Introduction. In this post, I’m going to rely on the list of “The Parables of Jesus” in my NIV study Bible; that list can be found here (page 12).
There are thirty-two parables from the Gospels in this list. There are no parables listed from John. There are three that appear in all the synoptic Gospels, and three that appear in both Matthew and Luke (but not in Mark). There are no parables that appear only in Mark and Matthew or only in Mark and Luke. Finally, there are two that appear in only Mark, ten that appear in only Matthew, and fourteen that appear in only Luke. I think that’s all the possible combinations.
First, I thought it would be interesting to see if there is something special about the three parables that appear in all three synoptic Gospels. Second, I thought it would be interesting to look at the two parables that appeared only in Mark: It’s often thought that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access to the Mark’s Gospel, so is there some reason they might have deliberately chosen not to include these two? And third, I thought it would be interesting to look at the three parables that appear in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.
Or, in other words, I’m looking at all the combinations except for the parables that appear only in Luke or only in Matthew. Note again that apparently there is no instance of Luke deciding to include a parable that also appears in Mark but Matthew deciding not to, or of Matthew deciding to include a parable that also appears on Mark but Luke deciding not to. That is, either both Matthew and Luke decided to include a parable from Mark, or neither did. I find that interesting, since it suggests that the authors of Matthew and Luke might have engaged in similar decisionmaking regarding the inclusion or not of the parables found in Mark.
(1) Of the three parables that appear in all three synoptic Gospels, two are about the kingdom of heaven, one short and one long. The short one likens the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed: “Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32; see also Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19. From small and obscure beginnings, Jesus is saying, the kingdom of heaven will become an awesome presence.
The longer one is found at Matthew 13:3-8, Mark 4:4-8, and Luke 8:5-8; it is also explicitly explained by Jesus at greater length in Matthew 13:10-23, Mark 4:10-25, and Luke 8:9-18.
The parable itself is similar in all three versions. Here’s the version in Matthew:
Then [Jesus] told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.
The main explanation of the parable is also similar in all three versions. Here’s the Luke version (Jesus is speaking):
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
But there are some difference among the three versions when Jesus explains why He uses parables. All begin by saying that the use of parables ensures precisely that some will understand and that others won’t, but the Matthew version is the longest:
[Jesus] replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
“In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
In Mark and Luke, there is further explanation along these lines after the explanation of the parable itself (some of this is found in the first three sentences of the passage from Matthew just quoted); here’s the Mark version:
[Jesus] said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”
“Consider carefully what you hear,” He continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
And I’ll note that what comes next differs in each version. In Matthew, Jesus tells another parable, and again it’s about planting (“The Weeds”). In Mark, too, Jesus tells another planting parable, though it’s a different one (“The Growing Seed”). And in Luke, Jesus does not tell another parable at all, but explains that His true family is not His mother and brothers but “those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:19-21). I hasten to say that these versions do not contradict one another, since the Gospel writers did not purport to include every event nor to put the events they did include into a strict chronological sequence.
And I’ll also note that what we have here is, in part, a parable about parables.
The third parable that appears in all three synoptic Gospels is about “The Wicked Tenants” and is found at Matthew 21:33-45, Mark 12:1-12, and Luke 20:9-19. They’re essentially the same in each book, and here’s the version in Mark:
Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed. He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all,saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:
‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest Him because they knew He had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left Him and went away.
It’s pretty easy to see why the Jewish establishment was unhappy with this parable. Not only is Jesus criticizing them for their lack of respect toward both God the Father and exposing their intent to murder His Son, but He foretells their doom and their replacement by non-Jews, quoting Scripture at them to boot.
Is there a common denominator among these three to explain why they, of all the parables, are the ones that appear in each synoptic Gospel? Well, I don’t know about a common denominator, but certainly each one has a lot to recommend its inclusion. It makes sense to include the parable that explains the use of parables, and the parable of the wicked tenants is perhaps the most unsparing in its criticism of those who reject God the Father and His Son, and illustrating how the kingdom of God will grow from obscurity to matchless glory is profoundly important, too (perhaps especially in the reassurance it would provide to those undertaking the Great Commission).
(2) Mark includes two short parables that do not appear anywhere else. Here’s the first (4:26-29, “The Growing Wheat”):
[Jesus] also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
And here’s the second (13:34-37, “The Traveling Owner of the House”):
It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
There does not seem to me to be anything problematic with these parables that would explain why Luke and Matthew might have decided to exclude them. To the contrary, the other authors might have decided not to include them simply because they would likely teach the reader very little — about spiritual growth and the need to be ready at all times for Jesus’ return — he wouldn’t already have gleaned from Jesus’ other teaching (the second parable is indeed very close to the third parable discussed in the next section about those parables appearing — conversely — in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark!). It’s actually rather reassuring that Luke and Matthew were thoughtful writers.
(3) Finally, and as I say conversely, there are three parables that both Matthew and Luke include but that are not found in Mark.
The first is very short — really a simple simile — with Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matthew 13:30; nearly identical wording at Luke 13:20-21). He is talking about the kingdom of heaven’s growth and transformative power.
The second is more famous: If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them is lost, he will leave the other ninety-nine and search for it, and when he finds it he is overjoyed. Likewise, Jesus continues, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-fine righteous persons who do not need to repent” — “your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” Luke 15:3-17; Matthew 18:12-14. Luke then continues with two more parables along the same lines: first, about a woman who has ten silver coins and loses one; and, second and most famously, the parable of the prodigal son.
The last parable found in both Luke and Matthew but not in Mark is a bit longer. Jesus is talking to His disciples about the Second Coming, and warns them that they should be watchful and always act righteously because it will happen unpredictably and, if they are not acting righteously, then they will suffer the consequences. The comparison he draws is with a manager left in charge while the master is away: If the master returns unexpectedly and finds the manager doing a good job, he will be pleased, but if the manager is found abusing his authority, then the master “will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 24:45-51; Luke 12:42-48.
Is there any reason we might guess regarding why these three parables were not included in Mark? Well, we should begin by recognizing that Mark is not only the shortest Gospel, it was also likely the earliest, and may have drawn on the fewest sources (Luke, in particular, seems to have systematically sought out a variety of witnesses). And it is often supposed that the authors of Luke and Matthew had Mark before them, and not vice versa. For all these reasons, we would expect there to be material — including parables — in Luke and Matthew not found in Mark.
To focus on one point in particular: Peter is often thought to have been Mark’s principal source. And Peter was presumably sometimes simply not there each time Jesus spoke, or he may simply have forgotten some parables or considered a particular parable’s teaching to have already been sufficiently covered. I will say in this regard, however, that it’s a little surprising that Mark does not include that last parable about the faithful-versus-unfaithful manager since, in Luke, it is prompted with a question asked by Peter.
Concluding thoughts. I’ll conclude with a few thoughts about the use of parables generally and why Jesus might have used them.
Jesus used them a lot. Mark says (4:33-34): “And with many such parables He was speaking the word to them as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable, but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.” And Jesus Himself acknowledged His habit of “speaking figuratively” (John 16:25; see also John 16:29-30).
And there are many things to commend the use of parables. Stories can be entertaining and interesting, and can certainly be more effective in capturing an audience’s attention. Effective public speakers still use stories. And, conversely, the use of stories to make a point has been around a long time. I’m no expert on ancient history, but even I have heard of Aesop’s fables, a similar genre. (I also recall the competing taglines at the end — “And the moral of his story is …” — in the cartoon versions of the “Aesop and Son” fables on Bullwinkle.)
Stories can also be more memorable and easier for members in the audience to retell than a straight lecture. That consideration would have been especially important in pre-print times.
Making a point more indirectly can also force people to think. And, by the way, that thinking can itself be enjoyable. Walker Percy wrote of the human mind’s pleasure in “casting about” for a given metaphor’s meaning.
The parable can also make the underlying assertion both easier to understand and more persuasive. When we try to explain something by saying, “It’s like when …,” that’s often what we’re doing: We’re trying to get someone to understand something unfamiliar by comparing it to something he knows, or we’re arguing that something that may seem counterintuitive actually makes sense based on a proven or commonly observed example.
Note that a parable is a way to mask what one is saying when the authorities might object (consider Revelation’s talking about Babylon rather than Rome). Relatedly, a parable can have more than one level of meaning, which can be desirable even if you aren’t masking. Recall that Jesus’ own explanation of why He is using parables (see the discussion of the parable of the sower of seeds above) hinges on when He wants the meaning to be widely understood and when not.
One last note: It’s not easy to come up with really good parables. That Jesus came up with so many is, one might say, providential.