In Matthew 13, Jesus went out and sat by the sea, and a large crowd of people congregated to hear him. Verse 3 says, “Then He spoke many things to them in parables.” Later, his disciples asked Him directly, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Verses 11 through 17 give His complete answer. “&Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” Mark 4:33 and 34 state: “And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.” Jesus knew that He had to separate the real truth seekers from the many curiosity seekers.
The general theme of Jesus’ parables is the Kingdom of Heaven, which all begin with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Jesus likened the kingdom to a man who sowed good seed in his field, a mustard seed, a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants, and several other comparisons. Jesus taught about the great value of the kingdom, for example, the treasure hidden in the field, or the one pearl of great price, worth selling everything to obtain; the character of the king, his integrity and impartiality, described in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and Jesus taught about the personal character of the king’s subjects, for example, the good Samaritan, willing to go the extra mile to compassionately care for a stranger.
In the four Gospels, Luke contains 24 parables, and the largest number of unique parables (10) found nowhere else. Matthew contains 23 parables of which six are unique, and Mark has eight, of which only one is considered unique (the seed growing secretly in Mark 4:26-29). John contains no parables, but several metaphors.
In Luke chapter 15, the Pharisees and scribes complained about Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them. Jesus spoke three parables, all illustrating one point, the value of one person to God. First, He spoke about a shepherd losing one of a hundred of his sheep, and how it was clearly understood that the shepherd would seek out the lost sheep until it was found. Then he would get his friends together for a celebration. Similarly, Jesus presented the story of the woman who had lost one of her ten pieces of silver. This would have been a very special gift from her husband at their wedding, not necessarily having monetary value but great sentimental value. To not find it would have been dishonorable and inexcusable. But to find it was cause for celebration. The people to whom Jesus spoke would all understand these stories and the value of one sheep or one of the ten pieces of silver. The lesson was “…there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Finally, Jesus spoke of a human relationship, best known as the parable of the prodigal son. A man had two sons, and one demanded his share of the inheritance. So the father divided everything between them both, but one went and wasted it all on a brief but extravagant lifestyle. Finally, having nothing left, hungry and humbled, he realized the error of his ways, and determined to return to his father, willing to work as a hired helper. The father had been watching for his son to return, and when he saw him, he ran and embraced him. Before the son could finish his apology, the father called for the best robe, the family ring, and a feast with fresh roast beef.
His other son was angry at the grand reception for his undeserving brother, and complained that his brother was unworthy, but the father reassured him that he, too, could always share in the family wealth, and that “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” This parable is more about the forgiving father and, again, the value of one person to God.
All of the parables of Jesus are worthy of in-depth study and meditation, and hold precious and essential lessons for all truth seekers.