This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
For most of us, the parables of Jesus naturally lodge themselves in our memories. The parable of the good Samaritan, for instance, is not only a memorable parable, but it has become embedded in our culture—as in “Good Samaritan laws” that protect people who come to the assistance of others. The parable of the prodigal son—where a foolish young man squanders his inheritance, only to find that his loving father welcomes him back with mercy and grace—is the gospel in a single picture and a simple message: You can come home to God. The lost sheep. The hidden treasure. The wise and foolish virgins. The talents. They are all like pictures on the walls in our homes, memorable scenes that are windows into reality.
Jesus sometimes taught in parables because these vivid stories engage us in thought, emotion, and sensation. They impact us. They force us to go away and ponder, struggling with the meaning perhaps, feeling struck by the truthful and accurate perspective on life they offer. You could say the parables are subversive because they embed themselves in our minds. We cannot escape their message. Jesus said parables unlock mysteries for those who believe, but they remain enigmatic riddles to those who do not have “ears to hear” (Luke 8:8-10). This is one more indication for us that reading Scripture with faith is entirely different from reading it like we read any other book.
We will avoid much frustration and confusion if we remember this: Most parables have one main point. Most of the time the details in the story do not have specific symbolic meaning. In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), for instance, Jesus did not assign a symbolic meaning to the robbers, the man’s wounds, the donkey, the innkeeper, the two silver coins, Jerusalem, or Jericho. Yet that has not prevented Christian thinkers over the centuries from assigning meanings to the details. The problem is, if the meanings are not indicated in the text, such allegorical interpretations are purely arbitrary.
Over the years different people have assigned entirely different meanings to the two coins given to the innkeeper, for instance: they are God the Father and the Son, or they are the Old and New Testaments, or they are the promise of this life and the life to come, etc. But why?
Here again, the simplest and most natural explanation of a biblical text is always the best. The parable of the good Samaritan is Jesus’ answer to the question: “Who is my neighbor?” At the end Jesus makes it obvious what his point was:
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
Parables are not abstract teachings. They almost always call people to a certain response.
Now, if Jesus did assign specific meanings to the details in a parable, then of course we must include these in our understanding. In the parable of the sower, for instance, the four landing places of the seed—the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, and the good soil—have specific meanings which Jesus himself indicated (Matt. 13:18-23). The same thing is true of the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30; 36-43). Nevertheless, even in parables with detailed meaning, we should not lose sight of the forest for the trees. The parable will impact us best if we look for the main point.
As we read the parables, it is also important that we take the time to understand the cultural and geographical settings of the stories. A good commentary, for instance, will describe the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, which is the setting for the good Samaritan story. The “road” is a dusty path winding upwards into the Judean hills through an arid wilderness. It is a lonely and desolate place, where thieves would take advantage of someone. All the parables with agricultural settings are best understood if we understand the life of the farmer in the first century. And shepherding in Jesus’ day (as in David’s day) is utterly different from ranching today.
The ending is very important. The takeaway from any given parable typically comes in the punch line at the end. The extended parable of the wheat and the weeds, for instance, ends with the day of judgment where truth and falsehood are finally distinguished. In the meantime, we live in the mixture.
The parables of Jesus are God’s gift to us who are mere mortals, unable to find truth on our own, and quite lost in interpreting the meaning of life.
“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” (Matt. 13:35)
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Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.