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Parables Podcast Series

The Purpose of Parables

Parables are a common tool, even today, for teaching morals through short stories. But is this how Jesus used them? In this first episode of a new series, Tim and Jon talk about what parables are and how Jesus used them in surprising ways.
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Episode Details

March 16, 2020
71 min

Episode Details

March 16, 2020
71 min

Show Notes


The parables aren’t simply a kind of neat, clever way that Jesus taught moral or ethical truths. They’re not simply a way that he taught systematic theology through symbols. They are an expression in the service of his announcement of the Kingdom of God.


  • Jesus often told parables that left his listeners puzzled or confused. Yet Jesus used parables as a key way that he announced the coming Kingdom of God among a new kind of people.
  • Most of Jesus’ parables addressed situations very familiar with his ancient listeners. By talking about familiar situations, Jesus introduced concepts of God’s Kingdom into the minds of his listeners.
  • Interpreting the parables of Jesus as short, moralistic lessons can cause problems. Instead, we should see these stories as important ways that Jesus communicated how he was bringing the Kingdom of God.

How the Parables of Jesus were Different

(0:00-1:28) Intro from Jon about COVID-19 affecting church gatherings and giving.

In part one (1:30–14:00), Tim and Jon begin to talk about how to read the parables of Jesus. Parables aren’t unique to Jesus, but they were a key part of his ministry. These short stories are well beloved by many and useful for meditation on Jesus’ teaching.

Tim and Jon share the definition of a parable from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “A usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” According to this definition, the point of a parable is to take something unclear or unpersuasive and make them clear and persuasive toward a moral or religious point.

However, the parables of Jesus have a few key differences from this common understanding. Instead of making points more clear, people were often puzzled and surprised by Jesus’ parables. The parables are one of the many ways that Jesus launched his mission of announcing and bringing into reality the reign and rule of God among a new kind of people.

Parables to an Ancient Israelite

In part two (14:00–32:00), Tim and Jon imagine themselves as an ancient Israelite farmer who hears the parables of Jesus. For this farmer, the story of Israel’s history is deeply immersed in his imagination. He hopes for God’s deliverance from Roman occupation and sees many proto-messianic movements that promise Israel’s restoration.

Jesus announced that God’s Kingdom had come, accompanied by incredible stories you hear of miracles and deliverance. Then one day, Jesus comes to town and tells a story:

Mark 4:26-29
And he was saying, “The Kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The imagery used by Jesus was universally understood by his hearers. Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God in the language of their daily lives.

Mark 4:30-32
And he said, “How shall we picture the Kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.”

These simple stories stuck in the minds of their ancient readers, and also allowed them to begin puzzling about the nature of God’s Kingdom.

The Parables as Explanation

In part three (32:00-51:00), Tim and Jon continue to talk about the puzzling nature of parables. Used by Jesus, these parables often created more questions than answers and caused their readers to think in new ways about God’s Kingdom. This, combined with Jesus’ notable activity of healing and welcoming outsiders, challenged ancient understandings of God’s Kingdom. Tim shares that N. T. Wright has said that the parables were prompted by Jesus’ need to explain what he was saying and doing with the rest of his mission.

Jesus uses parables in a way that requires listeners to work for them. This is often contradictory with how many people today interact with the parables of Jesus, expecting their message to be immediately applicable to us.

In the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus uses a story to expose a deep contradiction in the listener’s perspective. Instead of answering a question, Jesus uses parables as a subversive tool to correct unspoken assumptions in his day.

The Shocking Purpose of Parables

In part four (51:00-end), Tim and Jon discuss the famous parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Tim points out that often, modern Christian readers assume a moralistic lesson in the parables. However, this can create more problems than it solves, partly because it ignores narrative context. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem as the returning master to hold the servants (the leading priests) accountable.

Jesus’ parables are often thought about as moral stories—how do you live in a right way? But Jesus wasn’t telling these so that you could have the right moral ideals. His primary focus was so that you understood what he was doing. Tim shares more insight on this from N. T. Wright.

“As part of his campaign, Jesus told stories…. They were, for the most part, not simply ‘illustrations,’ that is, preachers’ tricks to decorate an abstract thought or complicated teaching. If anything, they were the opposite. Jesus’ stories are designed to tease, to clothe the shocking and revolutionary message about God’s Kingdom in garb that would leave the listeners wondering, trying to think it out. They were stories that eventually caused Israel’s leaders to decode his rich message in such a way as to frame a charge against him, either of blasphemy, sedition, or ‘leading the people astray.’ Whatever the parables are, they are not, as children are sometimes taught in Sunday school, ‘earthly stories with heavenly meaning.’ Rather, they are expressions of Jesus' shocking announcement that God’s Kingdom was arriving on earth as in heaven.”
– N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus, 87-88.

Instead of reading a parable and asking, “How is this parable about me and my relationship to God?” We should reverse it and ask, “How is this about Jesus and his inauguration of God’s Kingdom?” When we start there, then we begin to see the new way of living that Jesus began with his announcement of the Kingdom arriving through him.

Additional Resources

Show Music:

  • Defender Instrumental by Tents
  • When I Was A Boy by Tokyo Music Walker
  • Oyasumi by Smith the Mister
  • Velocities by Sleepy Fish

Show Produced by Dan Gummel.

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