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What is a Parable?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


When trying to understand one of Jesus’ parables, there are four vital questions to answer about it. Let’s go over them.

Question #1: What is the nature of the details in a parable?

Is it a pure Allegory?

Allegory is an extended metaphor. Metaphor equates two things explicitly (e.g. You are a dog!) or implicitly (e.g. Tell that dog to go!) In this type of allegory, all the major components have one for one representation. In The Parable of the Four Soils, each type of soil represents a different kind of heart response to the Word/seed, preached/sowed by the preacher/sower. One must be careful not to push too hard at the details. One should not seek private meanings in any part, and should not seek out representation in the colorful details unless obviously intended. There is no reason, for instance, to discover what the sower’s bag represents.

Is it an Analogy?

Analogy makes a general situational comparison rather than a point-for-point representation. You must capture the essence of the comparison in the analogous situation without trying to exploit the details. Here, the primary dynamics involved in a situation are more important than finding specific points of representation.  We might consider the Parable of the Lost Sheep or Lost Coin, where a general situation is set forward. Something precious has been lost and then found. What kind of person wouldn’t rejoice under such circumstances? There is no reason to give, the cracks in the woman’s floor, her broom, or even her lamp representative meaning.

In the rabbinic parables of Jesus’ day, only the most essential items represented something, and only in a highly limited way. We saw this in the Prodigal Son story. The Father, the Prodigal, and the Older Brother are all caught in a complex analogical relationship to the situation in which Jesus finds Himself at Levi’s dinner party. Jesus uses the three main figures in the story to reveal the responses of grace, gratitude, and resentment from the witnesses when the MOST valuable thing has been lost and found. Nothing else needs anything more than the most surface consideration. The ring, fatted calf, and robe, for instance, are merely common symbols of restored sonship, or joy.

Is it a Real Parable?

A real parable follows the technical definition of a parable—An extended simile. In these, we should find words like, “like” or “as” used to make comparisons at multiple points. In The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed and is shown to be like the mustard seed in more than one way. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom starts small. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom will grow quite large.

Question #2: How is the parable structured?

Is it a three-pole parable?

Here, two different elements are contrasted in the way they relate to a third element. In the Parable of the Lost sheep, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the field to search for a lost one. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, two groups respond differently to the demands of their position in a wedding and are welcomed or rebuffed by the Bridegroom based on that response. The points of contrast expose the core of the message.

Is it a complex three-pole parable?

In these structures, we still have two different elements are contrasted in the way they relate to a third element, but one sides is complicated. In The Parable of the Talents, “A” gives money to three servants; two succeed one fails. In The Parable of the Four Soils, four receive A… the word… but three fail for different reasons and one succeeds. The point of contrast in each parable is why some succeeded and others failed. We have the same pattern in The Parable of the Vineyard workers where five different groups work different lengths of time for a vineyard owner. All get paid the same. One, however, has a really bad attitude about it. The meaning is found in the conflict.

Is it a two-pole parable?

Two pole parables focus upon two separate items that are tracked together, each one’s actions navigating the other’s. The relationship between the parts will vary, but the dual nature of the action should be obvious. Consider the Sower and the Seed, where a farmer plants a seed that goes on growing by itself as the farmer goes about his business elsewhere. In The Parable of the Unjust Judge, he keeps refusing justice to a woman who eventually wears him down. We have the Unproductive Fig Tree, where the farmer vacillates between two opinions about what to do with an unproductive fig tree.

Is it a one-pole parable?

One pole parables focus on a single subject, contrasting different actions, stages, or outcomes. These often have a second figure, but the parable focuses on a primary actor. In The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the smallness of the seed is contrasted with the hugeness of the plant. Leven goes into a lump affecting the whole thing. The Kingdom is a pearl and a man sells all and buys it. Would you build a tower without counting the cost of it? You might not have what it takes and humiliate yourself.

Let’s take the last two together.

Question #3: What is the parable’s topic? & Question #4: What is the parable’s purpose at the moment? To explain? To filter?

Is it a parable designed to address a personal concern of the moment?

Jesus often uses parables to bring clarity to a discussion. Here the context of the parable is all important. Jesus defends His disciple’s lack of fasting by drawing an analogy with the way people differentiate their treatments of old vs. new things. Jesus tells the stories of the lost sheep, coin, and son, to explain His attendance at Levi’s dinner party. Jesus tells the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee to shine a mirror on the Pharisees’ inner life before God.

Is it a Kingdom parable?

Kingdom parables are used by Jesus as filters for a mixed audience in which He finds selfish seekers, overt enemies, and earnest would-be disciples. These are not designed to prevent knowledge, so much as to draw in the earnest and sift out the lazy and hostile. Here we find The Parable of the Four Soils, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Net. Jesus gives the secrets of the Kingdom of God but leaves the uncommitted out of the loop. Indeed, many of Jesus’ Kingdom parables tell the listener how important it is that they listen carefully, press in, and give everything for the privilege of the Kingdom.


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Why Does Jesus Use Parables?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


If you ever find yourself confused by Jesus’ parables, don’t feel too bad. Jesus’ parables befuddled His own disciples. When they ask for clarification, Jesus reveals that an important part of understanding His parables is understanding why He’s using them in the first place. So, why does Jesus use parables?

Quick Answer: Jesus used parables to sift the crowds, to test their motives, and separate out the spiritually hungry from the self-absorbed.  

An important part of understanding this need is to let Mark take you on a journey of discovery as Jesus’ ministry shifts from direct preaching to parable preaching. 

Cut to the Chase: Jesus begins to use parables when the crowds become too large and unruly and threaten to overwhelm His attempts to preach.

An important part of letting Mark take you on this journey of discovery is to pay attention to his storytelling structure. 

Quick Summary: Mark builds his picture of Jesus’ ministry using story sermons. His first few story sermons explain the hows and whys of Jesus’ parable preaching. 

For a richer understanding, let’s go through these points in more depth.  


Story Sermons

Mark preaches by weaving together a series of events that together explore themes in the Life of Jesus. Each series makes up one of Mark’s story sermons. The message of a story sermon is bigger than what we tend to moralize out of any single episode. By paying careful attention to the details of each story sermon, Mark’s inspired message slowly reveals itself. Don’t glean the gospels for tidbits, just stick with Mark, and discover Jesus through his 21 story sermons as written. 


Story Sermons 2 & 4: The Buildup to Parables

Let’s pick up Mark’s story with the 2nd story sermon—A Day in the Life of Jesus. After Jesus has returned from his wilderness trials, Mark gives a simple version of Jesus’ preaching; it is much like John the Baptist’s. “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” It is direct and confrontational. The promises of the ages are coming upon the Jews and they either get ready or perish. 

After meeting Jesus’ first followers, the events of a single Sabbath Day stir the community and lead to a powerful encounter with Jesus. The next morning, Jesus went off alone to pray. The people are clamoring for him with palpable desperation. When His followers finally find Jesus, they are exasperated, “Everyone is looking for you,” they exclaim. Jesus’ reply reveals a conflict of motives that will eventually lead Him to parable preaching… but not yet. Rather than rushing to the aid of the crowds again, Jesus says, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” And He does just that, but there is one important change. Jesus heals a leper and though told to keep quiet, the healed man blabs about what Jesus has done “to such an extent,” says Mark, “that Jesus could no longer publicly enter a city, but stayed out in unpopulated areas; and they were coming to Him from everywhere.” Jesus’ miracles gather a level of unwanted attention from those more interested in healing than preaching. 

In Mark’s 4th story sermon, the clamoring crowds increase. Jesus has a boat set aside, as Mark notes, “for He had healed many, with the result that all those who had afflictions pressed around Him in order to touch Him.” Mark builds a decisive contrast between these masses, and between those following Him. Leaving the crowds behind, Mark says that Jesus “summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. And he appointed twelve.. so that they might be with Him.” Though Jesus has sympathy for the masses, it is through His followers that the Kingdom of God will grow. Jesus wishes to separate these out from the self-interested crowds, “For,” says Jesus, “whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.


Story Sermon 5: Jesus’ Parable Preaching Pattern

It is in Mark’s 5th story sermon, that the parables finally arrive. 

The crowds become so unmanageable in their desperation that Jesus is forced to escape offshore in the boat in order to keep teaching. This time, He only teaches in parables. While He has used parables in the past to make difficult ideas plain, Jesus now begins to teach almost exclusively in parables, and His Disciples want to know why.  

The first parable Mark shares with us—The Parable of the Four Soils—gives us the reasoning behind His use of parables. When, “His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables,” Jesus gives a more direct apologetic, explaining that The Parable of Four Soils is key to His sudden shift to parable preaching exclusively. 

Back in Isaiah’s day, the prophet was confronting an apostate society and was called to extract a small remnant of the faithful out from the deaf, blind, and morally stupid masses, who were ultimately committed to the path of death. Jesus explains His use of parables by quoting Isaiah’s commission and explaining the Four Soils. Standing before Him, Jesus sees the Hard-hearted, the shallow-souled, the self-absorbed, and, scattered among them, that same small remnant useful for the Kingdom of God. Lest He cast the pearls of the kingdom before the apostate swine among whom the faithful sit, Jesus uses parables. Alone with His followers, Jesus explains all, simply, plainly, and directly.

Throughout the sermon, Mark will emphasize the role of the listener and call them to turn their ears on full focus to what Jesus is saying. Jesus calls upon the multitudes, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” As one lights a lamp for the very purpose of casting light, so He is preaching in order to give spiritual light. It is up to them, however, what they do with it. Jesus is looking for those who will listen and hear, those who will sense the value in his parables and press in for more. Thus, Jesus says, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” Basically, this means, if you handle what you hear well, and press in for more, you’ll get more.” Just so, He says to His followers who ask Him privately about the parables, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.” Jesus places parables before the masses in order to sift out the faithful remnant from the selfish seekers. 


Why Does Jesus Tell Parables?

So, why does Jesus tell parables? Many of Jesus’ parables are meant as filters for the crowds to separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares, good fish from bad fish. The listener’s job is to hear, wrestle, question, seek, and ask. If they do, the secrets of the Kingdom of God will be opened to them.