No one ever taught like Jesus did! (John 7:46). When He taught people, He often employed parables. By doing so, He fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (Psalm 78:2; 49:4). Jesus was neither the first nor last person in history to teach via parables, but He used them in an unparalleled, masterful way. Depending on how one classifies the stories told by Jesus, the New Testament records some thirty to forty of His parables. They truly were an important aspect of His teaching, and God wants us to be blessed by them.
The main Greek word from which we get our English word “parable” is “ /parabole,” which means: “a placing of one thing by the side of another, juxtaposition, as of ships in battle . . . metaphorically a comparing, comparison of one thing with another, likeness, similitude” [Thayer, word no. 385]. A parable was a story, an earthly story. But it was different from a common story in that within the parable/story there was a spiritual meaning. In His parables, the Christ took a well- known or common occurrence, or at least one which could have happened, and placed beside it a spiritual meaning. It is clear, then, that parables were symbolic language.
But, why? Why did the Master teach in parables? We are not the first ones to wonder about that. His disciples once asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10). At times, Jesus used parables to answer questions. For instance, one man who tried to justify himself asked the Christ, “Who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29). In response to that inquiry, Jesus told him a story that we call the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” (10:30-37). Jesus used that story to open the man’s eyes to the need to love and show compassion on all people.
Jesus spoke in parables to reveal the truth, to make the truth plain to those who really sought to find and follow it. As part of Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question about why He taught in parables, He told them, “But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16,17). We recall that Jesus taught that one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness will be filled (Matthew 5:6). Jesus plainly set forth the value of God’s kingdom in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46).
It is also true that Jesus used parables in order to conceal the truth from the hard-hearted or those who would abuse it. When Isaiah proclaimed God’s word, he faced people with a prejudiced/dishonest heart. The same thing happened with the Christ when He taught: “Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed . . . (Matthew 13:14,15). God wants all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and because of His marvelous love, Jesus came to save the sinful world (Luke 19:10). Yet, the reality is, many people do not have a love for the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). Remember that some loved the Christ, but others hated Him and His message. Thus, because of their rebellious spirit, what some possessed would be taken away from them (Matthew 7:6; 13:12).
Furthermore, Jesus used parables to help His listeners remember the lessons taught. If they could remember the story, then they ought to be able to remember the truth that was taught in it. Who could forget the Parable of the Lost/Prodigal Son? (Luke 15:11-32). And who could forget the Parable of the Talents (Matthews 25:14-30)? Stories which painted such a vivid picture could be recalled more easily.
Another practical reason for our Lord’s use of parables was this: He spoke parables to cause His listeners to understand and admit a truth or principle before they realized how it applied to them. Parables caused people to admit the truth first, and then they had to consider what it had to do with them personally. The prophet Nathan used such an approach in telling a story to help King David see his guilt in his dealings with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-6). One clear case in Jesus’ teaching is when He told the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers/ Husbandmen (Matthew 21:33-46). After hearing this story, the Jewish leaders properly stated what should be done with the people in that story who had done wrongly. After their admission of that truth (which actually pointed to their own punishment), they had an “Oh, no” moment: “Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them” (Matthew 21:45).
Jesus’ parables were amazing. Rather than fear them, let us see their great value in helping us understand the will of God for mankind. Those who study them with an open mind and desire to learn the truth will be blessed immensely.
— Roger D. Campbell