Jesus didn't invent the parable, but he sure perfected it. It was probably his favorite way to teach, and it kind of became his calling card for the rest of time.
A parable is basically a short and simple story that illustrates a deep and important message. Big things come in small packages, right? But these small packages can be kind of tough to unwrap.
Take this one, for example
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (13:31-32)
Here we have a story about a seed that grows into a bush. The biggest bush on the block, in fact. So the moral of the story is that the kingdom of heaven starts tiny but gets really big, right?
Yes, kind of. But we're still missing some details. See, New Testament parables bring in lots of imagery that we modern folks aren't familiar with, but that Jesus's audience would have known all about.
First, what is a mustard seed? Well, like Jesus says, it's pretty tiny. Like only about 2 mm. When that seed is planted in the ground, it sprouts into a weedy little mustard bush. It also grows super fast and can be really hard to get rid of. If you've ever had a hot dog, you know that mustard has a sort of bitter taste to it. So that's a mustard seed, in a nutshell. Or in a mustard seed shell.
Then what is the kingdom of heaven, really? It starts off small, as the tiniest seed possible (think the early Christian church). But it grows quickly and aggressively. Once it takes root, it's pretty tough to get rid of it, too. It's even annoying and bitter tasting to some (see: the Pharisees). And, though you might think it's impossible, this little bush will grow into a huge tree and spread its branches all over the world. Even the birds will want to perch there. That's what the kingdom of heaven is like. Bam.
We can see that parables not only reveal something (the kingdom of heaven is growing), but they conceal things from non-believers, too. After all, the people who heard this must have thought Jesus was crazy. A little mustard bush isn't going to grow into a huge tree! But believers know that God can make the impossible happen. All it takes it faith the size of a mustard seed, right (source, 271-72)?
This is basically what Jesus tells his disciples when they ask, Why all the parables? (13:10). Isn't it better to have everything laid out in the open? But Jesus knows the naysayers won't get it no matter what he says. They've got eyes, but they don't really see. They've got ears, but they're not listening (13:13). If you believe, the parables are a revelation. If you don't care, then you're the one missing out on the goods.
We went over the parable of the mustard seed, but let's take a peek at a couple other of Jesus's most popular parables to get a better taste for them.
It goes something like this: "How can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered" (12:29). Sounds easy enough, right? Let's dig in.
Right before Jesus lays this parable on us, the Pharisees are going at him pretty hard. They see Jesus casting out demons and they tell the crowds that "It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons" (12:24). In other words, Jesus is clearly in league with the devil.
But Jesus uses this parable to bat down that idea. Really, Pharisees? Why would Satan send Jesus to destroy his own kingdom? It doesn't make any sense. You wouldn't invite someone into your house to bust out all your windows, would you? (Hey, we just made a parable!)
The story also makes a pretty important claim. If Satan is the strong man, and Jesus is the one who's breaking into the house, that means that Jesus has already defeated Satan. After all, if Satan hadn't been tied up by Jesus, then he couldn't be raiding his house and casting out all kinds of demons, could he? Another point in the Jesus column.
The parable also reflects other common Jewish wisdom, like this passage from Isaiah:
Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued? But thus says the Lord: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children. (Isaiah 49:24-25)
So like Matthew says, "For God, all things are possible" (19:26). Jesus can defeat Satan, the strong man, because he's got divine backing. And also because he's just that good (source, 654).
This one tells the story of a landowner who goes to get workers for his vineyard. At the start of the workday, he finds a good-looking group and offers to pay them a denarius for a day's work. A few hours later, he hires some more workers. Around noon, he brings on some additional crew. Then again at 3:00PM and 5:00PM. We're guessing it was a pretty busy vineyard.
At the end of the day, the landowner calls everyone in to be paid. The ones who were hired last are paid first and—surprise, surprise—they get a denarius. The workers who were hired first are really psyched. If those bums who only worked an hour get full pay, then they're going to be swimming in coins.
But when they receive their wages, it turns out they only get one stinkin' denarius. Not fair! the last paid protest. But, the landowner doesn't understand why they're complaining. After all, they got the wage they were promised. Why should they be mad that he's decided to be generous with everyone else? (20:1-16)
Okay, let's break this one down. The workers who were hired first get a full day's pay. The workers who are hired last get the same amount. On its face we've got to agree with the workers who were hired first. Equal pay for equal work, right? Break out the picket signs!
This parable is all about assumptions. The workers who are hired first have a lot of expectations about what they're going to get. First, they're cool with the single denarius. Then when they see the "less deserving" getting the same as them, they want more. After all, they've been toiling in this vineyard all day—they earned it! Those other lazy folks definitely didn't.
But according to Jesus, God doesn't work like that. God doesn't care who's deserving and who isn't. He doesn't care who worked the hardest or who was with him the longest. Sure, God keeps his promises and pays the denarius, but, if you accept his offer to work on his vineyard, his goodness and generosity will overflow. Even if you're one of those people who doesn't seem like they should be in line for blessings.
In the end, this parable is sort of a warning: don't get cocky. God knows you're doing good work, but don't assume that hard work alone will win you a spot at the top. God is gracious to everyone, no matter what they've done. So by all means, hope that you're saved. Just don't assume anything (source, 870). You know what they say about what happens when you assume, right?
Can't get enough of parables? You're in luck Matthew's got twenty-four gems in his gospel. Collect (and analyze) them all!