What is a "Parable"?
Definition: "At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought." (C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961, p. 5)
Implications of this definition:
The meaning of most parables is not so obvious, or at least it shouldn't be. If we assume we know what Jesus is talking about, we are probably missing the main point; if we are too familiar with the story (having heard it so often before), we might not think carefully enough about its real meaning.
Most parables contain some element that is strange or unusual. They should cause you to say, "Wait a minute! That's not how farmers do their work! That's not what kings usually do! That's not what normally happens in nature!" And this strange element should cause you to think!
"Parables"; by James C. Christensen; from Swoyer's Fine Art & Collectibles
We might think that Jesus spoke in parables to make it easier for people to understand his message. According to the Gospels, however, he surprisingly does NOT expect everyone to understand them! This is clearly expressed in Mark 4:9-13 and Matthew 13:10-17 (see full texts at the bottom of this page ).
In Matthew, at least the disciples of Jesus understand the parables; but in Mark, even they have a hard time understanding, despite receiving extra instructions in private!
The Greek word παραβολή (parabolē) is used a total of 50 times in the New Testament (13 times in Mark, 17 in Matthew, 18 in Luke, twice in Hebrews, but never in John). Etymologically, it stems from the preposition para (“alongside of”) and the verb ballein (“to cast, place, throw”), and thus refers to something that is compared to or juxtaposed with something else. It always refers to some type of “figure of speech” or “literary comparison”; it is usually translated “parable” in English, but sometimes also “lesson” (Mark 13:28; Matt 24:32), “proverb” (Luke 4:23), “symbol” (Heb 9:9), or “figuratively speaking” (Heb 11:19, all in the NRSV).
Greek parabolē is used in the following NT verses:
Greek parabolē is used frequently in the LXX (the Septuagint = the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Bible), usually to translate the Hebrew word mashal (pl. meshalim):
In the HB/LXX, mashal & parabolē refer to "figures of speech," which can be of many different types (proverbs, maxims, riddles, symbols, fables, parables, allegories).
Similarly in the New Testament, parabolē can refer to figures of speech of various types:
However, not all the stories or figures of speech identified by biblical scholars as parables are explicitly called “parables” in the Bible itself, including some very famous ones (the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37; the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32; the Unjust Steward, Luke 16:1-8; etc.).
A related Greek word, παροιμία (paroimia), which also refers to some type of “figure of speech” or “proverb,” is used only seven times in the LXX (Prov 1:1; 26:7; Sir 6:35; 8:8; 18:29; 39:3; 47:17) and five times in the NT (John 10:6; 16:25a, 25b, 29; and 2 Peter 2:22).
This page lists all Gospel texts normally identified by scholars as parables, as well as related texts dealing with Jesus' use of parables.
Parable-Like Stories in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible:
Where Are the Gospel Parables?
From the following tables, you will note that Mark has only few parables and related images; Matthew adds quite a few more; and Luke has by far the most parables in the New Testament, including some of the most famous ones. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas also contains quite a few parables that are also found in one or more of the Synoptics. In contrast, John's Gospel never uses the word "parable" and has only few very images that are even similar to the parables of the Synoptic Gospels. To compare the texts of parables that appear in two or more of the Gospels, see The Five Gospel Parallels website.
Parables and Parabolic Images in the Gospel according to MARK:
|Parables (incl. Sayings, Images, Stories)||Mark||Matthew||Luke||Thomas|
|Wedding Guests||Mk 2:19-20||Mt 9:15||Lk 5:34-35||?|
|Garments & Wineskins||Mk 2:21-22||Mt 9:16-17||Lk 5:36-39||GTh 47b|
|Beelzebul/Satan & Strong Man||Mk 3:23-27||Mt 12:24-29||Lk 11:15, 17-21||GTh 35|
|Sower & Seed||Mk 4:3-8||Mt 13:3-9||Lk 8:5-8||GTh 9|
|[Why Jesus Uses Parables]||Mk 4:10-12||Mt 13:10-17||Lk 8:9-10||-|
|[Interpretation of Sower & Seed]||Mk 4:13-20||Mt 13:18-23||Lk 8:11-15||-|
|Lamp on a Stand||Mk 4:21||Mt 5:15||Lk 8:16; and Lk 11:33||GTh 33|
|[Sayings about Jesus' Parables]||Mk 4:22-25||Mt 10:26; 7:2; 13:12||Lk 8:17-18; 12:2; 6:38b||GTh 5; GTh 41|
|Seed Growing Secretly||Mk 4:26-29||[replaced by Mt 13:24-30]||-||GTh 21c|
|Mustard Seed||Mk 4:30-32||Mt 13:31-32||Lk 13:18-19||GTh 20|
|[Jesus' Use of Parables]||Mk 4:33-34||Mt 13:34-35||-||-|
|Things That Defile [with explanation]||Mk 7:14-17, [18-23]||Mt 15:10-11, [15-20]||-||?|
|Salt||Mk 9:50||Mt 5:13||Lk 14:34||-|
|Camel & Eye of Needle||Mk 10:25||Mt 19:24||Lk 18:25||?|
|Wicked Tenants||Mk 12:1-11||Mt 21:33-44||Lk 20:9-18||GTh 65|
|Budding Fig-Tree||Mk 13:28-29||Mt 24:32-33||Lk 21:29-31||-|
|Doorkeeper||Mk 13:33-37||-||[cf. Lk 12:35-38]||-|
|Total Number of Markan Parables||13||Mt keeps all but 2||Lk keeps all but 3||GTh has 7 of Mark's|
|Specks and Planks in Eyes||-||Mt 7:3-4||Lk 6:41-42||-|
|Good and Bad Fruit||-||Mt 7:16-20||Lk 6:43-44||-|
|Two Houses, Built on Rock or Earth||-||Mt 7:24-27||Lk 6:47-49||-|
|Children in the Market Place||-||Mt 11:16-19||Lk 7:31-35||-|
|Return of the Unclean Spirit||-||Mt 12:43-45||Lk 11:24-26||-|
|Burglar||-||Mt 24:43-44||Lk 12:39-40||GTh 21b, 103|
|Servant Entrusted with Supervision||-||Mt 24:45-51||Lk 12:42-46||-|
|Going before the Judge||-||Mt 5:25-26||Lk 12:58-59||-|
|Leaven||-||Mt 13:33||Lk 13:20-21||GTh 96|
|Great Supper||-||Mt 22:1-10||Lk 14:16-24||GTh 64|
|Lost Sheep||-||Mt 18:12-14||Lk 15:3-7||GTh 107|
|Serving Two Masters||-||Mt 6:24-25||Lk 16:13||-|
|Pounds or Talents||-||Mt 25:14-30||Lk 19:12-27||-|
|Number of New Parables in Q||-||13||13||GTh has 4 of Q's|
|Wheat & Tares||-||Mt 13:24-30||-||GTh 57|
|[Interpretation of Wheat & Tares]||-||Mt 13:36-43||-||-|
|Treasure||-||Mt 13:44||-||GTh 109|
|Pearl||-||Mt 13:45-46||-||GTh 76|
|Net||-||Mt 13:47-48||-||GTh 8|
|Unmerciful Servant||-||Mt 18:23-35||-||-|
|Vineyard Workers & Employer||-||Mt 20:1-16||-||-|
|Two Sons||-||Mt 21:28-32||-||-|
|Guest without a Wedding Garment||-||Mt 22:11-14||-||GTh 75|
|Ten Virgins||-||Mt 25:1-13||[cf. Lk 13:25]||-|
|Last Judgement / Sheep & Goats||-||Mt 25:31-46||-||-|
|Number of New Parables in Matthew||-||10||-||GTh has 5 of Mt's|
|Two Debtors||-||-||Lk 7:41-43||-|
|Good Samaritan||-||-||Lk 10:25-37||-|
|Friend Asking for Help at Midnight||-||-||Lk 11:5-8||-|
|Rich Fool||-||-||Lk 12:16-21||GTh 63|
|Faithful Servants||-||-||Lk 12:35-38||-|
|Barren Fig-Tree||-||-||Lk 13:6-9||-|
|Closed Door||-||-||Lk 13:24-30||-|
|Choice of Places at Table||-||-||Lk 14:7-11||-|
|King Planning for Battle||-||-||Lk 14:31-33||-|
|Lost Coin||-||-||Lk 15:8-10||-|
|Prodigal Son||-||-||Lk 15:11-32||-|
|Unjust Steward||-||-||Lk 16:1-8||-|
|Rich Man & Lazarus||-||-||Lk 16:19-31||-|
|Servant's Reward||-||-||Lk 17:7-10||-|
|Unjust Judge||-||-||Lk 18:1-8||-|
|Pharisee & Publican||-||-||Lk 18:9-14||-|
|Throne Claimant||-||-||Lk 19:12, 14, 15a, 27||-|
|Number of New Parables in Luke||-||-||18||GTh has 1 of Lk's|
Parable-like Images in the Gospel according to JOHN:
The Greek word παραβολή (parabolē) is never used in the Fourth Gospel. However, the Johannine Jesus does use some metaphors and images that are somewhat similar to but also significantly different from the Synoptic parables. John's Gospel four times also uses the related word παροιμία (paroimia = "proverb" or "figure of speech").
Shepherd and Sheep (John 10:1-16)
Vine and Branches (John 15:1-8)
- In Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells a parable about a Shepherd who lost one of his 100 sheep.
- In John, Jesus directly says, "I am the Sheepgate" (10:7, 9) and "I am the Good Shepherd" (10:11, 14).
Paroimia = "proverb" or "figure of speech"
- In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells several parables involving workers in vineyards (Mark 12:1-11 & par.; Matt 20:1-16; Matt 21:28-32).
- In John, Jesus directly says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower" (15:1) and "I am the vine; you are the branches" (15:5).
- John 10:6 - Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
- John 16:25 - "I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father."
- John 16:29 - His disciples said, "Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech!
- Cf. 2 Peter 2:22 - It has happened to them according to the true proverb, "The dog turns back to its own vomit," and, "The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud."
List of Parables and Parabolic Images in the non-canonical Gospel according to THOMAS:
|[Sayings about Jesus' Parables]||GTh 5||Mk 4:22||Mt 10:26||Lk 8:17; 12:2|
|Net||GTh 8||-||Mt 13:47-48||-|
|Sower & Seed||GTh 9||Mk 4:3-8||Mt 13:3-9||Lk 8:5-8|
|Mustard Seed||GTh 20||Mk 4:30-32||Mt 13:31-32||Lk 13:18-19|
|Burglar||GTh 21b [cf. GTh 103]||-||Mt 24:43-44||Lk 12:39-40|
|Seed Growing Secretly||GTh 21c||Mk 4:26-29||[cf. Mt 13:24-30]||-|
|Lamp on a Stand||GTh 33||Mk 4:21||Mt 5:15||Lk 8:16; 11:33|
|Strong Man||GTh 35||Mk 3:27||Mt 12:29||Lk 11:21|
|[Sayings about Jesus' Parables]||GTh 41||Mk 4:25||Mt 13:12||Lk 8:18|
|Garments & Wineskins||GTh 47b||Mk 2:21-22||Mt 9:16-17||Lk 5:36-39|
|Wheat & Tares||GTh 57||-||Mt 13:24-30||-|
|Rich Fool||GTh 63||-||-||Lk 12:16-21|
|Great Supper||GTh 64||-||Mt 22:1-10||Lk 14:16-24|
|Wicked Tenants||GTh 65||Mk 12:1-11||Mt 21:33-44||Lk 20:9-18|
|Guest without a Wedding Garment||GTh 75||-||Mt 22:11-14||-|
|Pearl||GTh 76||-||Mt 13:45-46||-|
|Leaven||GTh 96||-||Mt 13:33||Lk 13:20-21|
|Burglar||GTh 103 [cf. GTh 21b]||-||Mt 24:43-44||Lk 12:39-40|
|Lost Sheep||GTh 107||-||Mt 18:12-13||Lk 15:3-7|
|Treasure||GTh 109||-||Mt 13:44||-|
|Total Number in Thomas||18||-||-||-|
|Salt||Mt 5:13||Mk 9:50||Lk 14:34||-|
|Lamp on a Stand||Mt 5:15||Mk 4:21||Lk 8:16; 11:33||GTh 33|
|Going before the Judge||Mt 5:25-26||-||Lk 12:58-59||-|
|Serving Two Masters||Mt 6:24-25||-||Lk 16:13||-|
|Specks and Planks in Eyes||Mt 7:3-4||-||Lk 6:41-42||-|
|Good and Bad Fruit||Mt 7:16-20||-||Lk 6:43-44||-|
|Two Houses||Mt 7:24-27||-||Lk 6:47-49||-|
|Garment & Wineskins||Mt 9:16-17||Mk 2:21-22||Lk 5:36-39||GTh 47|
|Children in the Market Place||Mt 11:16-19||-||Lk 7:31-35||-|
|Strong Man||Mt 12:29||Mk 3:27||Lk 11:21||GTh 35|
|Return of the Unclean Spirit||Mt 12:43-45||-||Lk 11:24-26||-|
|Sower & Seed||Mt 13:3-9||Mk 4:3-8||Lk 8:5-8||GTh 9|
|[Why Jesus Uses Parables]||Mt 13:10-17||Mk 4:10-12||Lk 8:9-10||GTh 41|
|[Interpretation of Sower & Seed]||Mt 13:18-23||Mk 4:13-20||Lk 8:11-15||-|
|Wheat & Tares||Mt 13:24-30||[cf. Mk 4:26-29]||-||GTh 57|
|Mustard Seed||Mt 13:31-32||Mk 4:30-32||Lk 13:18-19||GTh 20|
|Leaven||Mt 13:33||-||Lk 13:20-21||GTh 96|
|[Jesus' Use of Parables]||Mt 13:34-35||Mk 4:33-34||-||-|
|[Interpretation of Wheat & Tares]||Mt 13:36-43||-||-||-|
|Treasure||Mt 13:44||-||-||GTh 109|
|Pearl||Mt 13:45-46||-||-||GTh 76|
|Net||Mt 13:47-48||-||-||GTh 8|
|Lost Sheep||Mt 18:12-14||-||Lk 15:3-7||GTh 107|
|Unmerciful Servant||Mt 18:23-35||-||-||-|
|Vineyard Workers & Employer||Mt 20:1-16||-||-||-|
|Two Sons||Mt 21:28-32||-||-||-|
|Wicked Tenants||Mt 21:33-44||Mk 12:1-11||Lk 20:9-18||GTh 65|
|Great Supper||Mt 22:1-10||-||Lk 14:16-24||GTh 64|
|Guest without a Wedding Garment||Mt 22:11-14||-||-||GTh 75|
|Budding Fig-Tree||Mt 24:32-33||Mk 13:28-29||Lk 21:29-31||-|
|Burglar||Mt 24:43-44||-||Lk 12:39-40||GTh 21b, 103|
|Servant Entrusted with Supervision||Mt 24:45-51||-||Lk 12:42-46||-|
|Ten Virgins||Mt 25:1-13||-||[cf. Lk 13:25]||-|
|Pounds or Talents||Mt 25:14-30||-||Lk 19:12-27||-|
|Last Judgement / Sheep & Goats||Mt 25:31-46||-||-||-|
|Total Number in Matthew||29||-||-||-|
Garments & Wineskins
|Lk 5:36-39||Mk 2:21-22||Mt 9:16-17||GTh 47b|
|Specks and Planks in Eyes||Lk 6:41-42||-||Mt 7:3-4||-|
|Good and Bad Fruit||Lk 6:43-44||-||Mt 7:16-20||-|
Two Houses, Built on Rock or Earth
|Lk 6:47-49||-||Mt 7:24-27||-|
|Children in the Market Place||Lk 7:31-35||-||Mt 11:16-19||-|
|Two Debtors||Lk 7:41-43||-||-||-|
|Sower & Seed||Lk 8:5-8||Mk 4:3-8||Mt 13:3-9||GTh 9|
|[Why Jesus Uses Parables]||Lk 8:9-10||Mk 4:10-12||Mt 13:10-17||-|
|[Interpretation of Sower & Seed]||Lk 8:11-15||Mk 4:13-20||Mt 13:18-23||-|
|Lamp on a Stand||Lk 8:16 [cf. 11:33]||Mk 4:21||Mt 5:15||GTh 33|
|[Other Sayings about Jesus' Parables]||Lk 8:17-18 [cf. 12:2]||Mk 4:22, 24a, 25||Mt 10:26; 13:12||GTh 5; GTh 41|
|Good Samaritan||Lk 10:25-37||-||-||-|
|Friend Asking for Help at Midnight||Lk 11:5-8||-||-||-|
|Strong Man||Lk 11:21||Mk 3:27||Mt 12:29||GTh 35|
|Return of the Unclean Spirit||Lk 11:24-26||-||Mt 12:43-45||-|
|Lamp on a Stand||Lk 11:33 [cf. 8:16]||Mk 4:21||Mt 5:15||GTh 33|
|Rich Fool||Lk 12:16-21||-||-||GTh 63|
|Faithful Servants||Lk 12:35-38||[cf. Mk 13:33-37]||-||-|
|Burglar||Lk 12:39-40||-||Mt 24:43-44||GTh 21b, 103|
|Servant Entrusted with Supervision||Lk 12:42-46||-||Mt 24:45-51||-|
|Going before the Judge||Lk 12:58-59||-||Mt 5:25-26||-|
|Barren Fig-Tree||Lk 13:6-9||-||-||-|
|Mustard Seed||Lk 13:18-19||Mk 4:30-32||Mt 13:31-32||GTh 20|
|Leaven||Lk 13:20-21||-||Mt 13:33||GTh 96|
|Closed Door||Lk 13:24-30||-||[cf. Mt 25:10-12]||-|
|Choice of Places at Table||Lk 14:7-11||-||-||-|
|Great Supper||Lk 14:16-24||-||Mt 22:1-10||GTh 64|
King Planning for Battle
|Salt||Lk 14:34||Mk 9:50||Mt 5:13||-|
|Lost Sheep||Lk 15:3-7||-||Mt 18:12-13||GTh 107|
|Lost Coin||Lk 15:8-10||-||-||-|
|Prodigal Son||Lk 15:11-32||-||-||-|
|Unjust Steward||Lk 16:1-8||-||-||-|
|Serving Two Masters||Lk 16:13||-||Mt 6:24-25||-|
|Rich Man & Lazarus||Lk 16:19-31||-||-||-|
|Servant's Reward||Lk 17:7-10||-||-||-|
|Unjust Judge||Lk 18:1-8||-||-||-|
|Pharisee & Publican||Lk 18:9-14||-||-||-|
|Pounds or Talents||Lk 19:12-27||-||Mt 25:14-30||-|
|Throne Claimant||Lk 19:12, 14, 15a, 27||-||-||-|
|Wicked Tenants||Lk 20:9-18||Mk 12:1-11||Mt 21:33-44||GTh 65|
|Budding Fig-Tree||Lk 21:29-31||Mk 13:28-29||Mt 24:32-33||-|
|Total Number in Luke||37||-||-||-|
Why Do People Have Difficulty Understanding Jesus?
Several New Testament writings (not only all four Gospels, but also Acts and Paul) try to explain why most people did NOT understand or accept Jesus. These explanations often quote Isaiah 6:9-10:
|Mark 4:9-13, 24-25||Matt 13:9-17||Luke 8:8-10, 18; and 10:23-24||John 12:37-41|
9 And he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
24 And he said to them, "Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.
| 9 Let anyone with ears listen!"
10 Then the disciples came and asked him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?"
11 He answered, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that 'seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.'
14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15 For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn-- and I would heal them.'
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
8 As he said this, he called out, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
18 Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away."
37 Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.
|Mark 4:33-34||Matt 13:34-35||ISAIAH 6:9-10||Ps 78:1-3|
|33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;
34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
| 34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.
35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world." (cf. Ps 78:2)
|9 And he said, "Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.'
10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed."
1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
|cf. Mark 8:17-18||cf. Matt 13:51-52||cf. Act 28:25-27||cf. Rom 11:7-8|
|17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?
18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
|51 "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes."
52 And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
| 25 So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: "The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,
26 'Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
27 For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn-- and I would heal them.'
|7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,
8 as it is written, "God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day."
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