An introduction to the Parables prepared by the Archdiocese of Brisbane

The word parable comes from the Greek and means comparison, analogy or juxtaposition. A parable is a type of narrative with an emotive or moral significance which initiates comparison. They are usually short stories, memorable through an image – often drawn from nature or daily life in the time of Jesus – that convey profound spiritual truths.  

When Jesus began teaching in parables he was not telling stories in an entirely new way. 

In Greece and Rome, parables were employed by rhetoricians, politicians and philosophers. Perhaps the most illustrious among those who made use of them were Socrates and Aristotle. An interesting question is to what extent the classical parables are like those of the Bible. In Israel, parables were uttered by prophets and wise women and men. They appear even in the oldest books of the Old Testament.

When Solomon built the first permanent Temple in Jerusalem (approx. 1000 BC), it became known as the ‘house of God’, the central place of worship of God. This new temple functioned as the centre of both religious and political power. Israelites would still attend their local synagogue for worship and prayer but the Temple, through its legal authority and hierarchy of Priests, high Priests and Sanhedrin, became a place of religious and financial power. It was the place where the liturgy of Israel would be concentrated, the place where the priesthood of Israel was established. Three annual festivals; Shavuot (Pentecost), Pesach (Passover) and Sukkot (Tabernacle) obliged Israelite men to attend the Temple so the Temple at Jerusalem was an important part of the people’s religious life. Many of the psalms, like Psalm 24, refer to going up to the Temple (the ‘holy place’ v. 3).

Early translations of the Hebrew Bible chose the word parable to translate the Hebrew word mashal (Porton, 2006, p. 206).  Mashal can mean proverb, simile, story or riddle. Parables are also contained in Rabbinic texts (Jewish stories compiled after Jesus’ time but set earlier). These stories often began “I will tell you a mashal (parable)”.  What is particular to this genre of story is that there is no one meaning that can be drawn from each parable.  We see this when we read Jesus’ parables and frequently begin with “The kingdom of heaven is like…”. We instantly recognise that there is no one way to imagine or understand the Kingdom. This is a part of the power of the parable. It invites the listener to consider and discern; to think in new ways. Even the more pointed parables like the Good Samaritan have more than one conclusion to be drawn.

More importantly, parables require the reader/listener to respond. Usually based on an A is a B style metaphor, (the Kingdom of God is a ***) parables demand attention. Unable to be understood literally, they tease or challenge the brain as it tries to ascertain what the user is meaning. Even when worded as similes (the kingdom of God is like a ***) parables still demand thought and consideration. 

Parables use everyday events, actions and objects taken from the user’s life to make their point. In doing so, we catch not only a glimpse of the world from which they came but also gain a sense of 

…how the divine light shines through in the things of this world and the realities of our everyday life…

(Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 192)

Parables in context

Key to understanding any parable is context. The parables, to our contemporary more urban ways of being, hold little that we easily relate to.  There are no comparisons using air travel, failed phone chargers, traffic lights or investing in the stock market. They reference cultural and social context of a different time and place. Then there is the simple fact that parables were oral stories, and as readers today, we don’t have access to the tone of the speaker or those engaged, the atmosphere, what is going on around the story or other contextual factors. We have only the parable recorded in the Bible and limited details of context provided, aided by our own explorations. As we read them, we begin by learning of what life was like in Jesus’ time. Parables are stories about people and their lives, told:

in a way that people from every age and culture have seen in their own lives or personally experienced with its hopes and challenges replayed in these short vignettes. There is little Scripture quoted, yet the underlying emphasis is on the summons that God issues to each one to embrace the standards of the Kingdom.

This world of clear social hierarchy, subsistence farming and Roman rule, is the first step towards their understanding.

The next step is to gain a sense of how the telling of the parables of Jesus is influenced by the writer of each Gospel – their audience, concerns and community for whom they were writing. 

The final step is to be familiar with the particular literary form of the different types of parables and it and features. Jesus’ parables have three significant traits:

  1. They seem simple enough for anyone to understand. The use of known examples and specific images help make spiritual realities accessible.
  2. On the other hand, parables also have a mysterious element, a deeper meaning that only becomes clear with deeper consideration.
  3. The parables both conceal and reveal the Kingdom in all its mystery if the hearer is open:

…they may indeed look, but not perceive,

and may indeed listen, but not understand;

so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’

Mark 4:12

Types of Parables

There are many ways to classify the types of parables but consistently three broad headings emerge:

1. The parable:

  • Proper parables in the Gospels
  • Usually include “The Kindgom of God is like…”
  • Tells a story about a one off, fictitious yet believable event
  • Told in the ‘once upon a time’, past tense style

2. Similitude:

  • A concise form of parableThey are called similtudes because they reflect the everyday experiences and regular stories
  • They are called similtudes because they reflect the everyday experiences and regular stories
  • Usually in present tense & short. An example is The lost Coin – who wouldn’t rejoice at finding a lost coin!

3. Exemplary stories:

  • Present an implied comparison  
  • Give an example to illustrate a general principle
  • They compare an event with a moral or religious ethic
  • There are only 4 in the synoptic Gospels

The Parables of Jesus

The following table shows the parables in the Gospels and notes where there are similar versions across Gospels:

The SowerMatt 13:3-23Mark 4:1-20Luke 8:5-15
The Weeds amongst the WheatMatt 13:24-30
The Mustard SeedMatt 13:31-32Mark 4:30-32Luke 13:18-19
The LeavenMatt 13:33Luke 13:20-21
The Hidden TreasureMatt 13:44
Parable of the PearlMatt 13:45-46
Drawing in the NetMatt 13:47-50
The Lost SheepMatt 18:12-14Luke 15:3-7
Unmerciful ServantMatt 18:23-35
Laborers in the VineyardMatt 20:1-16
The Two SonsMatt 21:28-31
The Wicked HusbandmanMatt 21:33-43Mark 12:1-11Luke 20:9-18
Marriage of the King’s Son//The BanquetMatt 22:1-14Luke 15:15-24
The Ten VirginsMatt 25:1-12
The TalentsMatt 25:14-30Luke 19:11-27
Seed Growing SecretlyMark 4:26-29
The Two DebtorsLuke 7:41-47
The Good SamaritanLuke 10:30-37
The Rich FoolLuke 12:16-21
The Faithful ServantMat 24:42Mark 13:33-37Luke 12:35-48
Lost MoneyLuke 15:8-10
The Prodigal SonLuke 15:11-32
The Unjust StewardLuke 16:1-8
The Rich Man and the Beggar LazarusLuke 16:19-31