Aesop’s fables, a good sermon illustration, an analogy—these are all ways to communicate complex concepts in a way that is easier to understand. Similarly, Jesus used parables (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 15) to communicate truths in an easy to understand way.
But what is a parable? Perhaps you learned that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. That familiar, simple definition will lead us to some deeper reasons why Jesus used parables to teach.
Parables are earthly stories, that is, they used common scenes from everyday life. Audiences can easily relate to them. Maybe someone in the audience lost a sheep or built a house. The audience could not only relate to but also easily understand things from daily life—like bread making or traveling. That keeps the audience engaged, for they are actually experiencing the parable as they listen. They are in the parable, so to speak.
Parables are truly a timeless trove of treasured truths.
For example, in the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32), both the sons say one thing but do something else. Can most parents relate to that? Of course! So one reason for the use of parables is that they are relatable.
I would guess that many of us remember many parables. Why is that? Since parables are earthly, relatable stories, that makes them memorable.
In a parable, there is also a hook—a memorable moment that catches your attention. “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” (Matthew 22:2). Jesus is about to talk about heaven. You think, I’m in! This hook not only makes the parable unforgettable for you but also easier for you to tell to others later.
For the same reason, Jesus’ parables typically follow a basic, familiar storyline. There is a beginning, a challenge/problem, and a resolution. All of that makes parables memorable.
“No, I am your father.” That is one of the biggest surprises from The Empire Strikes Back. A good plot twist or surprise makes any movie or media memorable.
Now, think about the parables. There are also plot twists or surprises that typically highlight our Lord’s surprising grace. Remem-ber these surprises? The father welcomes back the prodigal son literally with open arms, and the older brother is upset about it (Luke 15:11-32). The landowner generously gives the same wages to the workers who worked one hour and to those “who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12). Surprising? Yes!
Parables also have a heavenly meaning. By using earthly stories—relatable, memorable, and surprising—Jesus was able to share these heavenly meanings in a way that could immediately connect with his audience.
Maybe another way to understand heavenly meaning is this: a treasured truth. It is something that Jesus brought down from heaven for us to understand and use. There is something in the story for our faith and life. In the parables, Jesus hits the most important issues in this life now and beyond: our value to God, human relationships, the kingdom of God, heaven. Just read the last verse in the parable of the wedding banquet: “Many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). How important—and useful—that is for living our lives!
From the time that Jesus first told his parables, there have been new discoveries in farming and travel. Computers and the internet have transformed our lives. Yet Jesus’ parables live on for there is a timelessness to them.
That timelessness lends itself to what you still do with the parables. You still learn from them. You can come back to these same parables again and again, and you will see more heavenly truths and the layers built into them. No, the parable has not changed. What has changed since you and the parable last met? Your circumstances have changed, and so have you. “What does this parable have to teach me this time?” The truths in each parable will hit you differently because you are different. Parables are truly a timeless trove of treasured truths.
A reflection of God’s heart
See the many different reasons for using parables? Are there more? Yes! Parables were common at Jesus’ time. Jesus gave another reason why he used parables in Matthew 13:10-13. But, for now, let’s add just one more reason to give thanks for parables. Paul writes in Romans 11:34, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” These parables help us know not only the mind of God but also the heart of God. In truth, we see only a reflection, indirectly as in a mirror. Like an analogy, sermon illustration, or Aesop’s fables, the picture isn’t always perfect and exact. But even as a reflection, these parables let us see God’s love for you and me, at least as much as we can grasp this side of heaven.
One day, however, we shall see him as he is; we shall see him face-to- face. One day we shall know fully these treasured truths, even as we are fully known by our heavenly Father. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33).
Author: Souksamay Phetsanghane
Volume 107, Number 10
Issue: October 2020
- Confessions of faith: Souksamay Phetsanghane - 2021/09/28
- Please explain: Why did Jesus use parables to teach? - 2020/09/28