The parables of the Lord Jesus have been used as an effective means of bringing the gospel to many. They can be understood by children and adults alike and their message is driven home by the clarity of the words that are used. Their value is also seen in the wide range of lessons that they have for believers. It is true that many of them are of a dispensational nature, referring particularly to the nation of Israel, but even in these there are principles which transcend dispensations.
A dilemma sometimes arises when seeking to define what constitutes a parable. In some cases there is no difficulty because in the Scriptures they are actually called parables. When the Lord Jesus sat down in the boat to speak to the multitude Matthew clearly declares that He "spake many things unto them in parables" (13.3). Mark is equally clear when he writes that the Lord Jesus "began to speak unto them by parables" (12.1) before speaking to them of the man who planted a vineyard and then let it out and departed into a far country. Luke also joins the other two in stating that He "spake also a parable unto them" as he records the words of the Lord: "No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon the old" (Lk 5.36).
Some of the best known parables, however, are not called such in Scripture. Amongst those in that category there are found the parables of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10.30-35), the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16.19-31), and the five wise and the five foolish virgins (Mt 25.1-13). There are others that are very short and are defined by some as being a metaphor. Judgment has, therefore, to be made but those on the list overleaf are generally treated as being parables.
The parabolic means of teaching, however, is not confined to the New Testament. Those noted below are just some of the parables that are found in the Old Testament:
What is a parable?
The word "parable" in the New Testament has the thought of throwing or placing of two things together by way of comparison. A familiar thing from earth is placed beside what is heavenly or spiritual so that our understanding of the one will give understanding of the other. It uses things seen to explain those things that are unseen. "A parable is an implied comparison. The comparison is not always obvious; but once it is perceived it sheds new light on the subject under discussion. The purpose of a parable is to move to decision or action; paradoxically, that purpose is perhaps more effectively achieved precisely because the speaker proceeds indirectly rather than directly".1
What is the purpose for unbelievers?
The Lord Jesus explained the reason for the use of parables (Mt 13.13-16). It was not to make his teaching obscure, but He did so because the hearts of the people were "waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed". The listeners were those who "seeing see not; and hearing hear not". The purpose was not to make it difficult to understand. It was due to their failure to understand what had openly been taught them. It enlightened willing hearts. It separated the sincere and the careless hearer.
"The parable is ever the open door to the mystery. If men will consider the picture, and enquire, He will always answer."2
What is the purpose for believers?
For believers the parables provide teaching that presents spiritual truth in terms that are not difficult to understand. They are not lengthy and the skill of the Lord Jesus in choosing His words is very marked. He is the master craftsman in their use and compresses eternal truths into parables, many of which can be read in less than one minute, most of the others in less than two.
Despite that, a parable that can be read in such a short space of time can yield much when studied carefully. Hours of gathering choice fruit from Scriptures can be spent over a parable. They must not be ignored, or treated as if they were only for the young.
It makes truth memorable
Quite apart from what has been noted above, the parables are a means of impressing truth on the hearts and minds of the listeners and readers. Who could deny that they are memorable in their profound simplicity?
The range that they cover is large, including agriculture, business life, the duties of servants, shepherding, domestic problems, family life, prayer, fishing, civic justice, responsibilities to monarchs and governors, care for others, and marriage customs.
An example of dealing with parables
The three parables in Luke 15 were spoken by the Lord after the publicans and sinners had come to listen to Him. This provoked the Pharisees to comment with disdain, "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them" (v.2). The parables that follow, therefore, were to teach the truth regarding the attitude of the Lord Jesus to publicans and sinners: His attitude to those who were lost.
The condition of the lost
The lost sheep illustrates the danger faced by the lost. The words of Isaiah are brought to mind, "All we like sheep have gone astray" (Is 53.6). The sheep did not plan its detachment from the flock. It did so without realising the folly of the path it was taking. Having wandered away from the shepherd the sheep is no longer under his protective care. The wilderness through which the sheep wandered was no place to be alone.
The lost coin illustrates the value of the lost. The woman had ten pieces, so the loss of one was a loss to the whole set. The coin was a drachma, a Greek silver coin about the same weight as a Roman denarius. If the coin was, as some suggest, part of a frontlet which was worn across the forehead, something of beauty had been marred.
The lost son illustrates the poverty of the lost. He left home with his inheritance but squandered it and was left in abject poverty. He was solely responsible for his condition.
The recovery of the lost
Finding the lost sheep was the work of the shepherd alone. The sheep did not seek the shepherd, but the shepherd the sheep. This is also true of the coin. It clearly had not part in its recovery. The woman carried out all the work. Both of these show the work of God in salvation. That work was marked by diligence. The shepherd searched until he found the sheep and the woman swept the house until the coin was found. Both stated that the they had found the lost (vv.6,9).
The parable of the prodigal shows the other side of the work. Here it was the son who realised his hopeless condition and determined to return to his father and show his repentance. Human responsibility in recognising sin and the need for repentance is clear. In that way the two sides of the work of salvation are set out.
The rejoicing at the recovery of the lost
In each of these three parables there is rejoicing at the recovery of the lost (vv.5,9,22-24). The joy was shared just as there is joy in the presence of the angels over one repenting sinner.
The interests defined
Concerning the lost sheep it is clear that the interests of the sheep were in the forefront of the shepherds mind. With the lost coin it is the self-interest of the woman that is seen. It was for her satisfaction that she swept so carefully. It may be thought that it would be wrong to consider that God had self-interest in the work of the gospel, but the fact is that He does. God is not and cannot be selfish in the sense that we understand it. Nevertheless, what is in His interests is very much for the benefit of His own. In the third of the parables the interests of the son and of the father are both served.
Much more can be taught from Luke 15. These are merely a few suggestive comments on some of the features that lie on the surface of the chapter. May they encourage others to plough up the fertile ground of parabolic teaching.
1 M Boucher. The Parables.
2 Campbell Morgan The Parables and Metaphors of our Lord; p16.