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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
From ancient times people have used pictures and stories from nature, history and everyday life to teach moral and spiritual truth. Broadly speaking, these pictures and stories are called parables. The Old Testament contains a number of stories that may be considered parables (Judges 9:8-15; 2 Samuel 12:1-4; 2 Kings 14:9), but by far the majority of parables in the Bible were spoken by Jesus.
Purpose of Jesus’ parables
Jesus’ parables were more than mere illustrations. They were stories designed to make people think, and often the hearers had to work out the meaning for themselves. The crowds that followed Jesus were often a hindrance, as many of the people were more interested in seeing him perform miracles than in making a spiritual response to his ministry. Jesus’ parables helped separate those who were genuinely interested from those who were merely curious (Mark 4:1-2; Mark 4:11-12).
This separation occurred as people exercised their minds to work out the meaning of the parables. Those who desired to know more of Jesus and his teaching found the parables full of meaning. As a result their ability to understand the teaching increased. Those who had no real interest in Jesus’ teaching saw no meaning in the parables at all and so turned away from him. As a result their spiritual darkness became darker, and their hardened hearts harder. Because their wills were opposed to Jesus, their minds could not appreciate his teaching. Their sins therefore remained unforgiven (Matthew 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12).
Although the teaching of parables may have caused the idly curious to lose interest in Jesus, the basic purpose of a parable was to enlighten, not to darken. A parable was like a lamp, and a lamp was put on a stand to give people light, not hidden under a bowl or a bed to keep people in darkness. The more thought people gave to Jesus’ teaching, the more enlightenment and blessing they received in return. On the other hand the less thought they gave to it, the less chance they had of understanding any spiritual truth at all (Mark 4:21-25).
Parables of the kingdom
Because Jesus’ parables separated between the true and the false, many of them were concerned with the subject of the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom had, in a sense, come in the person of Jesus Christ. He announced the kingdom, and people’s response to his message determined whether they entered the kingdom (Matthew 13:18-23; Matthew 21:28-33; Matthew 21:42-43; Matthew 22:1-14; see ).
This was seen clearly in the parable of the sower, where the different kinds of soil illustrated the different responses that people made to the teaching of Jesus. Only those who wholeheartedly accepted it were God’s people (Matthew 13:1-9; Matthew 13:18-23). This parable was the key to understanding the others (Mark 4:13). When the Jews, for whom the kingdom was prepared, rejected Jesus, Gentiles were invited and there was a great response (Matthew 22:1-10). Thus Gentiles, who in Old Testament times had not received the preparation for God’s kingdom that the Jews had received, entered into its full blessings along with believing Jews (Matthew 20:1-16).
Jesus pointed out that in the present world there will always be a mixture of those who belong to God’s kingdom and those who do not. When the final judgment comes, however, only the genuine believers will share in the triumphs of the kingdom (Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:34-43; Matthew 13:47-50; Matthew 25).
God’s kingdom, then, is assured of final victory. From its insignificant beginnings among the ordinary people of Palestine it spreads throughout the world (Matthew 13:31-33). It is of such value that to enter it is worth any sacrifice (Matthew 13:44-46). It is something that reaches its fulfilment through the work of God himself (Mark 4:26-29).
Further characteristics of the parables
Whether or not Jesus’ parables are directly related to the subject of the kingdom in the manner just outlined, Jesus usually intended them to teach only one or two points. In some cases he mentioned these points (Matthew 21:43; Luke 12:21; Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10), but in others he left the hearers to find out for themselves (Mark 12:12-13; Luke 7:40-43; Luke 19:11-27). Likewise instead of giving a direct answer to a question or criticism, Jesus sometimes told a parable by which the hearer himself could work out the answer (Luke 10:29-30; Luke 15:2-3).
It is therefore important, in reading a parable, to find the chief purpose for which Jesus told it, and interpret the parable according to this purpose (Luke 18:1; Luke 18:9). There is no need to find meanings for all the details within the parable, as these are often nothing more than parts of the framework of the story. Indeed, it can be misleading to interpret some of these details, because in doing so we may miss, or distort, the meaning that Jesus intended.
For example, in the parable of Matthew 20:1-15 Jesus was not teaching that an employer should give his workers equal pay for unequal work. Rather he was showing that even the most unlikely people enter God’s kingdom and, by God’s grace, they receive its full blessings (Matthew 20:16). Similarly in the parable of Luke 16:1-17 he was not advising people to use cunning or dishonesty in their business dealings. Rather he was teaching that if believers use their material possessions wisely, they are guaranteed heavenly riches of permanent value (Luke 16:9-11).
Whatever the main point of each of Jesus’ parables may have been, Jesus was inevitably forcing his hearers to a decision. He wanted people to listen and think (Matthew 18:12; Matthew 21:28; Luke 10:36), but more than that he wanted them to decide and act (Matthew 18:35; Matthew 21:45; Luke 10:37). And the challenge that Jesus brought through his parables is still relevant today (Matthew 13:9; Matthew 13:43).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Parables'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/p/parables.html. 2004.