1. What Is a Parable?
The word parable comes from the Greek word parabollo, which means "to compare" and denotes
placing one thing beside another to make a comparison. There are approximately 70 parables or parabolic
illustrations in the Gospels.
I once asked John McArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Panorama City, Calif., what was the key to
his expository ministry. "Pictures," he said. "The truth must be set in pictures that can be readily understood
Jesus used parables in precisely this way. He taught the truth about an unfamiliar subject by making
a comparison to something with which his listeners were already familiar.
Someone has defined parables as "earthly stories with heavenly meanings." More precisely, they are
true-to-life stories intended to teach some spiritual truth by analogy. Parables are stories, but they are stories
that have a significant lesson.
2. The Problem with Parables
Parables have a history of abuse. Gordon Fee, professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has said that
"the parables have suffered a fate of misinterpretation in the church second only to Revelation."
In the early history of the church, parables were subjected to the excesses of allegorism. Augustine's
interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan reflects this extreme approach.
He interpreted the traveler on the road to Jericho to represent Adam, the thieves to represent the devil and
his angels, the priest and Levite to represent the ministry of the Old Covenant, the Samaritan to represent Christ,
the inn to represent the church, and the innkeeper to represent Paul. all that - and more - in one parable!
Reaction against such speculative readings led to a second abuse of the parables. In their aversion to allegory,
many interpreters denied any further meaning beyond the one single point of the parable. Yet Jesus himself made
several significant points of comparison in the
parable of the sower
(Matt 13:1-9, 18-23) and the
parable of the wheat and the tares
(Matt 13:24-30, 36-43).
A more balanced approach lies between these two extremes. While all parables teach truth by comparison, some
use more extended and detailed comparison than others.
Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to recognize multiple points of analogy when there is solid evidence for
them, but to avoid speculation otherwise. Where Jesus has explained a parable, providing commentary on the various
points, you can be assured that those details are significant and that Jesus has given us their proper interpretation.
The context of the parable of the prodigal son
for example, suggests multiple points of analogy. The reference to the hypocritical attitude of the Pharisees and
the teachers of the law (15:2) suggests they may be represented in the parable by the self-righteous older brother.
The father certainly illustrates God's attitude toward sinners, and the prodigal son, the consequences of sin and
the nature of true repentance. Yet these secondary lessons are all found under the umbrella of the major truth: God
loves and seeks sinners.
3. The Purpose of Parables
Jesus began speaking in parables during his Galilean ministry after being rejected by the Jewish leaders
This rejection by the religious establishment set the nation on its course of rejecting the Messiah.
Jesus used parables in addressing mixed crowds made up of friends and enemies, those responding to his messianic
claims and those rejecting them.
In Matthew 13:10-17,
Jesus explained that the parables reveal truth to the responsive, yet at the same time conceal truth from those
rejecting him. Quoting Isaiah 6:9, 10,
Jesus said that people who reject him "will be ever hearing but never understand." Unbelievers will be confirmed
in their unbelief, yet spared greater accountability before God because they are prevented from receiving further
The parable also issued a powerful call for a decision concerning the person of Christ. Jesus spoke the parable
of the rejected son (Matt. 21:33-41)
in the hearing of certain religious leaders who were rejecting him. In that parable, Jesus warned of the judgment
to befall those who reject God's Messiah. He then explained the parable, and "they knew he was talking about them"
(v.45). This was an opportunity for those leaders to repent and believe, but they did not.
Finally, the parables helped perpetuate Jesus' teaching. The simple stories captured listeners' interest and
imagination. Being so memorable, these mental "visual aids" could easily be passed on to others by Jesus'
4. Interpretation of Parables
As illustrations of spiritual truth, the parables were clearly understood by Jesus' followers in the first
century. But those of us who are separated from the original context of the parables by 6,000 miles and 2,000 years
need to develop a method of interpretation to help bridge the historical, geographical, and cultural gap.
1. Recover the original setting. Explore the context and circumstances surrounding the parable.
Discover whom Jesus was addressing when he spoke the parable: disciples, enemies, or both.
Jesus taught the
parable of the laborers in the vineyard
to Peter and the other disciples who were concerned over what reward they would receive for following him (19:27).
The lesson, therefore, is intended for disciples and is focused on the subject of rewards.
2. Discover the problem of the parable. The parables dealt with certain problems or questions. If
you don't know the problem that Jesus intended to deal with, you won't recognize the answer. You can usually find
the problem in the parable's context, usually the preceding verses. As you survey the historical context, ask
yourself, "Why did Jesus speak this parable?"
The three parables in Luke 15 - the lost sheep, the lost coin,
and the prodigal son - are all designed to answer the question, "What is God's attitude towards sinners?" The
Pharisees and scribes had condemned Jesus, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them" (v. 2). These
parables show God's attitude toward sinners in contrast with the Pharisees'. While the Pharisees hated lost sinners,
Jesus showed that God loves sinners and actively seeks the lost.
3. Understand the cultural background. Parables teach truth by transference. Jesus used something
in the known realm to teach a spiritual truth in the unknown realm. Therefore, interpreting the parable depends
on understanding the "known" illustration. Jesus' first-century Jewish listeners commonly understood his cultural
references. But people today often need to do some background research.
A Bible dictionary or encyclopedia serves well for background study. For most city dwellers, the
parable of the tares
elicits the question, "What are tares?"
A quick look in a comprehensive Bible dictionary reveals that tares are weeds that resemble wheat and were
often used as chicken feed. Allowed to grow to maturity, tares could be distinguished from the wheat and
separated at harvest. The parable reveals that there will be false, counterfeit movements in the kingdom of God
that will be indistinguishable from true followers of Christ until "harvest" (judgment). The cultural background
is crucial to this interpretation.
4. Determine the central truth. The parables are generally intended to teach one central truth.
You see evidence for this as you explore the setting of each parable and discover the question that needs to be
answered. By understanding the correspondence between the known and unknown, you can determine the parable's
Even in situations in which Jesus explained a number of the elements in the parable (see
there is still one major question being answered and one central truth being taught. The details that Jesus
explained lay further groundwork for the central lesson.
The parable of the mustard seed
(Matt 13:31, 32)
is one of my favorites. The context suggests that Jesus was dealing with a question raised in the disciples' minds
by his rejection by the Jewish leaders: "In light of its insignificant beginnings, has the kingdom any potential
Jesus answered by making a comparison with the smallest of the seeds planted in Galilean gardens, but one with
great potential for growth. The black mustard seed is smaller than a speck of sand, but I have seen mustard plants
in Israel grow 10 to 12 feet tall!
Because Old Testament law regards many birds as unclean
(Lev 11:13-19), many commentators have suggested that the birds
in the branches of the mustard tree symbolize evil. They interpret this to mean that there will be evil in the
Whether there will be evil in the kingdom or not, the parable of the mustard seed was not intended to answer
that question. To make lessons of minute details in the parables is to read into them something that Jesus did
not clearly intend. The birds in the mustard tree branches simply illustrate the extent of the growth and give
realism to the picture.
5. Recognize the kingdom message of many parables. Nine parables in Matthew begin with "The
kingdom of heaven is like...." We must understand that Jesus was referring to the form of God's kingdom that
exists between Christ's rejection and his acceptance by his people Israel.
The kingdom parables don't focus on the millennial kingdom that will be established at Christ's second coming,
but on the spiritual kingdom of this present age. This is the kingdom rule of Christ in the hearts of those who
know and love him. So in many parables, Jesus taught "mysteries of the kingdom," truths not previously revealed in
the Old Testament prophecies about God's kingdom program.
5. Applying the Parables
The most important question to ask about the parables is, "How do we decide what is to be applied?" The
parables are not simply to be interpreted and understood, but acted upon.
Three questions can help us decide how to apply the parables:
First, "Is there a truth to learn?" The parables cover many themes: Christ's coming, God's judgment, and the
kingdom of heaven. The parable of the leaven, for example, has taught me that the kingdom will grow through an
internal dynamic, not some outward organization. Recognizing that truth has helped determine my approach to
Second, "Is there an attitude to develop?" The parables touch upon such characteristics as anxiety
(Mark 4:26-29), joy
(Matt 13:44), diligence
(Matt 25:14-30), compassion
(Luke 7:41, 42), and one's attitude toward the lost
(Luke 15:1-7). The parables reveal the attitudes and character
qualities that Christ would have his disciples cultivate.
Third, "Is there something I should do?" Jesus specifically applied that parable of the unforgiving servant
(Matt 18:23-35) to the disciples. As the unforgiving servant was
judged, "so shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart"
Jesus immediately applied the parable of the friend at midnight
(Luke 11:5-8) by commending persistence in prayer as a means of
securing the Father's resources (vv.9, 10). And the parable of the good Samaritan
(Luke 10:30-37) illustrates how to love one's neighbor: not by
word, but by deed.
Did you get the point of the parable? Jesus drove the lesson home with these words: "Go and do likewise"
Dr. J. Carl Laney grew up in Eugene, Oregon where he
attended First Baptist Church. He graduated from the University of Oregon and then attended
Western Seminary in Portland. After completing a doctoral program in Bible Exposition at Dallas
Theological Seminary, Carl returned to Western as a teacher of Biblical Literature. In addition
to teaching at Western Seminary, Carl has served as interim pastor in many different churches.
He has also taught overseas in the Philippines and the Netherlands. Carl is the author of 16
books which are readily available at your Christian bookstore. His most recent works include
"Answers to Tough Questions from Every Book of the Bible," "Messiah's Coming Temple," and "God:
Who He is, What He Does, and How to Know Him Better." Carl and his wife, Nancy, are the parents
of four children.