When interpreting a passage from a prophetic book, attempt first to answer the following questions from your reading of the text. For further background information, consult a Bible dictionary or commentary (see Recommended Resources).
Based on the context/setting of the parable, determine its purpose.
|Is it addressing a concern?||Jesus’ relationship with sinners is called into question by the Pharisees (Luke 15:1-2)||Jesus clarifies God’s welcoming and forgiving heart towards sinners with the 3 “lost/found” parables.|
|Is it answering a question?||Lawyer asking who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)||Parable of the Good Samaritan answers who is neighbor and instructs that disciples are to be neighborly.|
|Is it clarifying a new teaching (many parables are kingdom parables)||Form of the kingdom of God (Matt. 13)||Instructs that (initially) kingdom will not be an earthly kingdom.|
Understand the historical/cultural background of the parable.Are there any words, concepts, or images that would have specific significance to the original audience? For example, look for any “stock images.” These are images that the early readers would have recognized as having certain meanings:
|Son||Israel; a follower of God||Luke 15:11-32|
|Vine||Israel; God’s People||John 15:5|
|Fig Tree||Israel||Mark 11:13|
|Sheep||God’s People||Matt. 25:31-46|
|Servant||Follower of God||Matt. 25:31-46|
|Enemy||The devil||Matt. 13:24-30|
|Wedding Feast||Messianic banquet; the Coming Age||Matt. 25:1-13|
Find the main point(s) of the parable.The majority of the parables have 1-3 characters. Often there is a main teaching point associated with each character that should be observed (Blomberg, 2012, p.193). Other times, it may be appropriate to express just one overarching point (Stein, 1981, p. 89). For example from the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), see the chart below.
|Father||God||“God the Father is gracious and forgiving.”|
|Younger Son||Sinners||“God welcomes rebels who confess their sin, turn from it, and embrace His mercy.”|
|Older Son||Pharisees||“Followers of God should beware a begrudging attitude towards His grace and forgiveness exercised towards others.”|
Note that this parable is taught within the hearing of the Pharisees. The emphasis at the end on the older brother is directed towards them. They should rejoice at the turning of sinners to Christ, and not condemn Jesus from spending time with them.
According to Plummer, Stein suggests answering the following questions in order to find the main point (p. 7-8):
1 Who are the main characters?
2 What occurs at the end? Jesus often places His most important point at the end of the parable.
3 What occurs in direct discourse?
4 Who/what gets the most space? This will also show Jesus’ emphasis.
Realize that not every point of the parable has a corresponding meaning.The parables vary in the degree they are allegorical. Do not feel like you must analyze every detail. On the contrary, focus on the main idea that is being communicated. For example, in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16:1-13), many are baffled by who the “they” is referring to in v. 9. While, perhaps it may be referring to “friends who are made,” the focus of the parable is in contrasting the use of wealth for earthly vs. heavenly purposes. The emphasis on v. 9 is contrasting a heavenly welcome with an earthly welcome (v. 4), not on who is “doing the welcoming.”
Similarly, every aspect of the Parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son (Luke 15:22-23), such as the new clothes, shoes, ring, and banquet are gifts that show acceptance and celebration, and are not symbols that require decoding (Plummer, p. 9).
Also note that sometimes “bad” examples are used when communicating a point. For example, in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the point is to live expectedly for the return of Christ. It is not condoning selfish behavior.
Keep in mind that many of the parables teach about the kingdom of God.Jesus is teaching the disciples that the earthly kingdom they are expecting immediately will not occur until Jesus’ return. In the meantime, they must live in light of the coming heavenly kingdom. He has given His followers forgiveness and a new heart. While on earth, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to His followers to live in His power. Often the main idea of the parable centers around this teaching. For example,
|Sower Mt. 13:3-9; 18-23 Mk. 4:3-25; Lk 8:5-18||“Individuals respond in various ways to the invitation of the message of the kingdom.”|
|Wheat & Tares Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43||“The Kingdom’s citizens are among the world’s citizens, both growing together until God’s end-of-the-age harvest.”|
|Mustard Seed Mt. 13:31-32; Mk. 4:30-32||“The Kingdom begins in insignificance and the surpassing greatness of its growth comes as a surprise.”|
|Leaven Mt. 13:33||“The spreading of Kingdom-righteousness is in hiddenness until it permeates and transforms the whole world.”|
|Hidden Treasure Mt. 13:44||“The Kingdom is hidden and for individual “purchase” at all costs.”|
|Priceless Pearl Mt. 13:45-46||“Entering the Kingdom supersedes all other valued things.”|
|Dragnet Mt. 13:47-50||“The unexpected form of the Kingdom ends with the final separation of the righteous and unrighteous.”|
Flow from a concluding moral (if one)
Be compared to similar teachings in other areas of Scripture
Is the purpose of the parable stated in the context? If so, write the purpose and the reference in the box below:
Write down any words, images, or concepts that may have unique meaning to the original audience. If applicable, look up their significance in a Bible dictionary.
What are the main points associated with the key characters? Write down any overall main idea. Pay close attention to any teaching regarding the kingdom of God or living as His follower with an eternal/kingdom perspective.