they given? (Note the passive voice)


  • Who did not receive this gift? Why?


Read Matthew 13:13

Jesus quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10.

So He [God] said, “Go and tell the people, ‘You will hear indeed, but not understand.  You will see, but not perceive.’  For the heart of this people has become insensitive, and their ears hear with difficulty. [LXX]

The original context of in Isaiah dealt with idolatry.  In Jesus’ day, the false worship moved away from wood and stone to the tradition of the elders (Matthew 15:2).  Though thinking themselves faithful, the inherited perceptions (“baggage”) overrode their ability to understand the Scriptures and, for many, kept them from seeing Jesus as the promised Messiah.

  • Since idolatry kept the Jews from understanding the point of the parable, what was the “gift” (something passive, “was given”) the people needed?


  • If faith is the gift that is given (Ephesians 2:8-9), this is faith in whom?


  • So, if belief in Jesus is the gift, which “was given,” what does that reveal about the main character in the parable (in this case the Parable of the Sower)?


  • If one doesn’t see Jesus in the parable, how then does he understand (or misunderstand) the parable?


The “baggage” the Jews had in Jesus’ day was the traditions of the elders overriding the traditions of God.  By quoting from Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus was calling that “idolatry,” which kept them from understanding the parable.

  • What can our inherited baggage keep us from understanding, as well?


  • What is also the solution for us?


Getting First-Century Eyes: The Kingdom of Heaven/God

Read Mark 1:14-15

  • Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God has come near.” How?


  • Did Jesus come to establish an earthly kingdom with boundaries and borders? (See John 18:36)


  • In whom then is the “Kingdom of God”?


As Americans, the idea of a kingdom is strange to us on two levels.  First, we have no earthly king who rules over us.  Second, when we do think of a “kingdom,” we visualize the concept in spatial terms, the area of land.  When kings ruled over Britain (today, Queen Elizabeth is the head of state, not the head of government), the Kingdom was the real estate over which the King was the ruler.

Though we think of the land, the area, a kingdom is not a kingdom without a king ruling it.  So, the idea of the kingdom of heaven (or God) is not the real estate—but the One ruling.  The Kingdom of God equates, not to any parcel of land, but to the reign of God, which became a reality in Jesus’ incarnation.  He brought the rule of heaven, of God, by carrying out His Father’s will: achieving our salvation.


The Parables

At least three of the four Gospels record stated parables of Jesus.  The Apostle John may; if so, he does not call them as such.  He wrote his Gospel last and he often “sneaked” things in without being obvious, since he wrote his Gospel to already existing churches who would “get” it.

For example, John includes no baptismal mandate from Jesus.  He does, however, in John 3, mention Jesus foretelling the need to be born of from above by water and Spirit.  This was how he directed people toward baptism.  Neither does John include Jesus’ words of institution for the Lord’s Supper.  In John 6, however, he records Jesus speaking of the need to “eat his flesh and drink his blood,” which was his way of pointing to the Lord’s Supper.

John records Jesus speaking of the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-5) and the Woman giving Birth (John 16:21).  People already versed in the others Gospel will go, “Oh, that sounds like a parable.”


The Distribution of Parables (using their most well-known names)

Luke contains the largest number of parables, 24, 18 of which are only in Luke.   Matthew contains 23 parables, of which 11 are unique.  Mark contains eight parables, of which two are unique.  John may include two parables, which are not in the other three Gospels.


Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven

  • The Sower: Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:1-15
  • The Hidden Treasure: Matthew 13:44
  • The Pearl of Great Price: Matthew 13:45-46
  • The Growing Seed: Mark 4:26-29
  • The Mustard Seed: Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, and Luke 13:18-19
  • The Yeast (Leaven): Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21


Parables of loss and redemption

  • The Lost Sheep: Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke 15:3-7
  • The Lost Coin: Luke 15:8-10
  • The Prodigal Son: Luke 15:11-32


Parables about love and forgiveness

  • The Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37
  • The Two Debtors: Luke 7:36-50
  • The Unforgiving Servant: Matthew 18:21-35


Parables on Prayer

  • The Friend at Night: Luke 11:5-8
  • The Unjust Judge: Luke 18:1-8
  • The Pharisee and Tax Collector: Luke 18:9-14


Parables about the End Times / Being Prepared

  • The Faithful Servant: Matthew 24:42-51, Mark 13:34-37, and Luke 12:35-48
  • The Ten Virgins: Matthew 25:1-13
  • The Wedding Banquet: Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:15-24
  • The Rich Fool: Luke 12:13-21
  • The Vineyard Owner: Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, and Luke 20:9-19
  • The Wheat and the Weeds (Tares): Matthew 13:24-30
  • The Fishing Net: Matthew 13:47-52
  • The Budding Fig Tree: Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31, and Luke 21:29-33
  • The Barren Fig Tree: Luke 13:6-9



  • The House on the Rock: Matthew 7:24-27 and Luke 6:46-49
  • The Lamp under a Basket: Matthew 5:14-15, Mark 4:21-25, and Luke 8:16-18
  • The Unjust Steward (Shrewd Manager): Luke 16:1-13
  • The Rich Man and Lazarus: Luke 16:19-31
  • The Talents: Matthew 25:14-25 and Luke 19:12-19
  • The Workers in the Vineyard: Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, and Luke 20:9-19


John’s Unstated Parables

  • The Good Shepherd: John 10:1-5
  • The Woman giving Birth: John 16:21


Next Week: We will start with the Parable of the Sower.  Why?  Jesus explained its meaning!  Second, the lesson will tie up the loose ends introduced in this lesson from Matthew 13.


Link to Lesson 2.