Among the greatest and most profound of all biblical teachings are the parables of Jesus Christ. During His 3 1/2-year ministry, Jesus expounded from 30 to 50 parables (depending on whose estimate you wish to accept). There are some important reasons why Jesus used the parabolic method of teaching. For today's Christian there is much vital meaning contained within these rustic examples taken from everyday life in ancient Judea and its environs. Should it be surprising that Jesus used parables? Not if you understand something of the Jewish world in Christ's day. Says Alfred Edersheim: "Perhaps no other mode of teaching was so common among the Jews as that by parables" (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972). The Jewish people were quite familiar with the parabolic method of teaching. In a footnote on the same page, Dr. Edersheim informs us: "... Every ancient Rabbinic work is literally full of parables." The Old Testament itself contains many parables. The prophet Ezekiel used at least four. A good example is found in Ezekiel 17:2: "Son of man, put forth a riddle, and speak a parable unto the house of Israel." The prophet then unfolds a strange story of a great eagle and a giant cedar tree. In the same chapter, he explains the meaning of this unusual story. In II Samuel 12 the prophet Nathan tactfully used a parable to convey a message from God to David. Isaiah 5:1-6 also contains a parable that was used as a song — again conveying an important message to the people by the parabolic method. Verse 7 explains the meaning. In most cases a parable is a story drawn from everyday life. It is usually symbolic or metaphoric in nature and often conveys a profound spiritual lesson. Most parables use imagery to which the average person can readily relate. As the hearer comes into contact with the image or symbol — a field, a fig tree — he is easily reminded of the parable in which the associated imagery is used. In order to gain the maximum value from Jesus' parables, we must, therefore, acquire at least a rudimentary. understanding of the elements used in those stories. And we must gain an elementary understanding of the geography involved.
Why Jesus used parables
There are several good reasons why Christ chose to use the parabolic method of teaching. The most, obvious reason is that it was commonly accepted among the Jewish people of that day. When a teacher launched into a parable, most listeners knew how to receive such teaching. But there is yet another reason, which has escaped many commentators. Jesus clearly explained it in Matthew 13:10-13: "And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand." Jesus knew that the general populace was not yet ready to receive the deeper truths of His way of life. Had He explained certain parables plainly, they would have been accountable for what they had learned. As James later said: "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). The truth of God is too precious to be thrown about indiscriminately! In Matthew 7:6 Jesus taught us an important principle: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." He was not calling people "dogs" or "swine"; He was merely illustrating by analogy the reaction of some people to the truth of God. A Christian should, therefore, use discretion in determining to whom he will explain the undiluted stronger truths of God. Jesus sent His disciples on a preliminary evangelistic tour with this instruction: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). And this is exactly what Jesus was doing in speaking to the people in unexplained parables. Jesus always privately explained the intended spiritual meaning of each parable to His disciples. But there are other instances in which the people to whom the parable was addressed also knew the intended spiritual meaning! It depended upon who was addressed and under what circumstances. Not all parables were given to the masses of people who followed Jesus. Some were given exclusively to the disciples. Others were addressed to the religious leaders of the day, the scribes and Pharisees. And they knew exactly what Jesus meant.
The grouping of the parables
What many have not realized is that the parables were given in three distinct sets or groupings. Each set or group of parables had a theme or overall message. And each set became progressively stronger in its meaning and impact. Each group of parables was presented against a different geographical background and at three distinct points in Christ's ministry. Each set was provoked or stimulated by a different set of circumstances. To gain the most out of a study of the parables, one must examine them in their proper chronological sequence and historical context.
The Galilean parables
Having grown up in Nazareth, Jesus later moved to the town of Capernaum near the Sea (or lake) of Galilee, where He may have owned a home. It was in the province of Galilee that He worked as a carpenter. This provides the setting for the first group of parables, which may be called the Galilean parables. This set of parables was given early in Jesus' ministry. "The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side [Sea of Galilee]. 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 13:1-3). Jesus was sitting in a small boat (probably a fishing vessel) near the shore of the lake of Galilee. A large crowd was standing on the gently sloping hillside, which blended into the calm and beautiful lake. This setting provided a natural amphitheater. The boat functioned as a speaker's platform or stage; and His voice was carried across and reflected by the water to the shore, where the people were standing. The sloped sides of the lakeshore provided a natural acoustical backdrop for the audience. In short, the speaking conditions as found in nature were as nearly ideal as possible in the days before electronic amplification.
Six parables to the people
This first set consisted of 10 parables. The first six of these are addressed to the people. The remaining four were exclusively for the disciples. Remember, the account of Jesus' ministry is given in four different biographical books, called gospels. To gain a truly comprehensive picture of all of Jesus' parables, each of these accounts must be carefully compared. The first three gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are called synoptics. That is, they are all thought to have basically originated from a common source, perhaps the gospel of Mark. Each writer wrote from a somewhat different point of view. The apostle John apparently wrote much later and did not see the need to include much of the material written in the first three books. For an accurate picture of this first grouping of parables, it is best to compare Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8. In so doing, you will notice that Mark includes two parables in this first set that are not found in Matthew 13. The list of parables in the first set is as follows: 1) The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9), 2) The Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), 3) The Lamp Under the Bushel (Mark 4:21-25), 4) The Grain of Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32), 5) The Kingdom Like Leaven (Matthew 13:33) and 6) The Seed Cast Into the Ground (Mark 4:26-29). This represents the set of six parables given to the people. "All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:34-35). The prophet spoken of is Asaph, a Levite and the leader of the singers in ancient Israel. He had written many centuries earlier: "I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old" (Psalm 78:2). So Jesus was actually fulfilling prophecy when He spoke these parables. The first group of six parables was not explained to the people at that time. But Jesus, in private, did personally explain each one to the disciples at a later time. "Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field" (Matthew 13:36). (He had explained the parable of the sower to them in verse 18.)
The remaining four parables
Jesus gave the disciples four additional parables. In each case the explanation was self-evident. These last four parables in this first set were not given to the people in general. They may be listed as follows: 7) The Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44), 8) The Merchant Seeking Pearls (Matthew 13:45-46), 9) The Net Cast Into the Sea (Matthew 13:47-50) and 10) The Householder and His Treasure (Matthew 13:52). These parables were given as lessons to the disciples in particular. Jesus did not obscure the meaning in any way. Rather, He illustrated some important moral and spiritual lessons aimed directly at the disciples. A common theme runs throughout these 10 parables, whether they be addressed to the general public or to the disciples. They all refer to the Kingdom of God. Each parable is designed to motivate those who understand to really want and desire the Kingdom. They show how the Kingdom will grow and ultimately dominate the entire world. They demonstrate the need to seek God's coming Kingdom with every fiber of our beings.