What Is a Parable?

The Purpose of Parables in the Bible

The Good Samaritan
An engraved vintage illustration image of the parable of the Good Samaritan, from a Victorian book dated 1879 that is no longer in copyright.

TonyBaggett/Getty Images 

A parable (pronounced PAIR uh bul) is a comparison of two things, often done through a story that has two meanings. Another name for a parable is an allegory.

Jesus Christ did much of his teaching in parables. Telling tales of familiar characters and activities was a favorite way for ancient rabbis to hold an audience's attention while illustrating an important moral point.

Parables appear in both the Old and New Testaments but are more easily recognizable in the ministry of Jesus. After many rejected him as Messiah, Jesus turned to parables, explaining to his disciples in Matthew 13:10-17 that those who sought God would grasp the deeper meaning, while the truth would be hidden from unbelievers. Jesus used earthly stories to teach heavenly truths, but only those who sought the truth were able to understand them.

Characteristics of a Parable

Parables are typically brief and symmetrical. Points are presented in twos or threes using an economy of words. Unnecessary details are left out.

The settings in the story are taken from ordinary life. Figures of speech are common and used in context for ease of understanding. For example, a discourse about a shepherd and his sheep would make hearers think of God and his people because of Old Testament references to those pictures.

Parables often incorporate elements of surprise and exaggeration. They are taught in such an interesting and compelling manner that the listener cannot escape the truth in it.

Parables ask listeners to make judgments on the events of the story. As a result, listeners must make similar judgments in their own lives. They force the listener to make a decision or come to a moment of truth.

Typically parables leave no room for gray areas. The listener is forced to see the truth in concrete rather than abstract pictures.

The Parables of Jesus

A master at teaching with parables, Jesus spoke about 35 percent of his recorded words in parables. According to the Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Christ's parables were more than illustrations for his preaching, they were his preaching to a great extent. Much more than simple stories, scholars have described Jesus' parables as both "works of art" and "weapons of warfare."

The purpose of parables in Jesus Christ's teaching was to focus the listener on God and his kingdom. These stories revealed the character of God: what he is like, how he works, and what he expects from his followers.

Most scholars agree that there are at least 33 parables in the Gospels. Jesus introduced many of these parables with a question. For example, in the parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus answered the question, "What is the Kingdom of God like?"

One of Christ's most famous parables in the Bible is the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. This story is closely tied to the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Each of these accounts focuses on the relationship with God, demonstrating what it means to be lost and how heaven celebrates with joy when the lost are found. They also draw a keen picture of God the Father's loving heart for lost souls.

Another well-known parable is the account of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. In this parable, Jesus Christ taught his followers how to love the outcasts of the world and showed that love must overcome prejudice.

Several of Christ's parables instruct on being prepared for end times. The parable of the Ten Virgins emphasizes the fact that Jesus' followers must always be alert and ready for his return. The parable of the Talents gives practical direction on how to live in readiness for that day.

Typically, the characters in Jesus' parables remained nameless, creating a broader application for his listeners. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is the only one in which he used a proper name.

One of the most striking features of Jesus' parables is how they reveal the nature of God. They draw listeners and readers into a real and intimate encounter with the living God who is Shepherd, King, Father, Savior, and so much more.


  • Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). In Tyndale Bible dictionary (p. 989). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
  • Seal, D. (2016). Parable. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Zavada, Jack. "What Is a Parable?" Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-is-a-parable-700744. Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). What Is a Parable? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-parable-700744 Zavada, Jack. "What Is a Parable?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-parable-700744 (accessed March 31, 2023).