July/August 2010 - Vol. 41

Discovering the Treasures in Jesus’ Parables

by Jeanne Kun

As we read the stories in the gospels, we often form a mental picture of Jesus as he went about his mission. Perhaps we imagine him sitting in a boat, speaking to the crowds that have gathered on the shore to listen to him. Or we might visualize him standing on a hillside, surrounded by huge numbers of people who are jostling one another in their eagerness to secure a spot near this extraordinary rabbi from Galilee. These scenes are easy for us to envision because we’re so familiar with the gospel accounts of Jesus and his ministry.

But have you ever wondered what Jesus actually sounded like when he spoke? We don’t know whether his voice was deep and resonant or had a mellow timbre, yet surely the tones in which he spoke reinforced the meaning of his words. We’d hardly imagine Jesus rebuking demons in a soft-spoken manner. And when he forgave sinners and consoled the sick, the warm quality of his voice must have conveyed tenderness and compassion.

Jesus’ words are still loud and clear today, although his voice is no longer audible. And among the words of Jesus that resonate in our minds and hearts most strongly are those contained in the striking parables he told.

“Why Do You Speak in Parables?”
Jesus was a storyteller par excellence. Stories like those of the good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the tax collector, and the prodigal son have become ingrained in our culture. Lost sheep and pearls of great price are catalogued in our mental file of symbolic images. For generations of Christians and non-Christians alike, the parables Jesus told have served as metaphors for our collective conscience. Speaking in parables was a characteristic feature of Jesus’ teaching, both to his own disciples and to those who flocked to hear him. He presented the truths of his kingdom through parables “earthly stories with heavenly meanings,” as they have been popularly called not to entertain his listeners but to instruct them.

“Parable” is derived from para and bolé, two Greek words that literally mean “something thrown or placed alongside something else.” The Hebrew counterpart to “parable” is mashal, a term that broadly encompasses such figures and forms of speech as similes, analogies, metaphors, proverbs, riddles, and stories. Examples range from one-line sayings “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) to long illustrative stories like the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15) and dramatic narratives like the one about the unrighteous steward (Luke 16:1-13).

Whatever their length, parables make comparisons to show how similar or different things are. In much the same way that metaphors work, parables describe concepts that are unfamiliar or intangible in terms of concepts that are familiar, vivid, and concrete. The effect is that we transfer characteristics and opinions of objects, events, or situations that we understand to those that are abstract or less familiar to us. In the parables, Jesus often helped his listeners understand what God expected of them through narratives of events in this world: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast . . .” (Matthew 22:2). In telling these stories, Jesus drew upon ordinary objects and images, such as seed and salt, lamps and leaven, to communicate spiritual principles. As he told his followers, “From the fig tree learn its lesson” (Mark 13:28). He spoke the language of the people and used parables to make his message accessible to everyone.

What makes the parables different from other types of metaphor is that they don’t merely compare two individual objects or events. Rather, the situations in the stories Jesus told provide insight into moral principles with broad applications. So, while the elements of the individual parables were drawn from particular situations that could have occurred in that culture and at that point in history, their subjects are universal themes that transcend cultures and time. The spiritual truths they contain about life, death, God, and human relationships resonate with all of human existence. The fact that the parables still speak to us today is evidence of their enduring nature.

Moreover, Jesus frequently underscored spiritual truths of the parables through the use of hyperbole and by contrasting opposite qualities such as virtue and vice, wisdom and foolishness, generosity and meanness of spirit. The parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is an animated portrayal of just such a contrast. And there is no clearer instance of exaggeration than the parable of the unforgiving servant, in which a slave who was forgiven for a debt of 150,000 years’ wages refused to forgive a debt against him for only a hundred days’ wages (Matthew 18:23-35).

That is not to say that the meaning of all of the parables was immediately apparent. Even the apostles frequently had to ask Jesus to explain them. Like the best novels and poems written by human authors, these divine stories have multiple layers of meaning and interpretation. For Jesus’ first-century audience as for us today, they are capable of teaching moral truths, sparking new insights, and deepening our understanding of God and our faith.

“Explain to Us the Parable”
Why was speaking in parables one of Jesus’ favorite teaching methods? Telling a story is a powerful means of capturing people’s attention. A gifted storyteller has the ability to gain listeners’ interest, involve them in the story’s drama, and hold them in suspense regarding its outcome. In addition, the pictorial language of parables and stories is easier to remember than abstract thoughts. Thus, Jesus’ vivid parables function to fix chosen concepts and values firmly in our memory and imagination.

Jesus’ parables are not simply good or engaging stories they are stories that are part of God’s revelation to us. The love of God, mercy and forgiveness, and the values of the kingdom are among the great themes of Jesus’ teaching that he addressed by means of parables. In telling parables, Jesus revealed the heart of God and made his Father’s will known to us.

Jesus didn’t use his parables to enter into debate or argument with his listeners. But to make a point or explain the principles of God’s kingdom, he often posed challenging questions before beginning his parables. “Which one of you . . . ?” (Luke 15:4); “What do you think?” (Matthew 21:28). Sometimes the question came at the end of the story: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36).

By questioning his hearers, Jesus drew them into the story and challenged them to figure out the message of the parable themselves often by examining their own hearts and lives and reconsidering their conventional viewpoints or preconceived ideas. Above all, his parables were meant to evoke a personal response that would have consequences in each hearer’s life: They were to lead his audience to conversion, to a change in their attitude or behavior toward God and one another. “Words are not enough; deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for man: will he be hard soil or good earth for the word?” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 546). Our heavenly Father speaks to us through Jesus’ stories and calls us, through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, to a reorientation and transformation of our lives. We are not to remain passive hearers.

Frequently Jesus’ parables are provoking and paradoxical. Quite often their conclusions are surprising. Sometimes the choice of characters and their roles confound expectations. The opening of the parable arouses interest; as the story unfolds, the problem or issue emerges and suspense mounts. The climax and resolution may not only be unexpected but even disturbing, unsettling, or irritating forcing the listeners to confront their own reactions. In some instances, Jesus even leaves the parable open ended, compelling his hearers to finish the story for themselves. For example, we might wonder whether the elder son ever had a change of heart, set aside his resentment, and joined in the celebration for his prodigal brother.

The Written Record
We should remember that Jesus’ parables were delivered “on the spot,” directed to his listeners in the various circumstances in which he encountered them. He seized “teachable moments” to address the crowds that followed him. Originally spontaneous oral teachings, the parables of Jesus were first passed on among the earliest Christians by word of mouth. Then the gospel Evangelists, relying on their own memories and the testimony and recollections of first-hand witnesses, wrote down the sayings and teachings of Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In recounting Jesus’ parables, the Evangelists would have probably used the original settings in which they were told, if those were known. Or, they may have provided a framework suited to the content and sense of Jesus’ teachings as well as to the thrust and structure of the gospel as a whole. The pastoral concerns of the early church also affected how the parables were recorded and interpreted in the gospels. For example, the lost sheep in the parable in the Gospel of Luke (15:4-7) is descriptive of sinners Jesus welcomed, whereas in Matthew 18:12-14, the “sheep gone astray” is identified with fallen-away Christians in need of special care by the church community.

Such applications of Jesus’ parables should not be seen as misrepresentations or distortions of his original meaning. Rather, they indicate how the Evangelists and the early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognized the living quality of Jesus’ words and their relevance to every generation that hears them.

“Let Anyone with Ears Listen!”
Understanding and interpreting Jesus’ parables often demands some real effort, but delving deep enough to uncover their riches and treasures has its own rewards. Most of the parables are multilayered and cannot be reduced to a single lesson or message. Such oversimplification would strip the stories of their mystery and severely limit their impact. On the other hand, Jesus’ parables are not allegories in which every detail in the story has a particular hidden significance and needs to be analyzed and broken like a secret code. Though many of the parables do contain allegorical features and images that serve as symbols of divine realities, attempting a point-by-point analytical interpretation of each detail has often led to some strange stretching of the imagination.

If grasping the parables demands effort, allowing them to transform us requires not only hard work but open, willing hearts. We can understand Jesus’ stories and integrate their truths into our lives only when we desire to be close to God when we welcome his words with faith, yearn to do his will, and surrender ourselves to him in love. Perhaps that’s why Jesus told his disciples that the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” are not given to all (Matthew 13:11), and so often declared, “Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13:9, 43; Luke 8:8).

Another way to “hear” Jesus’ parables is to read them aloud. Words come alive and call forth life when we give them voice. In earlier centuries, people normally read aloud; reading silently is actually a fairly modern development. Although we often hear Jesus’ parables proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word, it may be helpful to try reading them aloud by yourself or within your faith-sharing group. By reading them with expression, you may gain new insights. Such a practice can restore to the written word its original spoken quality and help you and your group imagine that you are there, at the scene, listening to Jesus speak.

As you progress through this guide, may you uncover all the treasures the Lord has for you, especially the “pearl of great price” Jesus himself. As you listen to his words, may your love for him increase so that your heart’s desire is to give all that you have to “purchase” that precious pearl.
Jeanne Kun is President of Bethany Association and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 

This article is excerpted from Treasures Uncovered: The Parables of Jesus, by Jeanne Kun, © 2005 The Word Among Us Press. Used with permission.

This book can be ordered online at The Word Among Us Press.


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