Rules for Reading Parables
How to use a Parable:
These are simple illustrations, sometimes of no more than a single sentence, but at other times running on as a complete story. “You cannot gather figs from thistles.” Is an example of the short parable and the story of the Prodigal Son being of the longer variety. First thing to remember is these parables were meant to be simple illustrations that ordinary people could easily understand. The parable was not meant to confuse or hide the truth. The only people who could not understand them were the clergy. They did not want to understand but rather argue. A contemporary method of teaching was to argue using different points of view and quoting the writings of other men. The discussion on abstruse points of observance of the law might go on for days. After all there was no TV or other distraction. This was not Jesus’ way, after all you can’t argue with a parable.
Each of Jesus’ parables is a simile.
Many of them begin with the words, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Jesus style is recognizable and after reading a few of them they have a rhythm about them that can be identified as uniquely Jesus of Nazareth. Further these similes only occur in the synoptic gospels, and not the gospel of John. That writer puts in Jesus’ mouth teaching expressed in metaphor rather than simile. That is another story we may eventually get around to telling.
Jesus states the subject of the parable in the first phrase of the parable.
The point of the parable will therefore be about what that person or object does. This might seem obvious, but it is not. Preachers, teachers and eminent theologians have got parables wrong for centuries all because they missed who or what the subject of the parable was. It is very difficult to understand a parable if you begin with the wrong assumptions. The perfect example of this is a parable referred to as that of the Dishonest Steward. For two thousand years the point of this parable has been missed entirely because would be interpreters have concentrated on the figure of the dishonest steward. Jesus tells us in the first line who it is about, “There was a rich man who had a steward.” It is about the rich man, and it is about what he does that matters not the machinations of the grotesque figure of the steward. The same thing happens in the Prodigal Son story, the Sower, the Weeds, Treasure hidden in a field, Pearl of Great Price and several more.
Where is the Parable told
Farming, fishing and everyday life of the laborer belong naturally in the area of Galilee. The Man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, the story of the Good Samaritan belongs in Jerusalem, as does several other parables that belong in the city rather than the countryside. It is very important for us to understand what kind of people were listening to him, and what kind of expertise and experience of the world was common to them. Jesus intentionally involved the people in his teaching method. So the story of the woman making bread no doubt had mouths watering at the thought of new baked bread.
Who was he talking to
This is similar to the last one. Ask who was he talking to and you get some surprising answers. The Prodigal Son story is told to a group of clergy and business entrepreneurs. Their respective behavior is very germane to understanding the dynamics behind that whole section of five parables. Let your imagination loose. It has an important role in thoroughly understanding Jesus’ teaching.
What was the question that set off the discussion that precipitated the parable?
Jesus did not go about dripping parables indiscriminately nor did he do sermon preparation. Each was an illustration to clinch his point made in conversation or discussion. We see this a couple of times, the Lawyer who asks “Who is my neighbor?” is one example. This takes a little patience to figure out. If the parable is about the Kingdom of God then you know the discussion and question that preceded it was about that subject. Reflecting on what the question might have been assists a great deal with narrowing the quest for the parable’s meaning.
What did the subject of the parable do or say
It is in what the subject did or said that the key to the parable resides. The host of the marriage feast tells his servants to go out and bring everyone into the feast. Here is the key. Jesus is saying in effect, everyone is invited, but those who chose not to respond will not get a smell of the banquet.
Jesus often used couplets.
He would use two parables together to build a deeper understanding of a point. For example, the mustard seed grows and grows, and yeast grows and grows in a piece of dough. Take a moment to consider what the dough does to the flour and water and you get a glimmer of what the gospel does inside you. The parables of the mustard seed and yeast in the dough, of the good shepherd and lost coin, the sower and the weeds or tares, treasure in a field and pearl of great price are all examples of couplets that Jesus carefully crafts to illustrate the deeper truths in any question.
Avoid all interpretation
Any time the parables are explained in the gospels, you know you are dealing with someone’s interpretation which they then put into Jesus’ mouth. He never had to explain any parable, for they were meant for the fishermen and farm laborers in front of him that day. Meditating over the parables without the interpretation produces profound understanding, but keep it to yourself till you have made it part of you. Let the parable speak to you.