When people think about parables in the Bible, they often think about Jesus.

There’s a good reason for the association of Jesus with biblical parables; he often taught those who came to listen to him with enigmatic short stories and analogies.

But, we actually find parables in the Old Testament too.

One of the most famous parables occurs in 2 Samuel 12, where the prophet Nathan confronts David in his sin against Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah the Hittite.

Here’s the parable Nathan tells David,

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” – 2 Samuel 12:1b–4 NRSV

This little short story elicits an angry response from David. In fact, David clamors for justice to be brought upon the perpetrator in the story.

Nathan exclaims to David that he is, in fact, the victimizing individual in the story because of his sexual sin, abuse of power, and murder of an innocent and upright man.

The juicy drama and the fast-paced narrative of David’s life often stop us from considering that we learn a lot about how parables function and how we can best understand their meaning.

Yet, in this brief parable from Nathan and David’s reaction to it, we can identify both the design and intent of parables.

A parable is a short story, proverb, or riddle meant to challenge one’s notions and provoke change in one’s life—if the hearer’s heart is ready to understand and apply the message.

Often, when we read the parables of Jesus, we read them as cute stories, fit for children’s ears, and we almost always read ourselves somewhere in the parable in a way that makes us feel like we’re on the right side of the equation.

But, if parables are meant to challenge us and compel us to change, then we would do well to reorient ourselves with them, read them with fresh eyes, and hear them with new ears.

Additionally, Nathan’s parable for David used analogous imagery that David understood so that the power of the message wouldn’t go over his head. Parables are meant to be understood, but for us to understand, we need to read them within the social, cultural, and historical context within which they were initially uttered.

Finally, and this last point is most important, parables were meant to be applied to our lives when we understand them.

In the gospels, Jesus often says that he teaches in parables “so that looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’” At first, what I’ve just said in comparison to what Jesus says can sound contradicting. You might ask, “If parables are meant to be understood, why would Jesus say that he speaks in parables so that people won’t perceive or understand?”

Well, Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6:9. In this passage, Isaiah raises his hand in service to God, offering to speak his word to the people. God, however, lets Isaiah know that the people would not listen. Still, Isaiah was tasked with communicating the word of God until God’s judgment came upon the people of Judah, leading to their exile.

The point is this: the hope of the parable is for people to listen, understand, and change, but, too often, they won’t.

David repented after hearing Nathan’s parable.

When Jesus’ followers hear the word and understand, they change too.

We get in trouble when we short-change parables by misunderstanding and misapplying them, and when we fail to hear and heed their challenge.

We’re going to embark on a series of Jesus’s short stories for change in the Gospel of Luke. It’s our hope that you’ll open your eyes and ears to the challenge of Jesus and to be changed by the word of God.