The Bible and Parables

Learn about this important form of teaching often used in the Scriptures.

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There aren't a lot of constants throughout human history -- things that all people and cultures share in common. But one such constant would be our inherent love of stories. No matter where or when you look throughout the long years of human civilization, stories have played a major role.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that parables have been an important tool for all sorts of people over the centuries -- including those represented in the Bible.

Let's take a deeper look at what parables are and what they contribute to God's Word.

What Is It?

The most basic way to explain a parable is a brief story that illustrates a specific truth. That's the main gist of our modern dictionary definitions for the word "parable":

  1. a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.

  2. a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like.

It's important to unpack those qualifications a bit. First, in order for a story to qualify as a parable, it must be relatively short. There are a plenty of novels that help people understand the deeper truths and principles of life, but such stories are not parables. They are far too long.

A typical parable will involve several paragraphs -- perhaps a page or two at most in modern formats.

Second, in order for a story to qualify as a parable, it must illustrate or communicate a specific truth.

Parables were (and still are) more than stories; they are classroom tools intended for teaching, rather than simple entertainment. They are crafted to help hearers engage or better understand a single, concrete truth.

Finally, as mentioned in the dictionary definitions above, parables often help hearers engage that specific truth through the use of comparison.

When we look at Jesus' parables, for example, we often see Him begin His stories with a phrase similar to, "The kingdom of heaven is like...." Parables compare an abstract concept with a concrete image or circumstance in order to help others better understand that concept.

Parables in Scripture

There are scores of parables packed into the pages of the Bible. The most famous, of course, are the parables of Jesus found in the four Gospels -- and for good reason. Jesus' was an excellent teacher throughout His public ministry, and He knew just how powerful parables can be as a method for efficiently presenting important truths in a way people can understand. 

One of Jesus' most famous parables is often called "The Parable of the Good Samaritan." In fact, as we'll see below, this particular story is a textbook example that contains all of the characteristics of a good parable mentioned above. Here is the passage from the Gospel of Luke:

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Luke 10:30-35

First, notice the length of Jesus' story: only six verses total. Jesus told this story in response to a question from one of the experts in the law: "Who is my neighbor?" Instead of delivering a speech or making an exhaustive argument, Jesus told a simple story that brought home everything He wanted to say.

Second, notice that Jesus' parable concentrated on a central truth. Jesus didn't offer "5 Ways to Behave in Jerusalem" or "7 Tips for Relationships." Instead, He crafted His story to illustrate a single, critical truth -- that self-sacrificial love is the ideal way to treat other people.

There are more than 40 parables of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Some of the more famous include the Parable of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32), the Parable of the Talents (see Matthew 25:14-30), the Parable of the Sower (see Matthew 13:1-9), and many more.

Jesus wasn't the only biblical personage to use parables, however. In fact, there are several parables in the Old Testament. One of my favorite examples is the story told by the prophet Nathan when he confronted King David. Prior to this encounter, David had forced a young woman into his bedchambers -- her name was Bathsheba. Worse, the young woman was married. Worse still, when the woman became pregnant, David attempted to trick her husband into believing the baby was his own. And worst of all, when his scheme didn't work, David had the woman's husband executed so that he could take her as one of his wives.

The prophet Nathan confronted the king with a parable:

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!"
2 Samuel 12:1-7

Bam! Nathan's parable was so poignant, it suckered the king into condemning his own terrible actions.

Parables aren't always easy to understand. They aren't always simple and clear -- especially some of the parables in the Bible. Yet the best parables help us confront the important truths of life in a way that changes us for the better.

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O'Neal, Sam. "The Bible and Parables." ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2016, O'Neal, Sam. (2016, February 21). The Bible and Parables. Retrieved from O'Neal, Sam. "The Bible and Parables." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 13, 2017).