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

What is a "Parable"?

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


The Purpose of the Parables?

We might think that Jesus spoke in parables to make it easier for people to understand his message. According to the Gospels, however, he surprisingly does NOT expect everyone to understand them! This is clearly expressed in Matthew 13:10-17:

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!
  • "Have you understood all this?" They [the disciples] answered, "Yes." (Matt 13:51)
  • And he said to them [the disciples], "Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?" (Mark 4:13)
  • With many such parables he spoke the word to them [the crowds], as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:33-34).

  • Biblical Terminology:

    The Greek word παραβολή (parabolē) is used a total of 50 times in the New Testament (13 times in Mark, 17 in Matthew, 18 in Luke, and twice in Hebrews, but never in John). It always refers to some type of “figure of speech” or “literary comparison”; it is usually translated “parable” in English, but sometimes also “lesson” (Mark 13:28; Matt 24:32), “proverb” (Luke 4:23), “symbol” (Heb 9:9), or “figuratively speaking” (Heb 11:19, all in the NRSV).

    Greek parabolē is used in the following NT verses:

    A related Greek word, παροιμία (paroimia), which also refers to some type of “figure of speech,” is used only in John 10:6; 16:25; 16:29; and 2 Peter 2:22.

    Not all the stories or figures of speech identified by biblical scholars as parables are explicitly called “parables” in the New Testament itself. This page lists all Gospel texts normally identified by scholars as parables, as well as related texts dealing with Jesus' use of parables.


    Where Are the Gospel 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:

    Parable Mark Matthew Luke Thomas
    Garments & Wineskins Mk 2:21-22 Mt 9:16-17 Lk 5:36-39 GTh 47b
    Strong Man Mk 3:27 Mt 12:29 Lk 11:21 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 [cf. 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 - -
    Salt Mk 9:50 Mt 5:13 Lk 14:34 -
    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 10 Mt keeps all but 2 Lk keeps all but 2 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
    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 - - 18 GTh has 1 of Lk's 


    Parable-like Images in the Gospel according to John:

    The word παραβολή (Gk. 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" (John 15:1-8)

    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

    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 37 - - -

    Recommended Readings:


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