How Should We Read Jesus’ Parables?: some basic guidance

Jesus knew we loved stories and so He spoke from stories quite a bit of the time. The type of stories he used were called parables. What is a parable? A parable is often defined as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” It’s a story that deals with earthy things in order to talk about deeper things.

The word ‘parable’ comes from two Greek words:

  • Para: which means “alongside”
  • Bole: which means “to throw”

So parable literally means “to throw alongside” or “to compare.” As Stuart Briscoe says: “A parable is a story designed to compare that which is patently obvious to that which may not be obvious at all.”[1]

Jesus used parables to draw His hearers in by talking about everyday things they were familiar with: taxes, fishing, house cleaning, farming, family…

But as He drew the story to a close it became clear—for those who were really listening—that He was also hitting at a deeper meaning. He was opening up a discussion about unseen things by talking about things we could see. He was talking about spiritual truth through everyday things.

But how should we read parables? Let me first offer a word of caution that weneed 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 we were going to watch a movie and suppose that someone picked “Little Women” or “Sense and Sensibility,” both clearly long and sweeping, romantic dramas. Now, it would be very important for me to approach watching these movies in the right way. If I approach viewing 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 may not understand the point of the movie and may not even think it’s good.

In earlier times in the church’s history, biblical scholars used a method of interpretation that included a lot of allegory. Allegories are stories where nearly every character, item, or event signifies some other thing. Those earlier interpreters provided a wide variety of meanings particularly when it came to interpreting parables, where allegorical or spiritual meanings were linked to many elements within the parables.

While allegorical interpretation does have some value in certain ways, this is not usually how we are supposed to read parables, unless Jesus makes it abundantly clear that such meanings are there. “Parables are not allegories – even if at times they have what appear to us to be allegorical features.”[2]

When we pay attention to their context—the situation or questions that prompted the story—we will find that the 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.

So, as we approach the reading and interpretaton of parables, let us pray God will help us to hear the main idea Christ was speaking then and is speaking to us here and now today.

[1] Stuart Briscoe, Patterns for Power (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1979), 5.

[2] Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 138.

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