The Christian Bible Reference Site

The Parables of Jesus

Contents

Introduction

The Kingdom of God

God's Love, Mercy and Forgiveness

Christian Love

Persistence in Prayer

Self-Righteousness and Humility

Stewardship

Preparation for the Future

Conclusion

Introduction

Bible scholar Madeline Boucher writes,

The importance of the parables can hardly be overestimated. They comprise a substantial part of the recorded preaching of Jesus. The parables are generally regarded by scholars as among the sayings which we can confidently ascribe to the historical Jesus; they are, for the most part, authentic words of Jesus. Moreover, all of the great themes of Jesus' preaching are struck in the parables. (Boucher, p.9)

What is a Parable?

Jesus' parables are short stories that teach a moral or spiritual lesson by analogy or similarity. They are often stories based on the agricultural life that was intimately familiar to His original first century audience. Some aspect of an unfamiliar concept, such as the kingdom of God, was compared to something from everyday life that could easily be understood.

It is the lesson of a parable that is important to us. The story is not important in itself; it may or may not be literally true.

Jesus was the master of teaching in parables. His parables often have an unexpected twist or surprise ending that catches the reader's attention. They are also cleverly designed to draw listeners into new ways of thinking, new attitudes and new ways of acting (Getty-Sullivan, pp. 2-4).

Each of Jesus' parables teaches only one or two important lessons. It is a mistake to look for meaning in every sentence or detail of the story (Lockyer, Parable). If we get bogged down analyzing the details of the parable, we may miss the central point, as in the proverbial saying, "You can't see the forest for the trees."

Why Did Jesus Teach in Parables?

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”
(NRSV, Mark 4:10-12)

Jesus' explanation seems harsh and out of character. Was He deliberately trying to hide the truth by speaking in parables? Were the mysteries of the kingdom of God to be known only by the disciples? Both experts and lay persons are puzzled, and many different explanations have been proposed.

Jesus quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10. The prophet Isaiah had found that people were so lost in sin that they resented hearing God's Word and deliberately turned away. Jesus experienced the same disappointment and frustration. Thus, the most common interpretation of Jesus' saying is that the people's hardness of heart (pride, arrogance and prejudice) prevented them from understanding and accepting Jesus' teachings. Barclay explains it this way:

When Isaiah spoke he spoke half in irony and half in despair and altogether in love. He was thinking, "God sent me to bring his truth to this people; and for all the good I am doing I might as well have been sent to shut their minds to it. I might as well be speaking to a brick wall. You would think that God had shut their minds to it."

So Jesus spoke his parables; he meant them to flash into men's minds and to illuminate the truth of God. But in so many eyes he saw a dull incomprehension. He saw so many people blinded by prejudice, deafened by wishful thinking, too lazy to think. He turned to his disciples and he said to them: "Do you remember what Isaiah once said? He said that when he came with God's message to God's people Israel in his day they were so dully un-understanding that you would have thought that God had shut instead of opening their minds; I feel like that to-day." When Jesus said this, he did not say it in anger, or irritation, or bitterness, or exasperation. He said it with the wistful longing of frustrated love, the poignant sorrow of a man who had a tremendous gift to give which people were too blind to take.

If we read this, hearing not a tone of bitter exasperation, but a tone of regretful love, it will sound quite different. It will tell us not of a God who deliberately blinded men and hid his truth, but of men who were so dully uncomprehending that it seemed no use even for God to try to penetrate the iron curtain of their lazy incomprehension. God save us from hearing his truth like that! (Barclay, commentary on Mark 4:1-12)

Interpretation

By nature, a parable invites the reader or listener to supply the interpretation, and some of Jesus' parables have been interpreted in more than one way. Jesus, Himself, supplied the interpretation for some of His parables. But in other cases, it is left to us to determine the meaning and lesson.

Some of the parables are difficult to interpret, but the meaning is clear in most cases. Even Jesus' enemies often understood His parables, even though they did not accept the lesson (Matthew 21:45-46). Jesus' original audience in first century Palestine probably knew exactly what He was saying in most cases. Those of us who are far removed from that time and place need some help from historians and Bible scholars to understand the original cultural context and issues involved.

From historical knowledge and Jesus' other teachings, there is a broad consensus within the mainstream of Christian thought about the meaning of most of the parables. Those are the interpretations we give here.

Related verses: Matthew 13:10-17; Luke 8:9-10

The Kingdom of God

The kingdom of God is the centerpiece of Jesus' teachings. Matthew speaks instead of the "kingdom of heaven." However, a number of passages in Matthew are virtually identical to those in Mark and Luke, except for the substitution of "kingdom of heaven" for "kingdom of God." Thus, the same reality is intended. The Gospel of John mentions the kingdom only twice but refers many times to the closely related concept of eternal life.

For hundreds of years, the Jews had been expecting the decisive intervention of God to restore the glory of Israel and defeat its enemies. When John the Baptist and then Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom was at hand, it was certainly understood in terms of this expectation. (Marshall, Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven)

However, the kingdom initiated by Jesus is not the earthly kingdom that was widely inferred from the Old Testament prophesies. It is a spiritual kingdom that is now growing in the hearts of men and women, and it will find its fulfillment in the eventual sovereign rule of God and defeat of all evil. Those people who choose to belong to God's kingdom and serve Him are those who are destined to inherit eternal life in God's presence.

The Parable of the Sower

Jesus often compared the kingdom of God to a seed planted in the hearts of men and women. Each of us has the seed of the kingdom within us, but it will grow only if we give it the proper "care and feeding." Jesus tells of this aspect of the kingdom in His Parable of the Sower:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.” (NIV, Matthew 13:3-9)

This is one of the Parables that Jesus explained privately for His disciples, and here is His explanation:

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (NIV, Matthew 13:18-23)

There are many ways of responding to God's word. Some may hear it but reject it. Some may accept it but not act on it. The lesson of this parable is that we must hear, accept and act on God's word.

Just as the farmer scatters seed throughout the field, God gives His word to the entire world.

Just as the seed cannot take root on the trampled and hardened path, God's word is rejected by people having hearts hardened by pride and hatred.

Just as the seed that falls on shallow soil wilts in the sun, some people have shallow faith. They are enthusiastic about God's word until it becomes inconvenient or makes demands on them. Then they fall away.

Just as the seed that falls among thorns is crowded out, God's word can be crowded out by worries and pursuit of wealth.

Just as the seed that falls on good soil yields a bountiful crop, God's word is fruitful in people who listen, understand and obey. The kingdom of God yields great results in and through these people.

Related verses: Matthew 5:16, 6:25, 10:22, 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, James 2:14-17, John 3:36, 1 Peter 4:17, 2 Thessalonians 3:13, 1 Timothy 6:10, James 1:22-25, 1 John 2:9.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (NRSV, Matthew 13:31-32)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed is also in Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19. The Parable of the Yeast (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21) and the Parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29) are similar.

There are different opinions about the meaning of this parable. Most commonly, the seed is seen as representing the kingdom of God initiated in the world by Jesus. Just as the tiny seed grows into a large tree, the kingdom of God will grow into a powerful spiritual kingdom. Similarly in Matthew 13:33, just as a small amount of yeast grows to leaven an entire loaf of bread, the kingdom of God will grow large and powerful until it eventually controls the entire world. In both cases, great results come from tiny beginnings.

Yeast is used as an evil symbol other places in the Bible (Mark 8:15, 1 Corinthians 5:6). That has led to an alternate interpretation that the seed represents evil introduced into the Church by Satan (Boice pp. 24-27). The evil will grow to corrupt and undermine the Church. However, this interpretation does not fit well with Jesus' other teachings, and the yeast could just as well be a symbol of anything, good or bad, that permeates whatever it touches (Lockyer, Leaven).

Related verses: Matthew 3:2, 10:7, 17:20, Mark 1:15, 4:30-32, 9:1, Luke 10:9, 13:18-21, 17:20-21

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
(NRSV, Matthew 13:44-46)

In both parables, a person was willing to give up all his worldly possessions to obtain something of even greater value. In a similar way, the kingdom of God has more value to us than any worldly things - possessions, pleasures, prejudices or pride.

It is sometimes noted that the buyer acted deceitfully in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure. He was morally obligated to inform the owner of the field about the treasure. However, we have to keep in mind that there is only one lesson in the parable; it is a mistake to look for meaning in every detail of the story.

Related verses: Daniel 2:44, Luke 1:33, Romans 14:17, Colossians 1:13, 2 Peter 1:10-11, Philippians 3:8-9.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ” (NIV, Matthew 13:24-30)

Then [Jesus] left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (NIV, Matthew 13:36-43)

There is a weed named darnel that closely resembles wheat in the early stages of growth. There was no way to determine which was wheat and which was darnel until both had matured and it was time for the harvest. Then the poisonous darnel had to be laboriously separated from the wheat (Barclay, Commentary on Matthew 13:24-30).

Just as both wheat and weeds grow together in a field, there are both good people and evil people in the world. Some people do God's work in the world and some people do Satan's work.

Just as it is difficult to distinguish the darnel from the wheat, we cannot accurately determine who is truly good and who is truly evil. With our limited human understanding, an evil person may appear to be good, and a good person may appear to be evil.

Just as the owner of the field prohibited his servants from pulling up the weeds, it is not our privilege to judge other people. That is God's privilege alone.

Just as the harvesters separate the weeds from the wheat in the end, God will determine who is truly good and who is truly evil at the final judgment.

In this parable, Jesus warns us against substituting our judgment for God's judgment. Our inability to see into another person's heart as well as our fears, jealousies and prejudices prevent us from making accurate judgments about other people. Only God knows all the facts about a person. Even evil people have an opportunity to repent until the time of death. We must be tolerant of other people and leave the task of judgment to God.

Related verses: Matthew 7:1-5, 13:47-50, Romans 14:10-14, 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, James 4:11-12.

God's Love, Mercy and Forgiveness

The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) and The Parable of the Prodigal Son all tell of God's infinite mercy and love, even for sinners.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

“What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (NAS, Luke 15:4-7)

Just as the sheep is lost and in danger, many among us are separated from God and lost in sin.

Just as the owner of the sheep makes every possible effort to find his lost sheep, God makes every possible effort to bring sinners to repentance and forgiveness.

Just as a person rejoices when a long-lost treasure is found, God rejoices when a lost sinner repents.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

This is actually two parables combined in one - the parable of the younger son and the parable of the older son.

The younger son:

Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.” ’

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

The older son:

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’ ”
(NLT, Luke 15:11-32)

In this parable the younger son represents people who are lost in sin and the father represents God.

The younger son's demand to take his share of the inheritance early showed his youthful arrogance and disrespect for his father. Only the harsh reality of life away from his father's protection brought him to his senses. Just as the immature young son found by hard experience that his life of wild living led to desperation, we may find by hard experience that the lures of wealth and pleasure lead us to a life of emptiness separated from God.

But the father's love is the main topic of this parable. Just as the father loved his disrespectful son and longed for his return, God loves all sinners and waits patiently for them to repent and return to His love and protection.

Just as the father rejoiced when his son repented, God rejoices when a lost sinner repents.

Just as the father forgave his son and welcomed him back with full status in the family, God will forgive sinners and welcome them back with full status in the kingdom of God.

The older son represents people who are self-righteous and critical of others.

Unlike the disrespectful and foolish younger son, the older son had been loyal to his father his entire life. It is easy to understand why he felt angry and jealous about the attention his father lavished on the returning younger son. But he was also disrespectful to his father and resented the mercy his father extended to his brother.

Jesus may have originally directed this parable at the Pharisees, a self-righteous religious group that would rather see a sinner punished than saved. But we have to be aware of the "Pharisee" in ourselves when we are tempted to criticize, shun, exclude or punish people we think of as sinners. That is God's privilege alone (Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 14:10-13, 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, James 4:11-12).

Related verses: Ezekiel 34:16, Matthew 18:10-14, Luke 6:32-36, John 3:16, Romans 5:8, 10:12, 2 Corinthians 1:3, 1 John 4:8-10.

Related article: What Does the Bible Say about Forgiveness of Sins?

Christian Love

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”


The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (TNIV, Luke 10:25-37)

"Love your neighbor as yourself" was part of the Old Testament law (Leviticus 19:18). But the Jewish teachers had often interpreted "neighbor" to include only people of their own nationality and religion. The expert in the law was looking to Jesus for justification for that interpretation, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" In response, Jesus told His famous Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Samaria was a region of central Palestine that was once the capital of Israel. The Assyrians captured Samaria in 721 B.C. They deported many of the inhabitants and replaced them with foreign colonists (2 Kings 17:24-33). The colonists were pagans who eventually intermarried with the remaining Jews. They adopted the religion of Israel, but they also continued to worship their pagan idols. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be religious heretics of a foreign nationality and inferior race. The Samaritans offered to help rebuild the Jewish temple, but their offer was rudely rebuffed (Ezra 4:1-3). Finally the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim and proclaimed it, rather than the Jewish temple, to be the true house of God. By the time of Jesus, the Jews and Samaritans had hated each other for hundreds of years.

With that background, it is easy to understand that there was no one that the Jewish expert in the law would have considered to be less of a "neighbor" than a Samaritan. If a Samaritan man could be a "neighbor" to the Jewish man who was robbed and beaten, then the definition of "neighbor" would have to include all people of the world.

In this parable, Jesus tells us that anyone in need is our neighbor, regardless of race, religion, nationality or any other artificial distinction.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.” (TNIV, Matthew 18:21-35)

Jesus told this parable in response to Peter's question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jewish tradition required forgiving another person three times, so Peter probably thought he was being generous to offer seven times. But Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." In other words, forgiveness must be unlimited.

The servant owed the king an absurdly large amount of money; he could never hope to pay it back. But just as the king was merciful and forgave his servant's impossibly huge debt, God is also merciful and will forgive our sins, no matter how many or how large.

But just as the king angrily revoked the unforgiving servant's pardon, God will not forgive our sins unless we extend our mercy to others and sincerely forgive them for any wrongs they have done to us.

The lesson is clear: we must forgive if we wish to be forgiven by God. There is no room in the Christian life for revenge, retaliation, getting even or holding a grudge.

Related verses: Proverbs 19:11, Matthew 5:44-45, 6:12, 6:14-15, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37, 17:3-4, Romans 12:14, 12:17-19, Ephesians 4:31-32, Colossians 3:12-14, 1 Peter 3:10, James 2:13, 1 John 4:20-21.

Related article: What Does the Bible Say about Forgiveness of Sins?

Persistence in Prayer

The Parable of the Persistent Widow

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. (NRSV, Luke 18:1-8)

This parable tells us that we must be persistent in prayer and not give up. The Parable of the Friend Who Came at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8) is similar.

The parable compares God to an unjust judge and shows Him to be much more caring. If the unjust and uncaring judge can eventually be persuaded to give justice to the widow, then God, who is both just and loving, will surely give us the things we need.

God has promised to answer our prayers and give us everything we need and more (Mark 11:24, John 15:7). But a wise parent will not give a child everything he or she wants. Similarly, prayer is not a magical trick to get anything we want or a "quick fix" for problems that we should be solving ourselves. God answers prayer requests in His own way in His own time (Psalms 40:1-3), and will not grant requests that are against His holy and wise purposes (1 John 5:14-15), are selfish in nature, are not in our best long-term interest, or those made with impure motives (Psalms 66:18, Proverbs 28:9, Isaiah 29:13, Isaiah 59:2, Hebrews 11:6, James 4:3). The answer, when it comes, may be in a form radically different than we expected, and we must be alert to that possibility (Deuteronomy 3:23-27, 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Sometimes, the answer must come from within ourselves and persistent prayer will help us find that answer. We may need a new attitude or a different way of looking at things, or we may need to make amends with somebody.

Related verses: Psalms 18:6, 2 Chronicles 7:14, Matthew 6:9-13, 7:7-11, Luke 11:9-13, Ephesians 3:20-21, James 1:5-6, 5:13-16.

Related article: What Does the Bible Say about Prayer?

Self-Righteousness and Humility

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

[Jesus] also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’

“But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’

“I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
(NAS, Luke 18:9-14)

The Pharisees were an influential Jewish sect known for their strict observance of Jewish laws related to ritual purity and tithing. In conventional wisdom, no one would be thought of as more righteous than the Pharisees.

Tax collectors were Jews employed by the Roman Empire to collect taxes. Not only did they collect for the hated Roman Empire, they often cheated their own people by collecting more than was due and keeping the extra for themselves. In conventional wisdom, no one was a more despised sinner than a tax collector.

Jesus no doubt shocked His audience when He said the sinful tax collector was justified (declared not guilty of his sins by God) instead of the Pharisee!

But when the Pharisee prayed, he was very confident of his own righteousness. He heaped praise on himself and contempt on the tax collector. He failed to recognize that he, himself, was guilty of the sins of pride, self-righteousness and contempt for a fellow human being.

In contrast, the tax collector did not claim any merit of his own. He fully recognized his own sinfulness and his need for God's mercy.

Like the tax collector, we must recognize that we are all imperfect sinners by God's standards (Romans 3:23), and we must depend on God's mercy for our justification. Anyone who is self-righteous and looks at other "sinners" with contempt is actually committing a serious sin!

Related verses: Proverbs 26:12, Matthew 5:5-9, 7:1-5, 9:10-13, 18:10, 20:25-28, Mark 9:35, Luke 6:32-42, 7:36-50, 14:11, John 8:1-8, Romans 2:1-4, 3:23, 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 4:5, 10:24, 13:1-7, 16:14, Ephesians 4:1-6, Galatians 6:1-3, Philippians 2:2-8, 2 Timothy 2:22-25, James 2:12-13, 4:11-12, 1 John 1:8

Related article: Humility

Stewardship

The Parable of the Talents

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

“The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.’

“‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
(NIV, Matthew 25:14-30)

A talent was a very large sum of money worth something like 15 years wages for a laborer.

The three different sums of money entrusted to the servants in this parable represent the differing wealth and abilities God has entrusted to us. In fact, the English word "talent," meaning a natural ability, comes from the symbolism in this parable.

The first two servants invested the money that had been entrusted to them wisely and earned a return for their master. The master praised them greatly.

However, the third servant simply kept the money and did not put it to good use. The master was very angry with this servant for his laziness.

Like the money entrusted to the servants, the gifts we have received are not ours alone. God gave them to us for the purpose of serving Him and serving other people.

Like the master in the parable, Jesus has departed from earth and entrusted His work to us. But also like the master in the parable, Jesus will return someday to judge how well we have performed our duties.

The lesson is that Christ will judge us for what we have done or not done with the abilities and wealth we have been given. It is not sufficient for us to merely live without sinning. We must actively use the gifts we have been given to serve God and to serve other people. Each of us must honestly evaluate our gifts and prayerfully decide how they can be put to the best use. Some of us have been given small gifts and some great gifts, but we must all do our best with what we have:

... From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. (NRSV, Luke 12:48)

Each of us has something to give. We can give our money and our time to charity, be a friend to someone who is sick or lonely, do volunteer work, or be a peacemaker, teacher or minister. We may give unselfishly of our time to our spouse, children or parents. We may choose a service-oriented occupation, or we may just do our everyday jobs with integrity and respect for others.

Related verses: Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 12:28-31, 12:41-44, Luke 6:38, 12:42-48, 19:11-27, 21:1-4, Acts 3:6, 20:35, Romans 12:5-8, 12:11, 1 Corinthians 1:24-30, 3:7-9, 4:1-2, 7:7, 12:4-11, 12:27-31, 14:12, Galatians 5:13-14, 6:9, Ephesians 4:10-12, 1 Peter 4:8-10, 2 Peter 1:5-7, Hebrews 6:10-12, James 1:22-27.

Related article: What Does the Bible Say About Using Time, Talents and Wealth?

Preparation for the Future

The Parable of the Rich Fool

Then [Jesus] said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (NIV, Luke 12:15-21)

The rich man was wise and successful by worldly standards. He had enough wealth to keep him comfortable for many years, and building bigger barns would show everyone how very wealthy he was.

However, the rich man was a fool by God's standards. He let himself be blinded by his wealth. He never realized that his wealth was a gift from God to be used in God's service. He thought of many things to please himself, but he never thought about sharing his abundant harvest with the poor. He prepared for his material well-being, but he never thought about being spiritually prepared for death and eternal life. He had become greedy and his wealth had become his god.

The lesson is that we must be rich in spiritual things, which are eternal, as opposed to being rich only in material things, which are temporary. Money, itself, is not evil. But greed and preoccupation with wealth can blind us to our duties to God and to other people.

Related verses: Leviticus 19:9-10, Psalms 119:36, Proverbs 23:4-5, 28:27, Isaiah 58:10-11, Matthew 6:19-21, 6:24-25, 16:26, 19:24, Mark 7:21-23, Luke 16:19-31, John 6:27, Ephesians 5:5, 1 Corinthians 6:10, 1 Timothy 6:9-11, 6:17-19, Hebrews 13:5, 1 John 2:15-17, 3:17.

Related article: What does the Bible say about Money and Wealth?

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (NRSV, Matthew 25:1-13)

Historians say this is a realistic portrayal of a first century Jewish wedding. It could have actually happened. The wedding procession would come to the bridegroom's home at an unexpected time. Once the wedding party had entered, the doors were locked and no one else would be admitted (Barclay, Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13).

Jesus is sometimes described figuratively as a bridegroom (Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:19-20, Luke 5:34-35, John 3:29). In this parable, the coming of the bridegroom represents the second coming of Jesus and the Final Judgment of all people. Just as the bridegroom in the parable arrived at an unexpected time, Jesus will return unexpectedly and without warning (Matthew 24:36, 24:42-44, Mark 13:32).

The wise bridesmaids represent those people who are always spiritually prepared for judgment. The foolish bridesmaids represent those people who put off preparations until it is too late. The necessary preparations cannot be made at the last minute.

The wedding feast represents the kingdom of God or eternal life. Once Jesus returns, there will be no more opportunities to repent. Those people who are spiritually unprepared will be locked out forever.

The lesson is that we must always be spiritually prepared for judgment. When Jesus returns or when we die, there will be no more opportunities to repent. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) teaches a similar lesson.

Related article: What Does the Bible Say about Forgiveness of Sins?

The Parable of the Final Judgment

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
(TNIV, Matthew 25:31-46)

In this parable Jesus gives us the amazing idea that whatever we do to help people in need, we do for Jesus, Himself! Conversely, when we fail to help those in need, we also fail in our duty to Jesus.

Jesus makes it crystal clear that unselfish acts of charity are a requirement for salvation. Works of kindness for anyone in need are the true evidence of our faith.

Some Christians feel uneasy about this parable because they have been taught that salvation is by faith alone, not by good works. As a result, there have been a number of alternate interpretations proposed which restrict the meaning of "all the nations" or "the least of these brothers and sisters of mine" such that there is no requirement to help anyone alive today.

The doctrine of salvation by faith alone originated with Martin Luther (1483-1546), a Catholic monk and professor of Scripture at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Luther taught that we can be justified (made acceptable to God) only by faith.

But Luther did not deny the importance of good works. He wrote, "For grace and faith are infused apart from our work, and when they are infused, then the works follow." In other words, when one is saved by the grace of God, he or she will practice good works as a result of that transformation.

Most Christian churches of today, both Catholic and Protestant, believe that faith and good works are inseparable aspects of salvation. Many churches, following the lead of Luther, teach that salvation is by faith alone, but good works follow as the necessary result and evidence of that salvation.

In his commentary on this parable, Presbyterian pastor James Montgomery Boice writes,

Does this mean that we are saved by works after all? Does it mean that the theology of the reformation is wrong? No, but it is a statement of the necessity of works following faith - if we are truly regenerate. ... We are not justified by works. But if we do not have works, we are not justified. We are not Christians. (Boice, p. 204)

So, there is no real conflict between mainstream Christian beliefs and the plain meaning of this parable. A person who has truly experienced God's saving grace will willingly, unselfishly and joyously do what he or she can to help others in need.

Different people have different amounts of wealth and different abilities to help others. It does not matter that some people do more that others. It does matter that we diligently do what we can (Luke 12:48).

Related verses: Leviticus 19:9-10, 25:35, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Isaiah 58:6-7, Psalms 41:1-3, Proverbs 11:25, 14:21, 19:17, 22:9, 28:27, Isaiah 58:10-11, Matthew 5:42, 6:1-4, 19:21, Luke 3:10-11, 6:38, 11:41, 12:33-34, 21:1-4, Acts 20:35, Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 13:1-13, 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, Galatians 2:10, 1 Timothy 5:16, 6:17-19, Hebrews 13:3, 13:16, James 1:27, 2:2-9, 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17-18

Related articles:
What Does the Bible Say About Generosity and Duty to the Poor?
What does the Bible say about Salvation?
Matthew 25:31-46 - The Judgment of the Nations

Conclusion

Jesus was the master of teaching in parables. His parables often have an unexpected twist or surprise ending that catches our attention and drives home the parable's lesson. The parables give us a feeling and insight into heavenly and spiritual concepts that cannot be expressed in mere words. They also give us a much richer understanding of the kingdom of God and its values, which are often the opposite of worldly values. Without understanding the parables, it is impossible to fully understand Jesus and His teachings.

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