The Master of masters, Jesus of Nazareth, was, in part, a product of his time and culture. He drew upon images and cultural mores also found in the teachings of his rabbinic contemporaries. He taught like them and was himself called Rabbi by even the acknowledged political and religious rulers of the Jewish people (see John 3:2).
Thus, we do not diminish the stature of Jesus when we frankly admit that he adopted well-known parables or elements of them and recast them to suit his own eternal purposes. In fact, therein lies the tale, for Jesus’ purposes were far different from those of the rabbis. Under Jesus’ transforming touch, parables became the most profound expressions of eternal truth, namely that repentance, redemption, and resurrection come to all humankind only through his atoning sacrifice, and recognition of that sacrifice must occupy a central place in one’s mind and heart in order to realize the goal of eternal life.
The parables of redemption demonstrate the same reasons Jesus used parables during his ministry of instruction as we see demonstrated in the other parables he presented:
1. Parables were part of the world in which Jesus grew up and lived as an adult. The greatest teachers and rabbis of Jesus’ era used parables. It could be that Jesus used both the general outline as well as specific elements of parables taught by others precisely because they were so well known and his listeners already recognized the stock-in-trade stories he presented. With Jesus’ parables, however, there was not only a new, singular application, but as with all his teachings, “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:29). Perhaps people “were astonished at his doctrine” (Matthew 7:28) because, though they recognized certain elements, his parables had a unique tone and application.
2. Parables teach by analogies that are not easily forgotten. The Greek word parabole, from which our English word parable derives, means “to set side by side or to compare one thing to another.” It is the equivalent of the Hebrew mashal. Because parables compared or set principles of the gospel side by side with ordinary objects, common events, or familiar circumstances of life, they could be readily identified, understood, and remembered. Each parable was drawn from life; each was a short story that encompassed a spiritual message. By placing real-life stories familiar to all people side by side with gospel principles, the Savior could stimulate his hearers’ thinking, illustrate a point, and give ordinary, easily visualized reminders of the eternal principles he taught.
3. Parables have a double use in communicating messages—they can simultaneously veil or unveil concepts, reveal or conceal meaning, according to an individual’s spiritual capacity and ability to receive. Thus, the Savior could simultaneously teach truths to those ready to receive them and hide meaning from the unprepared. The Savior explained to his disciples, “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Matthew 13:13). Every person could be taught a different but true lesson depending on each one’s understanding of the objects used in the parable. According to the Bible dictionary, “The parable conveys to the hearer religious truth exactly in proportion to his faith and intelligence; to the dull and unintelligent it is a mere story, ‘seeing they see not,’ while to the instructed and spiritual it reveals the mysteries or secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Thus it is that the parable exhibits the condition of all true knowledge. Only he who seeks finds.” To “learn” gospel truths we must pay a price. The gifts of the spirit and an unshakable testimony of the gospel are not unearned blessings.
4. By teaching in parables, the Lord protects unprepared individuals from more truth than they can live—a merciful way in which to teach. Exposure to the unadulterated truth as Jesus was capable of teaching it would have put listeners in an untenable position—requiring them to live principles beyond their capability to live, thus interfering with their agency.
5. On occasion the Savior taught in parables so that his listeners could not misunderstand his intention. At one point he said, “I speak in parables; that your unrighteousness may be rewarded unto you” (JS—M 21:34). This is specifically true of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, some of whom were responsible for his death. They were condemned because they understood but refused to act accordingly: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:27–28).
It is especially true for the parables of redemption to say that the spiritual condition of one’s mind and heart made it possible for contemporary listeners to apply the lessons taught and internalize the intended meanings of those parables. I believe that many, if not most, of the Jewish leaders and educated listeners living in Jesus’ day understood what Jesus meant. After all, they lived their daily lives in the world of rabbinic metaphor and meaning. And they saw before their very eyes the real life stories and cultural elements on which the parables were based (whereas we in modern times do not). But, they did not apply or internalize the teachings of these parables.
—Andrew C. Skinner
Executive Director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for
Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University
Quoted from Parables of Redemption, Horizon Publishers, Springville, Utah, 2007.