A parable is a small story that uses “word-pictures” to reveal spiritual truths. In other words, they draw images from daily life in the world to represent and communicate the deep things of God. They give us glimpses of Him whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). In Hebrew and Aramaic, the word parable also means an allegory, riddle, or proverb. In fact, the parable was a common method of storytelling in Jewish culture.; indeed, we see so many different parables within the Holy Scriptures, particularly the Gospels. Why did Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ speak in parables so often, rather than explain the Kingdom of Heaven plainly in a way all could understand?
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“You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes…”
The truth communicated by Jesus’ parables is not immediately evident to all who hear them. In fact, even the Apostles themselves struggled with understanding some of the parables Christ taught. How is this possible, that even the Twelve closest to the Master could not understand? Because the mysteries of the Kingdom of God are spiritual realities that do not necessarily require someone to be “intelligent”. They are not obscure concepts or religious truths meant only for a small group of elite. Nor is the understanding of parables simply an intellectual exercise. Christ taught the same message to all, but it is only those with purity of heart, the “babes”, who are open to understanding fully the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.
One must have spiritual eyes to see and spiritual ears to hear in order to understand these parables. Yet even then, there are different degrees of understanding. The level of understanding a particular person can attain depends entirely upon their own will, their own free desire to want to know God.
The purpose of parables
In three of the Gospels, we hear the Lord explaining to His disciples why He speaks in parables:
Among all three accounts, we see the phrase, “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand”, or something quite similar. Some may wrongly interpret Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Matthew 13 to mean that the Lord speaks in parables to deliberately blind people from understanding the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. On the contrary! Saint John Chrysostom explains that this is instead a figure of speech quite common in the Scriptures, one that demonstrates that God leaves us up to our own devices (as in Romans 1:24, 26). In other words, we are responsible for our own lack of receptivity to the message of Christ.
Parables challenge us and call for faith to perceive the mysteries of the Kingdom. As Isaiah’s mission Isaiah in the Old Testament was to open the eyes of Israel to see the acts of God, so Christ’s parables are intended to open our eyes to the truth and lead us to produce the fruit of righteousness.
Famous parables in the Scriptures
Throughout the liturgical year in the Orthodox Church, we hear several parables during the Gospel reading portion of the Liturgy. Among those parables, we find:
- The Sower (Luke 8:5-15)
- The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
- The Rich Man and His Crops (Luke 12:16-21)
- The Great Supper (Luke 14:16-24)
- The Talents (Matthew 25:14-20)
- The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:10-14)
- The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
Christ perfects the art of the parable, relating aspects of the Kingdom and speaking of God Himself through vivid stories. He revealed truth to those with hearts prepared, while at the same time wishing to draw responsive hearts past the entrance and into the very reality of God’s Kingdom which He proclaimed and inaugurated.
Christ spoke in parables to make the mysteries of the Kingdom of God more accessible. In opening to us the door to the Kingdom of Heaven, His parables help us to love God and to know Him, to understand and believe His grace, mercy and forgiveness, and to order our lives according to His Holy Word.
Keep Reading: What is Typology?