By Katie Hill
The disciples came to [Jesus] and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” (Matthew 13:10-11)
Over the next three months, Higher Things will be diving into the parables of Jesus. These simple stories contain many layers filled with amazing insights! We look forward to fleshing those out with you…
What Are They?
Parables get defined in many ways, depending on the context. They aren’t exclusive to Judaism or Christianity–they exist anywhere stories are told. However, their use in Scripture goes far beyond storytelling.
Pop quiz–multiple choice! For our purposes, parables: A.) are fictional stories used to illustrate a truth, B.) often feature a “moral of the story,” C.) have been called “earthly stories that convey heavenly meanings,” or D.) All of the above. Yep, you guessed it: D!
Where Do We Find Them?
Parables are not unique to the New Testament scriptures; there are some in the Old Testament. For example, the prophet Nathan skillfully uses the parable of the poor man’s ewe lamb to confront David in his sins of adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:1-4). We, however, will be zeroing in on the parables found in the Gospels.
Only Matthew, Mark, and Luke (called the synoptic Gospels because their writings view or “see” the events together) contain the approximately 40 recorded parables of Jesus, while John’s Gospel does not feature them at all.
Some parables get repeated in the synoptic Gospels. The Parable of the Sower, for example, is featured in all three (Matthew 13:3-9, Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8), whereas the Wise and Foolish Virgins parable is unique to Matthew (25:1-13).
What Is Their Purpose?
When asked by His disciples, Jesus says the main purpose of His teaching in parables: “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (Matthew 13:11). As Jesus was teaching using this tool, He was speaking to mixed audiences of His disciples and Pharisees and other listeners who were very knowledgeable about the Law. The Pharisees in particular should have understood the parables. But later in Matthew 13 Jesus explains that their lack of understanding was due to a hardening of their hearts. They didn’t realize that they, too, needed the Gospel.
Jesus was teaching about the nature of the kingdom of heaven, and those who were the most “learned” children of Israel were hearing but not understanding that this kingdom, through the Gospel, was to include not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles–the rest of the world!
In Mark 4:34 we read that Jesus privately explained the meaning of these parables to His disciples. Since Jesus intended for His disciples to understand them, and since you, baptized one, are His disciple, too, their truths will not be hidden from you either.
How Do We Understand Them?
Circling back to our multiple choice pop quiz above, you’ll recall that one “answer” included something about a “moral of the story.” Here is where we must proceed with caution. If we approach parables as merely moralistic lessons, we miss the deeper point about God’s kingdom and His active role in it. For example, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is not chiefly about how to be a better neighbor. Sure, we get an idea of what an ideal loving neighbor looks like and it’s a good thing to go out of our comfort zones and be that neighbor, sharing the love of Christ we have been given. But surely the bigger point is that Jesus is the ultimate Good Samaritan, for you and for the world! We’ll dive more deeply into this parable in a future article. The danger of focusing on the parables as moral examples for a godly life makes them about you, rather than Christ FOR you.
The Parable of the Sower was one of the few parables that Jesus explained to everyone present. And even so, what are we struck with? The fact that this parable is focused on the SOWER, and His seed…not the soil :). We’ll also explore this more extensively in an upcoming article.
We hope you see how exciting the kingdom of God is as you connect with our content here at Higher Things! We pray you come away with a lot of neat, new insights into the parables. But mainly, we hope you see ever more clearly that God the Father, through Jesus Christ, is the Chief Actor in every story and that we are the blessed recipients of His loving actions for our salvation.
Katie Hill is the managing editor of Higher Things. When she’s not silently correcting everyone’s grammar, she enjoys fostering and fine-tuning the writing of authors who deliver the sweetness of the Gospel to Higher Things readers and beyond.