In a nutshell…
…Jesus taught His disciples and the crowds using stories to illustrate moral and spiritual truths of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 4:34). The term “parable” is used to describe some thirty stories attributed to Him in the Gospels and means “a place beside” – meaning similitude. They are metaphors, allegories, enigmatic sayings and “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning” (1 Samuel 24:13; 2 Samuel 12:1-15; Proverbs 1:6; Matthew 13). Other Jewish rabbis of the day regularly used stories to clarify some aspect of their Law. So Jesus certainly did not invent a new method of teaching. They have a deeper meaning hidden under the surface. The story of the rich man and Lazarus makes a point about obedience to the Law, that those listening must grasp and apply to themselves (Luke 16:19-31). Other parables meanwhile are concerned with moral duties and obligations towards fellow human beings (Luke 10:30-35) whereas some teach about repentance (Luke 15). Often they confused some of the listeners, but to others they were the key to opening spiritual understanding. These principles are very familiar to us as listeners today. We often misunderstand spiritual concepts and realities and remain spiritually blind until a parable is explained. However, parables are meant to hide the truths from those who choose not to believe. Jesus tells us why He uses them (Matthew 13:13; 13:35).
Many of Jesus’ parables were drawn from ordinary life, revealing a distinctive Palestinian background. For example, the parable of the fishes (Matthew 13:47-50) where the good are separated from the bad would have been the practice of Galilean fisherman and the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) shows workers being paid (the norm in Palestine rather than slaves) in accordance with Jewish Law. It is the Synoptic Gospels that present most clearly the parables as teaching aids, drawing on the social and economic conditions of the time, often involving characters such as landlords, tenants and workers and usually set in fields, vineyards or at banquets (Mark 12:1-11; Luke 14:15-24).
The parables still present us with the same challenges as they did to first century listeners. Those first people who heard Jesus must have wondered what the point of the accompanying story was. He did not intend to make them obscure, and our eyes can be opened when we understand their implied comparison, which is not at first obvious. They are timeless and are relevant for us today. “Happy are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” (Matthew 13:16).