The Parables of Jesus:
The Greatest Stories Ever Told
Dr. Jim Denison
Thesis: parables show the timeless relevance of Jesus’ teachings for our lives
“What we don’t know most assuredly does hurt us.” Is this sentence true? Does it suggest anything relevant to your life today? Does it even matter very much?
Now consider the story which John Claypool told before making the statement you just read: “One of the good things that I got out of my ministry in Texas was a delightful story about a certain Mexican bank robber by the name of Jorge Rodriguez, who operated along the Texas border around the turn of the century.
“He was so successful in his forays that the Texas Rangers put a whole extra posse along the Rio Grande to try and stop him. Sure enough, late one afternoon, one of these special Rangers saw Jorge stealthily slipping across the river, and trailed him at a discreet distance as he returned to his home village. He watched as Jorge mingled with the people in the square around the town well and then went into his favorite cantina to relax.
“The Ranger slipped in and managed to get the drop on Jorge. With a pistol to his head he said, ‘I know who you are, Jorge Rodriguez, and I have come to get back all the money that you have stolen from the banks in Texas. Unless you give it to me, I am going to blow your brains out.’ There was one fatal difficulty, however. Jorge did not speak English and the Texas Ranger was not versed in Spanish. There they were, two adults at an utter verbal impasse.
“But about that time an enterprising little Mexican came up and said, ‘I am bilingual. Do you want me to act as translator?’ The Ranger nodded, and he proceeded to put the words of the Ranger into terms that Jorge could understand. Nervously, Jorge answered back: ‘Tell the big Texas Ranger that I have not spent a cent of the money. If he will go to the town well, face north, count down five stones, he will find a loose one there. Pull it out and all the money is behind there. Please tell him quickly.’ The little translator got a solemn look on his face and said to the Ranger in perfect English, ‘Jorge Rodriguez is a brave man. He says he is ready to die.'”
Now you believe that Claypool’s lesson is true, and relevant. Because of a story.
For the next eight weeks, we’ll learn eight of the greatest stories ever told, from the greatest storyteller of all time. These stories will make the biblical worldview come to life for us. They will each show us a different dimension of its truth and relevance. These stories will be knots to hold in the rope of life, lights to find the next step in the dark.
We begin our study today with an introduction to parables: what are they? Why did Jesus tell them? How do we interpret them? When we’re done, perhaps we’ll be able to open these timeless treasures more fully, and draw closer to the One who gave them to us all.
What are parables?
Let’s begin with a definition: the word “parable” means “to place alongside for measurement or comparison like a yardstick” and is “an objective illustration for spiritual or moral truth” (Robertson 1:101). “Parable” is a Greek word (“para,” beside, and “bole,” thrown) which means something “thrown alongside.” In his parables, Jesus threw a temporal, secular story alongside a timeless, spiritual truth.
The pastor/scholar Albert Barnes described a parable as “a narrative of some fictitious or real event, in order to illustrate more clearly some truth that the speaker wished to communicate” (139). Dr. W. A. Criswell called a parable “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning” (71). Michael Green describes it as “the comparison of two subjects for the purpose of teaching. It proceeds from the known to the unknown. It is an everyday story with a spiritual meaning” (152).
Jesus’ parables fall into five categories. The first is an illustrative comparison without an extended narrative (cf. Matthew 15.15; 24.32; Mark 3.23; Luke 5.36; 6.39). For example, when Jesus’ disciples warned him that his teachings had offended the Pharisees, he replied to them: “Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15.14). Peter responded, “Explain the parable to us” (v. 15). In his brief illustration Jesus showed his disciples that the religious leaders were blinded spiritually, and that his followers must not follow them into the pit which is their eventual end. He could have given them this explanation, but his illustration made the point much more memorably.
A second kind of parable used by Christ is an illustrative comparison in the form of narrative. This is the most common use of parables in the teachings of our Lord. For example, Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with this comparison: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7.24-27).
Here Jesus compared those who obeyed his teachings to a wise home builder, and those who did not follow them to a foolish one. In Palestine, a rugged and arid country, dry stream beds are common. They are wide and level, suggesting themselves as good locations for a home. Until a flash flood from the spring rains washes the new building down the river, that is. Jesus’ hearers all knew how stupid it would be to build a house upon such sand. Now they knew that disobedience to Jesus’ words is even more foolish.