The Parables of Jesus – 6 Rules of Interpretation

In his teaching, Jesus frequently used a variety of illustrations. The different hearers were aroused by figures drawn from the surroundings of their daily life. The parables, for example, contain some of the most profound and moving lessons taught by him. In the world of Jesus, people were raised on stories.

The more common definition for parable would be illustration. A parable, from the Greek word “paraballo” (formed by the preposition “para”, beside; and the verb “ballo”, to trow, to cast), signifying a story in which a comparison is made between some moral, spiritual, or literal truth and some human event or everyday things. In other words, parables are extended similes.

The parables are found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). There are, at least, thirty-nine parables in the Gospels. Parables are usually relative to the kingdom. We can follow some rules that govern the interpretation of parables:

1. Differentiate two things: the illustration, or the image, and the main point, or the idea illustrated. Parables have two levels of meaning. The illustration is one thing, and the truth illustrated by the parable it is entirely a different thing. Do not treat parables like allegories. An allegory is completely filled with symbolic meaning, where every detail means something.

2. Understand the purpose of the parable. Jesus’ use of parables is central to his teaching. Notice that sometimes Jesus himself supplies the meaning.

3. Note the occasion when uttered and why and the cultural and historical background of the parable. In other words, see the parable in its proper context.

4. Understand the need that prompted the parable.

5. Analyze the structure and the language of the parable. The beginning and ending are very important. Who are the characters? What is spoken in direct discourse in the parable? What terms are repeated in the parable? Notice the stock imagery in the parable. Repeated images are paralleled in the Old Testament.

6. The interpretation of the parable must be coherent with the global plane of the book and with the general teaching of Scripture. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16: 19-31), Jesus uses a popular belief to illustrate that the true riches are spiritual. The details of the parable do not have a significance in themselves. It is a mistake to use parable as source of doctrine.

Parabolic narratives have an appeal for ancient as well present-day readers. We all love stories, and Jesus, the great teacher, employed them to teach us about the riches of the kingdom.