Using Illustrations (Parables) When Sharing God’s Word

wheat and the weeds

Matthew 13:34 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

34 All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and without a parable, he would not speak to them.

Who Is The Rich Man?

One day a wealthy father took his son on a trip to the country so that the son could see how the poor lived. They spent a day and a night at the farm of a very poor family. When they got back from their trip, the father asked his son, “How was the trip?” “Very good, Dad!” “Did you see how poor people can be?” “Yeah!” “And what did you learn?” The son answered, “I saw that we have a dog at home, and they have four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of the garden; they have a creek that has no end. We have imported lamps in the house; they have the stars. Our patio reaches to the front yard; they have the whole horizon.” When the little boy was finished, the father was speechless. His son then added, “Thanks Dad for showing me how poor we are!”[1]

This was a modern day parable. We have likely heard many such stories from parents, grandparents, or schoolteachers. Parables or illustrations are easy to remember because they are light a picture book that might be read to a young child, they stay with you for life. In order to appreciate them, our ears and eyes are not the main tools we must open our minds. Most are not aware but humans process things with images, as this helps them to better process the information and fully understand. Jesus’ use of illustrations was of a great variety, such as examples, comparisons, similes, metaphors, and parables.

CONVERSATION EVANGELISMThe parable is a comparison or similitude, a short simple, usually fictitious, story from which a moral or spiritual truth is drawn. The parable as a teaching tool is effective in at least five ways: (1) They capture and grip our attention. (2) They stimulate the thinking ability. (3) They stimulate feelings and reach the sense of right and wrong of the heart. (4) They assist in our ability to recall. (5) They are always applicable to human life, in every generation. The primary reason the Bible writers use parable is to teach. However, they assist in other ways as well. (6) Understanding a parable will sometimes force the student not willing to buy out the time, to abandon the pursuit of an answer. Their interest is mere surface and not a matter of the heart. (Matt. 13:13-1) (7) (7) Parables have the capacity to give the hearer a warning and a reprimand, yet there is no room to retaliate against the speaker because the hearer is left to discern the application himself. “And when they saw it, the Pharisees began to say to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when he heard it, he said, “Those who are healthy do not have need of a physician, but those [who are sick]. But go and learn what it means, “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:11-13)[2] (8) The parable can be useful in giving correction to another, helping to sidestep prejudice. This was the case when the prophet Nathan had to counsel King David on his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. (2 Sam. 12:1-14) (9) Parables have the ability to expose a person as to whether he or she is truly servants of God. Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54, ESV) By this, Jesus was able to remove those who were not there because of their love for him. – John 6:60-66

Step One in Understanding Parables

Read the context of the parable. We need to find out the setting of the parable, looking for the conditions and the circumstances. Why was the parable told? What prompted its being told? Below, we see the people of Israel being addressed as “rulers of Sodom!” and “people of Gomorrah!” What does that bring to mind? It reminds us of the people of Canaan who were gross sinners again Jehovah God. Gen 13:13; 19:13, 24.

The two debtors (Lu 7:41-43): The reason as to the why of the parable of the two debtors, one of whom owed ten times as much as the other, and the parable’s implications for us are found in what prompted its telling. (Lu 7:36-40, 44-50) We have to look at the attitude of Simon, the one who was entertaining the guests if we are to find the why of the parable. It was his attitude toward the woman who came in and anointed Jesus’ feet with oil.

Step Two in Understanding Parables

Consider the cultural backgrounds, such as the laws and customs of the setting, as well as the idioms that were spoken of earlier.

Building on The two debtors (Lu 7:41-43): The reason as to the why of the parable of the two debtors, one of whom owed ten times as much as the other, and the parable’s implications for us are found in what prompted its telling, Luke 7:36-40, 44-50.

To have an uninvited person arrive was not out of the ordinary, but they would enter the meal and take a seat along the wall, conversing with those who were invited as well as those who were reclining at the table in the center of the room.

Jesus’ parable of the two debtors was quite applicable to the situation. Jesus was pointing out that Simon, the host, did not provide water for Jesus’ feet, nor did he greet him with a holy kiss, not counting the fact that he did not grease his head with oil. These were common customs in the first-century culture. However, this woman, who had sinned greatly, she sought Jesus out and showed him greater love and hospitality than Simon had, the host.

Below is the parable of the dragnet (Matt 13:47-50). A knowledge of Levitical law deepens the understanding here. Leviticus 11:9 defines what the Israelites might eat “of all that are in the waters … any that has fins and scales.” Verse 12 of that chapter holds out what God said was unclean and therefore detestable to the Jewish people.

Matthew 13:47-50 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; 48 and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. 49 So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will go out and separate the wicked from among the righteous, 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Below Jesus curses an unproductive fruit tree. Why, what purpose did it serve? An understanding of the historical setting gives us the answer. Fruit trees in first-century Palestine were taxed, with unproductive trees being cut down; therefore, Jesus used this as an opportunity to make an illustrative point. On his return to Jerusalem, Jesus grew hungry. As was the right of any Jew under Mosaic Law, Jesus chose to have figs for breakfast; he noticed the fig tree by the road. Seeing the leaves on it, Jesus assumed it had fruit. Nevertheless, the leaves had sent a false message. The tree had no fruit; the promise of fruit was an empty one.

Remember step one? Find the context. In the section before this, Jesus had judged Israel and its religious leaders and found them wanting for their idolatrous behavior. (21:12-17) Using the fig tree in an illustrative way, he used it as a small parable, exposing the fruitlessness of Israel and its awaited doom. In a similar manner, the religious leaders falsely advertised the fruit of doing God’s will and purposes, but like the tree, they were sending out a false message. Beneath the leaves of their showy display, lay the unfruitful hearts of unbelievers.

Matthew 21:18-22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

18 Now early in the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And having seen a certain fig-tree on the way, he came to it, and found nothing in it except leaves only; and he said to it, “Let no fruit come from you ever again.” And at once the fig tree withered.

20 And the disciples having seen this, wondered, saying,  “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And all the things you ask in prayer, having faith, you will receive.”

Step Three in Understanding Parables

This is a two-point step. The first point is to look to the author of the parable for the upcoming meaning of the parable. An interpreter of a parable by Jesus would see what he meant in the context it was spoken, and then consider his teaching as a whole. The second point is, do not assign subjective meanings to the elements of a parable. Generally, a parable teaches one basic point. We do not want to follow the path of allegorical interpreters that find significance in every tiny aspect of a parable, like Augustine in his interpretation of the Good Samaritan. No, we need to look for the main point. Discovering the main point of a parable can be achieved using the following four stages.[3]

Stage One: Discovering the Main Characters

In any given parable, it is highly important to find the main 2-3 characters. Throughout these stages, let us examine the parable of the Good Samaritan. For a better understanding of the significance of the characters and the impact of this parable to its original audience, we need to look back at step two of understanding parables, the cultural background. Our modern mind thinks of the Samaritans as good because of this parable, but this is not how Jesus’ audience would have viewed them. Jews considered them a detestable enemy of God. The Samaritan’s history was marked with idol worship and defiance of God’s law. This combined with hundreds of years of betrayal and conniving, served to fuel the Jewish fires of hatred toward them. Commenting on the attitude of Jews toward Samaritans, the Talmud no doubt expressed the feeling of many Jews: “May I never set eyes on a Samaritan.” In addition, the Talmud taught, “a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.” So intense was anti-Samaritan feeling that some Jews even cursed Samaritans publicly in the synagogues and prayed daily that the Samaritans would not be granted everlasting life.

Luke 10:29-37 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and laid blows upon and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by coincidence a certain priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And on the next day, he took out two denarii[4] and gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Characters

  • The man going down to Jericho
  • The Robbers
  • The Priest
  • The Levite
  • The Good Samaritan
  • The Innkeeper
  • The lawyer

The three main characters are the priest, the Levite, and the good Samaritan. Think about it, does it really matter who the man is? Jesus told the story of one man, who is a victim without making known the man by race, occupation, or reason for traveling. What about the robbers and the innkeeper? They only serve the function of getting us to that main point. They are like the extra in a movie. Their only role is to move the movie along.

Stage Two: Looking to the End

As is true with any kind of story, the end of the story carries the weight of importance. This is no different with parables. The ending is where the answers lie. Look at the end of the story one more time; take note of Jesus’ question to the lawyer. Jesus removed the attention from the term “neighbor.” Essentially the lawyer had asked, ‘who is the one that I should show my neighborly love to?’ Notice his attention is on the one receiving the kindness. However, Jesus asked, “which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Notice that Jesus’ focus was not on the recipient of the love, but the one who showed the love, the Samaritan.

Stage Three: Who Carries the Conversation

We may have noticed that there is no conversation between the man going down to Jericho and anyone else. There is no conversation between the robbers and the man, the priest and the man, the Levite and the man, the Samaritan and the man. The only direct conversation is between the Samaritan and the innkeeper. The focus of the conversation is between the Samaritan and the innkeeper, which highlights the Samaritan’s motive and heart attitude.

Stage Four: Who Gets the Most Press

Generally, whoever gets the most coverage in a story is the primary character, followed by the secondary person that must exist to facilitate the story and its main point. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, there is little doubt that the Samaritan gets the most coverage throughout the parable, as he gets six verses, while everyone else received one verse. However, the man who went down to Jericho receives just as much coverage, with seven verses actually. Yet, his role is secondary to the active role of the Samaritan.

Thus, our two primary characters are the Samaritan and the man going down to Jericho. It might be added that the “man” who went down to Jericho and fell victim to robbers, was a Jew, as the context of the story shows. The lawyer asking the question is also a Jew, likely with many other Jewish listeners. The priest and Levite in the parable were Jewish religious leaders, who ‘when they saw him [their own Jewish countryman lying there dying from a robbery] they passed by on the other side.’ However, we have a Samaritan willing to help a Jewish victim. Thus, the primary point involves both characters (they who received the most press). Remember Jesus focus was on the person showing the love, not the victim needing a loving act of kindness. A true neighbor [the Samaritan] takes the initiative to show love to others [the man going down to Jericho] regardless of their ethnic background.

He Did Not Speak to Them without a Parable

Many would rightly argue that Jesus Christ was the greatest teacher who ever lived. His use of parables contributes to his being considered as such. It has been 2,000 years, but if asked what Jesus said about the sower, the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed, the merchant seeking pearls, or any of the other three dozen parables, some Christians would know the accounts. Why did Jesus use parables so much in his teachings? Moreover, why were they so effective?

The apostle Matthew offers a reason for using parables, when he writes, “He did not speak to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet.” (Matt 13:34-35, NASB) Matthew was referring to Psalm 78:2, which reads in part, prophetically speaking of Jesus, “I will open my mouth in a parable.” The idea that hundreds of years earlier, it would be prophesied that the Son of God would use parables as one of his main methods of teaching, certainly evidences their value.

However, Jesus offered another reason for his use of parables. He had just given the crowds the parable of the sower, And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted … I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; For the heart of this people has become dull, With their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes, Otherwise they would see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I would heal them.’” – Matthew 13:2-15; Isaiah 6:9-10.

In other words, Jesus used the parable to sift out those who were not going to be receptive to the truths he wished to share. How did the parables accomplish this? Well, we just saw in the beginning of this chapter that interpreting parables is not as easy as one might think, as there are rules and principles of interpretation that must be followed. Therefore, if one were humble and admitted they did not fully understand, they would be moved to ask for the answer of what was meant. (Matt. 13:36; Mark 4:34) Those with proud hearts would have the truths hid from them, not be Jesus, but by their own pride. What though made them so effective?

Careful Use of Details

Jesus carefully selected the details. If there was a need to provide specifics in a story that he was relating, he made sure that they were there. For example, in the parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus stated exactly that there were a hundred sheep, one went astray, and leaving ninety-nine behind, with the owner going out to search for the one. In the parable of the lost sheep, the details mattered, to stress the importance of the one, i.e., each one of us counts as much as the whole. (Matt. 18:12-14) How many laborers were in the parable of the workers in the vineyard? (Matt. 20:1-16) How many talents were given in the parable of the talents to make the point about being entrusted? – Matthew 25:14-30.

On the other hand, if adding details were unnecessary, he left them out, as it may prevent ones from arriving at what he meant to convey. If we think about the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave, Jesus never gave us just how that slave managed to run up a debt of ten thousand talents (a talent = 6,000 denarii), so we are talking 60,000,000 denarii, and a single denarius was equal to a day’s wages for a typical worker. Let me put it another way; a talent was worth about twenty years’ wages of a laborer, which makes Jesus hyperbolic point that it was a sum of money that could never be repaid. Note how I have given enormous details on this one point because it makes my point. Jesus using such an astronomical number meant it was not necessary that he give how the slave got there because it made his point that we need to forgive. Moreover, it showed just how much God could forgive while imperfect humans tended to forgive far less. (Matt. 18:23-35) When we look at the Prodigal Son Parable, we see that Jesus never said why the younger son demanded that he has his inheritance early, or why he wasted it. However, in that same parable, Jesus went into details on the part that matter, once the younger son returned in a humble, repentant manner. The details of the Father’s response was what was needed for Jesus to convey his point of just how much God can forgive while imperfect humans (the older son) tended to forgive far less. – Isaiah 55:7; Luke 15:11-32.

Think too, of how wise Jesus was in the way he depicted the characters in his parables. When Jesus gave us a character, he was not bogged down in what he looked like, but rather he focused on what the character said or how he acted in the story. When we think of the Parable of the Samaritan, we are not given what he looked like, how old he was, but rather how he dealt with an injured Jew, who were enemies with Samaritans, lying in the road. Jesus gave what details were necessary for us to arrive at the point of loving our neighbor, regardless of race or nationality. – Luke 10:29, 33-37.

Jesus knew that his parables impact would be far great if it were not muddled with unnecessary details, but had some details peppered in the right place. Therefore, he was able to make it easier for those listening to him, as well as millions of future readers, to recall and retell these same lessons with his parables.

Take Information from Daily Life

Jesus had a pre-human existence in heaven so he would have been aware of everything every society had ever done, in every single person’s life. Thus, he had a storehouse of material to draw on for his parables. What did he do, though? He did not take the life experience of a Pharaoh and incorporate it into a parable for the poor Jewish person in the first century. No, rather, he used the information that related to their lives, and things that he experienced as he grew up in Nazareth. An example was his observations of his watching his mother take a piece of fermented dough saved from a previous baking and using it to prepare leavened bread. (Matt. 13:33) What about his observations of the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 13:47) Then, although Jesus was a perfect human, as a child he likely placed with other children in the marketplace. (Matt. 11:16) Certainly, he must have seen seeds being sown by farmers, he must have gone to some marriage feasts, and he grain fields at harvest time.  (Matt. 13:3-8; 25:1-12; Mark 4:26-29) This is why we see things from his daily life scattered throughout his parables. Jesus’ parables also drew on things from creation, like plants, animals, and nature. (Matt. 6:26, 28-30; 16:2-3) In the parable of the Good Shepherd, John Chapter 10, Jesus uses sheep, which were common in first-century Israel, and how they follow their shepherd. Jesus also used current events that his listeners would have been aware of, such as those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them. – Luke 13:4.

Exercise

As you learn several new things from the Bible, come up with an illustration that would best convey what the author meant. Then, share this illustration with some at the Christian meetings.

Review Questions

  • What is a parable?
  • In what five ways is the parable as a teaching tool effective?
  • In what other ways do parables assist as effective teaching tools?
  • What barriers are there to understanding parables?
  • How is the allegory of the Good Samaritan a perfect example of excess and demonstrates the interpreter’s ability to make a text say whatever he wants?
  • Explain step one in understanding
  • Explain step two in understanding
  • Explain step three in understanding
  • Explain the importance of discovering the main character.
  • Why should we look to the end of a parable?
  • Why should we focus in on, who carries the conversation?
  • Why is important to discover, who gets the most press?
  • Why did Jesus teach with parables?
  • How do we know that Jesus used parables, to which his first-century listeners could relate?
  • Why is it important that we be careful with the details when we use illustrations?
  • On what can we draw when using illustrations?

[1] http://www.parablesite.com/

[2] W. Hall Harris, III, The Lexham English Bible (Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), Mt 9:10–13.

[3] The stages to discovering the main point are based on Dr. Robert Stein’s book, the Basic Guide to Biblical Interpretation, specifically pages 147-148.

[4] The denarius was equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer

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