Reading Parables Without Missing the Point

I want to offer a word of caution as we read parables. We need to think about how we are approaching these stories so that we’re not expecting them to be something they’re not.

Let me use a parable of sorts to explain what I mean. Suppose that Kelly and I were going to watch a movie. And, suppose that it was Kelly’s turn to pick the movie we were going to watch. Now, suppose that Kelly picked “Little Women” or “Sense and Sensibility” – both clearly long and sweeping, romantic dramas – what one might even call “chick flicks”.

Now, aside from the first question of whether or not I can even bring myself to watch these movies, it would be very important for me to approach watching these movies in the right way.

If I go into those movies looking for action, blood and guts, or non-stop laughs, I am going to be sorely disappointed. Even if I could agree that the movie was good – good acting, good cinematography, good character development, good musical scoring – if I’m expecting the movie to be a comedy or an action movie then I won’t find what I’m looking for.

In earlier times in the church’s history, biblical scholars used a method of interpretation that included a lot of allegory. Simply put, an allegory is a story where every character, item, or event signifies some other thing. Those medieval interpreters had a heyday with the parables. They found hidden allegorical meanings to every element of the parables. A coin meant this; a bird meant that; the type of tree meant another thing…

But that sort of reading misses the point of parables.

When we pay attention to their context we will find that the parables have one clear and pointed impact related to one fundamental issue. So, we need to look at the situation or questions that prompted the story. We need to connect the parable where appropriate with what Jesus was teaching in and around the story so that we can get the main point.

Parables have one clear and pointed impact related to one fundamental issue.

When we read or listen to parables we shouldn’t try to find secret meanings in every nook and cranny of the story, but try to listen – with the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit – for the strong, power-packed point on the main issue that hits us like swift punch in the gut.

And when we truly get it – when we have “ears to hear,” as Jesus said – that point may in fact knock us off our feet. That’s precisely what a parable is supposed to do.

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