Jesus parables: story, meaning, questions

Questions for Bible study groups

  • What is a parable?
  • Which parable of Jesus is the  most famous?
  • Which parable is your own favorite? Why?
  • What does that tell you about yourself?

Choose a favorite parable

The lost coin in a world before banks…

Ten Virgins Some were wise, some were not…

The good Samaritan Who is my neighbour?

The lost sheep There’s always one, isn’t there?

The Prodigal Son Were both brothers saved?

The mustard seed Its potential was enormous.

Hiding your light under a bushel People must talk about Jesus’ ideas and live them.

The sower and the seed The focus was not on the seed, but on the soil it fell on.

The Pharisee and the tax collector The Pharisee knew he was better than others…

Houses built on rock or sand What are your foundations?

Parable of the Ten Clever Virgins

What’s the difference between the wise young women and the foolish ones?

One of the cheerful but foolish virgins. Cathedral carving at Charroux, Saint-Sauveur, France

In many ways they are similar.

But in their preparation or lack of it they are perfect opposites. 

What’s the story?

Ten young women had been invited to a banquet, and each of them had a task: to welcome the bridegroom when he came.

They waited joyfully for his arrival. All of them knew the bridegroom and the bride. And all of them became drowsy and fell asleep after a long wait.

But suddenly he came, and at once the essential differences between the women emerged.

  • Five had oil in their lamps
  • Five did not.
  • In other words, five were ready and five were unprepared.

What’s the message?

The first point of the parable is a question:

Are you ready?

The trouble with this picture and the one below is that the Foolish Virgins seem to be having all the fun…

Or are you among the five foolish women who had received the invitation, responded to it, but were not inwardly prepared?

You know which group you should be in, and want to be in. You should be among the wise who, although they too had fallen asleep, were nevertheless ready.

On that distinction hangs your destiny.

The second point of the parable is that the difference between the wise and the foolish women showed up when the bridegroom arrived.

The difference revealed itself in crisis.

During the days before the wedding or the night leading up to the start of the feast few would have noticed that five women had adequately prepared for the bridegroom’s coming and five had not. But suddenly the bridegroom came, and the distinction was immediately apparent.

What’s the question?

The Clever Virgins, by He Qi

The parable poses a question:

  • will you be ready for Christ when he comes, when you meet him face to face?
  • or will you have spent your time (and life) foolishly, on things that don’t really matter?

Think about this

  • each person must stand on their own; they cannot blame anyone else for what they are
  • lost opportunities cannot be regained; there is a point of no return, and it will be too late to undo the damage of neglect.

The Prodigal Son

This parable is usually called ‘The Prodigal Son’, but it might just as well be called ‘The Lost Sons’.

Both the young men are lost to their family, and by the ending of the parable it is not clear if both, or only one, has been found.

Return of the Prodigal Son, John Brack

What’s the story?

A younger son demanded full rights of possession over the portion (about one-third) of his father’s estate which he could expect to inherit when the father died. The father agreed – we are not told why… Was he foolish? Or very wise?

While the elder son remained at home, and his father retained his rights over the produce of his portion of the estate, the younger son turned his share into cash and departed to enjoy the proceeds away from home and parental control.

What happened to that foolish young man?

When dissolute living had reduced him to rags, and his new friends had deserted him, he was forced to take the most menial form of employment. Feeding the pigs.

This was particularly loathsome to a Jew who regarded swine as unclean animals.

He would gladly have eked out his miserable wages by sharing the carob pods which the swine ate but he was too disgusted to do so.

The turning point: repentance

The Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

His desperate state brought him to his senses. He realized not only that he had landed himself in sorry straits but also that he was unworthy to be called his father’s son; he was fit only to be a servant, and he was prepared to humble himself and seek reinstatement at that level.

But before he reached home his father was already looking for his arrival, and before he could blurt out the whole of his intended confession, his father had welcomed him back into the family circle, treated him with great honour, and given orders for a feast of rejoicing over the return of one who had been as good as dead.

One person refused to join in the celebration, and grumbled at the lavish care being given his ne’er-do-well brother. He accused his father of failing to treat him in the same free and joyous manner, only to be reminded that all the resources of the home were his.

What did the father mean?

One can be lost even at home. The discovery of the lost and the resurrection of the dead were occasions for joy.

What happened to the older brother?

Did the elder brother eventually join in the celebration and accept his brother back as a member of the family?

The omission is deliberate. For the elder brother represents the Pharisees and their spiritual kin, and the parable is an appeal to them to receive the outcasts.

Jesus was waiting for their verdict.

The Gospel text

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons;
12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.

13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.

14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. 15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ 20 And he arose and came to his father.

But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’

28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’

31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
Luke 15:11-32

The Sower and the Seed

Ever tried to grow something, maybe have a garden?

If you have, you’ll know it’s not just love that grows a plant. It needs good soil, regular care, the right food.

As we all do…

Look after yourself, as a good gardener looks after a plant

The sight of a sower working in his field was a common one in Galilee, and the varied fate of the seeds was well known to anyone who worked the land – as Jesus did.

But the focus of the parable was not upon the sower, even though this story is called the ‘parable of the sower’. It was not even about the seed.

What’s important?

What was important was the fate of the seed, which was directly dependent upon the kind of soil on which it fell.

  • Without good soil, the seed could not take root, flourish and bear fruit. It would die, despite its best efforts to take root and grow.
  • Jesus knew what he was talking about. The soil in Galilee often covered rock close to the surface, so there was no depth to the soil. Looks good, but won’t produce a good crop.

So what does this parable teach?

Look after your soul and your mind. Give it the right food.

  • Read your prayers and Scripture on a regular basis, as you would feed and water a plant.
  • Make sure you’ve put your plant (you) in a good position, where it will get sun (grace) and nourishment (prayer)
  • Don’t let the snails and birds (false friends) damage it.

The place where the seed falls is all important, and not the result of an accident. It depends on the grace of God and the responsiveness of human beings – both are necessary if the plant of faith is to flourish.

The Gospel text – Mark 4:3-8

3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow.
4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.
5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil,
6 but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away.
7 Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

Hiding your Lamp under a Bushel

Jesus talked about lamps on several occasions, using this image to stress the responsibility his disciples had to the people they encountered:

  • they must pay careful attention to Jesus’ teachings so that they could pass them on accurately.
  • they must think carefully about the true meaning of what he said, and then not only talk about his ideas, but live them.

What the message of this story?

Immediately before Jesus’ comment about a lamp under a bushel (in the gospel of Luke) he has been speaking of sowing the seeds of his teachings in good soil.

Now, using the image of an oil lamp, he gives the disciples (and us) more instructions:

  • the world is in spiritual darkness
  • Jesus is the world’s light
  • those who know Jesus are to become light-bearers to the world
  • we in the modern world are to be lights, living and proclaiming the gospel.

How do we do this?

The tricky bit is working out how we do this, and then putting our beliefs into action.

God, help us.

The Gospel text – Mark 4:21-22

21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand?
22 For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.

The Gospel text – Matthew 25:1-13

  1. “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
  2. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
  3. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;
  4. but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
  5. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
  6. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’
  7. Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps
  8. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
  9. But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’
  10. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut.
  11. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’
  12. But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’
  13. Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The parable of the Good Samaritan

A man in danger on a lonely road. Some passers-by. Robbers and thugs who don’t hesitate to use violence.

Would you have stopped to help the injured man?

What’s the story? Luke 10:30-37

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.
32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion,
34 and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
36 Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
37 He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

What are the questions?

  • Who is my neighbour? Not someone else’s, but mine?
  • Should the needs of your neighbour take precedence over normal practices? The priest and the Levite are criticised in the story for sticking to the rules (avoiding physical contact that would make them ritually unclean), rather than helping the wounded man.
  • Who are you in this story? An onlooker, the dutiful law-abiding priest and Levite, or the wounded man lying in the ditch? Or the Samaritan, a passerby who does not step over the man but goes out of his way to help?

What’s the message?

The story is sometimes presented as if its only teaching is about being kind to someone who is down on their luck.

It is not. We are responsible for our fellow travellers. We have to be like the Samaritan. It is dangerous for him to stop and help – the thuggish criminals may still be nearby.

But he does, because it is the decent, right thing to do. And his compassion is not limited to those of his own nationality, race or religion.

In showing mercy to the injured man the Samaritan becomes his neighbour. The lawyer whose question has prompted this story is challenged to follow his example.

The Mustard Seed

This story compares the tiny mustard seed to the large plant it will one day become – a great shrub as much as 9 feet tall.

Its potential for growth is enormous.

Like us. Like the Christian church.

What’s the story about?

This must have been one of Luke’s favorite stories. He wrote the Acts of the Apostles and so knew all about the growth of the Church from a tiny mustard seed to a flourishing plant.

Luke may be alluding to Ezekial 17:22-23, where a tree with birds nesting in its branches becomes an image of a powerful king able to protect his people with stability and peace.

The birds that come to the tree find shelter and protection, but there are many different sorts of birds who use it: as there will be both Jew and Gentile in the kingdom of God.

The Gospel text from Mark & Luke

A mustard plant

30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?
31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Mark 4:30-32

18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
Luke 13:18-19

The Lost Coin

A poor woman has lost a coin. The drachma she has lost is probably about a day’s wage for an ordinary worker.

What’s so bad about that?

She seems to be a lone woman – notice how it is her friends and neighbors she turns to, not her husband or family member.

This means she was always in a precarious position, money-wise. She had no fall-back position if things got tough, no family member to turn to.

The woman’s coins may have been a sort of security blanket, a little hoard of savings in a world before banks or social security.

Using a lamp to catch the gleam of the coin and a broom to pull it out, she searches her house.

When she finds the coin she happily calls her neighbors to share this moment with her. In the Greek text the friends are female: she is a respectable woman.

We too are asked to identify this story with God’s joy in the restoration of a sinner, and perhaps ask this question: are we the sinner God searches for?

The Gospel text

8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?
9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.’
10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Luke 15:8-10

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Pharisees were leading figures in the life of Israel in New Testament times, but Jesus is often critical of them.

On the other hand tax collectors were unsavory types, but Jesus befriended them.

There may be hope yet for those who have been written off by respectable society.

What’s the story?

The Pharisee in this story attributes his goodness to the grace of God, and thanks Him. So far so good.

But he seems to look down on the rest of the world. He is dismissive of the tax collector who is also praying in the Temple. Thank God, he says, I am not like that awful man back there – and in fact his life and achievements are impressive.

But his love for God does not move him to compassion for those less fortunate than himself, and his righteousness may even drive him away from others.

What about the despised tax collector?

In contrast, the tax collector signals his unworthiness before God. His words echo the opening words of Psalm 51, about the sin and repentance of David. He does not shy away from the fact that as a tax collector for the Romans he oppresses his own people.

BUT there is a depth of feeling in his words that is missing from the Pharisee’s prayer.

What’s the meaning for us?

  • Things are not always as they seem.
  • Look deeper at a situation before you judge it.
  • And look with humility…

The Gospel text

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others:
10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’
13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke 18:9-14

Houses built on rock or sand

There were shoddy builders in the ancient world, just as there are now. They cut costs by skimping on the all-important foundations, and in the end they were found out.

Jesus uses this image to warn his listeners.

Is this a message for you?

The warning is not given to unbelievers or people who rebelled against Christ’s teachings, but to people who listened to them and said they believed.

  • They heard what was right,
  • acknowledged that it was right, and
  • professed to be following Jesus’ teaching,
  • but they did not put these teachings into practice.

On the surface, everything seemed to be going well. They professed all the right things. They mixed with true believers. As long as life went smoothly it was difficult to tell them apart from people who truly believed.

But at heart they were only talking about repentance, about belief, about love.

And when the storm came, there was no real foundation to support them, and they collapsed.

Is this you?

Gospel text

24 “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock;
25 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
26 And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand;
27 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”
Matthew 7:24-27

The Lost Sheep

Something has been lost: a sheep. Just one sheep.

Why not write it off? There are still ninety-nine left.

The loss is only one percent, and in any business you have to expect a certain percentage of loss, don’t you?

But even in its lost state this lost sheep remains valuable to its owner. He is determined to recover it.

God is the shepherd who owns the sheep. He loves us and is determined to find and reclaim us, even though it is our own foolishness that has got us into a dangerous predicament.

What’s the meaning of this parable?

This parable seems a little unfair.

  • What about the ninety-nine who have done what they were supposed to do?
  • Shouldn’t they be valued too?

But in fact the emphasis here is on the worth of each individual. You may be worthless in your own estimation, because you only see what you have made of yourself.

God sees you differently. He sees what you were created to be and what you, with His help, can become.

The Gospel text – Matthew 18:12-13

12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?
13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.

More parables