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.

The Living Parables of Jesus: Jesus’ non-verbal teaching in Matthew 21

If you want to write a good story, one of the golden rules is “Show, don’t tell.”

“Show, don’t tell” means that you don’t tell your read a situation is scary. Instead, you help the reader enter into the terror by describing it. “The darkness descended at night and an eerie stillness surrounded the trailer park. As he walked toward his destination, a prickly feeling crept up his neck that something bad was about to happen.” You don’t tell the reader everyone was joyful at the party. No, instead you open the joy to them. “As she entered the room and everyone shouted, ‘Happy birthday!’ she felt as if her heart would burst. All those people she loved finally in one room. She could hardly believe it was real.”

When good writers “show” instead of “telling” they create doorways by which the reader can enter the experience of the story. They create “ways in” by which the reader can live inside the world the writer has created. 

“Show, don’t tell” becomes a doorway into a new reality.

Jesus does that too. When Jesus enters Jerusalem at Passover, He steps away from verbal teaching and into enacted teaching. He dramatically serves up lived parables to create doorways for His hearers to enter a new reality they can live within. Jesus invited them, and us, to respond to Him through His showing, not telling.

With Jerusalem swelling from its normal 30,000 inhabitants to nearly 180,000 during Passover, Jesus rides a donkey from the Mount of Olives into the city. His actions call to mind the words of the prophet Zechariah as He takes this route in this way into the city. As Jesus draws near to the Temple precincts, He enters the court and turns over the tables of the money changes and the benches of those selling doves. Jesus conjures up in His viewers’ imagination the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees in 164 BC after the desecration of it by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. There is a new cleansing and rededication needed. Shortly thereafter, Jesus curses a dense but fruitless fig tree while walking from Bethany to Jerusalem. More than just Jesus being “hangry,” He is pointing out the apparent life within the established religion, but the lack of fruit that is there.

In Jerusalem, right there in the Temple, Jesus is displaying that not only is He a prophet but, even more, He is the Messiah. His surprising actions – turning over the tables, casting out the cursing the fig tree – all serve as doorways – “ways in” – to the reality that He has come to bring the fullness of God’s kingdom to earth. He shows, not just tells, that there is something new happening in Him.

[This is an excerpt of my message, “The Withering of the Old Ways.”]

Bibliography for Stories of the Kingdom: the parables of Jesus

When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share resources I utilized in my study and preparation for sermons. Here is the bibliography for our recent series, “Stories of the Kingdom: the parables of Jesus,” which is the fifth part of an extended walk through the Gospel of Matthew, focusing on Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13.

Bibliography for “Stories of the Kingdom: the parables of Jesus” [Gospel of Matthew, part 5]

Kenneth E. Bailey. Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983.

________. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008.

Craig L. Blomberg. Interpreting the Parables, 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity, 2012.

Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts. Matthew. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

Michael Joseph Brown. “The Gospel of Matthew.” In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian K. Blount, 85-120. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007.

John Calvin. A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Volume 1. Trans. By A. W. Morrison. Calvin’s Commentaries. Ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.

John Chrysostom. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. NPNF, series 1, vol. 10. Ed. by Philip Schaff. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.

C. H. Dodd. The Parables of the Kingdom. New York: Collins, 1961.

R. T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

Joachim Jeremias. Rediscovering the Parables of Jesus. London: SCM Press, 2012.

Craig S. Keener. Matthew. IVPNTC. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997.

Scot McKnight. “Matthew, Gospel of.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 526-541. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.

Manlio Simonetti, editor. Matthew 1-13. ACCS. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001.

Klyne R. Snodgrass. “Parable.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 591-601. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.

________. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr. Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, 5th edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992.

The Treasure, the Pearl, and the Net

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I concluded our series, “Stories of the Kingdom: Parables of Jesus,” by looking at three parables of Jesus: the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great prices, and the net of fish. All of these parables, as well as Jesus concluding comments, are found in Matthew 13:44-52. These three brief parables open up to us some profound realities about God’s kingdom.

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”  (Matthew 13:44)

The Parable of the Treasure and the Pearl (Matthew 13:44-46)

  • The kingdom of God is more valuable than anything else
  • The disciples’ wholehearted response to God’s kingdom will be evident to all
  • Those who find the kingdom of God receive the gift now

The Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-50)

  • The present reality: good and bad fish intermixing in the water
  • The future gathering: gathering all kinds with God as judge
  • The future destiny: the wicked cast away and the righteous kept

Bringing Out the Old and the New

  • Jesus is the fulfillment of the law
  • Disciples of Jesus are teachers of both old and new

Dig Deeper:

This week dig deeper into Jesus’ parables in one or more of the following ways:

  • Journal about one of these three parables, expressing your thoughts about them, what God is teaching you through them, as well as your prayers to God about them.
  • Draw, paint, or ink the parables as a way of reflecting on what Jesus is saying and praying about your own response to the Lord.
  • Parables are stories that take everyday things and bring forth deeper, spiritual meanings. Consider how you would describe what God’s kingdom is all about through your own parable. Maybe you could tell it to someone else or write it down to share with others.
  • Consider exploring more of Jesus’ parables by reading “All the Parables of Jesus” at the Jesus Film Project or reading Craig L. Blomberg’s book, Interpreting the Parables.

Eastbrook at Home – September 5, 2021


Join us for worship with Eastbrook Church through Eastbrook at Home at 8, 9:30, and 11 AM.

We continue our series, “Stories of the Kingdom: Parable of Jesus,” as I preach on the parables of the treasure in the field, the pearl, and the net from Matthew 13:44-50.

This series continues our extended journey through the Gospel of Matthew, which includes our previous series “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” “Becoming Real,” and “The Messiah’s Mission.”

We also continue in-person services at 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 AM this weekend at the Eastbrook Campus, and you no longer need to RSVP ahead of time.

If you are new to Eastbrook, we want to welcome you to worship and would ask you to text EBCnew to 94000 as a first step into community here at Eastbrook.

Each Sunday at 8, 9:30, and 11 AM, you can participate with our weekly worship service at home with your small group, family, or friends. This service will then be available during the week until the next Sunday’s service starts. You can also access the service directly via Vimeo, the Eastbrook app, or Facebook.

If you are not signed up for our church emailing list, please sign up here. Also, please remember that during this time financial support for the church is critical as we continue minister within our congregation and reach out to our neighborhood, city, and the world at this challenging time. Please give online or send in your tithes and offerings to support the ministry of Eastbrook Church.