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Genre: Parable November 25, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in Genre.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Hello all. Today is parable day. I am excited to talk about parables because I think they are extremely important. This is the main way Jesus chose to communicate to the people. Even though parables are important and show up a lot in the Gospels, they are often misunderstood or worse, misinterpreted.

The word parable comes from the Greek – parabole, which is literally “to cast along side”. The Greek word had a wider range of meanings than our word in English. It covers the whole spectrum from short statements that are no more than extended allegories (where only one idea is being conveyed)  to longer stories that we would call allegories with multiple meanings being conveyed. Parables are stories that have a surface meaning, but are used to reflect a deeper secondary meaning.

Before we get into how to interpret parables, it is important to understand why Jesus used them. I would say that there are basically two purposes that Jesus used parables for. First, because parables are story based, they are easy to remember and they can be used to cut to our hearts without getting caught up in our brains. We enjoy stories and they speak to us in ways that normal dialogue doesn’t. Secondly, Jesus used parables to separate out the hungry. There is a mystery to the parables and it takes some time to understand their messages. Mark 4:10-12 shows the disciples asking Jesus about a parable and he tells them that some people will not understand him. I think Jesus purposely used parables so that those who were truly seeking would press in and try to understand the message. The disciples were the ones who came to Jesus to ask him the meaning of the parable. Their curiosity turned them in the right direction – to Jesus. I’m sure some of the people in the crowds were wondering about the parables also, but whatever response they had, it did not bring them closer to Jesus.

So, how do we interpret parables? Like I said before, parables are stories that have a secondary meaning they are trying to convey. Our goal is to find out what that meaning is. I like to think of parables as jokes. Their meaning is found in the punchline. Usually a parable will have “punchline” where there will be a twist on the expected result. Take for instance the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37. The story is that a man is beaten, robbed and left for dead. Both a priest and a Levite come along and pass right by him, but then a Samaritan comes and takes care of him. It is hard to understand this parable without understanding the context. The priests and Levites were the religious leaders and so should have been the ones to help out the injured man. The Samaritans were social outcasts. They were a polluted mixed race that were viewed with extreme prejudice. Some people would even walk miles out of their way just to avoid walking through the same area where the Samaritans lived so that they wouldn’t contaminate themselves with their soil. Anyway, they were not liked and it was a definite reversal for the only one to help out was the last person expected. We need to try and see how the original hearers would have been affected by the parables. Most of the things Jesus said were radical and sometimes made people extremely mad.  Because of our cultural distance it is hard for us to see some of these things, but we can still try and see the big picture idea of what the parables are about.

When reading a parable there is usually one main idea being conveyed. In the parable above the main idea is discovering who your neighbor is. Our job is to find out what that main idea is. When we read a parable the first thing we need to do is read the surrounding context. Often Jesus is using a parable to answer a question or to teach a lesson. If we don’t know the question the parable is answering then we won’t fully understand the parable. Although parables usually have one meaning, sometimes Jesus is trying to teach more than one thing through them. Take for example the parable of the prodigal son. This story is not just about the younger son who squandered his wealth and finally came back to his family. The story is also about the older son who had been there all along and didn’t realize what he had. Therefore, when we read a parable, primarily we should look for the main meaning, but if there are other characters that seem important we should look to see if there might be something we can gain from their part of the story. Parables are intentionally short and details are limited, so when we are presented with things we should see if they are being used to represent something.

A word of caution: It is possible to over analyze a parable. Whatever meaning we can derive from a parable has to fit within the context of the book it is written in and not every detail needs to have a hidden meaning. Try and hear it from the listeners perspective. How would they have interpreted it. As an example St. Augustine had a radical interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He said that the man represented Adam, Jerualem was heaven, Jericho was the moon, the robbers were the devil and his minions who strip the man of his immortality through sin, the priest and levite were the law and the ministry of the OT, the samaritan was Christ, the binding of the wounds was Christ’s work at binding sin, the oil was comfort and encouragement, the donkey was the Incarnation, the inn was the Church, the term “next day” was the resurrection, the innkeeper was Paul, and the two denarii were the two great commandments to love God and love your neighbor. This may be a nice picture of salvation, but it has nothing to do with the parable. Every analogy breaks down if you take it too far, and in the same way if try to impart too much meaning into the details, the parable will break down.


Parables are short stories with a purpose to impart a message

Look for the intended message, without overlooking possible other meanings

Understand what the main details stand for, but don’t overanalyze the parable

Look for the question the parable is trying to answer or the doctrine it is trying to teach

Once you understand the meaning of a parable try and apply it to your own life


I probably should mention that there are parables in other places besides the Gospels. They actually occur a lot in the prophets as well, and even in the narrative books. Read 2 Sam. 12:1-4. What is the main point of this parable? What do the rich man, the poor man, and the sheep represent in the parable? How do you think David would have responded if Nathan would have delivered his message differently, such as a speech, or an accusation?



1. Ruminasca - May 15, 2014

Reblogged this on Ruminasca and commented:

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