What Is a Parable?

The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. And he spake many things unto them in parables,

Matthew 13:1-3a

And he began again to teach by the sea side: and there was gathered unto him a great multitude, so that he entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine,

Mark 4:1-2

And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable:

Luke 8:4

Jesus has been called a “great teacher” by those who deny His deity. While I would strongly disagree with them on many points, I would agree with this one. But Jesus was not only a “great teacher,” Jesus was the best teacher to ever walk the earth!

One of the techniques that Jesus used in His public ministry was telling stories called parables. 

The word parable comes from two Greek words; para – alongside (like the word parallel), and ballo – to cast or throw (like throwing a ball). Therefore, a parable is a story that is cast alongside a principle that is being taught.

Parables were typically fictitious stories but they were of events or situations that could happen in real life. They are not fantasies. Their purpose is to give an example of something the listener already knows to help him understand the teacher’s main point. In other words, they are illustrations used to help explain the main point of a teaching. They are not the main point.

Parables are similar to allegories but they are not the same and should not be viewed the same. Often in parables there are details in the story that exist simply to make the story more vivid and memorable. These details are not the main point. Not everything in a parable has spiritual significance. We should always keep them in context of the subject being taught.

Jesus used several different kinds of parables in His teachings. Some of them are single sentences like the hiding of the leaven in the meal in Matthew 13:33. Others are extended stories like the Prodigal Son in Luke 17. Regardless of length, the parables always serve the same purpose. They illustrate the truth that is being taught.

A way I like to think of parables is with this little saying;

“A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

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