What Are Parables?

Studies show that over 65% of the words that people hear in a day occur in the form of stories. From the country song on the radio to the evening news, Americans exist in a society inundated with storytelling.

For good reason too. Stories impact people more than any other form of communication. You can’t remember what you learned in math class, but you can remember a story your friend told you five years ago. Stories matter.

But before researchers realized the power of stories, Jesus used them to communicate timeless truths. Even today, non-Christians are familiar with concepts like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

But what were these stories that Jesus told? Over forty of them exist in the Bible. But what makes these stories different from the stories we hear every day? How should we understand parables compared to other parts of Scripture?

Here are a few points to keep in mind when studying parables:

1. They Are Not Allegories

In an allegory, every detail symbolizes a metaphorical point. Pilgrim’s Progress, for example. Every character represents an aspect of the Christian faith. Each action and event they encounter represent some kind of truth about Christianity. Readers can dissect every detail of its plot and analyze it to mean something more. Other famous allegories include The Wizard of Oz and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Parables are not allegories, but there's still symbolism. The man who built his house on the rock represents a person who lives his life in response to the message of Jesus. But we know this because Jesus explained it to us--not because it sounded right. We can’t push it further and claim what the wind, waves, and sand represented. It’s tempting to make these kinds of jumps. But when this happens, a parable becomes subject to what the interpreter wants it to say instead of what the Author intended it to say. It’s best to let Jesus explain the symbolism in a parable and leave the other details undefined.

2. The Point is There’s a Point

The longest parable of Jesus takes approximately 150 seconds to speak out loud. Many of His parables occur in a non-teaching setting. These were impromptu tales given within a single moment. Parables served as responses to what people said and did with Jesus.

The point is that parables had a point—only one. “Love your neighbor.” “Seek forgiveness” “Look for Christ’s Return.” I had a professor in college who taught his preaching students, “let the big idea be the big idea.” We could say the same thing about parables. Treat parables the way Christ gave them: as conversational yarns meant to illustrate life-changing truths. Today we experience parables in book-form. But Jesus didn’t give His parables in a book. He gave them on the road and at the table. Parables now exist between pages of thick theological teaching, so it's tempting to read a parable the same way one might read Romans 6. This does not mean that parables are “vanilla” or weak in content. It means they hold a single focus. We should not muddle them by trying to find points that aren't there.

3. Look at the Context

Because of the singular focus of parables, it’s important to look at the social situation surrounding it. It explains why the parable occurred at all. Not only that, it provides clues about their “big idea.” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan in response to a Jew who asked, “who is my neighbor?” He told the story of the two debtors to a man judging a woman in his thoughts.

Parables don’t matter. People matter. The point in Jesus’ parables were people. Stories that He told were means, not the end. The end was bringing sinful individuals into a holy relationship with God. He did that through the means He knew worked best, storytelling. To strip a parable away from its social context rips out its heart. Without the context of God restoring relationships through Jesus on Earth, parables become mere fables. Mythology. The parables were never real, but the people Jesus taught them to were. Focus on the real.


Parables were pithy, but powerful. Short, but of eternal significance. By themselves, parables barely matter at all. But because Jesus, a perfect man, gave them to His followers, imperfect people, so they might realize their need for a Savior, they matter a great deal. Jesus is still teaching those parables to us today. The pages of Scripture still echo the sounds of Jesus' teaching. We are now the people to whom Jesus turns and says “There was once…” Listen to them for what they were: stories. Respond to them for what they are: lessons.

Resting in Him,

Pastor Stephen


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