Interpreting Parables

“Interpret parables strictly according to the special principles required by this type of literature” (McQuilkin’s Guideline #6 under Principle 1)

1. What is a parable?

Definition: A parable is “a true-to-life short story designed to teach a truth or to answer a question” (McQ 153).

The true- to- life story is not the record of an historic event, but it is something that could have happened. Some have said that the parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

Example: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

Not all passages which have been designated a parable fit this definition. For example, Matthew 13:33 is designated a parable but there is no story: “Another parable He spoke to them: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened’” (Matt.13:33).

2. Kinds of Parables

A. The Story Parable

The story parable has a beginning, middle, and an end. It is not legitimate to treat each detail as having a spiritual application. Many of the details are there to build up the story. It is a realistic story usually making one main point

Example: The Lost Son & Loving Father (Luke 15:11-32)

B. Similitude

The similitude is more like an illustration taken from everyday life. When the text says “The kingdom of heaven is like,” it is saying that the kingdom of heaven is illustrated by the following situation.

Example: Matthew 13:44 (note Matt.13:31 - “Another parable he put forth to them”), “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

C. Allegory, Metaphor

In John 10:1-16, Jesus presents Himself as the Good Shepherd. Some would say that this is not a parable but an allegory (an extended metaphor) because there are many points of comparison (See McQuilkin, bottom of page 192 and the top of page 193). In verse 6, the Greek word paramia is translated “parable” in the KJV, “illustration” in the NKJV, and “figure of speech” in the NIV.

3. Comparison of Parables and Allegories

A few story parables are very close to allegory. Many of the details in the story are intended to represent something else. For example, in the parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), Jesus explains the details in verses 36-43:

  • The One who sows the seed = the Son of Man
  • The field = the world
  • The good seeds = the sons of the kingdom
  • The tares = the sons of the wicked one
  • The enemy = the devil
  • The harvest = the end of the age
  • The reapers = the angels

Ordinarily we should not interpret the details of a parable in this way, but in this case we have the authority of Jesus Christ Himself to do so.

1. A parable is realistic but an allegory might not be.

2. Both the parable and the allegory will have a central theme but the parable was created to make one central point while the allegory might be created to teach several related truths.

4. Characteristics of Parables

  1. They are clear, concise, and simple in detail. This means that they are easily understood by everybody
  2. They speak of familiar experience, the experience of everyday life
  3. The parables are kingdom-centred; they point to the Kingdom of God.
  4. The ending of the parable is significant. Often it is surprising, a reversal of what was expected.
  5. Usually the parable has a single main point that Jesus wants to drive home. It is often found in the ending.

5. Why did Jesus use parables?

1. Jesus used the parables to stir up thinking. His goal was not to entertain the people, but rather to make the truth clear and to show how it should influence daily life. The parables did not encourage passive listening. They demanded a response.

2. The parables obscured the truth for those who refused to respond.

The Parable of the Sower can be found in three Gospels. All the accounts include a small section on the reason Jesus used parables followed by an explanation of the parable: Mark 4:10-12; Matthew 13:10-17; Luke 8:9, 10.

Note Mark 4:10-12, “And He said to them, ‘To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that

‘Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Lest they should turn,
And their sins be forgiven them.’”

This saying is followed by Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower which He interpreted in a semi-allegorical way (vv.13-20). In the past this passage was used to open the way to allegorical interpretations. As Fee says in How to Read the Bible . . ., “The parables were considered to be simple stories for those on the outside, to whom the ‘real meanings,’ the ‘mysteries’, were hidden; these belonged only to the church and could be uncovered by means of allegory” (pp.123, 124).

  • Augustine’s interpretation of The Good Samaritan presented in How to Read the Bible . . . (p.124) is an example of this approach.
    • A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho = Adam
    • Jerusalem = the heavenly city of peace, from which Adam fell
    • Jericho = the moon, and thereby signifies Adam’s mortality
    • thieves = the devil and his angels
    • stripped him = namely, of his immortality
    • beat him = by persuading him to sin
    • and left him half-dead = as a man he lives, but he died spiritually, therefore he is half-dead
    • The priest and Levite = the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament
    • The Samaritan = is said to mean Guardian; therefore Christ himself is meant
    • bound his wounds = means binding the restraint of sin
    • oil = comfort of good hope
    • wine = exhortation to work with a fervent spirit
    • beast = the flesh of Christ’s incarnation
    • inn = the church
    • the morrow = after the Resurrection
    • two-pence = promise of this life and the life to come
    • innkeeper = Paul

There is an obvious meaning to this parable. The lawyer certainly understood what it meant (Luke 10:37), but Augustine thought there must be some hidden meaning that was hidden from the average listener. That thinking took him far from the purpose of Jesus in telling the parable.

  • The usual reason that people didn’t receive a parable is that they didn’t like the teaching
    • Luke 20:9-18 (The parable of the tenants)
    • Did they understand?
    • see v.19!
    • so what was hidden from them?

6. Interpreting Parables

The parables were originally spoken by Jesus. Usually the listeners would understand the main teaching because they were there, knew the situation, and could identify easily with the characters described.

The parables come to us in written form. We were not there when they were originally spoken. We may not fully understand the situation, and may not be able to identify with the characters. Therefore there is some need of interpretation.

In their book How to Read the Bible (p.133), Fee and Stuart present a modern version of the Good Samaritan to help us experience the impact of the first telling. “As an audience it assumes a typical, well-dressed, middle-American Protestant congregation.”

A family of disheveled, unkempt individuals was stranded by the side of a major road on a Sunday morning. They were in obvious distress. The mother was sitting on a tattered suitcase, hair uncombed, clothes in disarray, with a glazed look to her eyes, holding a smelly, poorly clad, crying baby. The father was unshaved, dressed in coveralls, the look of despair as he tried to corral two other youngsters. Beside them was a run-down old car that had obviously just given up the ghost.

Down the road came a car driven by the local bishop; he was on his way to church. And though the father of the family waved frantically, the bishop could not hold up his parishioners, so he acted as if he didn’t see them.

Soon came another car, and again the father waved furiously. But the car was driven by the president of the local Kiwanis Club and he was late for a statewide meeting of Kiwanis presidents in a nearby city. He too acted as if he did not see them, and kept his eyes straight on the road ahead of him.

The next car that came by was driven by an outspoken local atheist, who had never been to church in his life. When he saw the family’s distress, he took them into his own car. After inquiring as to their need, he took them to a local motel, where he paid for a week’s lodging while the father found work. He also paid for the father to rent a car so that he could look for work and gave the mother cash for food and new clothes.

Obviously, this version does not present a completely equivalent situation, but it does shock us somewhat, reminding us of how the lawyer must have felt when he was confronted with a “good’ Samaritan who for him would be virtually the same as an atheist for us.

The parables were not comfortable, “nice” stories. They were intended to provoke a reaction; they should provoke a reaction in us also.

Credit: Much of this page makes use of material from Sheila Evans