Parables are basically little stories used as teaching tools. They're like fables or allegories, but parables always use human characters. The word "parable" is translated from the Greek parabolē, which means "comparison, illustration, analogy." Another common way to put it is "earthly stories with a heavenly meaning." We can find TONS of these little bits of wisdom in Proverbs, Psalms, and many other places in the Bible too. Jesus used these stories to present God's Truth and moral lessons in a way that only believers could understand.
At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, He would use common objects and topics such as salt, bread, sheep, farming, bondservants, etc. The people listening totally got it because these were all things the culture was familiar with. Later, Jesus leveled up to only using parables (Mark 4:34a), which needed a little more explanation than simple metaphors like how salt makes things salty. This seemed a more difficult way to teach, and His disciples were confused. They asked Him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" (Matthew 13:10a).
Jesus then spelled it out for them, saying that there were two kinds of people: those who can see and hear Truth and those who cannot. For those who want to see and hear, they will understand the parables; for those who cannot see or hear (or refuse to), the stories will remain a mystery. (See Matthew 13:10-17.)
Why would Jesus want to keep God's Truth a mystery from those who did not want to believe? Because He knew that words of Truth are not so sweet to those who desire most to reject Him and God; there's no point in starting arguments with someone who doesn't care (Matthew 5:9; Hebrews 12:14). Jesus was following the same advice He'd given the disciples earlier about speaking God's truth, "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you" (Matthew 7:6). Parables sound like silly nonsense to someone who isn't looking for Truth in them.
While believers may have "ears to hear," sometimes even an eager spirit will have trouble truly understanding. That's why Jesus outright explained some of His parables to the disciples; we are fortunate to have these writings to help us too. It can be doubly difficult for today's believers because those cultural references are far removed from our stream of consciousness. But we can take the interpretations we DO have and use principles from those to help us interpret other parables we encounter. (There are about 35 parables in the gospels alone!)
That may seem like a no-brainer, but it's important to know what we're looking for. Sometimes Jesus would precede a parable with a little context, such as saying, "This is what the kingdom of Heaven is like" (which He did seven times in Matthew 13). Sometimes the narrative gives us a clue, such as in Luke 18:9, which says, "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable..." That gives us a huge hint as to who this message is for (overly-confident religious folk) and what the topic will be about (self-righteousness and spiritual pride).
In math, word problems often add in a bunch of details to enhance the mini-story, but what you really want are the numbers and their relationship to each other. Parables can be like that. We find lots of details which make the story seem real and relatable, but those aren't the "meat" of the message. In the Parable of Sowers (Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:2-9; Luke 8:4-8), Jesus gives all kinds of details to enrich the story (like how there are four types of soil), but the point isn't that there are different kinds of soil one might plant seeds in. When Jesus later explains this parable to the disciples, He cuts right to the heart by explaining how people receive God's Truth in different ways (Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15).
This is a basic rule that works with all Bible study actually. God doesn't contradict Himself (1 Corinthians 14:33), so any Truth revealed in one place of the Bible will not be contradicted in another place. Jesus proclaimed that He came to speak God's Truth, and His parables will never go against anything God has already said (John 12:49). Jesus' parables simply illustrated and enhanced understanding of what God had already set in place. We can see the lessons Jesus taught all over the rest of the Bible.
When Jesus finished telling some of His parables, He would conclude with, "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear" (Mark 4:9, 23). This was kind of a call to believers, letting them know that this was no ordinary tale—that there was a hidden Truth in there for them to discover. For those who did not "have ears to hear," they probably shrugged their shoulders and moved on. May we all indeed have "ears to hear" when we read Jesus' stories!
Parables are little stories used as teaching tools. Jesus used parables to present God's Truth and moral lessons in a way that only believers could understand. For those who want to see and hear, they will understand the Truth hidden within the parables; for those who cannot see or hear (or refuse to), the stories will remain a mystery (Matthew 13:10-17). Discerning the Truth from parables requires a willingness to learn from God.
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two teenage kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.