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Parables, one of the best known literary types within the Bible, are brief stories using familiar characters and objects, portraying everyday experiences, which teach a moral or ethical lesson. They are a favorite mode of teaching used by Jesus and everything we stated in the previous Gospel section should also be applied here. The stories are so life-like that we tend to forget that they are fictional, and thus should not be confused with narratives, although most parables are contained within a narrative. It is legitimate to speculate on certain unsaid details within a narrative, such as a possible conversation between Abraham and Isaac as they climbed the mountain in Genesis 22, since these are real-life stories. We can't raise these questions regarding parables since the characters do not exist; however the intended meaning is every bit as real.
One of the primary purposes for teaching with parables is to deliver a certain truth in a more vivid and memorable manner by illustrating a spiritual truth using common everyday objects and concepts which would be very familiar to the listeners. Parables contain a certain parallelism between the heavenly, spiritual or redemptive world, and the natural one. As the Divine Mediator for creating the natural world and establishing the order of redemption (the spiritual world), Jesus is uniquely qualified to offer these illustrations of truth that, in a sense, had been hidden since the time of creation (Mt 13:35, quoting Ps 78:2).
Before we proceed to the various interpretation rules, we should mention a few verses pertaining to the purposes of parables (Mt 13:10-17, Mk 4:10-12 and Lk 8:9-10) which are among the most difficult in the Gospels. A full discussion goes beyond the scope of this article, but we'll briefly touch on them here. Jesus states that the "secret of the kingdom" is concealed to unbelievers and revealed only to believers. Some interpret this to state that the meaning of parables is hidden to all but an inner circle. There are many parables, however, that were clearly understood by unbelievers (for example, the parable of the tenants in Mt 21:33-44, see v45). Some scholars limit this restriction of understanding to the secret (or mystery) of the kingdom, particularly Jesus' mission. Others (such as Ladd, for example) see this "secret of the kingdom" in an eschatological sense only. Perhaps we can say these verses teach that one reason that Jesus taught in parables was to conceal the truth to unbelievers due to and as a result of their lack of faith. Their main problem was not lack of intellectual understanding, but an unwillingness to understand spiritually, morally and ethically. This is consistent with statements made in Romans 1:8-32 and 1Cor 2:13-14.
The most important thing to remember in reading a parable is that, almost without exception, it teaches one basic point. Throughout history, scholars have tended to over-allegorize the stories, leading to much misinterpretations of the parables. Probably the most famous example was Augustine's interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable in which he depicted the victim as Adam, the robbers as Satan and his angels, the Good Samaritan as Christ, the inn as the church, the innkeeper as the Apostle Paul, and a dozen or so other allegories. Clearly, this is not what Jesus intended since the context deals with human relationships and the question of "Who is my neighbor?". This method of interpreting parables can probably be traced back to the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 (also Mk 4 and Lk 8). Jesus explained this parable in a semi-allegorical manner, and many scholars thought this gave license to allegorize all parables.
Therefore, in studying a parable, our main objective is to determine the intended meaning of its basic point. As we've stated multiple times in our Bible Interpretation Guide, it is the author that determines the meaning, so in seeking this meaning we must keep in mind that most parables have two authors, the creator of the parable (usually Jesus) and the evangelist telling the story (the Gospel writer). Often we see, for example, Luke relating the same parable that Matthew wrote of in his Gospel, but applying it to a different audience for a different purpose, thus the writers not only recorded the parables of Jesus, they sometimes interpreted them as well.
So, how should we go about determining the primary point of a parable? The easiest to understand are those which the Scriptures themselves explain, such as the parable of the Sower mentioned above. In these cases, we must be careful not to impose additional meanings other than what is clearly stated by the speaker. For those whose meanings are not clearly stated, we must note certain components, the most obvious being the speaker, the original audience and context (if given), and the main characters, which can usually be determined by who gets the most space or is involved in the main conversations (which characters have "speaking parts"). Next, because most parables (like a good mystery) contain a twist or "gotcha" moment near the end, look for the main point near its conclusion (see our Modern Version of the Good Samaritan for a good example). Two excellent illustrations of these guidelines are the parables of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15) and Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20). I've heard many sermons based upon the prodigal himself and the late arriving workers. There are good lessons to be learned from these characters, but the main characters are the older son and the early arriving workers. Note the space given to these characters, as well as the conversations between the father and the older son, and between the owner and the early workers. The main point of each is, since Heaven is a free gift by the grace of God, those who receive salvation early in life and work in ministry for years, should not begrudge those who receive salvation late in life (rewards and crowns are a separate matter).
One special category of parables that bears a special mention are the "Kingdom parables", those usually beginning with "the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) is like...". While these teach various facets and attributes of the Kingdom, the overriding point is almost always the urgency of the hour. This leads us to the final and probably the most important aspect in our study of parables (or most other literary types, for that matter). We must take what we've learned from the parable and apply the lesson to our own lives.
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