A parable is a symbolic story that teaches gospel truths by comparing them to earthly things. Jesus taught in parables to simultaneously teach his message to his disciples and conceal it from unbelievers. Often He explained the meaning of His parables later to His disciples. The parables have become beloved stories. They teach great lessons, and they help us to understand the gospel of Christ.
The Parable of the Two Debtors
In Luke 7:36–50 we read that Jesus joined Simon the Pharisee in his house. A woman entered and bathed the feet of the Savior with her tears. The Pharisees were offended that Jesus would let a sinful woman touch Him. Jesus forgave her sins and then told the parable of the debtor. “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” The woman, being wicked, loved the Savior more than the Pharisees, because she had many sins to forgive.
The Parable of the Sower
In Matthew 13:3–8 we read the parable of the sower. In this parable, the seed is the word of God. The “wayside” is people who hear the word of God but do not understand it. When the word of God falls on the wayside, nothing comes of it. In this parable, “stony places” represent people who hear and receive the word of God but do not allow it to take root in them. Such people will not continue on in faith once trials appear to confront them. “Thorny places” represent people who hear the word of God but are distracted by the cares of the world. Most of these people will not continue in the kingdom. “Good ground” represents people who hear the word of God, understand it, and do works of righteousness.
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares
In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the Master postpones harvesting the grain. Tares are not useful like wheat, but at the beginning of their growth, they can hardly be distinguished from the useful grain. The Lord allows them to grow up together, so their character may fully manifest itself. At the end of the world, the Lord will harvest and separate the wheat (the righteous) from the tares (the wicked) and will burn the tares and take unto Himself the wheat. (See Matthew 13:27–30; see also D&C 86:5–7, which clarifies Matthew 13:30.)
The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven
The prophet Joseph Smith explained that both the mustard seed and the leaven represent the restored Church of Jesus Christ, beginning very small and then growing in a surprising way. (See Matthew 13:31–32 and Matthew 13:33.)
The Parables of Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price
(See Matthew 13:44–46.) These parables explain that any sacrifice is worth laying up treasure in heaven, and that riches that never fade are associated with the kingdom of God.
The Parable of the Net
The parable of the net resonates with the parable of the wheat and tares. The gospel is like a net cast into the sea. When it is gathered in, there are creatures of every sort. The fishermen sort the good from the bad. The good are kept, and the bad cast away. “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just….” (See Matthew 13:47-50.)
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant is found in Matthew 18:15, 21–35. In this parable, we learn how we will be judged if we fail to extend mercy to others. In this parable the king represents Heavenly Father, and we are the servants. We are in debt to the Lord. He has given us life and breath and all that we enjoy on the earth, plus the opportunity to be forgiven of our sins, even though we will always be unworthy. Through His grace, we can be purified that we can re-enter His presence forever. He forgives us through the sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son. Should we not then be always willing to forgive one another?
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is found in Luke 10:25–37. As it is written in Leviticus 18:19, Jesus Christ reminded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Wishing to quantify this statement, someone asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” This parable shows that all of God’s children are our neighbors, no matter their race, politics, nationality, or religion. This parable goes deeper to show that it is better to live the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law.
Both a priest and a Levite pass a beaten and injured man on the road to Jerusalem. To touch an ill person, or a person who is bleeding, renders a Jewish person unclean, and he must sequester himself for a period of time. The time is even greater if the person is dead. The priest and Levite were under covenant to serve God, but by touching the wounded man, they would have had to remove themselves from priestly duties for a time. They may have been charitable men, but chose to continue with their committed religious duties rather than to help.
The Samaritans were hated by the Jews. The Assyrians had attacked the northern kingdom of Israel around 750 B.C. and had ruthlessly killed many and had carried others away into Assyria, transplanting heathens from their empire into Israel. These intermarried with the native peoples, corrupting their descent from the tribes of Israel. The people of Samaria, then, were not pure Israelite. The wicked kings had established sites of animal sacrifice to keep their people in the north, to keep them out of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah and the temple there. Thus, the patterns of rituals had also become corrupt in Samaria. In addition, they fought against the rebuilding of the temple as the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon.
This Samaritan, however, worshiped in Jerusalem, so he must have been a religious man who desired to serve God purely. At risk to himself, and in spite of possible rejection by passers-by and the inn keeper, he took the injured man to an inn and paid for his care. Thus, Christ demonstrated the nature of true charity.
The Parable of the Rich Fool
The Parable of the Rich Fool is found in Luke 12:13–21. The rich fool had so many riches he had run out of room to store them. He determined to construct larger storage facilities for his riches and then retire to a life of merriment. But God required his life from him that very night. Since he would die that night, he would have no use for the treasures he had stored. This is one more parable directing us to “lay up treasures in heaven.” We do that by caring for our neighbors and loving God, serving him always and imparting of our portion.
The Parable of the Great Supper
Interpreting the parable of the great supper, Elder James E. Talmage taught 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 (Jesus the Christ, 3rd ed. , 452). The message here is like that when Jesus accused those who thought they were saved because they were the “children of Abraham.” Our lineage cannot save us if are hearts are far from God. God will find His children among the meek of the earth who are willing to follow Him. He will adopt and exalt them.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward
The Parable of the Unjust Steward, found in Luke 16:1–12, is difficult to understand. The steward was accused of wasting the resources of his master. He then settles with the master’s creditors for pennies on the dollar and wins praise.
Elder James E. Talmage explained that the Lord used this parable “to show the contrast between the care, thoughtfulness, and devotion of men engaged in the money-making affairs of earth, and the half hearted ways of many who are professedly striving after spiritual riches.” The Lord was not suggesting that we should emulate the evil practices of the unjust servant, but that we should seek spiritual wealth with the same eagerness and effort that the servant displayed in seeking material wealth.
Elder Talmage continued, “Worldly-minded men do not neglect provision for their future years, and often are sinfully eager to amass plenty; while the ‘children of light,’ or those who believe spiritual wealth to be above all earthly possessions, are less energetic, prudent, or wise” (Jesus the Christ, 463).
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
This parable is found in Luke 16:19–31. This parable begins on earth and continues in the Spirit World. The spirit world is where we go after we die to await resurrection and judgment. Until Christ was crucified and visited the spirit world, there was a great gulf between the two areas of the spirit world that could not be traversed. The two areas are called paradise, for the righteous, and “spirit prison” for the wicked and those who have not received the gospel of Christ, including those who have chosen to suffer for their own sins.
The rich man finds that Lazarus, who had been a poor beggar on earth, is enjoying life in the bosom of Abraham in paradise, while the rich man suffers for his own sins in spirit prison. He wishes help from Lazarus, but there is a great, uncrossable gulf between them. He wishes then to send his family a warning from the dead, so they would not have to suffer as he. But the Lord has already warned us through His prophets, and if we won’t believe them, neither will we believe someone who comes back from the dead.
To Read Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the Spirit World, click here.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
This parable is found in Luke 15:1–10. This parable was Jesus’ response to those who accused Him of spending His time with sinners. Jesus answered this situation in several ways during His ministry, including to say that the healthy need no physician.
Jesus was and is the Good Shepherd. A hireling will not take risks for the sheep, but a good shepherd knows and loves his sheep as individuals. He is willing to leave the ninety-nine sheep in the sheep-fold in order to seek out and find the one that is lost. Likewise, Jesus seeks to find us when we are lost in sin or sorrow, and we, His under-shephers, should be willing to help Him in this work.
The Parable of the Piece of Silver
In the Parable of the Piece of Silver a woman rejoices after finding a silver coin that was lost. In the same way, the Lord rejoices over the sinner who repents. (See Luke 15:8.)
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
The theme of recovering and rejoicing over those who are lost continues in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (See Luke 15:11–32.) A wealthy man has two sons, and one wishes to receive his inheritance while he is still in his youth. The father agrees, and the son goes off and wastes the inheritance in riotous living. Soon he is starving and envies the food of pigs. He determines to return home and be a servant to his father, for even they have plenty to eat. But upon his return, his father actually runs out to meet him, embracing him in unabashed joy. He has a feast for his returned son, and he explains to his other, ever-faithful son that heaven rejoices over the lost who return, over the repentant who call on Christ for salvation.
President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “I ask you to read that story. Every parent ought to read it again and again. It is large enough to encompass every household, and enough larger than that to encompass all mankind, for are we not all prodigal sons and daughters who need to repent and partake of the forgiving mercy of our Heavenly Father and then follow His example?” (“Of You It Is Required to Forgive,” Ensign, June 1991, 5).
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard
This parable is found in Matthew 20:1–16, and is not so easy to understand. The Lord hires each servant at different times of the day. He agrees to pay them justly, but then at the end of the day, some who have worked an hour receive a penny, and some who have worked all day receive a penny. It seems unjust to those who had labored longer, even though they agreed to the terms at the beginning. We must have faith that the Lord is all-wise, and that we will all be judged justly.
The Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Widow
This parable is found in Luke 18:1–8. This parable is meant to guide us to be persevering in prayer. The Lord always hears and answers us, but every answer is different. He may agree to our request immediately, but it may take years for the answer to come to its fruition. We might assume the answer was “no” or that the Lord never heard us. We should pray to make only righteous requests to the Lord, and to always end with, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” But we should pray without ceasing.
Elder James E. Talmage taught, “Jesus did not indicate that as the wicked judge finally yielded to supplication so would God do; but He pointed out that if even such a being as this judge, who ‘feared not God, neither regarded man,’ would at last hear and grant the widow’s plea, no one should doubt that God, the Just and Merciful, will hear and answer” (Jesus the Christ, 3rd ed. , 436).
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican
This parable, found in Luke 18:9–14, shows that God is no respecter of persons and that He answers the humble. The Pharisee prays aloud to be seen of men and thanks God that he is so religious and righteous. The Publican humbles himself and prays for forgiveness — of such is the kingdom of heaven.
The Parable of the Two Sons
Read Matthew 21:23–46. The first son refused to work in the vineyard, but then repented and changed his behavior. The second son accepted, but then rejected, the assignment. Jesus called him a hypocrite. The first son represents sinners who repent and come unto Christ. The second son represents people who appear to be faithful, but who then will not really commit to the Lord’s work.
The Parable of the Householder
In the Parable of the Householder In the parable of the householder (Matthew 21:33–41), the Lord plants a vineyard that is completely appointed with wall and tower. When he sends servants to the husbandmen to check on the vineyard, they are beaten by the husbandmen. Finally, he sends his son, whom the husbandmen murder. The servants are the prophets, rejected by the Jews, and the son is Jesus Christ, crucified for the sins of the world.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
The Parable of the Ten Virgins is found in Matthew 25:1–13. The parable follows Israelite wedding customs, in that the bride and her party never knew exactly when the groom and his party would show up. The virgins represent the Church, and the bridegroom is Christ. All the virgins have oil in their lamps, but the bridegroom arrives very late. Five of the virgins have run out of oil and can not obtain any from the extra carried by the other five (wise) virgins. It’s too late to go out an buy oil. The bridegroom will not allow them into the wedding. The oil is our spiritual preparation to receive Christ when He comes.
Ancient Israelite oil lamps held olive oil and were so small as to fit in the palm of the hand. This was only a personal light, and too small to be shared. We must carry our own personal light and never run out. We refill our lamps when we worship, pray, read the scriptures, attend worship services, serve others charitably, repent, and keep the commandments of God.
The Parable of the Talents
This parable is found in Matthew 25:14–30. A talent was a measure of money, but could symbolize any gift we receive from God. Through service to others, we can magnify any gift or talent the Lord has so generously given us. Some are given many gifts, and some just a few, but all have some gift to share to help to build up God’s kingdom on earth.
“If their talents are used to build the kingdom of God and serve others, they will fully enjoy the promises of the Savior. The great promise of the Savior is that they ‘shall receive [their] reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come’ (D&C 59:23)” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1994, 5; or Ensign, May 1994, 6).
Elder Marvin J. Ashton said:
“Let me mention a few gifts that are not always evident or noteworthy but that are very important. Among these may be your gifts—gifts not so evident but nevertheless real and valuable.
“Let us review some of these less-conspicuous gifts: the gift of asking; the gift of listening; the gift of hearing and using a still, small voice; the gift of being able to weep; the gift of avoiding contention; the gift of being agreeable; the gift of avoiding vain repetition; the gift of seeking that which is righteous; the gift of not passing judgment; the gift of looking to God for guidance; the gift of being a disciple; the gift of caring for others; the gift of being able to ponder; the gift of offering prayer; the gift of bearing a mighty testimony; and the gift of receiving the Holy Ghost” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1987, 23; or Ensign, Nov. 1987, 20).
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is found in Matthew 25:31–46. Sometimes religious followers of Christ are called “sheep.” This is meant to be an insult claiming that devoted Christians are following mindlessly. But people are naturally more like goats, rebellious and difficult to lead. It takes overcoming our natural independence to be good sheep, and many devoted Christians have overcome a lot to follow Christ. To be called a sheep should be a compliment of the highest order. We follow Christ, because we decide to, day after day.
Elder Marion D. Hanks said:
“Jesus taught his followers the parable of the sheep and the goats, representing the judgment to come, in which he clearly identified those who will inherit ‘life eternal’ and those who will ‘go away into everlasting punishment’ (Matthew 25:46). The key difference was that those who should inherit the kingdom with him had developed the habit of helping, had experienced the joy of giving and the satisfaction of serving. They had responded to the needs of the hungry, thirsty, homeless, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. …
“Nothing would seem more clear than the high premium the Savior put upon selfless service to others as an indispensable element of Christian conduct and of salvation. Helping, giving, and sacrificing are, or should be, as natural as growing and breathing” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1992, 10; or Ensign, May 1992, 9).