Many of us grow up with simple stories that carry us to faraway places, both real and imaginary, to teach us valuable lessons and guiding principles. These stories are called parables. From “The Good Samaritan” to the “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” parables seep into our subconscious and we carry them with us long after the storybook has closed.
A parable is a short, fictitious story that is presented to teach a religious principle, simple truth or moral lesson. Parables can be told in either verse or prose and commonly use metaphors as a literary device. They are often religious or spiritual, but the term can apply to any short story that teaches life lessons or principles including fairy tales and narratives from religious texts.
The New Testament of the Holy Bible contains many parables delivered by Jesus in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Parables were one of Jesus’ go-to methods of preaching the Gospel as they allowed him to share valuable lessons about loving each other and doing good works in the form of a story.
“Parable of the Sower” - Matthew 13:3-8
“Parable of the Weeds” - Matthew 13:24-30
“Parable of the Mustard Seed” - Matthew 13:31-32
“Parable of the Yeast” - Matthew 13:33
“Parable of the Hidden Treasure” - Matthew 13:44
“Parable of the Pearl” - Matthew 13:45-46
“Parable of the Fishing Net” - Matthew 13:47-50
“Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” - Matthew 18:23-35
“Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” - Matthew 20:1-16
“Parable of the Two Sons” - Matthew 21:28-32
“Parable of the Tenants” - Matthew 21:33-46
“Parable of the Wedding Banquet” - Matthew 22:1-14
“Wise and Faithful Servants” - Matthew 24:45-51
“Parable of the Ten Virgins” - Matthew 25:1-13
“Parable of the Talents” - Matthew 25:14-30
“Parable of the Growing Seed” - Mark 4:26-29
“Traveling Owner of the House” - Mark 13:34-37
“New Cloth on an Old Coat” - Luke 5:36
“New Wine in Old Wineskins” - Luke 5:37-38
“Wise and Foolish Builders” - Luke 6:47-49
“Forgiven Debts” - Luke 7:36-50
“Parable of the Good Samaritan” - Luke 10:25-37
“Friend at Midnight” - Luke 11:5-10
“Parable of the Rich Fool” - Luke 12:16-21
“Unfruitful Fig Tree” - Luke 13:6-9
“Jesus at a Pharisee’s House” - Luke 14:7-11
“Parable of the Great Banquet” - Luke 14:16-24
“Parable of the Lost Sheep” - Luke 15:3-7
“Parable of the Lost Coin” - Luke 15:8-10
“Parable of the Prodigal Son” - Luke 15:11-32
“Parable of the Shrewd Manager” - Luke 16:1-12
“Parable of the Persistent Widow” - Luke 18: 1-8
“Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” - Luke 18:9-14
“Parable of the Good Shepherd” - John 10: 1-5 and 11-18
While many of the most famous parables in the Bible are found in the New Testament and Jesus’ teachings, the Old Testament also used parables to pass down stories and lessons.
“The Eagles and the Vine” - Ezekiel 17:2-10
“The Lioness and Her Cubs” - Ezekiel 19:2-9
“The Boiling Cauldron” - Ezekiel 24:3-5
“The Almond Tree” - Jeremiah 1:11-14
“Trees Making a King” - Judges 9:8-15
“The Wasted Vineyard” - Isaiah 5:1-7
“Samson: Strong Bringing Forth Sweetness” - Judges 14:14
“The Poor Man's Ewe Lamb” - 2 Samuel 12:1-4
“Woman of Tekoah” - 2 Samuel 14:1-13
“The Escaped Prisoner” - 1 Kings 20:35-40
“Nebuchadnezzar's Dream of the Great Image” - Daniel 2:31-45
“Four Chariots and Horses” - Zecheriah 6:1-8
The Bible has many famous parables in both the Old and New Testaments where Jesus and other prophets use the power of story to illustrate virtues.
In this parable, Nathan confronts King David with a tale of a rich man (David himself) and a poor man. The rich man has many flocks and herds, but the poor man has only an ewe lamb, which he does not slaughter but raises as part of his family. The rich man ends up taking the poor man’s ewe lamb and serving it to his guests.
In short, the rich man took from another rather than his own flock. The parable draws comparisons between an earlier event in which David slept with the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah (the poor man). In other words, Nathan calls David out for abusing his power and position using a parable as a mirror to show David the consequences of his actions.
The famed parable of the Good Samaritan was delivered by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke 10:30-37. It describes a Jewish traveler who is beaten, stripped and left for dead on the side of a road. The men pass by the traveler but ignore him. Eventually, a Samaritan man stops and helps the traveler even though the Jews and Samaritans hated each other.
The message of this parable is to love your neighbor as yourself, even if that neighbor is meant to be your enemy. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous with someone who helps others, and several charities and hospitals take their name from the Good Samaritan.
In this tale, a man has two sons, and the younger son asks for a portion of his inheritance, which the father grants. This son is a prodigal, meaning wasteful or extravagant. He quickly spends his fortune and is left with nothing. He winds up going back home to beg his father to take him in as a servant.
His older brother shuns him, but his father embraces him and says, "you are ever with me, and all that I have is yours, but thy younger brother was lost and now he is found." The father takes his son back with open arms and the Prodigal Son is redeemed through his father’s love.
Like parables, fables are short stories that are passed down through generations to teach lessons that will help children. Fairy tales typically have elements of fantasy and magic that distinguish them from fables and parables. Ultimately, parables, fables and fairy tales are all used to teach children lessons.
parable - a short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson
fable - a story featuring animals, inanimate objects or nature as the protagonist
fairy tale - a children’s story elements of magic that may or may not have a moral lesson
While there are differences between parables, fables and fairy tales, fables and fairy tales can also be parables because they instill life lessons and moral values into children while also telling an entertaining story.
“The Ant and the Grasshopper” - Aesop
“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” - Aesop
“The Fox and the Crow” - Aesop
“The Lion and the Mouse” - Aesop
“The Tortoise and the Hare” - Aesop
“The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” - Aesop
“Cinderella” - Charles Perrault
“Hansel and Gretel” - The Brothers Grimm
“Beauty and the Beast” - Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve
“The Emperor's New Clothes” - Hans Christian Andersen
“The Little Match Girl” - Hans Christian Andersen
Aesop’s Fables contains many recognizable parables with timeless, universal lessons. An enduring classic is “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the tale of a shepherd boy who repeatedly cries “wolf” to trick nearby villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking his flock. When a wolf actually does appear, he cries out and no one comes. The wolf then eats the flock and the boy. The message here is to not give false alarms, lie or mislead others.
Fairy tales have always been a great way to share parables with life lessons. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” depicts a vain emperor who spends lavish amounts on clothing. Two swindlers pose as tailors and promise him fine garments that are invisible to those who are stupid or beneath him. All the emperor’s subjects can clearly see that there are no clothes, but they go along with it to avoid being thought of as a fool. After the tailors declare the clothes are finished, the emperor sets off on a procession before the city.
The citizens go along with the farce because no one wants to question the emperor, but finally, a child cries out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything. This applies to situations where people are afraid to point out the obvious for fear of appearing foolish or going against the majority.
Besides the well-known parables found in the Bible or childhood fairytales, there are other parables that convey valuable life lessons through deceptively simple stories.
“The Obstacle in our Path” - Teaches that removing an obstacle can be a way to improvement
“The Story of the Butterfly” - Shows that sometimes we need struggles to grow
“The Brick” - Teaches that going too fast can have bad consequences
“Frog in a Milk Pail” - Shows that the frog never gave up and eventually got out of the pail
“Three Bananas in the Morning and Four in the Afternoon” - Teaches that rephrasing something does not really change the meaning
“3 Frogs” - Asks if three frogs were on a log and one decided to jump, how many were left. The answer is three because the frog only made a decision but did not take action.
“The River” - Shows the importance of stopping something at the source rather than at the end results.
Stories can teach us important lessons that guide us through life, faith and difficult times. In addition to parables, such stories can take the form of allegories, fairy tales and fables.