During Jesus’ earthly ministry, when he spoke to the crowds, he often used parables. Sometimes this was done to conceal things from the self-righteous (Matthew 10:10–13; Mark 4:11–12; Luke 8:10) and other times to reveal things (Matthew 13:35, referencing Isaiah 48:6). Many times the religious leaders of the day were unsure whom the parables were directed at, and other times they perceived Jesus was speaking about them (Matthew 21:45; Mark 12:12; Luke 20:19), usually in a scathing sense regarding their legalistic and hypocritical lifestyles (Luke 18:9). Oftentimes even his own disciples did not understand the parables of Jesus, but he would then plainly explain the meaning to them later (Luke 12:41; Mark 4:33–34).
When we read the parables of Jesus in the Gospels, we often become engrossed in the story, much as the people who heard them did. Since we have them in written form, we often can delve into the meaning of the parables and apply the principles espoused therein to our own Christian walk. For example, the parable of the log and the speck teaches us that we see small faults in other people far more clearly than large faults in ourselves (Luke 6:39–42).
When we read of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37), we understand that Jesus is telling us to treat other people with love and compassion. But parables often cut both ways, because the Samaritan was not the only example used in that parable, Jesus also castigated the religious leaders (and by extension, many others) for their lack of compassion.
The word parable comes from the Greek παραβολή (parabolē), literally meaning “throwing” (bolē) “alongside” (para), which by extension means a comparison, illustration, or analogy. Although the characters are usually not historical individuals, they represent attitudes, truths, or tendencies that can be identified in every day and age.
However, there are times when the parable contains a specific individual as the “unnamed” antagonist; an example would be the weeds and the good seed (often called the wheat and the tares) in Matthew 13:24–30. Jesus warns of an adversary who sows weeds among the planted grain seeds. Later Jesus explains to his disciples that the enemy he mentioned is the devil (Matthew 13:39). In Mark 3:23–26, Jesus uses another parable with Satan directly mentioned as the antagonist. Some Bible scholars believe the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31 were actual individuals since characters are usually not named in parables.
Parables appear on the surface to be mere stories meant to convey a moral lesson, but in reality, they contain positive and negative examples, impart advice on how we should live in service to God, and warn of what we should beware. They offer practical advice on both physical and spiritual matters, and they also reveal what is in the hearts of men and what is in the heart of God.
Aren’t the parables “moral lessons” and “instruction”? Do they have any apologetic value?
We’ll also look at what are truly parables but not actually called by that term in the four Gospels. And as we delve into some of the parables of Jesus, we’ll examine the protagonists and antagonists, the motivations behind them, and even see Jesus mention the unseen spiritual forces at work. We’ll discuss how parables teach truth and expose false teaching and sinful action (isn’t that one of the core reasons for apologetics?) as well as highlight the truth and principles we may miss in our narrow focus at times.
But why would an apologetic organization like Answers in Genesis write a series on the parables of Jesus? Aren’t the parables “moral lessons” and “instruction”? Do they have any apologetic value? Do they teach viewing things through a biblical worldview or how to defend the faith? The answer surprisingly is yes!
Many of the parables of Jesus go beyond moral instruction and delve into issues like sanctification, Christian growth, biblical authority, biblical worldview, and responding to unbelieving critics. At first blush we often miss these aspects because we are concentrating on the protagonist or main character, and we overlook what the other elements in the parable really have to say.
We must build our apologetics on the Word of God and compare everything—science, philosophy, relationships, sanctity of life, Christian living (and many more things)—to what is stated in Scripture. But Jesus who spoke the parables is the Word of God in the flesh and tells us repeatedly, “
He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8, 14:35). We must learn to defend the faith and not neglect to hear what Jesus has said.
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