How Do We Approach the Parables of Jesus?

sailing-ship-boat-sailing-lake-largeAt The Church at Trace Crossing, we have begun a new summer series on the parables of Jesus. We will be walking through four or five parables as the summer draws to a close. I began this series yesterday by looking at The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and The Parable of the Pearl of Great Value. You can find that sermon and the rest of the series as it unfolds in our sermon archive.

As I began this series, I felt it was important to give a brief introduction to the nature and purpose of parables. Interpreting any genre of Scripture is like navigating a ship. Without knowing where you are going and how to get there, you’re sure to be lost. The parables especially have sent many a theologian and pastor rowing in circles, exerting a lot of effort only to stay in the same place. In order to make progress toward understanding, readers of the parables will need to know what they are, how they should be interpreted, and why they were told.

WHAT ARE PARABLES?

A good definition can help steer our course toward correct interpretation. I define a parable as a story that is used to illustrate truth about the kingdom of God for the purpose of persuasion. In his masterful work on the parables, Klyne Snodgrass provides another simple and helpful definition. He writes, “Parables are extended analogies used to convince and persuade.” I would only add, and I believe Snodgrass would agree, that the convincing and persuading always revolves around the kingdom of God. When Jesus began his ministry, the recurring theme in his preaching was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). So all of Jesus’ teaching has kingdom elements to it. Jesus’ parables are all about the kingdom.

But Jesus’ parables are more than just stories used to illustrate truth about the kingdom. They certainly do teach us many things about the kingdom, but the parables are not for passing along information. Instead, Jesus in his parables summons us to transformation. Snodgrass writes, “Parables seek to goad people into the action the gospel deserves and the kingdom deserves.” Make no mistake; the parables of Jesus are about action.

HOW DO WE INTERPRET PARABLES?

The second question we need to consider is “How do we interpret parables?” Throughout church history, there have been a number of church leaders and theologians who have just totally dropped the ball when it comes to parables. For example, on many things I would encourage you to heed the teaching of Augustine. But when he and many of the other church fathers write on the parables, you’d be better off listening to Florida/Georgia Line on repeat. There are three things we need to consider when interpreting parables.

First, seek Jesus’ intent by listening from the original audience’s perspective. The worst thing you can do when trying to interpret a parable is to try to write a new one. If the circumstance of the parable make little sense to you, it’s probably because you still have your 21st century American ears on. Instead, you need to step into the shoes (sandals?) of a first century Israelite. This often requires patience and sometimes the help of other resources. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that we are after the intent of Jesus in the parables. Snodgrass is once again very helpful. He says, “The intent of Jesus with all the power and creativity of his teaching must be the goal of our interpretive work.” We want to know what Jesus said and what Jesus meant.

One of the most common historical and modern errors in interpreting the parables is to allegorize Jesus’ stories. Let me give you an example. When Augustine interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan, he found a hidden symbol in every single element of the story.

The man going down to Jericho =Adam

Jerusalem, from which he was going =City of Heavenly Peace

Jericho =The moon which signifies our mortality

Robbers =Devil and his angels

Stripping him =Taking away his immortality

Beating him =Persuading him to sin

Leaving him half dead =Because of sin, he was dead spiritually, but half alive, because of the knowledge of God

Priest =Priesthood of the Old Testament (Law)

Levite =Ministry of the Old Testament (Prophets)

Good Samaritan =Christ

Binding of wounds =Restraint of sin

Oil =Comfort of good hope

Wine =Exhortation to spirited work

Animal =Body of Christ

Inn =Church

Two denarii =Two commandments to love

Innkeeper =Apostle Paul

Return of the Good Samaritan =Resurrection of Christ

You get the picture. Did Jesus intend all of these things when he told this story? Would his original audience have understood him to mean all of this? I highly doubt it. So, it is important for us to know and see the many allegorical or symbolic elements Jesus used in the parables, but we must do so without allegorizing them. Allegorizing or seeing deeper into them than Jesus himself has gone paralyzes us from moving toward an accurate interpretation. When you interpret the parables, seek to find what Jesus meant by what he said by listening from the original audience’s perspective.

Second, seek the main point of the parable. Most parables have one main point. Some have multiple points, but most of them teach one main point. The parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great value are two parables coupled together that each teach the same point. Make it your mission in your interpretation of the parables to seek and find the main point Jesus is making. Allow this point to fuel your application, not the other way around.

Third, strive to respond to the parables appropriately. Remember, the parables are not campfire stories meant for your entertainment. They are challenging and oftentimes paradigm-shifting stories that should shake you to your core. They should challenge your heart to respond in faith. We want to leave each parable with our hearts gripped and changed to live out the kingdom principles Jesus teaches.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF PARABLES?

The final thing we need to consider with regard to the parables is their purposes. Why did Jesus tell them? Jesus gives us two reasons in Matthew 13:10-17.

The first reason Jesus taught in parables was to reveal the kingdom of heaven to those who have been made spiritually alive. For those who cognitively understand and volitionally respond in faith to the parables, they are messages of salvation. The king has come and his kingdom is awesome! If you submit to the sovereign reign of God in Christ, Jesus’ words to his disciples are true for you: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matt. 13:11, 16).

Conversely, the second reason Jesus taught in parables was to conceal the kingdom of heaven to those who remain spiritually dead. For them the parables are messages of judgment. God is a sovereign king, which means it is his prerogative to save sinners according to his infinite wisdom and grace. But it is important that we make a distinction here. When Jesus says, to some it has not been given to know the secrets of the kingdom, he does not mean that his opponents did not understand the parables. The Pharisees understood them enough to want him dead. Cognitively, they understood clearly. But volitionally they understood nothing. So, it is possible for you to leave this room with a firm intellectual grasp on the meaning of the two parables we are going to unfold while remaining spiritually blind and dead to their call to abandon all else to gain Christ.

The parables of Jesus are not just a clever way to communicate spiritual truth. The parables of Jesus are messages of divine salvation and judgment meant to stir our hearts to delight in God. In order to be understand and obey the parables, you need to know what they are, how to interpret them, and what they are for. Hopefully, these interpretive principles will help you navigate the waters of the parables and come to a place of true understanding


Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.

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