Introduction to the
Parables of Jesus
"All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: 'I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.'" (Matthew 13:34-35, ESV)
The Intention of Parables
When one examines the parables that Jesus taught it is clear to see that Jesus was very familiar and intimate with everyday human life. Jesus was at home with farming, planting, and harvesting. He knew about vineyards, fig trees, fishing, building, and the world of commerce. Jesus knew about riches, poverty, men, women, and even children.
This allowed Jesus to minister to people from all walks of life, social spheres, and economical backgrounds. Jesus spoke the language of the everyday person. Of course this made it easy for Jesus to be able to present the truths of salvation to all people. Jesus used parables to make spiritual points using illustrations that people knew and understood. Jesus used the parables with the intention of communicating the gospel in a clear manner.
Everyday people were able to relate to stories like the prodigal son, or the two debtors, the great supper, or even the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus intended that the parables communicate truth about Himself with authority. Having said this, we discover something very disturbing about the parables Jesus used recorded in Mark 4:11, 12:
“…they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and forgive.”
Should we understand this to mean that Jesus who came to proclaim salvation to sinful human beings hid his message in parables? Are parables to be understood? Do they have hidden meanings?
First, we have to examine this verse in the context of which Mark wrote them. Marks tells us in chapter three that Jesus has experienced full on opposition and unbelief. He had been accused of being Beelzebub and casting out demons by the devil. What we see in this passage is a contrast between belief and unbelief. Jesus is contrasting those who follow him and those who refuse to follow Jesus. How are we able to distinguish between true followers and those who reject Jesus? Those who do the will of God receive (understand) the spiritual truth contained in the parable. Those who want to kill Jesus are those who have hardened their hearts against the message of the parables and the gift of salvation.
It becomes very simple. Those who believe receive them by faith. The unbelievers reject the teaching of the parables because the truth is foreign to them. Those who are Christ’s sheep hear His voice because they are His sheep. Those who are not Christ’s sheep do not hear this voice because they are not his sheep. Therefore because they are not Christ’s sheep and that they are blind and deaf they refuse salvation and come under God’s judgment.
Even the disciples of Jesus initially did not understand the full meaning of the parables. They questioned Jesus concerning their meaning. By faith they came to see the truth contained in the parables.
The Interpretation of the Parables
When it comes to interpreting parables one does not have to be seminary graduate. However there are some principles of interpretation that must be utilized to find the intended meaning of each parable. There are at least three principles to deal with:
- The History of the Passage
- The Grammar in the Passage
- The Theology in the Passage
When interpreting a parable one needs to make a detailed analysis of the parable which includes a detailed study of the religious, social, political, and geographical points in the text. For example if one is interpreting the parable of the Good Samaritan, a study should include familiarization with the origin, status, and beliefs of the Samarians, the office and duties of a priest and Levite, and the land between Jerusalem and Jericho.
A second principle that guides the interpretation of a parable includes an examination of the grammatical structure. Word studies are an important part of the process. A close study of the introduction and conclusion of a parable is essential. In these two parts of a parable a rhetorical question may have been asked, a command may have been given, or an exhortation may have been extended.
In order to properly interpret a parable one must determine the main point of the parable. Then the main point must be checked against the theology of the bible and the teachings of Jesus. Scripture interprets scripture. One piece of scripture will not contradict another portion. There is a unity of agreement within Scripture.
Three Things to Remember
There are three things that must be kept in mind when interpreting parables. First, one must have a complete knowledge of the circumstances in which the parable was spoken. The parable must be interpreted in the light of the background in which it was told.
Second, one will never find the entire Christian faith in any one parable. When Jesus taught an individual parable he intended to illustrate one aspect of truth. He intended to stress a particular aspect of truth which needed to be emphasized at that time. We must always remember that the context of the parable will always provide light in order to find its meaning.
Third, remember when interpreting a parable one must never forget that the parables were spoken in the first century to a people indigenous to the setting of the parable. They were not written to 21st century, white Anglo-Saxon westerners.