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Brigham Young University professor Gaye Strathearn likes to provide her students with a simple definition for the parables of Jesus Christ.

“Parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings,” said Strathearn, who teaches in BYU’s Department of Ancient Scripture and the Ancient Near East Studies program.

“I really like that definition because parables are very much set in the common, everyday life experience of the people Jesus was talking to. Of course, Jesus wasn’t the only one to teach in parables, but there is a meaning that transcends the earthly experience in the message.”

During his mortal ministry, the Savior used parables to engage his listeners who understood the meaning at different levels.

“Parables are a defining feature of the Lord Jesus Christ’s masterful approach to teaching,” Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught in his October 2022 general conference talk. “Simply defined, the Savior’s parables are stories used to compare spiritual truths with material things and mortal experiences.”

What Jesus said about parables

In Matthew 13:10, the disciples ask the Savior, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?”

Jesus responded: “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. … Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, by hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive. For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (Matthew 13: 9, 13-15).

In Matthew 13:11, the Savior also said it is given to some to know the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” Strathearn doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand the term, “mysteries.”

“A mystery is anything that needs help interpreting or understanding,” Strathearn said. “As Latter-day Saints, we talk about the gospel as ‘beautifully simple and simply beautiful,’ and that’s true at a certain level. But at another level it is deeply complex.”

The Lord sees eternally while people are wired for the here and now with a limited perspective, the professor said.

“My brain can’t get around eternity. I get little glimpses of it here and there, but the whole totality of it, I struggle to feel comfortable in my ability to understand and appreciate that, and I think Jesus understood that,” Strathearn said. “He’s starting where they are at, but He’s expecting His teachings to stretch them. He has considered deeply what He is saying for people wherever they are in their spiritual journey.”

Strathearn offered four keys to understanding the Savior’s parables as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepare to study the New Testament in 2023 through its “Come, Follow Me” curriculum.

1. Joseph Smith’s key to understanding parables

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