It is a commonplace that the most effective way to explain to explain a complex issue, event, or relationship is to tell a story. This use of story is as old as storytelling itself.
One kind of storytelling – the use of the parable – is strongly associated with Jesus, largely because of the accounts of the parables in the gospels. But Jesus didn’t invent the parable. By New Testament times, the parable was commonly used by the Pharisees and rabbis to explain or illustrate Mosaic law, says R.S. Sproul in What Do Jesus’ Parables Mean?. Jesus often used the form of the parable but in a very different way. “Jesus used them to give new revelation,” Sproul writes. And he points out that you find the parable used anywhere in the New Testament except in the gospels.
In this relatively short and concise account that’s part of the Crucial Question series, Sproul examines 11 of the parable of Jesus. They include the unjust judge; the rich fool; Lazarus and the rich man; the Hidden treasure and the pearl of great price; the workers in the vineyard; the Pharisee and the tax collector; the unforgiving servant; the good Samaritan; the prodigal son; the wise and foolish bridesmaids; and the talents. All of these are recorded in the gospels of Luke and/or Matthew.
Sproul points out that, for a long time, the parables were interpreted using the so-called “allegorical method,” which looked at everything, and every detail, in a parable is having deep theological significance. Today, parables are interpreted as having one central point, and so Sproul does not get bogged down in examining every single detail of each parable.
He also points out that the parables were used to explain Jesus’ teaching – for those who had an understanding. And they were used to conceal, for those who did not. People might still understand the point of a good story, even if they didn’t grasp that Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of God.
Until his death in December of 2017, Sproul led Ligonier Ministries, based in Sanford, Florida. He wrote numerous books, articles, sermons, and speeches on Christianity, church history, theology, Calvinism, Reformed theology, and related topics. The Crucial Questions series now includes some 30 topics which are free as eBooks, and volume on conscience is a part of the series.
The parables are familiar, but familiarity doesn’t suggest they should be overlooked. They include some of the bedrock meaning of what Jesus taught about the kingdom of God. Sproul’s What Do Jesus’ Parables Mean? provide both a solid introduction and a succinct explanation.
Top photograph by David Werbrouck via Unsplash. Used with permission.