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Parables of Jesus

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The Parable of the Prodigal Son by Guercino

The parables of Jesus can be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and in some of the gospels not in the Bible. They are found mostly in the three synoptic gospels. They are a key part of the teaching of Jesus: they form about one third of his recorded teachings. Christians place emphasis on these parables, since they are believed to be the words of Jesus.[1][2]

Jesus' parables are seemingly simple and memorable stories, often with imagery, and each conveys a message. Scholars have commented that although these parables seem simple, the messages they convey are deep, and central to the teachings of Jesus.[3][4]

Many of Jesus' parables refer to simple everyday things, such as a woman baking bread (parable of the Leaven), a man knocking on his neighbor's door at night (parable of the Friend at Night), or the aftermath of a roadside mugging (parable of the Good Samaritan); yet they deal with major religious themes, such as the growth of the Kingdom of God, the importance of prayer, and the meaning of love.

In Western civilization, these parables formed the prototype for the term parable and in the modern age, even among those who know little of the Bible, the parables of Jesus remain some of the best known stories in the world.[5]

Roots and sources[change | change source]

As a translation of the Hebrew word מָשָׁל mashal the word parable can also refer to a riddle. In all times in their history the Jews were familiar with teaching by means of parables and a number of parables also exist in the Old Testament. The use of parables by Jesus was hence a natural teaching method that fit into the tradition of his time.[5][6] The parables of Jesus have been quoted, taught, and discussed since the very beginnings of Christianity.

Canonical gospels[change | change source]

The three synoptic gospels contain the parables of Jesus. The Gospel of John contains only the stories of the Vine and Good Shepherd, which some consider to be parables,[7] else it includes allegories but no parables. Several authors such as Barbara Reid, Arland Hultgren or Donald Griggs comment that "parables are noticeably absent from the Gospel of John".[8][9][10][11]

The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "There are no parables in St. John's Gospel. In the Synoptics ... we reckon thirty-three in all; but some have raised the number even to sixty, by including proverbial expressions."[12] The Gospel of Luke contains both the largest total number of parables (24) and eighteen unique parables; the Gospel of Matthew contains 23 parables of which eleven are unique; and the Gospel of Mark contains eight parables of which two are unique.

In Harmony of the Gospels, Cox and Easley provide a Gospel harmony for the parables based on the following counts: Only in Matthew: 11, only in Mark: 2, only in Luke: 18, Matthew and Luke: 4, Matthew, Mark and Luke: 6. They list no parables for the Gospel of John.[13]

Other documents[change | change source]

Parables attributed to Jesus are also found in other documents apart from the Bible. Some of these overlap those in the canonical gospels and some are not part of the Bible. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas contains up to fifteen parables, eleven of which have parallels in the four canonical Gospels. The unknown author of the Gospel of Thomas did not have a special word for "parable," making it difficult to know what he considered a parable.[14] Those unique to Thomas include the Parable of the Assassin and the Parable of the Empty Jar.

The noncanonical Apocryphon of James also contains three unique parables attributed to Jesus.[15] They are known as "The Parable of the Ear of Grain", "The Parable of the Grain of Wheat", and "The Parable of the Date-Palm Shoot".[16]

The hypothetical Q document is seen as a source for some of the parables in Matthew, Luke, and Thomas.[17]

Purpose and motive[change | change source]

In the Gospel of Matthew (13:10-17) Jesus provides an answer when asked about his use of parables:[18]

The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" He replied,

"The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand."

While Mark 4:33–34 and Matthew 13:34–35 may suggest that Jesus would only speak to the "crowds" in parables, while in private explaining everything to his disciples, modern scholars do not support the private explanations argument and surmise that Jesus used parables as a teaching method.[19] Dwight Pentecost suggests that given that Jesus often preached to a mixed audience of believers and non-believers, he used parables to reveal the truth to some, but hide it from others.[1]

Christian author Ashton Axenden suggests that Jesus constructed his parables based on his divine knowledge of how man can be taught:[20]

This was a mode of teaching, which our blessed Lord seemed to take special delight in employing. And we may be quite sure, that as "He knew what was in man" better than we know, He would not have taught by Parables, if He had not felt that this was the kind of teaching best suited to our wants.

In the 19th century, Lisco and Fairbairn stated that in the parables of Jesus, "the image borrowed from the visible world is accompanied by a truth from the invisible (spiritual) world" and that the parables of Jesus are not "mere similitudes which serve the purpose of illustration, but are internal analogies where nature becomes a witness for the spiritual world".[21]

Similarly, in the 20th century, calling a parable "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning",[22] William Barclay states that the parables of Jesus use familiar examples to lead men's minds towards heavenly concepts. He suggests that Jesus did not form his parables merely as analogies but based on an "inward affinity between the natural and the spiritual order."[22]

Themes[change | change source]

A number of parables which are adjacent in one or more gospels have similar themes. The parable of the Leaven follows the parable of the Mustard Seed in Matthew and Luke, and shares the theme of the Kingdom of Heaven growing from small beginnings.[23] The parable of the Hidden Treasure and parable of the Pearl form a pair illustrating the great value of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the need for action in attaining it.[24]

The parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost (Prodigal) Son form a trio in Luke dealing with loss and redemption.[25]

The parable of the Faithful Servant and parable of the Ten Virgins, adjacent in Matthew, involve waiting for a bridegroom, and have an eschatological theme: be prepared for the day of reckoning.[26] The parable of the Tares[27] the parable of the Rich Fool,[28] the parable of the budding fig tree,[29] and the parable of the barren fig tree[30] also have eschatological themes.

Other parables stand alone, such as the parable of the unforgiving servant, dealing with forgiveness;[31] the parable of the Good Samaritan, dealing with practical love;[32] and the parable of the Friend at Night, dealing with persistence in prayer.[33]

Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven: hearing, seeking and growing[change | change source]

Hidden Treasure
Hidden Treasure
Pearl (of Great Price)
Pearl (of Great Price)
Sower Hidden Treasure Pearl
Growing Seed
Growing Seed
Mustard Seed
Mustard Seed
Growing Seed Mustard Seed Leaven

Parables of loss and redemption[change | change source]

Lost Sheep
Lost Sheep
Lost Coin
Lost Coin
Prodigal (Lost) Son
Prodigal (Lost) Son
Lost Sheep Lost Coin Prodigal (Lost) Son

Parables about love and forgiveness[change | change source]

Good Samaritan
Good Samaritan
Two Debtors
Two Debtors
Unforgiving (Unmerciful) Servant
Unforgiving (Unmerciful) Servant
Good Samaritan Two Debtors Unforgiving Servant

Parables about prayer[change | change source]

Friend at Night (Importunate Neighbour)
Friend at Night (Importunate Neighbour)
Unjust Judge (Importunate Widow)
Unjust Judge (Importunate Widow)
Pharisee and Publican (Tax Collector)
Pharisee and Publican (Tax Collector)
Friend at Night Unjust Judge Pharisee & Publican

Eschatological parables[change | change source]

Faithful Servant (Door Keeper)
Faithful Servant (Door Keeper)
Ten (Wise and Foolish) Virgins
Ten (Wise and Foolish) Virgins
Great Banquet (Wedding Feast)
Great Banquet (Wedding Feast)
Faithful Servant Ten Virgins Great Banquet
Rich Fool
Rich Fool
Wicked Husbandmen (Tenants in the Vineyard)
Wicked Husbandmen (Tenants in the Vineyard)
(Wheat and) Tares
(Wheat and) Tares
Rich Fool Wicked Husbandmen Tares
Drawing in the Net
Drawing in the Net
Budding Fig Tree
Budding Fig Tree
Barren Fig Tree
Barren Fig Tree
The Net Budding Fig Tree Barren Fig Tree

Other parables[change | change source]

Wise and Foolish Builders (House on the Rock)
Wise and Foolish Builders (House on the Rock)
Lamp under a Bushel (Bowl, Basket)
Lamp under a Bushel (Bowl, Basket)
Unjust Steward (Shrewd Manager)
Unjust Steward (Shrewd Manager)
Wise & Foolish Builders Lamp under a Bushel Unjust Steward
Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus
Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus
Talents (Minas)
Talents (Minas)
Workers in the Vineyard
Workers in the Vineyard
Rich Man and Lazarus Talents (Minas) Workers in the Vineyard

Art[change | change source]

A depiction of the Parable of the Ten Virgins on a stained glass window in Scots' Church, Melbourne

Of the thirty or so parables in the canonical Gospels, four were shown in medieval art almost to the exclusion of the others, but not mixed in with the narrative scenes of the Life of Christ. These were: the Ten Virgins, the Rich man and Lazarus, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.[34] Artists famous for depicting parables include Martin Schongauer, Pieter the Elder Bruegal and Albrecht Dürer. The Workers in the Vineyard also appears in Early Medieval works. From the Renaissance the numbers shown widened slightly, and the various scenes of the Prodigal Son became the clear favorite, with the Good Samaritan also popular. Albrecht Dürer made a famous engraving of the Prodigal Son amongst the pigs (1496), a popular subject in the Northern Renaissance, and Rembrandt depicted the story several times, although at least one of his works, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, a portrait of himself as the Son, revelling with his wife, is like many artists' depictions, a way of dignifying a genre tavern scene. His late Return of the Prodigal Son (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) is one of his most popular works.

Poetry and hymns[change | change source]

As well as being depicted in art and discussed in prose, a number of parables form the inspiration for religious poetry and hymns. For example, the hymn "The Ninety and Nine" by Elizabeth C. Clephane (1868) is inspired by the parable of the Lost Sheep:

There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold.
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold.
Away on the mountains wild and bare.
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.[35]

Similarly, "My Hope Is Built" (Edward Mote, c. 1834) is inspired by the parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders, and "How Kind the Good Samaritan" (John Newton, c. 1779) is inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Harmony of parables[change | change source]

A sample Gospel harmony for the parables based on the list of key episodes in the Canonical Gospels is presented in the table below. For the sake of consistency, this table is automatically sub-selected from the main harmony table in the Gospel harmony article, based on the list of key episodes in the Canonical Gospels. Usually, no parables are associated with the Gospel of John, just allegories.[13]

Number Event Matthew Mark Luke John
1 The Growing Seed Mark 4:26–29
2 The Two Debtors Luke 7:41–43
3 The Lamp under a Bushel Matthew 5:14–15 Mark 4:21–25 Luke 8:16–18
4 Parable of the Good Samaritan Luke 10:30–37
5 The Friend at Night Luke 11:5–8
6 The Rich Fool Luke 12:16–21
7 The Wise and the Foolish Builders Matthew 7:24–27 Luke 6:46–49
8 New Wine into Old Wineskins Matthew 9:17–17 Mark 2:22–22 Luke 5:37–39
9 Parable of the strong man Matthew 12:29–29 Mark 3:27–27 Luke 11:21–22
10 Parable of the Sower Matthew 13:3–9 Mark 4:3–9 Luke 8:5–8
11 The Tares Matthew 13:24–30
12 The Barren Fig Tree Luke 13:6–9
13 Parable of the Mustard Seed Matthew 13:31–32 Mark 4:30–32 Luke 13:18–19
14 The Leaven Matthew 13:33–33 Luke 13:20–21
15 Parable of the Pearl Matthew 13:44–46
16 Drawing in the Net Matthew 13:47–50
17 The Hidden Treasure Matthew 13:52–52
18 Counting the Cost Luke 14:28–33
19 The Lost Sheep Matthew 18:10–14 Luke 15:4–6
20 The Unforgiving Servant Matthew 18:23–35
21 The Lost Coin Luke 15:8–9
22 Parable of the Prodigal Son Luke 15:11–32
23 The Unjust Steward Luke 16:1–13
24 Rich man and Lazarus Luke 16:19–31
25 The Master and Servant Luke 17:7–10
26 The Unjust Judge Luke 18:1–9
27 Pharisees and the Publican Luke 18:10–14
28 The Workers in the Vineyard Matthew 20:1–16
29 The Two Sons Matthew 21:28–32
30 The Wicked Husbandmen Matthew 21:33–41 Mark 12:1–9 Luke 20:9–16
31 The Great Banquet Matthew 22:1–14 Luke 14:16–24
32 The Budding Fig Tree Matthew 24:32–35 Mark 13:28–31 Luke 21:29–33
33 The Faithful Servant Matthew 24:42–51 Mark 13:34–37 Luke 12:35–48
34 The Ten Virgins Matthew 25:1–13
35 The Talents or Minas Matthew 25:14–30 Luke 19:12–27
36 The Sheep and the Goats Matthew 25:31–46

Parallels outside the canonical gospels[change | change source]

A number of parables have parallels in non-canonical gospels, the Didache, and the letters of Apostolic Fathers . However, given that the non-canonical gospels generally have no time sequence, this table is not a Gospel harmony.

Number Parable Matthew Mark Luke Other parallels[36][37][38]
1 Parable of the Sower Matthew 13:1–23 Mark 04:1–25 Luke 08:04–18 Thomas 9
1 Clement 24:5
2 Parable of the Tares Matthew 13:24–53 Thomas 57
3 Parable of the Growing Seed Mark 04:26–34 Thomas 57
4 Parable of the Hidden Treasure Matthew 13:44 Thomas 109
5 Parable of the Pearl Matthew 13:45 Thomas 76
6 Parable of Drawing in the Net Matthew 13:47–53 Thomas 8:1
7 The Rich Fool Luke 12:16–21 Thomas 63
8 Parable of the Faithful Servant Matthew 24:42–51 Mark 13:33–37 Luke 12:35–48 Thomas 103
Didache 16:1a
9 Parable of the Mustard Seed Matthew 13:31–32 Mark 4:30–32 Luke 13:18–19 Thomas 20:2
10 Parable of the Leaven Matthew 13:33 Luke 13:20–21 Thomas 96
11 Parable of the Lost Sheep Matthew 18:12–14 Luke 15:01–7 Thomas 107
Gospel of Truth 31-32
12 Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen Matthew 21:33–46 Mark 12:1–12 Luke 20:9–19 Thomas 65
13 Parable of the Talents Matthew 25:14–30 Luke 19:13–24 Nazoraeans 18

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Pentecost, J. Dwight (1998). The Parables of Jesus: Lessons in Life from the Master Teacher. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8254-3458-7.
  2. Osborn, Eric (1993). The Emergence of Christian Theology. Cambridge University Press. p. 98. ISBN 978-0-521-43078-4.
  3. Christian authors view them not as mere similitudes which serve the purpose of illustration, but as internal analogies Daniels and Smith Publishers, Philadelphia pages 9-11
  4. Ashton Oxenden, 1864 The parables of our Lord William Macintosh Publishers, London, page 6
  5. 5.0 5.1 Barclay, William (1999). The Parables of Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-664-25828-3.
  6. Perkins, Pheme (2007). Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-8028-1770-9.
  7. i.e. The Vine and the Branches by David Tryon, as others have throughout history including John Calvin in John Calvin's Commentary on John Volume 2
  8. Reid, Barbara E. (2001). Parables for Preachers: The Gospel of Matthew : Year A. Liturgical Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8146-2550-7.
  9. Hultgren, Arland J. (2002). The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-8028-6077-4.
  10. Griggs, Donald L. (2003). The Bible from Scratch: The New Testament for Beginners. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-664-22577-3.
  11. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Parables: "There are no parables in St. John's Gospel" and the Encyclopædia Britannica article on Gospel of St. John: "Here Jesus' teaching contains no parables and but three allegories, the Synoptists present it as parabolic through and through."
  12. "Catholic Encyclopedia: Parables". Retrieved 2008-02-16.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Cox, Steven L.; Easley, Kendell H. (2006). HCSB Harmony of the Gospels. B&H Publishing Group. p. 348. ISBN 978-0-8054-9444-0.
  14. Scott, Bernard Brandon (1989). Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 33-34. The actual number of parables in Thomas is fluid. John Dominic Crossan counts 15, Ron Cameron 14, and Bernard Brandon Scott 13. See also Crossan, John Dominic (1992). In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press and Cameron, Ron (1986). Parable and Interpretation in the Gospel of Thomas. Forum 2/2.
  15. Koester, Helmut (1990). Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History And Development. Philadelphia, USA: Trinity Press International. pp. 196–200.
  16. Cameron, Ron (2004). Sayings Traditions in the Apocryphon Of James. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School, 8-30.
  17. Theissen and Merz 1996, p.339
  18. Matthew 13:10–17. See also Mark 4:10–12 and Luke 8:9–10
  19. Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  20. Ashton Oxenden, 1864 The parables of our Lord William Macintosh Publishers, London page 1
  21. Friedrich Gustav Lisco 1850 The Parables of Jesus Daniels and Smith Publishers, Philadelphia pages 9-11
  22. 22.0 22.1 Barclay, William (1999). The Parables of Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-664-25828-3.
  23. Witherington, Ben (1987). Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus' Attitudes to Women and Their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life. Cambridge University Press. pp. 40–41. ISBN 978-0-521-34781-5.
  24. Nolland, John (2005). The Gospel of Matthew. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 565–566. ISBN 978-0-8028-2389-2.
  25. Longenecker, Richard N. (2000). The Challenge of Jesus' Parables. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 201–204. ISBN 978-0-8028-4638-9.
  26. France, R.T. (1985). The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 348–352. ISBN 978-0-8028-0063-3.
  27. France, R.T. (1985). The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-8028-0063-3.
  28. Purdy, John C. (1985). Parables at Work. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 41–43. ISBN 978-0-664-24640-2.
  29. Scott, Bernard Brandon (1989). Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Fortress Press. pp. 338–340. ISBN 978-1-4514-0418-0.
  30. Jones, Peter Rhea (1999). Studying the Parables of Jesus. Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. pp. 123–133. ISBN 978-1-57312-167-5.
  31. Keener, Craig S. (1999). A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 456–461. ISBN 978-0-8028-3821-6.
  32. Green, Joel B. (1997). The Gospel of Luke. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 432. ISBN 978-0-8028-2315-1.
  33. Marshall, I. Howard (1978). The Gospel of Luke. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 462–465. ISBN 978-0-8028-3512-3.
  34. Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image, Religious Art in France of the Thirteen Century, p 195, English trans of 3rd edn, 1913, Collins, London (and many other editions)
  35. The Cyber Hymnal: The Ninety and Nine[permanent dead link].
  36. Funk, Robert Walter (1988). The parables of Jesus: red letter edition: a report of the Jesus Seminar. Sonoma, Calif: Polebridge Press. pp. 74–75. ISBN 978-0-944344-07-1.
  37. Throckmorton, Burton Hamilton (1992). Gospel parallels: a comparison of the synoptic gospels: with alternative readings from the manuscripts and noncanonical parallels. Nashville: T. Nelson. pp. xxx–xxxi. ISBN 978-0-8407-7484-2.
  38. Hultgren, Arland J. (2000). The parables of Jesus: a commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-8028-6077-4.

Further reading[change | change source]

  • Barclay, William (1999). The Parables of Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-25828-3.
  • Lisco, Friedrich Gustav and Fairbairn, Patrick, 1850. The Parables of Jesus Daniels and Smith Publishers, Philadelphia
  • Pentecost, J. Dwight (1998). The Parables of Jesus: Lessons in Life from the Master Teacher. ISBN 978-0-8254-3458-7.
  • Oxenden, Ashton, 1864. The parables of our Lord William Macintosh Publishers, London.
  • Schottroff, Luise; Maloney, Linda M. (2006). The Parables of Jesus. ISBN 978-0-8006-3699-9.
  • Snodgrass, Klyne, 2008. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus William B Eerdmans Publishing Co
  • Sumner, John Bird, 1850. The parables of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ C. Cox Publishers, London.
  • Theissen, Gerd; Merz, Annette (1998). The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Augsburg Fortress Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8006-3122-2.
  • Trinder, William Martin, 1816. Sermons on the parables of Jesus Christ Baldwin, Cradock and Joy Publishers, London.

Other websites[change | change source]