Biblical Parables

“What is of special interest in the parables of Jesus is . . . that these stories are so human and realistic. It is not only human life that is observed but nature as well, or man in nature. The world is real. Time is real. The parables give us a kind of humanness and actuality.” –Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric

At once simple and profound, the parables are examples of masterful storytelling at its most elemental.  Clearly oral in tradition, they are the stories that Jesus spoke to teach his followers as recorded in the Gospels.

Before we generalize about the parable as type of story, it would be useful to have some examples before you.  Here are some passages to read to get a sense of the style of Jesus’ parables:   :

  • Matthew clustered multiple parables in chapter 13, and he scattered some particularly famous parables elsewhere: the parable of the lost sheep in 18:10-14, the laborers in the vineyard in 20:1-16, and two eschatological parables in 25:1-30.
  • Mark’s most famous parables appear in 4:1-34.
  • Luke’s parables appear in 8:4-18, 10:25-37, 12:13-21, 14:15-24, chapters 15 and 16, and 18:1-14.

The parables are folk literature, simple enough on the surface to be understood even by young children.  They are brief, they tend to focus on a single event, and they feature a small cast of characters, usually archetypal figures such as the rich man, the master and his servants, and the prodigal son.  As literature, they feature realistic characters in everyday settings, and overt supernatural elements do not enter the stories.  The parables are also religious in nature, specifically Christian.

Additionally, the parables require a symbolic or allegorical level of meaning to make them significant.  The very word parable means “to throw alongside,” showing that double meaning is an essential mark of the parables.  Many details in the parables stand for something else.  For example, the parable of the sower and the seeds (Matthew 13:1-9) is too simple in itself to interest us.  When we realize that sowing the seed means preaching the gospel, and the different types of soil symbolize different hearers of Jesus’ words, the story takes on deeper meaning.