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What is a Parable, Anyway?

What is a Parable, Anyway?

By R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

 Jesus came preaching the gospel of God—and he came telling stories. The most famous of Jesus’ stories are the parables. They are not tame stories intended to deliver sentimental messages. They are not moralistic, like Aesop’s famed fables. Nor are they fairy tales, such as the kind that abounded in medieval Europe. In the parables, Jesus is not concerned with mere self-improvement or trite moral messages. Not at all.

Jesus’ parables reveal nothing less than the kingdom of heaven and the power of Almighty God expressed in both judgment and grace.  They illuminate God’s character and the hardness of sinful human hearts. Sometimes the parables drew sinners into the kingdom of God. Sometimes they confused the very people who heard Jesus tell them. All too often, the parables angered Jesus’ listeners because they recognized that he was speaking not just to them but about them.

The parables of Jesus are so powerful that we still tell them to each other more than two thousand years later. We simply can’t shake them. We can’t escape them. We can’t forget them.

We may think that the power of the parables comes through our achievement in understanding them, but Jesus actually told his disciples that they only understood the parables because God’s grace had opened their eyes to see and their ears to hear. The same is true for us. In truth, it may not be so much that we understand the parables, as that the parables understand us.

Hearing the parables of Jesus – really hearing them – means that the hearer is counted in the kingdom of heaven. Refusing to hear the parables means that we are in the kingdom of Satan, the Evil One. Jesus tells us this himself.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is itself a story. Even the most succinct summary of the gospel is narrative in form: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The verse is short, but it contains a supremely powerful message in the form of narrative. In just a few words, Jesus tells us about the love of God, the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, the reason why he came to take on human flesh, the centrality of belief in Jesus, and the power of the gospel to promise eternal life.

Within the big story of redemption and the historical narratives found throughout the Bible, we also encounter stories told by various people—including the parables told by Jesus. As we will see, Jesus was not the first teacher to use parables. But he spoke parables in a different way—with infinitely greater authority than any other teacher. The truth of that assessment is revealed by the fact that today, more than two thousand years later, even people who have very little connection to Christianity talk about prodigal children and the good Samaritan.

But what is a parable, anyway? As a young Christian, I often heard a parable described as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” That’s not a bad description, but the parables are not just about heaven, they are about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. They are about faithfulness in the present as much as they are about God’s promises for the future. They are about God’s reign, now and in the kingdom in its future fulness. They are about the Good News—the gospel—and none of them is to be understood apart from the gospel.

At the most basic level, a parable is a comparison story, using simile or metaphor to help listeners move from a familiar reality to a deeper understanding of an important truth. Sometimes, the comparison is obvious, as when Jesus begins a parable with words such as, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” Parables that begin with a simple comparison usually open a window for our understanding, revealing and clarifying truths about the kingdom of God. At other times, the comparison is much more elaborate and embedded within the narrative, as when Jesus tells the parable of the sower. When Jesus begins a parable with characters taking action (for example, “A sower went out to sow”) watch out – an explosive comparison is coming, and the story will vastly expand your understanding of how the gospel works in human hearts.

Sometimes, we learn best through a story that makes us see what we would otherwise miss. Stories can drive a truth deep into the human heart when nothing else can. The parables are powerful precisely because they catch us off guard.

And they catch us off guard because within the parables, Jesus discloses both the grace and judgment of God—grace for those who have ears to hear and judgment for those who harden themselves against the message of the gospel. The Apostle Paul tells us, "For grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). We bear the responsibility to believe the gospel, to trust Christ, to profess our faith, and to hear and obey the Word of God. But our ability to do so—even our desire to do—comes only by the grace of God and only by the mercy of Christ.

Our task is to remember these truths as we consider the parables of Jesus, as we hear the Holy Scriptures, any verse, any time. We pray for eyes ever more open, ears ever more eager, hearts ever more faithful. I invite you to come with me to the parables of Jesus, looking for more and more, so that we may glorify God ever more greatly.

My prayer is that you will find in Tell Me The Stories of Jesus a doorway to encountering the power of Jesus’ parables for yourself and for those you shepherd. Admittedly, we live in a very different world than the world of Jesus’ first-century listeners. But equipped with the lens of historical context, a little bit of attentiveness, and a heart open to the things of God, the parables are just as powerful today as they were two thousand years ago. In the chapters that follow, we will walk together through all of Jesus’ parables, encountering rich, compelling truths about the Kingdom of God that will change how you think and live.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.