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What Is the Meaning behind Parables?

Don’t you love a great story? They draw us into a world of interesting characters and an interesting plot. Sometimes I watch a movie with a note-taking app open on my phone so I can capture the bits of the story that touch my heart. After I watched Cars 2, I ended up with ten different lessons applicable to my everyday life. My kids laugh and ask, “Can’t you watch a show to watch it?” and I try, but a good story will have a message for its audience. Communicators use storytelling to make their point come alive to hearers and readers. It engages both sides of the brain as we connect creativity with logic. After a good story, we walk away with a call to action, a new understanding, or fresh inspiration. Jesus was a master storyteller and employed parables as one of the ways he taught his message.

What Is a Parable and Are There Different Types?

A parable is a teaching method using the familiar to illustrate unfamiliar concepts. It is a story or saying that demonstrates a truth using comparison, hyperbole, or simile. The word ‘parable’ comes from a Greek word that means to put things side by side. In Greek rhetoric, people used them for argumentation, clarification, or to prove something. Parables can be one-liners such as “you are the salt of the earth” from Matthew 5:13 or “do not throw your pearls to pigs” from Matthew 7:6. They can also represent a picture within a story. This type is called a simple parable and examples are the lost sheep and lost coin in Luke 15:3-10. Another type is the narrative parable. This is a dramatic story with one or more scenes as displayed in the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37.

In the New Testament, parables covered four major subject areas. These subjects covered the kingdom of God, salvation, discipleship, and future events. In the parables about the kingdom of God, Jesus taught about its coming, growth, and consummation. The Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32), and The Yeast (Matthew 13:33) are examples of parables dealing with God’s kingdom. These show that the kingdom of God is a present reality, and we don’t have to wait till the future to experience it. The parables about salvation teach about God’s initiative to save us, his grace toward us, and our need to repent. We can read these types of parables in Luke 15, Luke 18:8-14, and Matthew 20:1-16. God desires to seek and save the lost, and he tells us that those who are forgiven most, love most. Our repentance matters and God initiates our restoration by calling us to himself.

Many parables teach us how to live for Christ. Jesus used these types of parables to teach us about the privileges and responsibilities in his kingdom. Through these parables, we learn the importance of accountability for our thoughts, actions, and motives. Some of the parables that teach discipleship are Matthew 13:44-45 (The Hidden Treasure), Luke 18:1-8 (The Persistent Widow), and Matthew 7:24-27 (The Two Builders). Jesus used parables to emphasize the need for watchful preparation for future events. He will return again, and we will be waiting and watching. These warn us of future judgment, call people to repentance, and the need to do right by his standard today. We learn that we must not neglect spiritual needs and that we are responsible for what God has entrusted to us. The Master and The Thief (Matthew 24:43-44) along with The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) teach us these things.

Where Do We Find Parables in the Bible?

In the Old Testament, a parable is non-proverbial wisdom literature. They instruct in wisdom, convey predictions, enhance a message, and pronounce judgment. For example, Isaiah 28:23-29 compares the Lord dealing with Judah as a farmer working the soil. In the New Testament, we find parables in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The book of John uses metaphors rather than parables. One-third of Jesus’ instruction used parables. Most scholars agree that there are forty-seven parables. Matthew and Luke have more parables than Mark because they emphasize Jesus’ teaching ministry. Mark has the least number of parables because he focuses more on Jesus’ actions. Matthew has twelve, Mark has two, and Luke has eighteen unique parables. We find that Matthew and Luke share seven additional parables, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke share eight.

Why Did Jesus Use Parables to Teach?

Jesus, a master storyteller, used parables to put the substance of faith into concrete form. He wanted to direct his hearer’s thinking and actions into a new realm of thought. Using parables, he shocked his hearers, called them to action, and challenged their ideals and values. Parables are more than stories; they proclaim the Gospel and call us to respond. As Jesus’ ministry continued, his teachings transitioned from direct instruction to clothed in parables. There are two reasons for this. One, following Jesus’ brilliant Sermon on the Mount, the Pharisees and many of his followers began rejecting his message. Two, it was to fulfill Isaiah’s prediction that some people would be ever hearing but never understanding because of their calloused hearts.

Toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he faced increasing resistance and disbelief. Many times, he used parables to answer his critics. Parables became the vehicle to conceal truth from his enemies and reveal it to his followers. In his final six months, he told twenty-nine parables that centered on the future aspects of the Kingdom to be sought after.

How to Interpret Parables

While parables use comparison and analogy, we cannot confuse them with allegories. An allegory makes many comparisons through a coded message and each detail is a separate metaphor. There are four basic guidelines for interpreting parables. Following these four guidelines will help us determine the central meaning of each parable.

Our first step in interpreting parables is not overemphasizing the details in the parable. Each parable has one main truth to convey and the details support that truth. They do not detract from the truth Jesus intended. When we assign too much weight to the details, we miss the main point of the truth Jesus taught.

Second, we need to determine whether Jesus supplied the meaning of the parable. Many times, Matthew, Mark, and Luke note that Jesus gives a detailed explanation of the parable. We would be wise not to deviate from Jesus’ clarification.

Third, we need to remember that a parable represents a figure of speech and requires careful interpretation. This means that we need to avoid using parables as the foundation of doctrine. Parables are not the foundation or source of doctrine. They are illustrations Jesus used to support his teachings.

Fourth, context, context, context. When we interpret parables, we need to read the text before and after the parable. Then we ask: What is happening? What is the parable in response to? Who is there? What is the cultural context? For example, in the biblical sense, the word mystery means something revealed. But in our cultural understanding, it means something hidden. Biblical cultural context matters.

Parables Call Us to Action

Jesus used parables as a teaching method to illustrate his points. We learn that he calls us to his kingdom, he desires to save, they tell us how to live for him, and they inform us of future events. Every parable supports but does not define Jesus’ teachings. They are the best kind of stories and bring color to our lives today. They still provoke a call to action in us and remind us that God’s word is living and active, useful for everyday life.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/krisanapongdetraphiphat


Jessica Van Roekel is a worship leader, speaker, and writer who writes at www.welcomegrace.com sharing hope-filled inspiration addressing internal hurts in the light of God’s transforming grace. She believes that through Christ our personal histories don’t have to define our present or determine our future. Jessica lives in rural Iowa with her husband and family. You can connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.


This article is part of our larger resource library of Christian questions important to the Christian faith. From core beliefs to what the Bible says about angels, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about Christian living.

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