Parables and Parabolic Images in the Gospels
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

What is a "Parable"?

Although we usually think of biblical parables as the brief "stories" told by Jesus, the Greek word παραβολή (parabolē) -- and the related Greek παροιμία (paroimia) and Hebrew mashal -- are also used for other short "figures of speech" in the Bible (OT and NT), including proverbs, sayings, riddles, etc. Please see a separate webpage, Parables in the Bible, describing the use of the biblical vocabulary related to parables.

Parables - by James C. Christensen - from http://www.swoyersart.com

Scholarly Definition: "At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile  drawn from nature or common life,  arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness,  and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application  to tease it into active thought."(C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961, p. 5)

Implications of this definition:

"Parables"; by James C. Christensen; from Swoyer's Fine Art & Collectibles


Old Testament Background:

Both shorter proverbs and longer story-parables are already found in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible. Here are only some examples:


The Purpose of Jesus' Parables?

We might think that Jesus spoke in parables to make it easier for people to understand his message. After all, don't all good teachers use memorable stories?
According to the Gospels, however, Jesus surprisingly does NOT expect everyone to understand his parables!
This is clearly expressed in Mark 4:9-13 and Matthew 13:10-17 (see full texts at the bottom of this page ).

In Matthew, at least the disciples of Jesus understand the parables; but in Mark, even they have a hard time understanding, despite receiving extra instructions in private!


Where Are the Gospel Parables?

This page lists all Gospel texts normally identified by scholars as parables, as well as related texts dealing with Jesus' use of parables. From the following tables, you will note that Mark has only few parables and related images; Matthew adds quite a few more; and Luke has by far the most parables in the New Testament, including some of the most famous ones. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas also contains quite a few parables that are also found in one or more of the Synoptics. In contrast, John's Gospel never uses the word "parable" and has only few very images that are even similar to the parables of the Synoptic Gospels. To compare the texts of parables that appear in two or more of the Gospels, see The Five Gospel Parallels website.

Parables and Parabolic Images in the Gospel according to MARK:

Parables (incl. Sayings, Images, Stories) Mark Matthew Luke Thomas
Wedding Guests Mk 2:19-20 Mt 9:15 Lk 5:34-35 ?
Garments & Wineskins Mk 2:21-22 Mt 9:16-17 Lk 5:36-39 GTh 47b
Beelzebul/Satan & Strong Man Mk 3:23-27 Mt 12:24-29 Lk 11:15, 17-21 GTh 35
Sower & Seed Mk 4:3-8 Mt 13:3-9 Lk 8:5-8 GTh 9
    [Why Jesus Uses Parables] Mk 4:10-12 Mt 13:10-17 Lk 8:9-10 -
    [Interpretation of Sower & Seed] Mk 4:13-20 Mt 13:18-23 Lk 8:11-15 -
Lamp on a Stand Mk 4:21 Mt 5:15 Lk 8:16; and Lk 11:33 GTh 33
    [Sayings about Jesus' Parables] Mk 4:22-25 Mt 10:26; 7:2; 13:12 Lk 8:17-18; 12:2; 6:38b GTh 5; GTh 41
Seed Growing Secretly Mk 4:26-29 [replaced by Mt 13:24-30] - GTh 21c
Mustard Seed Mk 4:30-32 Mt 13:31-32 Lk 13:18-19 GTh 20
    [Jesus' Use of Parables] Mk 4:33-34 Mt 13:34-35 - -
Things That Defile [with explanation] Mk 7:14-17, [18-23] Mt 15:10-11, [15-20] - ?
Salt Mk 9:50 Mt 5:13 Lk 14:34 -
Camel & Eye of Needle Mk 10:25 Mt 19:24 Lk 18:25 ?
Wicked Tenants Mk 12:1-11 Mt 21:33-44 Lk 20:9-18 GTh 65
Budding Fig-Tree Mk 13:28-29 Mt 24:32-33 Lk 21:29-31 -
Doorkeeper Mk 13:33-37 - [cf. Lk 12:35-38] -
Total Number of Markan Parables 13 Mt keeps all but 2 Lk keeps all but 3 GTh has 7 of Mark's

 

Additional Parables and Parabolic Images in both Matthew & Luke, but not in Mark (from the "Q" Source?):
Parable Mark Matthew Luke Thomas
Specks and Planks in Eyes - Mt 7:3-4 Lk 6:41-42 -
Good and Bad Fruit - Mt 7:16-20 Lk 6:43-44 -
Two Houses, Built on Rock or Earth - Mt 7:24-27 Lk 6:47-49 -
Children in the Market Place - Mt 11:16-19 Lk 7:31-35 -
Return of the Unclean Spirit - Mt 12:43-45 Lk 11:24-26 -
Burglar - Mt 24:43-44 Lk 12:39-40 GTh 21b, 103
Servant Entrusted with Supervision - Mt 24:45-51 Lk 12:42-46 -
Going before the Judge - Mt 5:25-26 Lk 12:58-59 -
Leaven - Mt 13:33 Lk 13:20-21 GTh 96
Great Supper - Mt 22:1-10 Lk 14:16-24 GTh 64
Lost Sheep - Mt 18:12-14 Lk 15:3-7 GTh 107
Serving Two Masters - Mt 6:24-25 Lk 16:13 -
Pounds or Talents - Mt 25:14-30 Lk 19:12-27 -
Number of New Parables in Q - 13 13 GTh has 4 of Q's

 

Additional Parables and Parabolic Images in MATTHEW's Gospel (but neither in Mark nor in Luke):
Parable Mark Matthew Luke Thomas
Wheat & Tares - Mt 13:24-30 - GTh 57
[Interpretation of Wheat & Tares] - Mt 13:36-43 - -
Treasure - Mt 13:44 - GTh 109
Pearl - Mt 13:45-46 - GTh 76
Net - Mt 13:47-48 - GTh 8
Unmerciful Servant - Mt 18:23-35 - -
Vineyard Workers & Employer - Mt 20:1-16 - -
Two Sons - Mt 21:28-32 - -
Guest without a Wedding Garment - Mt 22:11-14 - GTh 75
Ten Virgins - Mt 25:1-13 [cf. Lk 13:25] -
Last Judgement / Sheep & Goats - Mt 25:31-46 - -
Number of New Parables in Matthew - 10 - GTh has 5 of Mt's

 

Additional Parables and Parabolic Images in LUKE's Gospel (but neither in Mark nor in Matthew):
Parable Mark Matthew Luke Thomas
"Physician, Cure Yourself" - - Lk 4:23 -
Two Debtors - - Lk 7:41-43 -
Good Samaritan - - Lk 10:25-37 -
Friend Asking for Help at Midnight - - Lk 11:5-8 -
Rich Fool - - Lk 12:16-21 GTh 63
Faithful Servants - - Lk 12:35-38 -
Barren Fig-Tree - - Lk 13:6-9 -
Closed Door - - Lk 13:24-30 -
Choice of Places at Table - - Lk 14:7-11 -
Tower-Builder - - Lk 14:28-30 -
King Planning for Battle - - Lk 14:31-33 -
Lost Coin - - Lk 15:8-10 -
Prodigal Son - - Lk 15:11-32 -
Unjust Steward - - Lk 16:1-8 -
Rich Man & Lazarus - - Lk 16:19-31 -
Servant's Reward - - Lk 17:7-10 -
Unjust Judge - - Lk 18:1-8 -
Pharisee & Publican - - Lk 18:9-14 -
Throne Claimant - - Lk 19:12, 14, 15a, 27 -
Number of New Parables in Luke - - 19 GTh has 1 of Lk's 


Parable-like Images in the Gospel according to JOHN:

The Greek word παραβολή (parabolē) is never used in the Fourth Gospel. However, the Johannine Jesus does use some metaphors and images that are somewhat similar to but also significantly different from the Synoptic parables. John's Gospel four times also uses the related word παροιμία (paroimia = "proverb" or "figure of speech").

Shepherd and Sheep (John 10:1-16) Vine and Branches (John 15:1-8) Paroimia = "proverb" or "figure of speech"

List of Parables and Parabolic Images in the non-canonical Gospel according to THOMAS:

Parable Thomas Mark Matthew Luke
[Sayings about Jesus' Parables] GTh 5 Mk 4:22 Mt 10:26 Lk 8:17; 12:2
Net GTh 8 - Mt 13:47-48 -
Sower & Seed GTh 9 Mk 4:3-8 Mt 13:3-9 Lk 8:5-8
Mustard Seed GTh 20 Mk 4:30-32 Mt 13:31-32 Lk 13:18-19
Burglar GTh 21b [cf. GTh 103] - Mt 24:43-44 Lk 12:39-40
Seed Growing Secretly GTh 21c Mk 4:26-29 [cf. Mt 13:24-30] -
Lamp on a Stand GTh 33 Mk 4:21 Mt 5:15 Lk 8:16; 11:33
Strong Man GTh 35 Mk 3:27 Mt 12:29 Lk 11:21
[Sayings about Jesus' Parables] GTh 41 Mk 4:25 Mt 13:12 Lk 8:18
Garments & Wineskins GTh 47b Mk 2:21-22 Mt 9:16-17 Lk 5:36-39
Wheat & Tares GTh 57 - Mt 13:24-30 -
Rich Fool GTh 63 - - Lk 12:16-21
Great Supper GTh 64 - Mt 22:1-10 Lk 14:16-24
Wicked Tenants GTh 65 Mk 12:1-11 Mt 21:33-44 Lk 20:9-18
Guest without a Wedding Garment GTh 75 - Mt 22:11-14 -
Pearl GTh 76 - Mt 13:45-46 -
Leaven GTh 96 - Mt 13:33 Lk 13:20-21
Burglar GTh 103 [cf. GTh 21b] - Mt 24:43-44 Lk 12:39-40
Lost Sheep GTh 107 - Mt 18:12-13 Lk 15:3-7
Treasure GTh 109 - Mt 13:44 -
Total Number in Thomas 18 - - -

 

Complete List of Parables and Parabolic Images in the Gospel according to MATTHEW:
Parable Matthew Mark Luke Thomas
Salt Mt 5:13 Mk 9:50 Lk 14:34 -
Lamp on a Stand Mt 5:15 Mk 4:21 Lk 8:16; 11:33 GTh 33
Going before the Judge Mt 5:25-26 - Lk 12:58-59 -
Serving Two Masters Mt 6:24-25 - Lk 16:13 -
Specks and Planks in Eyes Mt 7:3-4 - Lk 6:41-42 -
Good and Bad Fruit Mt 7:16-20 - Lk 6:43-44 -
Two Houses Mt 7:24-27 - Lk 6:47-49 -
Garment & Wineskins Mt 9:16-17 Mk 2:21-22 Lk 5:36-39 GTh 47
Children in the Market Place Mt 11:16-19 - Lk 7:31-35 -
Strong Man Mt 12:29 Mk 3:27 Lk 11:21 GTh 35
Return of the Unclean Spirit Mt 12:43-45 - Lk 11:24-26 -
Sower & Seed Mt 13:3-9 Mk 4:3-8 Lk 8:5-8 GTh 9
[Why Jesus Uses Parables] Mt 13:10-17 Mk 4:10-12 Lk 8:9-10 GTh 41
[Interpretation of Sower & Seed] Mt 13:18-23 Mk 4:13-20 Lk 8:11-15 -
Wheat & Tares Mt 13:24-30 [cf. Mk 4:26-29] - GTh 57
Mustard Seed Mt 13:31-32 Mk 4:30-32 Lk 13:18-19 GTh 20
Leaven Mt 13:33 - Lk 13:20-21 GTh 96
[Jesus' Use of Parables] Mt 13:34-35 Mk 4:33-34 - -
[Interpretation of Wheat & Tares] Mt 13:36-43 - - -
Treasure Mt 13:44 - - GTh 109
Pearl Mt 13:45-46 - - GTh 76
Net Mt 13:47-48 - - GTh 8
Lost Sheep Mt 18:12-14 - Lk 15:3-7 GTh 107
Unmerciful Servant Mt 18:23-35 - - -
Vineyard Workers & Employer Mt 20:1-16 - - -
Two Sons Mt 21:28-32 - - -
Wicked Tenants Mt 21:33-44 Mk 12:1-11 Lk 20:9-18 GTh 65
Great Supper Mt 22:1-10 - Lk 14:16-24 GTh 64
Guest without a Wedding Garment Mt 22:11-14 - - GTh 75
Budding Fig-Tree Mt 24:32-33 Mk 13:28-29 Lk 21:29-31 -
Burglar Mt 24:43-44 - Lk 12:39-40 GTh 21b, 103
Servant Entrusted with Supervision Mt 24:45-51 - Lk 12:42-46 -
Ten Virgins Mt 25:1-13 - [cf. Lk 13:25] -
Pounds or Talents Mt 25:14-30 - Lk 19:12-27 -
Last Judgement / Sheep & Goats Mt 25:31-46 - - -
Total Number in Matthew 29 - - -

 

Complete List of Parables and Parabolic Images in the Gospel according to LUKE:
Parable Luke Mark Matthew Thomas
"Physician, Heal Yourself" Lk 4:23 - - -

Garments & Wineskins

Lk 5:36-39 Mk 2:21-22 Mt 9:16-17 GTh 47b
Specks and Planks in Eyes Lk 6:41-42 - Mt 7:3-4 -
Good and Bad Fruit Lk 6:43-44 - Mt 7:16-20 -

Two Houses, Built on Rock or Earth

Lk 6:47-49 - Mt 7:24-27 -
Children in the Market Place Lk 7:31-35 - Mt 11:16-19 -
Two Debtors Lk 7:41-43 - - -
Sower & Seed Lk 8:5-8 Mk 4:3-8 Mt 13:3-9 GTh 9
[Why Jesus Uses Parables] Lk 8:9-10 Mk 4:10-12 Mt 13:10-17 -
[Interpretation of Sower & Seed] Lk 8:11-15 Mk 4:13-20 Mt 13:18-23
Lamp on a Stand Lk 8:16 [cf. 11:33] Mk 4:21 Mt 5:15 GTh 33
[Other Sayings about Jesus' Parables] Lk 8:17-18 [cf. 12:2] Mk 4:22, 24a, 25 Mt 10:26; 13:12 GTh 5; GTh 41
Good Samaritan Lk 10:25-37 - - -
Friend Asking for Help at Midnight Lk 11:5-8 - - -
Strong Man Lk 11:21 Mk 3:27 Mt 12:29 GTh 35
Return of the Unclean Spirit Lk 11:24-26 - Mt 12:43-45 -
Lamp on a Stand Lk 11:33 [cf. 8:16] Mk 4:21 Mt 5:15 GTh 33
Rich Fool Lk 12:16-21 - - GTh 63
Faithful Servants Lk 12:35-38 [cf. Mk 13:33-37] - -
Burglar Lk 12:39-40 - Mt 24:43-44 GTh 21b, 103
Servant Entrusted with Supervision Lk 12:42-46 - Mt 24:45-51 -
Going before the Judge Lk 12:58-59 - Mt 5:25-26 -
Barren Fig-Tree Lk 13:6-9 - - -
Mustard Seed Lk 13:18-19 Mk 4:30-32 Mt 13:31-32 GTh 20
Leaven Lk 13:20-21 - Mt 13:33 GTh 96
Closed Door Lk 13:24-30 - [cf. Mt 25:10-12] -
Choice of Places at Table Lk 14:7-11 - - -
Great Supper Lk 14:16-24 - Mt 22:1-10 GTh 64
Tower-Builder & 
King Planning for Battle
Lk 14:28-32 - - -
Salt Lk 14:34 Mk 9:50 Mt 5:13 -
Lost Sheep Lk 15:3-7 - Mt 18:12-13 GTh 107
Lost Coin Lk 15:8-10 - - -
Prodigal Son Lk 15:11-32 - - -
Unjust Steward Lk 16:1-8 - - -
Serving Two Masters Lk 16:13 - Mt 6:24-25 -
Rich Man & Lazarus Lk 16:19-31 - - -
Servant's Reward Lk 17:7-10 - - -
Unjust Judge Lk 18:1-8 - - -
Pharisee & Publican Lk 18:9-14 - - -
Pounds or Talents Lk 19:12-27 - Mt 25:14-30 -
Throne Claimant Lk 19:12, 14, 15a, 27 - - -
Wicked Tenants Lk 20:9-18 Mk 12:1-11 Mt 21:33-44 GTh 65
Budding Fig-Tree Lk 21:29-31 Mk 13:28-29 Mt 24:32-33 -
Total Number in Luke 38 - - -

Why Do People Have Difficulty Understanding Jesus?

Several New Testament writings (not only all four Gospels, but also Acts and Paul) try to explain why most people did NOT understand or accept Jesus. These explanations often quote Isaiah 6:9-10:

Mark 4:9-13, 24-25 Matt 13:9-17 Luke 8:8-10, 18; and 10:23-24 John 12:37-41

9 And he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.
11 And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;
12 in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'"
13 And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?

24 And he said to them, "Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.
25 For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."

9 Let anyone with ears listen!"
10 Then the disciples came and asked him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?"
11 He answered, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that 'seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.'
14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15 For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn-- and I would heal them
.'
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

8 As he said this, he called out, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
9 Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant.
10 He said, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that 'looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.'

18 Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away."

 

 

 

 

Luke 10:23-24
23 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!
24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."

37 Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.
38 This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: "Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" (cf. Isa 53:1)
39 And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,
40 "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn-- and I would heal them."
41 Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.

Mark 4:33-34 Matt 13:34-35 ISAIAH 6:9-10 Ps 78:1-3
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;
34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.
35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world." (cf. Ps 78:2)
9 And he said, "Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.'
10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed."

1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.

cf. Mark 8:17-18 cf. Matt 13:51-52 cf. Act 28:25-27 cf. Rom 11:7-8
17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?
18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?
And do you not remember?
51 "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes."
52 And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
25 So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: "The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,
26 'Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
27 For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn-- and I would heal them
.'
7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,
8 as it is written, "God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day."

 


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