Interpreting Parables

The parables in the Bible have been both the source of great encouragement and instruction as well as prime examples of improper hermeneutics. As a Bible college student decades ago, I remember hearing, “Never build your major doctrines from parables,” – but I confess I wasn’t sure why! After all, the parables were just as inspired as the narratives, the prose, and the prophecy.

As time has passed, I now can recognize the wisdom in that simple statement to a better degree. While I am still growing in my understanding of rightly dividing God’s Word, I believe the biblical parables can be a great source of instruction in our Christian walk. In this post, I invite you to explore these literary / oratory devices with me.

The Abuse of Parables

Perhaps one of the most well-known parables of Jesus is given in Luke 10 – the story of the Good Samaritan. Origen, an Alexandrian church father in the 200s, took an allegorical approach to the text. His interpretation? The man is Adam, Jerusalem is paradise, Jericho is the world. The robbers are the hostile, demonic forces. The priest is the Law and the Levite is the prophet. The Samaritan is Christ; the donkey is His bod. The inn is the church and the Samaritan’s return is the Second Coming.

A few years ago, Grace to You demonstrated how the passage was being used to promote the reallocation of wealth to the poor, social justice, and socialism. Liberation Theology desires to transform the “Jericho Road” so that all of the community is free from harm, standing in solidarity together.

The issue here is that it is easy to use the parables to prove what we already believe (or what we hope to find). Another word for this is “proof-texting.” Jesus didn’t tell the story simply to destroy Western Capitalism. The parable wasn’t a call to join the Social Justice bandwagon. These ideas are foreign to the text; they are being brought to / read into the text. This is the opposite of exegesis.

The Interpretation of Parables

Four governing thoughts should guide our approach:

  1. Parables are part of the inspired Word of God, thus authoritative.
  2. Parables are not historical events; they are stories.
  3. Parables teach a single truth.
  4. The context in which the parable was provided helps identify the single truth.

Step 1: Identify the Prompt

Perhaps the best way to explain this is to show you where I blew it! I have preached in many states as well as foreign countries a message from Matthew 20. Working at a college for 26 years that emphasized “Training Laborers for the Harvest,” – this passage was a golden opportunity!

In the parable, the landowner graciously hires laborers even up until the 11th hour. I preached for years that we were living in the 11th hour and that God was still needing more laborers. To be honest, what I said wasn’t untrue nor was it necessarily unbiblical. It definitely doesn’t qualify me as Heretic of the Year! However, I missed the main teaching of the parable because I didn’t identify the prompt!

I knew the importance of context…so, I always started with verse 1 of Matthew 20. What I missed for many years is the simple fact that Matthew didn’t write chapters! The prompt for the entire parable is found in the question Peter asks at the end of chapter 19. The parable is Jesus’ response to Peter’s question. Understanding the prompt allowed me to more tightly align the message with the truth that was being communicated.

Another classic example comes from Luke 15 and what we call the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ve misnamed it! Consequently, we struggle to identify the prompt. Those are bold words, but the context of Luke 15 bears this out. Jesus is fellowshipping with publicans and sinners (v1). The Pharisees and Scribes speak against it (v2). What is His response? Verse 3 states, “And He spake a parable” (not some parables).

Luke 15 with its story about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son are all part of the same parable. And the “prompt” that sparked this story was that the religious crowd spoke out against who Jesus fellowshipped with. Now, go back and read that familiar passage again with that perspective.

Here’s the point: Our job as biblical expositors is to uncover why Jesus spoke this particular parable to this particular crowd at this particular time! That knowledge sets the context for understanding the parable.

Step 2: Uncover the Main Truth

What is this parable teaching me? For the parable in Matthew 20, we can trust God to take care of us without a contract! We don’t need to have all of our answers ahead of time or see our future in stone. Rather, we need to remember to trust the One who loves us more than we can imagine and that He always has our good in mind.

In Luke 15, the story isn’t about the wicked son that left – or the wicked son that stayed home! It isn’t just about going and finding a sheep or a precious and prized possession. Each of those vignettes ends with the image of a group of people, gathering together, celebrating (and by implication, they celebrated with a meal). Remember the accusation? This man (Jesus) eats with sinners! The story unpacks God’s gracious and lavish love to not only “find” the sinners, but also to “feast” with the sinner!

What will help us in discovering this single truth? Here are a few principles that I try to keep in mind as I work through parables:

  1. Don’t over-emphasize / over-spiritualize all of the details. (Remember Origen assigning significance to the donkey, the inn, etc?)
  2. Keep reading and see if the interpretation is given. (Remember the parable about the sower? The disciples asked and Jesus gave the meaning.)
  3. Don’t start with parables as the building blocks of your systematic theology. (Jesus wasn’t discussing systematic theology; often He was responding to a question, an attitude, or an event.)
  4. Compare Scripture with Scripture (if an obscured teaching from a parable contradicts a clear teaching from the epistles – you’ve interpreted the parable wrong!)


As you dig deep into God’s Word, don’t let the parables scare you! Remember to look for the prompt and then uncover the truth! Happy digging!

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