Parables are Stories with a Purpose: Luke 15

You may be wondering why the subject of parables? Good question. Luke 15 is a prime example of the use of parables which are stories with a single purpose. They are used in both the Old and New Testaments. Examples of parables in the Old Testament include Isaiah’s use of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7), Nathan’s use of the ewe lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-14), and the widow before David with the story of two sons, one killing the other (2 Samuel 14:4-20), About one third of Jesus’s speeches are in parabolic form. The primary theme of His parables was the Kingdom of God. Therefore the phrase, the kingdom of God is like, is typical for this form of teaching. Only the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) contain parables. Parables are stories with a purpose; often the story is an extended and expanded well-known story. The story uses analogy or comparison of real-life experiences to present one chief point.

Another description of a parable: it is a symbolic method of speech in which a single truth is illustrated from or by the analogy of common experience. It depicts people involved in real-life activities and real-life experiences. The parable has a point and a purpose but the parable may cloud a person’s understanding or reveal truth (Matthew 13:11-15). The parable does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the parallel or analogous truth emphasized by comparison and or contrast. An interpretative point regarding parables is this: the reader or listener is not to make everything in the parable stand for something else. Rather, the listener is to bring in to the parable what is necessary to make it a realistic story.

The parable – the story – has one major point – purpose. It drives it home in the vernacular of common life experiences. The parable uses the familiar, the known, and the old  to explain the unfamiliar and unknown/new. It uses the familiar and known in terms of life experiences to uncover or hide the unfamiliar and unknown including truth. It clarifies and makes memorable. The parable exists not for its own sake but for sake of parallel or analogous truth. Sometimes it may be an expanded proverb such as Proverbs 10:25 as it relates to Matthew 7:24-27. Jesus ended the Sermon on Mount with this parable. The parable doesn’t simply throw out principles but demonstrates how those principles play out in actual experience. In this way it either clarifies or clouds the listener’s understanding.

Typically, parables – stories with purpose – are exciting, easily remembered, and an effective means of teaching. First and foremost parables are a particular kind of story with special purposes. Jesus drew from daily, common life-experiences that needed no explanation in themselves. His audience knew what shepherding and house cleaning was all about. Jesus used the known and familiar to illustrate parallel and analogous truth.

In Luke 15 the known was the lost and the found. The parallel truth is the kingdom truth that self-righteousness and self-righteous people have no place in God’s kingdom. Jesus is rebuking all self-righteous people, not just church leaders. Jesus calls all people to imitate Him by dying to self and self-pleasing and to put on the mantle of pleasing God out of gratitude, privilege, and blessing (1 John 5:3-4)..

People of all ages like stories. Almost everyone knows the story recorded in Luke 15. Often this is labeled the lost-and-found chapter of Luke’s gospel. You remember the story or stories – one lost sheep from among 100 that was found; the one lost coin out of 10 that was found; and one lost son out of two that was found. What is the message? Many would say it was joy in finding whatever was lost. In truth, Jesus’s point in telling the parable was a rebuke. Luke 15:1-2 gives the background for why Jesus told the parable: Now the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The Pharisees were distressed that various types of people were coming to Jesus. What was the reason this was so distressing to the Pharisees? Perhaps these church leaders were concerned that these people were not coming to them. No, that was not the reason. In contrast to them, Jesus welcomes sinners (Matthew 9:11; 11:28-30). Wow! In the mind of the Pharisees and Scribes they themselves were not sinners (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; Luke 19:10). It is interesting that the people coming to Jesus were considered sinners – law breakers of all sorts. From the Pharisees perspectives, they were not like them (see Luke 7:36-50; Matthew 23:16ff; Luke 18:9-14)!

What was the real problem that Jesus was confronting and what was the reason that he used the mechanism of the parable? Jesus was facing a group of self-righteous church leaders that were in danger of everlasting damnation. Moreover, they were burdening the sheep and leading them astray. They were like the older son in Luke’s parable. He remained behind working on the family estate. He may have done a good job. His activities were in contrast to those of the younger son who went and did “his own thing.” The older son was a scorekeeper and lived by the “I deserve.” Parable indicates that the older son missed family privilege. He had no loving concern for his family including his wonderfully gracious father and his come-to-his senses younger brother (Luke 15:17-18). Self-focus was the rule rather than a correct God-focus and correct other-focus. After the younger son came to his senses and returned, the older son should have rejoiced as did the father.

Jesus’s purpose was not primarily to talk about the joy over one lost sinner who repents. That is a universal truism. Rather, Jesus rebuke d the Pharisees and all others like them for their lack of joy in the things of the kingdom – entrance into it and growth in it as a child of God. Jesus told in parable form the essence of the message given early in Matthew and Mark: Repent and believe the kingdom of God is near (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15). One application for believers today is to beware of self-righteousness and thereby function as the Pharisee (Matthew 5:17-20; Philippians 2:3-5; 3:3-6, 7-11; James 4:6-19; 1 Peter 5:5-7). However only those with ears to hear will hear and do (Matthew 7:24-27). It is in that sense that parables hide the truth from God-haters and self-pleasers and open truth to those are true believers.

1. As you read the gospels look for parables – extended stories using the words like and as for tools of comparison or contrast. Determine the one chief point that Jesus is making in each of them.
2. Read Proverbs 10:25 and Matt.7:24-27. What is the connection between them and how do they function as a unit? What do you learn regarding the unity of the Old and New Testaments?
3. In Matthew7:24-27, what is Jesus’s point in regards to hearing, hearing what, and doing what?