Why Jesus Used Parables
● The three-year ministry of Jesus was now at about its halfway mark. He had spent this time principally in his own land, Galilee. Rejection started slowly, but was now growing, despite his mighty works.
● Jesus met antagonistic crowds with a subtle teaching method that concealed His message from the unbelieving: He began to teach in parables.
● During this part of the Galilean ministry Christ spoke publicly only by parables (Mark 4:33–34).
● The large number of parables recorded—40—indicates that Jesus considered them very important.
● Jesus Himself explained the purpose of parables (Matthew 13:10–17).
—To teach the mysteries of the kingdom to believers, and . . .
—To obscure the truth from disbelievers, who were not prepared to live it.
The Nature of Parables
● The word parable comes from the Greek word parabole which means “placing beside” or “together,” a comparison, an illustration of one subject by another.
● A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly message. It is a “divine truth . . . presented by comparison with material things.”1
Elder James E. Talmage said, “[Parables are] designed to convey some great spiritual truth . . . A parable is “a brief narrative or description allegory founded on real scenes or events as occur in nature and human life, and usually with a moral or religious application.”2
● Parables are not unique to the New Testament. They were used in Old Testament times and are also used today.
● Elder James E. Talmage said, “Let it not be forgotten that a parable is but a sketch, not a picture finished in detail; and that the expressed or implied similitude in parabolic teaching cannot logically and consistently be carried beyond the limits of the illustrative story. . . . The parable is to be studied in the spirit of its purpose; and strained inferences or extensions are unwarranted.”3
● We must use caution in interpreting parables. The safest course is to:
—Interpret parables in the simplest terms.
— Use the interpretation given by the Savior or his prophets.
— Use the context of the parable in determining its main message.
● The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer, or caused Jesus to utter the parable? . . . To ascertain its meaning, we must dig up the root and ascertain what it was that drew the saying out of Jesus.”4
The Historical Use of Parables
● The parables are not unique to the New Testament. They were used in Old Testament times and in the Book of Mormon.
— One of the first appears in the Old Testament: The trees and the bramble bush (Judges 9:8–20).
— In the Book of Mormon, Jacob related Zenos’s parable of the tame and wild olive trees (Jacob 5 and 6).
— When Jesus came to the Nephites He repeated many that He had given in the Holy Land (3 Nephi 12:15; 14:3–5, 16, 24–27).
● The Doctrine and Covenants relates and interprets a number of parables from the New Testament:
— The fig tree (D&C 35:16; 45:36–38).
— The ten virgins (D&C 45:52–57; 63:54).
— The wheat and the tares (D&C 86:1–7; 101:64–67).
— The importuning widow and the unjust judge (D&C 101:81–91).
● The Doctrine and Covenants also contains three entirely newparables for our day:
— The man with twelve sons (D&C 38:24–27).
— The twelve kingdoms (D&C 88:51–61).
— The twelve olive trees, the watchmen, and the tower (D&C 101:43–62).
● The Prophet Joseph Smith related many of the parables and gave insightful interpretations of them in numerous speeches as well as in his translation of the Bible.
● He also wrote a long letter to the Saints from Kirtland, Ohio, which was published in the Messenger and Advocate, the Church periodical of the day. In this letter he interpreted the following parables: the sower, the wheat and tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the treasure hid in a field, the pearl of great price, and the net.5
PARABLE OF THE SOWER
● The Twelve Apostles had only recently returned from their first missionary journeys, and had experienced varying degrees of success. The Savior used this parable to explain why.
— By the wayside (v. 4). Literally, some seeds fell upon the road. The pathway was packed and hardened by the traffic upon it, and the seeds would not be able to penetrate and take root.
— In stony places (vv. 5–6). This is not ground covered with stones and rocks, but rather a hard, rocky land covered with a thin layer of soil. The seeds take root but quickly wither due to the lack of fertile soil.
— Among thorns (v. 7). The seeds did not fall in a standing weed patch, but among thorns that were also ready to grow. As both the seeds and the thorns grew together, the thorns simply overpowered them.
— Upon good ground (v. 8). The seeds feel upon ground that was adequate for their growth and nourishment and relatively free of weeds. Nevertheless, the seeds were not equal in their productivity—some produced more fruit than others.
● The Lord Himself gave the interpretation: (Matthew 13:18–23)
— The Seed = The word of God (Luke 8:11; Alma 32:28).
— The Sower = One who preaches the word of God (Mark 4:14; Alma 32:27–28).
— The Field = The “world” (Matthew 13:38).
— The Soils = The varying hearts of the hearers of the word (Matthew 13:19; Alma 32:28).
— The Fruits = The results (works) which come forth in the lives of the hearers of the word (Luke 8:15; Matthew 7:16–19).
● The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “This parable was spoken to demonstrate the effects that are produced by the preaching of the word. . . .”6
— By the wayside (vv. 18–19). Represents disbelievers—those who, when they hear the word of the Lord, harden their hearts and never allow it to take root.
— In stony places (vv. 20–21). Some allow the word of the Lord to take root, but because of their shallowness of faith it quickly withers under the challenge of tribulation.
— Among thorns (v. 22). These also receive the word, and have adequate opportunity of to become fruitful. They sprout and grow, but are overwhelmed by the cares of the world and their love of things of the world (riches), and bear no fruit.
— Upon good ground (v. 23). These are not overcome by the world, and they are fruitful. Note, however, their varying degrees of fruitfulness. Not all those who accept the gospel are equally productive and they receive different rewards.
● Why do some receive the words of the Savior and others do not? The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “We draw the conclusion, then, that the very reason why the multitude . . . did not receive an explanation upon His parables, was because of unbelief. To you, He says (speaking to His disciples) it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. And why? Because of the faith and confidence they had in Him.”7
PARABLE OF WHEAT AND TARES
● Christ had just given the parable of the sower to his Apostles. He continued to use the metaphor of the planting of seeds. But now the seeds (instead of the soils) represent the faith of the people.
● The Parable of Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24–30).
— The enemy sows tares among the wheat (vv. 24–26).
— The tares cannot immediately be removed without also tearing up and destroying the wheat (vv. 27–29). Elder James E. Talmage said, “The Greek plural zizania (‘tares’) . . . denotes the weed called ‘bearded darnel’. . . . Before it comes into ear [it] is very similar in appearance to wheat, and the roots of the two are often intertwined. . . . This darnel is easily distinguishable from the wheat and barley when headed out, but when both are less developed, the closest scrutiny will often fail to detect it.”8
— At the time of the harvest, after the wheat has established sufficient root, the tares will be removed from among the wheat (v. 30).
● The interpretation of this parable (Matthew 13:36–43).
— The JST indicates that the wheat is gathered first, not the tares (JS-Matthew 13:30).
— The end of the world = The destruction of the wicked (JS-Matthew 13:39–44).
— The angels = Messengers from heaven.
— The furnace of fire = The world will be burned with fire.
● The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Now we learn by this parable, not only the setting up of the Kingdom in the days of the Savior, which is represented by the good seed, which produced fruit, but also the corruptions of the Church, which are represented by the tares, which were sown by the enemy, which His disciples would fain have plucked up, or cleansed the Church of, if their views had been favored by the Savior. But He, knowing all things, says, ‘Not so.’ As much as to say, your views are not correct, the Church is in its infancy, and if you take this rash step, you will destroy the wheat, or the Church, with the tares; therefore it is better to let them grow together until the harvest, or the end of the world, which means the destruction of the wicked.”9
● The Lord used this parable again in our day and gave further keys for understanding it (D&C 86:1–7).
OTHER PARABLES ABOUT THE LAST DAYS
The Mustard Tree (Matthew 13:31–32)
— The Prophet Joseph Smith said: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed. The mustard seed is small, but brings forth a large tree, and the fowls lodge in the branches.”10
A Treasure Hid in a Field and a Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44–46)
— Both parables teach concerning the great value of finding the Kingdom of God, which men sell all that they have to obtain.
A Net Cast into the Sea (Matthew 13:47–51)
— Discusses how the wicked shall be severed from among the just in the last days.
PARABLES OF MERCY, FORGIVENESS, AND HUMILITY
Parable of the Good Samaritan
— The Jews said Christ was “born of fornication” (John 8:37–41). This was an insult. suggesting that his mother, Mary, was a fornicator when she conceived Him.
— They also said He was a “Samaritan” (John 8:42–49). This was a racial slur in those days.
— Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37).
— The hidden meaning is that Jesus Himself is the Good Samaritan.
Parables of Finding the Lost
— The Savior emphasized the importance of redeeming those who are lost. He gave three parables that illustrated the three conditions under which someone might become lost and the types of efforts that are required to redeem them under each circumstance:
— The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3–7). Those who stray away unintentionally.
— The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8–10). Those who are neglected and forgotten.
— The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). Those who willfully disobey the commandments.
Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
— This is a parable about forgiving in order to be forgiven (Matthew 18:21–35). This parable will be discussed in greater detail in lesson #14.
PARABLES ABOUT THE SECOND COMING
The Parable of the Great Supper
— A parable about those who will be exalted at the last day (Luke 14:12–24). This parable is covered in more detail in Lesson 17.
— Elder James E. Talmage interpreted the parable of the great supper, saying that the invited guests represented the covenant people, or house of Israel. When the servant (Jesus) asked them to come to the feast (accept the gospel), they made excuses and refused to come. So the invitation was given to the Gentiles. Those descendants of Israel who refuse the invitation will not receive the blessings of exaltation.11
Parable of the Royal Marriage Feast
— This parable is sometimes called the Parable of the Marriage of the King’s Son and is very similar to the parable of the Great Supper. It was given in public as a rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 22:1–14).
— Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “This glorious event, still future, has reference to the ushering in of Messiah’s millennial reign, the day when he shall reign in triumph and glory over all the earth. By their preaching in this present dispensation, the “servants” of the King are inviting guests to come to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”12
Parable of the Ten Virgins
— This parable discusses the readiness of the members of the Lord’s Church to be summoned to the marriage feast at the end of the world (Matthew 25:1–13).
What are the doctrinal insights we receive from this week’s lesson material? You should consider discussing one or more of these with your class.
● Our hearts must be prepared to hear the word of God (Matthew 13:10–16). Because His parables were shrouded in symbolism, the average unprepared hearer would find nothing particularly inspiring or spiritual in them. To the farmer standing by listening to the Parable of the Sower in Jesus’ day, it might have sounded like a commentary on the proper ways and places to plant their crops. But the Apostles were prepared to understand hidden teachings and could therefore understand this parable about spreading the gospel (v. 11). A similar thing could be said for the “temple parable” that is used when we receive our endowments. The unprepared will be bewildered by the symbols and teachings used there, while those who are prepared can understand and accept them.
● There are both wheat and tares in the Church today. We may be increasingly alarmed at how many formerly faithful members of the Church are now leaving it, some by their own choice and others through wickedness and sin. The parable of the wheat and tares foretold this situation and that eventually the Lord will root out the tares from among the wheat.
— Elder L. Tom Perry taught: “That old enemy of all mankind has found as many devices as he can think of to scatter tares far and wide. He has found ways to have them penetrate even the sanctity of our own homes. The wicked and worldly ways have become so widespread there seems to be no real way of weeding them out. . . . The wheat and the tares have grown close together. A steward managing the field must, with all his or her power, nourish that which is good and make it so strong and beautiful the tares will have no appeal to the eye or the ear.”13
● The great value of finding the Kingdom of God and Heaven. The treasure hid in the field and the pearl of great price are symbols of that for which men should sacrifice everything to obtain.
— President Gordon B. Hinckley recalled: “He was introduced to me just before he was to return to his native land. We spoke of [gospel truths] and then I said, ‘Your people are not Chrstians. What will happen when you return home a Christian and, more particularly, a Mormon Christian?’ His face clouded, and he replied, ‘My family will be disappointed. They may cast me out and regard me as dead. As far as my future and my career, all opportunity may be foreclosed against me.’
I asked, ‘Are you willing to pay so great a price for the gospel?’ His dark eyes, moistened by tears, shone . . . as he answered, ‘It’s true, isn’t it?’ Ashamed at having asked the question, I responded, ‘Yes, it’ true.’ To which he replied, ‘Then what else matters?’”14
● Modern day parables taught by Apostles. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve have not only quoted the parables widely but a few have created new ones as well.
— Elder Boyd K. Packer said, “With a little resourcefulness, all of us as teachers can use this technique [parables]. It is simply the process of developing, creating, or inventing an imaginary situation that represents a real-life situation. For some reason, it is used very little. This is unfortunate, because it is an easy way to drive home an otherwise difficult lesson. When I say an easy way, that is comparatively speaking. It takes work and imagination and resourcefulness to create a parable, but great profit comes from the time expended when the results are considered . . . Gospel principles can come alive if they are related to the everyday experiences of the hearers.”15
— Elder James E. Talmage wrote a series of parables for the Improvement Era during 1914; the best known, “The Unwise Bee,” was also reprinted in the Era in November 1962.
— Elder Boyd K. Packer has written on the use of parables in teaching and also has given us two great parables: “The Glove”16 and “The Mediator.”17
1. “Parables,” Bible Dictionary, 741.
2. Jesus the Christ, 3rd ed. , 298, 304–note 10.
3. Jesus the Christ, 285–286.
4. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith , 276–277.
5. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 94–102.
6. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 97.
7. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 96–97.
8. Jesus the Christ, 301.
9. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 97–98.
10. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 159.
11. Jesus the Christ, 3rd ed. , 452.
12. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [1966–73], 1:597.
13. “Finding lasting peace and building eternal families,” Ensign, Nov. 2014, 44.
14. “It’s true, Isn’t it?” Ensign, July 1933, 2.7.
15. Teach Ye Diligently , 172, 174.
16. Teach Ye Diligently, 230–237.
17. In Conference Report, Apr. 1977, 79–80; or Ensign, May 1977, 54–55.