Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary (Page 1 of 32)

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By: Fr. Victor Potapov
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Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

By Father Victor Potapov, Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Washington DC

General Introduction

Since the time of the primitive Christian Church, parable has been the term for a story told by the Lord Jesus Christ to illustrate His teaching. The Greek root-word, parabole, means comparison. So a parable is a spiritual lesson of a story developed by comparison to everyday life. The Lord’s parables draw memorable details from nature, human, social, economic, or religious life of His time. Characteristically, all oral teachers of the eastern cast of mind teach by comparisons and riddles, using homely images to stir curiosity and reflection. So His parables use images from life in this world to discover spiritual truth.

The Savior also told sacred insights in parables for three practical reasons.

  • First, His parables were hard for many listeners to grasp, but His listeners could recall the vivid details from ordinary life long enough to discover the wisdom behind the allegory.
  • Second, the Lord Jesus Christ told parables to make men expect a double meaning, and to make them want to discover the fullness of the divine plan for their conversion. Because the Church and Kingdom that our Lord founded differ so sharply from the Jewish expectation of the Messiah at that time, that the Lord’s teaching had to be cautious and indirect. His parables use allegory to compare the recognizable world to the start, development, mixed character, and final triumph of Church and Kingdom. What may seem simple to us, of course, was a intriguing riddle to His contemporaries.
  • And third, the Lord used the parable format because His followers could not readily forget or misinterpret the commonplace images. The parable format preserves the purity of Christ’s teaching in distinct but evocative images.


Narrative parables have another advantage over oral lecturing. Parables teach how to live by divine law both in private and in public. Christ’s parables have lost no clarity, immediacy, or beauty during 20 centuries across many civilizations in many translations. In all settings, His parables show the unified spiritual and physical worlds.

“Books and words, created quite recently, yesterday and the day before,” writes Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, “have become outdated, have fallen into nonexistence. They no longer say anything to us; they are dead. But these ingenuous stories, so simple in appearance, live on, full of life. We listen to them, and it is as if something happens with us, as if someone has glanced into the very depth of our life and said something which relates only to us, to me.”

The Lord’s parables have Old Testament traditional roots, uttered with the perfection and beauty on the lips of the God-Man. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, touches on people in all times and places. Our careful interpretation distinguishes its essential and accidental details. The typical parable teaches one truth that may be shared by other parables. A few parables have several truths to teach.

Most parables try to describe the Heavenly Father or the Lord Jesus Christ in His historical mission or in His future glory. Parables with two main characters usually show the Father and the Son. The Father’s love in sending His Son is the main teaching of the Lord Jesus. The parables disclose the new Kingdom that God plans for the world.

Differing scholars may count all the parables as between 27 and 50 in number. One scholar may call a parable what another calls a metaphor. One can also count them in terms of the three periods of the Savior’s earthly ministry. The first group has the parables told by Christ soon after the Sermon on the Mount, between the second and third Passovers of His ministry. This first group tells about conditions for spreading and strengthening the Kingdom of God: the parables of the sower, of the tares, of the seed growing secretly, of the mustard seed, of the pearl of great price, and others.

The Lord Jesus Christ told His second group of parables toward the end of the third year of His ministry. These parables tell of God’s love and kindness toward repentant people. Here belong the parables of the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the unmerciful servant, the good Samaritan, the fool-hardy rich man, the wise builder, the unrighteous judge, and others.

He told His third group of parables not long before His Passion on the Cross. They speak of God’s kindness and man’s accountability before God. These parables also foretell Christ’s Second Coming, the Dreaded Judgment, the punishment that will befall unbelievers, and the reward of eternal life that will befall the righteous. Here are the parables of the fruitless fig tree, the wicked husbandmen, the great supper, the talents, the ten virgins, the laborers in the vineyard, and certain others.

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