Frequently Asked Questions – How to Read a Parable

This blog is the fifth in a series of posts on questions that I get asked all the time in my role as a New Testament professor. This series will run through the summer of 2017. The first post on “Judgment, Paul, and Jesus” can be read HERE.

At Charleston Southern University I am blessed and humbled to be able to teach New Testament Survey every semester, and I get a constant stream of questions about the gospel, the Bible, and Christian practice. I am excited to get to share some of those questions and answers with you.

FAQ #5: How Do We Read a Parable?

If you were to ask anyone at your church what a parable is, they would likely give you a pretty good answer. Anyone who has read through the Gospels knows that parables are short (relatively speaking) stories about everyday people and things that teach a spiritual truth. In literary terms, parables are extended metaphors that are often dominated by the use of naturalistic imagery.

I am regularly asked by my students about how to make sense of this parable or that, and when my students have trouble interpreting a parable, it is typically because they are forgetting how and why a parable is constructed. So, let’s take a look in some detail at the nuts and bolts of interpreting a parable. You can find much more detailed versions of what is below in the books I’ve mentioned on the Reading List (FAQ 3).

— A parable often has an immediate set of circumstances. Start there. Very rarely are we given a parable that is floating out in narrative space. Most parables in the Gospels are put into a context by the Gospel writer or by Jesus himself. Frequently, these texts just before and immediately after the content of the parable tell us why Jesus tells the parable. Who the audience is. What Jesus wants to accomplish with the parable. Why the Gospel writer is giving us the parable at that point in the text and so on. Often, virtually everything we need to know is found in these “immediate circumstances” texts.

For example, in the introduction to the trio of parables in Luke 15—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons—Luke tells us who the audience is (the Pharisees) and why Jesus is telling the parable now (they are grumbling about his love for tax collectors and sinners), making it quite obvious what Jesus wants to accomplish with the parable. With the parable about the wicked workers in Matthew 21, it is the text right after the parable itself that discloses the entire meaning of the parable: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.” In some cases (e.g. Matthew 13), the follow-up text contains Jesus explaining every part of the parable. Don’t miss that!

Paying attention to the immediate circumstances of the parable will take you a long way toward properly interpreting it. Lifting the parable out of its Gospel context and making it some sort of universal saying like one of Aesop’s fables is a sure-fire way to misunderstand them.

— A parable always has a structure, often a repeating one. Find it. Like nearly all fiction, parables have a literary structure. They have an introduction, a rising action, a climax, and a resolution. The meaning of the parable is often found in the resolution after the climax. Most parables also have a repeating pattern. This repeating pattern helps keep the narrative simple and memorable and points to the meaning as well: “A sower went out to sow seed . . . and some seed fell . . . and some seed fell . . . and some seed fell . . .” Paying attention to the structure, especially the repetition, will help any careful reader see the simple, spiritual truth in Jesus’ parables.

For example, in the trio of parables in Luke 15, there is a clear repeating pattern. A sheep is lost and diligently sought, and when it is found there is great rejoicing. A coin is lost and diligently sought, and when it is found there is great rejoicing. A son is lost and diligently sought, and when he is found there is great rejoicing. At the end of each smaller parable, there is a mini resolution: There is rejoicing in heaven over sinners who are found. At the end of the parable of the two lost sons, however, only one son is found; the other is still lost, and the point of the parable is found in the resolution after the climax in the incredulity of the father: How could you be my son and share all that I have and still not know me at all. This is Jesus’ message to the Pharisees: How could you call yourselves experts on God and not know that God loves and wants to save tax collectors and sinners too!

Missing the structure of the parable, especially the repetition, is also a sure-fire way to misinterpret it.

— A parable usually has one main spiritual point. Don’t overdo it. Parables are not allegories nor are they overly complex in their structure or meaning. Many scholars believe that you should only find a single main point in a parable. Other scholars suggest you should look for as many main (but connected) points as there are major characters in the parable. What everyone agrees on is that parables are not broad, overly-complex allegories. The parable about the helpful Samaritan has a single point. Jesus, in a very visceral way, is answering the question: Who is my neighbor according to God’s Law? The other details are just there to make the story work. The donkey is just a donkey. The coins are just coins. And the bandages are just bandages. We shouldn’t then try to make every detail some deep or hidden spiritual truth.

That said, however, we should remember that parables are telling spiritual truths. These are not simple little morality tales that teach us to be nice to people or else. The parables contain truths with such deep gospel roots that their highest implications are hidden from people who have rejected that gospel (Matthew 13). We should never stretch a parable into something it is not, but we also should never be guilty of not giving a parable enough spiritual credit either.

If we will keep those three principles in mind, we will find the parables to be exactly as God intended: dramatic, powerful, and deeply spiritual conveyers of truth in terms so plain that only those who are intentionally spiritually blind cannot see.

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