The Stories Jesus Told: Introduction

May 14, 2013

by Peter Amsterdam

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Jesus was an incredible teacher. His words, backed up by His actions, changed countless lives during His ministry on earth and have continued to do so for two millennia. His teachings, and the influence of His life, have had an unparalleled impact on humanity. Billions of people have fashioned their lives and beliefs on the words He spoke over 2,000 years ago. Those words and teachings, recorded in the Gospels, have radically changed humankind’s understanding of God and our relationship to Him. They spoke to the people of Jesus’ day and still speak to the hearts of seekers and believers today.

The life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ formed the foundation of Christianity and its teachings, its theology. Yet Jesus didn’t teach theology as it’s taught today. He taught like a playwright or a poet. He used metaphor,[1] simile,[2] parable, overstatement, and dramatic action.[3]

One of the most frequent methods Jesus used to convey His message was through telling parables. In fact, one-third of the recorded sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels—that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are in parables.[4] Parables were especially effective because they were stories that engaged the listeners and drew them in. These stories were sometimes shocking or challenged the cultural and religious norms of the day. The listeners were often surprised when the story lines went in unforeseen directions and had unexpected outcomes.

It was through these stories, these parables, that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, showed God’s character, revealed what God was like, and expressed the expectations that God has for people.[5]

While the parables Jesus told speak to us today, some of their original meaning and surprise factor has been lost because today’s listeners aren’t living in first-century Palestine.

As one author wrote:

“At first reading, it can be easy to dismiss the parables as very simple stories. They speak of invitations to banquets, of fishermen casting their nets, of women baking bread, of teenagers leaving home and of employees who have problems with their bosses. Since these are situations that we all may know by experience, the parables seem to us more accessible than they really are. Their first listeners, however, realized very soon that, behind their modest appearance, the parables were hiding unexpected dimensions. Rather than examples illustrating reality, they carry surprising messages. When we analyse them in depth, we discover that the parables constitute some of the most perplexing and enigmatic passages in Scripture.”[6]

Jesus was a first-century Jew speaking to other first-century Jews. He spoke the common language of the day, using words, phrases, and idioms that His Jewish contemporaries understood well. When Jesus spoke of a Samaritan, He knew that His Jewish listeners despised Samaritans. When Jesus told a parable at Simon the Pharisee’s house, there was a woman who was a sinner in the dining room—someone Simon would never have invited into his home. Jesus knew exactly why she was allowed to be there, and so did everyone else. When He spoke of wheat and tares, of leaven, of stewards and masters, everyone He was speaking to understood what He was talking about because those things were part of everyday first-century Jewish life and language.

If you’re from England, Australia, or India and you are familiar with cricket, you will know what a bowler, silly mid-on, doosra, and bouncer are. If you’re from the U.S. and baseball is your game, you will know what a curveball, a slider, a double play, a shortstop, and a mitt are. You know because that’s a part of your culture. If someone were telling you a story and used those words, or referred to some aspect of the game in the course of conversation, you would understand them, though someone unfamiliar with those sports would miss some of the understanding or nuance.

In similar fashion, those living in first-century Palestine understood the terminology Jesus used in a more complete and well-rounded way than we, living over 2,000 years later, can. When you’re reading the parables of Jesus, it helps to know more of the context in which He was speaking and what the original listeners would have understood.

This is especially beneficial when we consider how much information the parables don’t give. Parables are short. They use no more words than necessary, and they generally include no unessential details. When descriptions of people are given, almost nothing is said about their appearance, relations, or personal history; we are only told the basics. With the exceptions of Lazarus and Abraham in Luke 16:19–31, no names are given, so individuals are anonymous. Actions are omitted or compressed, and elements of the story are left for the reader to fill in.[7]

Parables are inherently simple. There are never more than two persons or groups together in the same scene. While the father in Luke 15 has two sons, he does not interact with both of them at the same time, but with one or the other. When there is mention of a large number of people, such as the parable of the feast,[8] where many people are invited to the banquet, the story only focuses on three of those who were invited.[9]

Jesus’ parables reflect the lives of everyday people—farmers, shepherds, women, fathers and sons, masters and servants. They are true-to-life fictional accounts of everyday life in the time of Christ. However, they don’t necessarily portray events precisely. Some stories give realistic portrayals and some don’t. One example of an unrealistic portrayal is the man who owed 10,000 talents, which is the equivalent of more than 200 metric tons of gold or silver. This parable uses a deliberate exaggeration, or what is often referred to as hyperbole, which is defined as an intended overstatement to make a point, which in this context helps to express the abundance of God’s forgiveness.[10] The use of exaggeration to make a point was common in Jewish writings and sayings.

Why parables? What is the value of a parable? Well, everybody loves a story. Jesus told stories to draw the listeners in, to cause them to reflect on the issues the parable addressed. The scenarios that Jesus painted with His words often required the listeners to pass moral judgment on the behavior of the characters in the story, and then to make a similar judgment about matters in their own life and in their faith.

Some parables start with a question, such as “Who of you …?” or “What do you think about …?” Other parables pose questions at the end. The questions are designed to provoke thought, to bring change in the listener’s heart and life. Sometimes the parable doesn’t have a conclusion or a final outcome; the story is left open-ended.[11] For example, we’re not told what choice the older brother makes at the end of the prodigal son parable.[12]

Parables often present the reverse of what the listener would expect. The hated tax collector is seen as being righteous instead of the Pharisee; the Samaritan is the true neighbor rather than the priest or the Levite. These conclusions were reversals of the norm. They cause the listeners to see things in a different light, to reflect, and to question the way they think. They issue a challenge to change.

The main point usually comes at the end of the parable, similar to how the punch line of a joke is delivered at the end. The story piques your interest, draws you in, and then at the end it makes the point.

While those hearing the parables in the first century understood the language, the culture and customs, the idioms and expressions, that didn’t mean they always understood the point of the parables. Sometimes even Jesus’ disciples had to ask Him what a parable meant. The spiritual points contained in the parables weren’t always obvious and caused people to ponder the meaning.

Many of the parables, along with other sayings of Jesus, are expressed in a poetic form, following a Hebrew style of poetry called “parallelism,” or the rhyming of thoughts. Throughout the history of the Hebrew people, the Scriptures and the teachings of Judaism were passed down verbally from generation to generation. In order to facilitate memorization, much of it was expressed in poetic form. For the same reason, Jesus’ teaching and parables often used a similar poetic style.

In the Gospel of John there are no parables. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are between 37 and 65 parables, depending on how they are categorized. Scholars have different definitions and therefore categorize the parables differently.

Mark’s Gospel has the fewest parables, about six. Matthew and Luke’s Gospels include most of Mark’s parables, and also share some of the same parables between them. Matthew has twelve unique parables and Luke has eighteen. Both Matthew and Luke group their parables thematically.

Jesus wasn’t the first or only teacher to use parables. In the Old Testament and in Jewish writings before the first century, there are some parables and parable-like writings, but few that are similar to Jesus’ narrative parables.[13] In early Greco-Roman writings, some parables, parable-like writings, and analogies were used. They also have significant differences from the parables of Jesus but some use similar patterns.

Parables weren’t used as a teaching method by the writers of the Epistles. In the Epistles there are a few analogies such as 1 Corinthians 9:26–27,[14] and Paul gives an allegorical reading of the story of Sarah and Hagar,[15] but there is nothing similar to Jesus’ parables.[16]

In later Jewish writings from the second to the seventh centuries A.D. there are many parables. The rabbinic parables of that time are similar to the parables of Jesus. Many scholars assume that Jesus drew His parables from the rabbinic parables, but none of these rabbinic parables can be shown with certainty to have existed before Jesus’ ministry.

So while Jesus wasn’t the inventor of parables, no one throughout history is known to have used them as ingeniously and effectively as He did.

The parables of Jesus are a worthy study. Through them, Jesus conveyed His message about God, about our interaction with Him and others, about life and how it should be lived. Reading the parables with more understanding of the first-century context helps bring further clarity to His message. It gives insight to why He had so much opposition and why His religious enemies wanted Him dead. It also helps to show why many loved and followed Him.

The messages that Jesus conveyed through His parables offended His religious enemies and even threatened their standing. At the same time, the message embedded in His stories drew in those who were lost and seeking. The parables show the love and mercy of God, His call to the heart of every man, woman, and child, and His willingness to pay the price of costly love to bring mankind to redemption. These wonderful truths caused people to love Jesus, to become His followers and disciples, to even die for His name. And His words bring the same results today.

Parables challenge the listener, and as we study them, we are the listeners. Jesus’ parables aren’t just stories to enjoy; they are the very voice of Jesus speaking His message. These short stories have deep intent, and that intent is to move each of us toward God, toward a life lived in accordance with His truth. When we carefully listen to what Jesus is saying in His parables, we will face answering the same questions as His original listeners. A light will shine on our lives as we confront the realization that we may be like the older brother, or the rich fool hoarding his wealth, or the priest and Levite rather than the Good Samaritan.

As in any study of God’s Word, as we read and study the parables, it’s beneficial to take time to think deeply about the points they make, to allow these spiritual truths to speak to us. They are meant to cause change in our hearts, lives, attitudes, outlooks, and behavior.

The parables also beautifully show the different ways that Jesus conveyed how deeply God loves humankind and to what lengths He is willing to go to show us that love, as well as the joy He has when one person enters into relationship with Him. We will hear how Jesus describes the Father, and how those descriptions brought a new understanding of what God is like.

In this series about the stories that Jesus told—the parables—I hope to share what I have learned from a number of authors and teachers who have brought greater first-century understanding to the twenty-first-century reading of the parables.

In preparing each segment of this series, I compared the writings of fourteen renowned authors, who each reference hundreds of other authors and scholars. These authors sometimes disagree with one another and sometimes interpret the meaning of a parable differently. I don’t discuss the different opinions or delve into the details of them, as doing so would make the series overly academic. I’ve covered some technical information regarding parables in this introduction, to help paint the backdrop, if you will, of our study of the parables that we’ll begin in the next part of this series.

There is always a measure of speculation involved when we look back in history and attempt to reconstruct the culture, experiences, and understanding of people who lived 2,000 years ago. When you’re trying to gain insight into the stories Jesus told, it is sometimes necessary to draw inferences or possible explanations from what a parable says which are not specifically stated in the Gospels. Considering that parables are short and avoid giving unessential information, a degree of supposition becomes a useful tool to help us understand the first-century context. Any such supposition that I present in this series is done carefully, after reading and comparing what the authors I read have expressed. What I present is what I feel is an accurate interpretation of the meaning and intent of the parables. You are free to disagree with me, and in your study or research you may find interpretations that you think are better. My goal isn’t to lock anyone into a particular interpretation or understanding of the parables; rather, my aim is to help broaden or enrich your understanding of the message Jesus conveyed and how it was understood by the original listeners.

In the text version of this video series you will find definitions of some words which you may be unfamiliar with, as well as footnotes with references and further information.

My prayer is that this series will enrich your understanding of the parables, fortify your faith, and encourage you to invite others to learn about and come to personally know Jesus—our wonderful Savior and our most blessed Redeemer.

God bless you.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); figurative language (Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary).

[2] simile: a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses) (Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary).

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 21.

[4] Since the 1780s the first three books of the New Testament have been called the Synoptic Gospels because they are so similar in structure, content, and wording that they can easily be set side by side to provide a synoptic [common] comparison of their content. (Encyclopedia Britannica Online.)

[5] Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 591.

[6] Roberto D. Badenas, “Teaching Through Parables: Following Jesus,”paper prepared for the 31st International Faith and Learning Seminar held at Friedensau University, Germany, July 13–25, 2003.

[7] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 17.

[8] Luke 14:16–24.

[9] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 18.

[10] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 18.

[11] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 18–19.

[12] Luke 15:11–32.

[13] Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 594.

[14] So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:26–27).

[15] Galatians 4:21–31.

[16] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 51–52.