Do you not understand this parable?
[The Parables of Jesus #1: Introduction]
What were the essential characteristics of the earthly ministry of Jesus? According to the Gospel of Matthew
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Mt. 4:23)
When we come to consider the teaching aspect of Christ’s ministry more closely, we discover that Jesus was known for teaching in parables, which were front and center as bearers of his revelation of the Kingdom of God. Parables also made the Lord’s teaching memorable. That’s because they stir the hearer and engage him or her directly.
The Prodigal Son, the Mustard Seed, the Publican and the Pharisee – how beloved and meaningful these stories are, even from our Sunday school days. Yet there remain hidden treasures we can always uncover if we search these stories and sayings more closely. That’s our mission in the weeks ahead, namely, to be able to answer the question Jesus asked his disciples:
Do you understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?(Mk. 4:13).
Let’s start with the most basic question of all: What exactly is a parable? It comes from the Greek verb paraballo, which means ‘to set beside.’ In other words, a parable is a figure speech in which a comparison is made. It is the Lord’s way of comparing God’s kingdom to some occurrence in this world, real or imagined. The natural and visible world is called to witness to an unseen and spiritual reality. In short, a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
The parables of Jesus have a family resemblance to all those sayings, riddles, proverbs, oracles, fables and the like that fill the Scriptures. There are various ways to count them, but most scholars agree that there are 38 parables found in the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three are called synoptic, because they literally ‘see together’ the ministry of Jesus in similar if not identical ways.
These 38 parables come in two basic forms. Many are ‘one-liners,’ pithy sayings easily quoted, marked by expressions such as ‘the Kingdom of God is like… , or ‘It’s as if…. The other parables come in the form of stories, or narratives. As we consider these, we will come to realize that, as much as Jesus knew and quoted the Scriptures, he also revealed himself in unique ways, which produced a startling reaction among his followers:
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mk. 1:23)