The study of parables is an interesting and profound way to learn many of the doctrines and teachings of Christ. They are more than stories; they are practical tools to reveal deep doctrinal truths. The primary purpose of a truth conveyed in a parable will never contradict other doctrinal scriptures; rather, other scriptures and prophecies more difficult to understand should always be interpreted to agree with the simplicity of the teachings of Christ. It is vital to examine parables with honesty and openness to grasp their true significance more fully. The tips below can help facilitate a sound approach to understanding the wonderful parables of Jesus Christ.
Consider the Literary Context
Study the context of the parable. Examine what is said in the text before and after the parable. Often, Jesus explicitly states the purpose or meaning of the parable told. The parable of the persistent widow and the judge in
Luke 18:2-6 could be badly misinterpreted without considering the context. One might infer by the story itself that God is unjust and uncaring. That is not the point of the parable; rather, Jesus stated the purpose in verse one: “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.”
Examine Details Correctly
Some parables have details that do not have great spiritual significance. They are given to enhance the story and to paint a picture illustrating an overriding spiritual truth. The parable of the unjust judge does not illustrate God but rather the details were used to demonstrate the importunity and tenacity of the widow. Be careful about attaching spiritual significance to every detail of a parable.
It is said that “a parable is not designed to walk on all fours.” Every detail is not a unique lesson or analogy. For this reason, parables are not always true allegories, as every detail does not have spiritual meaning. Assigning a meaning to every detail can derail the true meaning of a parable.
Observe Repeated Imagery
Many times images Jesus used are repeated in the Scripture and have similar meaning from parable to parable. Often, a master, judge, or king represents God. Workers and servants illustrate followers of God. Sheep represent children of God, and goats represent the unredeemed. A shepherd, keeper of the vineyard, or the son of a king often represents Christ.
What Prompted the Parable?
When Jesus told parables, He was sometimes answering a question or addressing an attitude of people present. In Luke 15, Jesus told parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Jesus told these parables in response to the Pharisees and scribes murmuring and saying, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them (v. 2).” Understanding what instigated these parables helps one understand the point of the parables. In this case it was to demonstrate God’s attitude toward sinners.
Look for the One Main Point
Parables are told to make a point. As you read, carefully examine the central truth that Jesus is communicating and do not forget the context or the reason Jesus told the story to begin with. To help keep focused on the point, consider the answers to these questions:
- What is the main contrast found in the parable?
- Who are the main characters?
- Who or what is the primary focus in the parable?
- What happens in the conclusion of the parable?
Study the Cultural & Historical Setting
Greater understanding of a parable can be derived when one has a greater understanding of the historical and cultural setting. Some parables allude to an event or practice that the Jews of the time understood. This is exemplified with the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. The man without a wedding garment was cast into outer darkness. One might feel badly for this poor man who did not have access to proper clothing until one learns that at the time Jesus told this story, it was the practice of the host to provide a proper garment for his guests. In reality, the man had chosen not to wear what was provided. This gives much greater understanding to the doctrinal truth of hell and punishment in this parable.
The interpretation of a parable should be in harmony with the rest of the scripture and the teachings of Christ and the apostles. While truths can be derived from a story, the reader must be careful about building a doctrine from what could be an improper interpretation of a parable. A parable is by definition a contrast between two things. If the parable is about the kingdom of God, the interpretation should be about the kingdom of God, not how the story applies to family, political events, etc. Remember, most parables have a singular meaning.
Throughout history people have assigned fanciful, allegorical meanings to some parables. This often contradicts the stated or implied purpose of the parable. Martin Luther called some allegorical interpretations of the parables “amazing twaddle” and “altogether useless.”
Analyze and Apply
After a parable has been read and analyzed for proper interpretation, it is important to apply the doctrine to oneself. What does this teach me about the kingdom of God and of things to come? How does this truth apply in my life? What would God have me to do?
The study of the parables will bring great blessings, challenges, and encouragement to the reader. Let us seek to know, study to understand, and pursue the knowledge of God that we may be found faithful at the coming of our Lord. ■