Stories with a message

Like other rabbis, the Jewish religious teachers, Jesus often used parables to teach people spiritual truths. These were stories about ordinary people and incidents, drawing on the familiar details of everyday life but carrying added levels of meaning for the audience to discover. They were often challenging and were not always comfortable listening. (See Famous stories from the Bible.)

Listening and learning

Parable of the sowerParables could be enjoyed at the literal level by the listening crowds, but to really understand the message people had to be willing to learn and respond. This is clear from the events surrounding Jesus' telling of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Large crowds heard Jesus tell the story of the farmer whose seed fell on different kinds of ground, consequently producing varying results. Later, Jesus' closest disciples asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?' He replied, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.' He went on to explain the meaning in detail to the disciples, saying that the seed is ‘the message about the kingdom', which will only bear fruit if it falls on the good soil of a receptive mind and heart. Jesus often concluded his story with the words, ‘He who has ears, let him hear.' See Big ideas: Seed, sowing.

Finding hidden treasure

The theme of the hidden growth of God's kingdom on earth is common to a series of parables recorded in Matthew chapter 13. For the one who discovers it, it is like hidden treasure or a priceless pearl (Matthew 13:44-45).

The lost sheep and the ‘prodigal' son

Luke, in the gospel found in the New Testament, records some of the best-known stories illustrating God's way of relating to people. Luke chapter 15 has three parables about losing and finding.

  • In one, Jesus tells a story of one sheep which was lost from a flock of a hundred. When the sheep was found, the shepherd rejoices. Jesus explains to all his hearers that this represents the ‘rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents'. (Luke 15:1-7)
  • Another well-known story concerns the ‘prodigal son', who leaves home and completely wastes his inheritance. His father (representing God) later welcomes him back with rejoicing, despite what he has done (Luke 15:11-32).

(See Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace; Lost, seeking, finding and rescue; Penitence, repentance, penance; Redemption, salvation; Sheep, shepherd, lamb.)

In both these stories, there is also a veiled criticism of the self-righteous negativity of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the Jewish religious leaders. They would have been in the audience criticising Jesus for mixing and eating with people who were sinners.

The good Samaritan

Parable of the Good SamaritanThe story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 was told by Jesus to broaden people's understanding of what it means to ‘love your neighbour as yourself'. The story would have shocked its hearers. He described how a man, a Jew, was attacked and left for dead by robbers while on a journey to Jericho. Not only do a Jewish priest and a Levite later ‘pass by on the other side' and leave the wounded man to die, but the person who comes to his aid, rescues and takes care of him, is a foreigner, a Samaritan, a people despised by the Jews. (This parable is the origin of the name of the support organisation, ‘Samaritans'.)

Parables about the Messiah

A group of parables told by Jesus in the week before his death conveys a serious warning to the Jews who are refusing to accept him as God's Son, their Messiah. They include the parable of:the king whose invitations to his son's wedding banquet are turned down by the invited guests, so the homeless and destitute from the streets are invited instead the owner of the vineyard whose son is killed by the vineyard tenants, so bringing severe punishment on themselves.

Jesus concludes, ‘Therefore I tell you that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit' (Matthew 21:33-45; Matthew 22:1-10). See Big ideas: Vine, vineyard.

The sheep and the goats

The parable of the sheep and the goats emphasises that God requires his followers to show compassion in action towards the poor, homeless and oppressed. ‘The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”' (Matthew 25:31-40). See Big ideas: Goats; Sheep, shepherd, lamb.

Related topics

Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace; Goats; Lost, seeking, finding, rescue; Penitence, repentance, penance; Redemption, salvation; Seed, sowing; Sheep, shepherd, lamb; Vine, vineyard

Famous stories from the Bible: The good Samaritan, The prodigal son, Parable of the sower

Other cultural references

Aesop's Fables

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