Teaching by means of a comparison; stories of varying length containing a meaning or message over and above the straightforward and literal, with an element of metaphor. In the teaching of Jesus brief aphorisms (e.g. Matt. 24: 28) jostle with quite long parabolic teaching (e.g. Matt. 25: 1–13) and they were not necessarily delivered ‘to the crowd’. They may often have been spoken in more intimate groups in conversation. There were well‐disposed and interested or curious persons who might invite Jesus to supper (Luke 14: 15 ff.).
For centuries there was a tradition of interpreting Jesus' parables as allegories. Augustine gave every character and action in the parable of the Good Samaritan a symbol standing for an article of Christian faith—the inn represented the Church, the innkeeper is Paul, and the two denarii stand for the two gospel sacraments. Modern critical scholarship has tried to think its way back to Jesus' intentions and audiences, and notices the many references to local customs and taboos (e.g. that the priest and Levite are fearful of possible contact with a corpse which would inhibit their Temple duties). The first shots in the modern debate were fired by Adolf Jülicher in 1888: his book on the parables maintained that the essence of a genuine parable was that it has but one single, discoverable point—‘Now is the day of salvation’, for example. After more than a century of further discussion Jülicher's principle has had to be somewhat modified. There are allegorical elements in some parables (e.g. the Wicked Husbandmen, Matt. 21: 33 ff.) and in the interpretations of them offered (e.g. of the Sower, Mark 4: 13–20). It is often suggested that some parables as recorded look back on the ministry and death of Jesus as past and interpret them. As such, they are creations of the early Church in a continuing conflict with Judaism. Yet they were valid interpretations for the readers of the gospels, and reinforce the sense of crisis with which both the contemporaries of Jesus and the readers of the gospels were wrestling: after the seed‐time the harvest, which is always the present.
Some of the parables in the Bible (of the vineyard, Isaiah 5: 1–6; Matt. 13: 24–30) suggest a kind of ‘nature theology’—an argument for the existence and activity of God from regular and welcome aspects of nature. Yet on the other hand agricultural processes or human affairs may be described in absurd ways or with a good deal of contrivance—the unjust judge of the parable (Luke 18: 2–5) is not a normal character, nor is the employer who breaks the accepted rules of wage negotiations (Matt. 20: 1–15). Such parables express the contrast of grace and nature; the sovereignty (kingship) of God is not like the judiciously regulated contracts of employer and employee. The loan of a thousand talents which is waived is a fantastic sum (Matt. 18: 24 ff.); and it is surprising that the whole body of ten virgins went to sleep (Matt. 25: 5). There is a paradox. The parables spoken by Jesus were to teach and to persuade. They rarely did. And that became a puzzle to the early Church: how was it that the Messiah visited his people and yet his own failed to recognize him? It was the contention of William Wrede and other NT scholars that Mark had an explanation for the people's failure—he gives it in Mark 4: 11–12 (quoting Isaiah): Jesus was aware that he was Messiah (Wrede's theory went) but he kept it a secret until it dawned on the disciples after the resurrection: the parables had been deliberately couched in terms which would for the time being conceal their meaning.
Wrede's theory of the Messianic Secret is not widely accepted today as he propounded it; and yet there was a kind of secret from the start surrounding the ministry of Jesus. The Greek word parabole can be translated ‘riddle’, and so Mark 4: 11 could be rendered: ‘but to those outside everything has the nature of a riddle’; the meaning of the Kingdom is veiled to outsiders but is being disclosed to the disciples by God's revelation. To outsiders it is veiled by the very purpose of God. So the secret belongs to the gospel itself: it is an integral characteristic of God's act in Christ, comparable to the miracles, which could only be recognized by a God‐given faith. It is a principle of the NT understanding of Jesus that he does not compel belief by an irrefutable argument; faith and responsibility are left to people themselves because Jesus is committed to freedom. People were not bludgeoned into belief then, nor are the readers of the gospel today. However, the translation ‘riddle’ is not suitable for every parable of Jesus, and many of them seem straightforward and likely stories designed to urge the audience to do something, or change their attitudes, in a fundamental way.
The parables of Luke 15 give notable expression to the loving care of God for all who turn to him; the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. All are about God's forgiveness and have no direct reference to the atoning death of Jesus on the cross: a fatted calf is killed but no expiatory sacrifice offered, which accords with Luke's omission of Mark 45: 45. Humanity needs to be redeemed (Luke 22: 19; Acts 20: 28) but individuals are not necessarily totally depraved and worthless; they can be corrected here and now; joy can be expressed, even before that transformation which will indeed be required for celebration in the Kingdom (Luke 14: 15 ff.).