Parables are a big part of what you find in the Gospel accounts in the New Testament. Contrary to popular belief, parables weren’t unique to the ministry of Jesus. They were well-known in his day and age. Sadly, throughout the history of Bible interpretation, parables have suffered quite a bit. One only needs to read Augustine on the good Samaritan, and one feels like he was on the in-crowd and I am clearly an outsider.
But isn’t that why Jesus taught in parables anyway? Those who perceive the mystery of the kingdom, are in, and those who do not, are outsiders (cf. Mk 4:10-12). Well not exactly. It is quite comforting to know that the disciples didn’t get the parables a lot of the time (cf. Mk 4:10, 33-34; 8:21), but that others who would seem to be on the outside of the kingdom, knew exactly what Jesus was talking about (cf. Lk 10:25-37, 15:1-16:14; Mat 21:45).
So why this talk about mystery, hearing and not hearing, etc.? Most likely, because the parables were misunderstood by the people just as they misunderstood the rest of Jesus’ ministry on earth. The mystery of the kingdom wasn’t given to them, not because they failed to understand the parables, but because they failed to understand who Jesus, the embodiment of the kingdom, was and what he came to do. And therefore they misunderstood most of the parables. That said, how can we understand them?
Here are some basic principles to keep in mind:
The Nature of a Parable: The word “parable” comes from two Greek words that combined mean “to throw alongside.” A parable is a story “thrown alongside” the lives of the listeners that seeks to bring across a certain point by means of analogy. It’s designed to trigger a response in the hearers. It is crucial to note that parables are first and foremost an oratory device. They were intended to be heard rather than read and analyzed. However, since we were not part of the crowd who originally heard them, we have to put some effort in.
The Context of the Parable: What happens before and after the parable and how does the parable fit in? For example, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 is enclosed by the story of the rich young ruler (19:16-30) and the disciples’ desire to be the first in the kingdom (20:20-28). All of these episodes are held together by the concept of “first shall be last and last shall be first” (19:30, 20:16, 20:27). The parable only really functions as intended when viewed in this context.
If there is a string of parables, we ought to look for common themes and reappearing concepts, such as the lost-and-found parables in Luke 15, the be-ready parables in Matthew 24:36-25:30, or the kingdom-growth parables in Mark 4. All of these parables have one main point that is communicated in different ways and perhaps with different emphases.
Audience: Parables were spoken rather than read. We have to identify the audience and their situation in order to make sense of the parable.
For example, the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) only makes sense when you understand who Jesus is telling it to and how shocking of a message this was for the recipient. Telling a Pharisee that a Samaritan understood and lived out the meaning of the Torah more than he did, was a big insult. So, establishing the audience is key to understanding the meaning of a given parable.
Points of reference: Identify the parties in the parable with the parties in the audience or context and establish points of similarity in order to find the pivotal idea of the parable.
For example, the well-known parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32, was addressed to the Pharisees (Lk 15:1-3) who grumbled at the fact that Jesus communed with the outsiders of society. Often, when this is talked about or preached, the bulk of the talk centers on the prodigal, but when you look closely, this may not have been Jesus’ intention.
The pivotal idea in the parable is not the fact that the younger son left and then returned to the father, but it’s the reaction of the older son to the younger son’s return. When hearing the parable, the reaction of the older son seems very out of place, which is exactly Jesus’ point. Who wouldn’t be happy about the restoration of a family member? You, the Pharisees! The detailed story of the prodigal serves mainly to engage the hearers emotionally. They are being prepared to both marvel at the Father’s love and grace and to be shocked by the hardness of heart of the older son.
The key point: A parable usually has one main point it seeks to get across. Identify this main point. This is what triggers a reaction in the audience. This main point has to be transferred and applied in our own context. However, beware of establishing theological concepts on parables that you don’t find in the teaching passages of the New Testament.
These basic principles will help us arrive at a sound understanding of the parables of Jesus. Next in our series, we will look at New Testament letters.