Rediscovering the Parables: The Question of a Correct Understanding

Share this article:

by Francǫis Rossier, SM, PhD

See the end of this article for an Expanded Study Guide and Additional Reading.

The parables that Jesus told can be a source of confusion for many people of our times. People wonder why Jesus talked in riddles that often can be difficult to understand. How does a catechist go about deciphering and explaining the point that the Lord was trying to make?

A good starting point for interpreting parables is the origins of the word. The English word parable comes from the Latin parabola, a word that, in turn, comes from the Greek word parabole. In both of these ancient languages, the word means “comparison.”

Parables for “Comparison”

As the etymology suggests, a parable usually relies on an image from everyday life to make its point. The comparison to this image can be very short, contained in one verse, such as in the Parable of the Piece on the New Garment in Luke 5:36. In other cases, it can be developed into a complex story, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32.

Many parables of Jesus state the comparison right at the beginning. For example, “Jesus said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God?’” (Mark 4:30, all emphases added) and “Another parable Jesus put before his disciples saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’” (Matthew 13:31). On the other hand, some parables conclude with the comparison, such as, “So is he who lays up treasures for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

Teachers frequently use comparisons because an illustration is more concrete than a theory, and they help listeners grasp the teacher’s point. Jesus is a rabbi—that is, a teacher. “Speak, teacher,” says Peter to Jesus (Luke 7:40). It is as a teacher that Jesus tells parables. Mark underscores this point when he says, “Again Jesus began to teach beside the sea” (Mark 4:1), and “he taught them many things in parables” (Mark 4:2).

When a lawyer asks, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25), Jesus reminds him about the law, the commandment of love: “You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). When the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), Jesus replies by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. At the end, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). Wanting to teach the lawyer a particular lesson, Jesus tells the parable here in order to make himself understood. The lawyer gets the point and answers correctly.

Parables for Change

The point of Jesus’ parables is never this simple, however. After the lawyer gives the correct answer, Jesus says to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). In this case, the broader purpose of the parable is to prompt the listener to act, to do something he is not used to doing—in other words, to change his behavior.

In other cases, Jesus tells parables in order to change the minds and hearts of his listeners. For this reason, he tells the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector “to some who trust in themselves that they are righteous and despise others” (Luke 18:9). Jesus concludes by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for the one who exalts oneself will be humbled, but the one who humbles oneself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

Jesus does not tell parables simply to educate or delight his listeners, but to produce an effect in them. Like any teaching of Jesus, their purpose is to transform hearts and minds, to call people to conversion. The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge, for instance, begins in a way that discloses this intention explicitly: “And Jesus told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). In other parables, Jesus makes this intention explicit by saying “do likewise.”

The parables also try to elicit change through warnings and rewards, such as “the one who exalts oneself will be humbled and the one who humbles oneself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). And the call to conversion can happen through a revelation about God, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20-27) or in the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14), where Jesus again asks his listeners, “What do you think?”

Here, through these last two parables, Jesus continues to engage his listeners, but he lets them draw the right conclusion for themselves after meditating and reflecting upon these revelations about God. Jesus helps them to conclude that, if God exists in a certain way, then they should respond in a corresponding manner. In all these cases, Jesus the Teacher does not want his listeners to remain indifferent to his teaching. To help them to reach the appropriate conclusion, he illustrates his teaching with parables that nudge them in the right direction.

Parables for Revelation

On other occasions, however, the point of the parable is more complex. In these cases, we might look to the Parable of the Sower in the Gospel of Matthew (13:18-23). It is at the beginning of this parable where we encounter the word parable for the first time in the New Testament (Matthew 13:3). The Parable of the Sower thus serves as an introduction to parables in the Gospels.

After this parable and the three that immediately follow, Matthew explains that parables show how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies, a theme in this Evangelist’s Gospel. Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables because “in them is indeed fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah” (Matthew 13:13-14). Later, Matthew explains further that Jesus’ use of prophecy fulfills “what was spoken by the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables’” (Matthew 13:35). The use of parables by Jesus, therefore, is situated in continuity with the Old Testament. Jesus’ parables cannot be understood in isolation.

The fact that Jesus’ parables are presented as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies shows that they have a revelatory function. Quoting Psalm 78:2, Matthew states that, through parables, Jesus “will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (13:35). Jesus’ parables are meant to unveil, not simply illustrate or explain. They are keys that unlock the meaning of God’s revelation.

Yet, Jesus’ listeners must know how to use these keys properly. Otherwise, a parable can become an unsolvable riddle or even a source of confusion that prevents listeners from grasping the meaning of God’s revelation. The prophecy of Isaiah 6:9 quoted in Matthew 13:14-15—“You shall indeed hear but never understand”—is thus fulfilled when Jesus speaks in parables, as he himself declares: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13).

More Than Telling

After Mark concludes the Parable of the Sower (4:3-8) with “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:9) and recounts a few other parables told by Jesus, he adds, “With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to the crowds, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything” (Mark 4:33-34). Although Jesus tells parables to illustrate some teaching or unveil some revelation, the parables must be explained because an example or a comparison that illustrates a theory is pointless without an explanation. Consequently, parables must be taught, not just told.

For this reason, those entrusted with spreading the Good News—such as catechists—cannot be content with simply telling Jesus’ parables. They have to explain the parables, to unveil the meaning of the parables, to show how the parables relate to Jesus’ teaching. Catechists are teachers, not mere storytellers.

Now, we may ask, why would Jesus tell the crowds parables that were unclear or seemed misleading? After all, parables should unveil the meaning of his teaching, not veil it. They should offer solutions, not become riddles without obvious meaning.

The first reason could be the one just mentioned: Jesus’ parables are not to be considered in isolation. They make sense only in the context of his whole teaching, as well as within the tradition of the Church.

The second reason is the oral culture of the time. In those days, very few people could read and write. Parables, like short stories, were easier to memorize than the long speeches of Jesus in the Gospel of John, for instance—the only Gospel without parables.

The oral transmission of parables, of course, has ramifications for their interpretation. Because of this mode of transmission, a direct interpersonal relationship exists between the teller and the listener. Both participate actively in the transmission of a parable. The teller must be able to entertain the audience and capture the listeners’ imaginations. The teller or teacher, therefore, often feels free to modify the parable a little to fit the circumstances. This is part of the game.

Accounting for Variations

This aspect of oral transmission may account for the differences that we find in the way the Gospels recount Jesus’ parables. An example is the difference between the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and the Parable of the Ten Pounds (Luke 19:11-27). In Matthew, the worthy servants receive the same reward, regardless of the amount entrusted to them. But in Luke, the reward is proportionate.

The differences are not simple variations introduced by the authors of the Gospels. Jesus himself seems to repeat parables in the same Gospel with some variations, as we see in the Parables of the Hidden Treasure and of the Pearl of Great Value, in Matthew 13:44-46. It is not mere repetition. The differences or variations convey meaning that we can discern by comparing and contrasting the parables.

You—Teller and Teacher

It is interesting to note that parable is not the only word that comes from the Latin noun parabola, a word that means “comparison.” So does the word parol, which refers to a law given orally. Although a parable was originally handed on orally, Jesus’ parables come to us today in written form in the Scriptures—“frozen,” so to speak. They may no longer be modified by their tellers and teachers. The Gospel of John—written well after the other Gospels, when Jesus’ teaching was also being transmitted through texts—contains no parables.

According to biblical tradition, not one word or the slightest variation in Scripture is irrelevant. The differences or variations that we find between similar parables are now part of a sacred text that must be commented upon and accounted for by teachers. In the Jewish tradition, these teachers are called rabbis. In our tradition, some are called catechists.

Father Francǫis Rossier was born in Switzerland in 1957. After earning an MA in French and German (University of Fribourg) in 1980, he professed first vows in the Society of Mary in 1984. He was ordained a priest in 1991, and earned an STD/PhD in biblical theology (University of Fribourg) in 1995. He served as a professor of Bible in Ivory Coast (Catholic University of West Africa) and currently serves as the Executive Director of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton.

Expanded Study Guide and Additional Reading
This is the introductory article to the 2013-2014 University of Dayton Catechist Formation Series titled “The Mystery and Wonder of the Parables.” In this article, Fr. Rossier states that parables can be a source of confusion for people today. He invites you to begin your journey of the study of parables by understanding what a parable is and why Jesus used parables. What can you, as a catechist, learn from Jesus’ approach to using parables? How can you spark the religious imagination of your students so that they might come to a deeper understanding of what Jesus calls them to be through grasping the meaning and message of the parables? Can the parables speak to those who live in a digital civilization/culture?

Reflection Questions

1. What is my current understanding of the meaning and role of parables in the New Testament?

2. What is the meaning of the word parable according to Fr. Rossier? Why did Jesus use parables in his ministry?

3. Is there a particular parable that is meaningful to me? How does the parable help me understand Jesus’ message—in the context in which he spoke the parable and in my life today?

4. What challenges confront me when I hear a parable read during the liturgy or one that I read during my private prayer?

5. Father Rossier says that an illustration is more concrete than a theory. What does he mean? Is this a good technique for me to apply in my catechizing? How? Why?

6. How did Jesus nudge his listeners to a deeper understanding of the parable for their lives?

7. What is the relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus’ use of parables?

8. What does Fr. Rossier mean when he states that parables are keys that unlock the meaning of God’s revelation?

9. Why are parables meant to be “taught” not just told? Explain.

10. Is there a relationship between parables and storytelling? Explain.

11. What is the importance of religious imagination for communicating faith today? Is there a relationship to the teaching of parables? Explain.

12. Identify the Gospel that has no parables.


1. Select one of the parables from the Scriptures referenced by Fr. Rossier and use the lectio divina form of prayer to contemplate the meaning and impact of this parable for your life.

2. Introduce your students to the meaning and application of the parables in their lives. Each month, select a different parable to incorporate as an opening prayer and reflection for the class. The idea is for the students to not only become familiar with the parables but also to learn how to pray the parables in their lives.

3. Have each student design a Parable Journal. Encourage them to pray a select parable (or appoint a particular parable) each week by drawing or writing key spiritual insights that come to them during their prayer. Have students bring their Parable Journals to class to share as part of the opening prayer.

4. Critically reading or listening is an important dynamic for capturing the beauty and meaning of the parables. Create a listening exercise to help your students develop their listening skills. Silence is a first step toward quality listening. Silence is difficult in our multimedia, digital culture. It is a “cinch by the inch” to cultivate silence skills. Begin each lesson with several minutes of silence, eyes closed, and listening to one’s breathing or one’s heartbeat.

Additional Reading

The Bible Today Magazine. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press (Saint John’s Abbey)

Crossan, J.DIn Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. Santa Rosa, CA: Distinctive Scholarly Publishing (Polebridge Press). 1992

Donahue, J.R. The Gospel in Parable. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1988

Foley, E. Preaching Basics: A Model and a Method. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications. 1998

Reid, Barbara E., OP. Parables for Preachers. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.1999

Copyright 2013, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, January 2013.

Image Credit: Shutter Stock 510120409

Share this article: