Interpreting Parables Part 7

Posted By Thomas Perez. December 16, 2010 at 7:29pm.

I Introduction to Parables

A. Parable defined A parable is a true-to-life story that illustrates a spiritual truth. The term, “parable,” comes from two Greek words—para means “beside” and ballo means “to throw” or “to cast.” In the Bible, truths from the everyday practical realm are cast alongside truths in the spiritual or moral realm so we can learn by analogy. In sum, we can say that a parable is something placed alongside something else for the purpose of comparison.

B. Used many times The Bible often uses parables. There are thirty-five parables in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Approximately one-third of Jesus’ sayings in the synoptic gospels are given in parable form. Also, the Greek word for parable is used almost fifty times in the synoptic gospels. Below are fifteen of the thirty-five parables:

1. The Two Houses (Matt. 7:24-27; 6:47-49)

2. The Old Garment and New Wineskins (Matt. 9:16-17)

3. The Sower and the Four Soils (Matt. 13:3-8; Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-8)

4. The Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24-30)

5. The Mustard Seed (Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19)

6. The Yeast (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20-21)

7. The Hidden Treasure (Matt. 13:44)

8. The Pearl of Great Price (Matt. 13:45-46)

9. The Dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50)

10. The Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-25)

11. The Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16)

12. The Two Sons (Matt. 28-32)

13. The Wicked Vinegrowers (Matt. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19)

14. The Wedding Banquet (Matt. 22:1-14)

15. The Two Servants (Matt. 24:45-41; Luke 12:42-48)

16. The Rich Man & Lazarus – However, some would interpret Luke 16:19-31 as a literal story.

C. Purpose of parables

1. To conceal truth from those who will not believe (Matt. 13:10–12)

2. To reveal truth to those who believe (Matt. 13:10–12)

“It may be that as a man resists truth and yields to sin, he becomes less and less able to understand spiritual truth. Thus the same parables that brought insight to faithful believers were without meaning to those who were hardening their hearts against truth” (Virkler, 164–65).

D. Function of parables One important but often overlooked feature about parables is that they call for a response on the part of the hearer. As Osborne points out, “The parables encounter, interpret and invite the listener/reader to participate in Jesus’ new world-vision of the kingdom. They are ‘speech-event’ that never allows us to remain neutral; they grasp our attention and force us to interact with the presence of the kingdom in Jesus, either positively. . . or negatively” (Osborne, 239).

E. Parables and the Kingdom Many Bible scholars assert that all or most of Jesus’ parables are related to the Kingdom of God. The great parable chapter, Matthew 13, are parables related to the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 13:11). Thus, the parables often give truth concerning God’s kingdom program.

II. Principles for Interpreting Parables

A. Understand the historical setting of the parable. Perhaps even more than any other literature type in the Bible, understanding the historical setting of parables is crucial. Remember that Jesus used illustrations from everyday life that people back then would have immediately understood. If we do not understand their historical background, then we cannot fully grasp the meanings of the parables.

“A fishing net, a vineyard, a wedding banquet, oil lamps, talents of money, a fig tree still barren after three years, the value of a single coin to a housewife, the people’s despicable attitude toward tax collectors, the meaning of pounds or minas—understanding these elements sheds light on the significance of the parables and helps make the right transition to the spiritual truth” (Zuck, 211).

B. Examine to see if there is a specific question, problem, need, or situation that is the basis for the parable.

1. In Matthew 9:14, the disciples of John ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus then gives the Parable of the Bridegroom to show that fasting is not necessary while Jesus is on earth with His disciples. He also gives the parables of the old garment and new wineskins to show that He has introduced a new era in God’s plan.

2. Jesus told the parable of the Unjust Judge to tell his disciples that they should always pray and never give up (18:1).

3. When Jesus was criticized for associating with a sinful woman, He gave the Parable of the Two Debtors (Luke 7:40–43).

4. “Several times Jesus gave an exhortation or principle and then followed it with a parable to illustrate or illumine the point just made. For example Mark 13:33 records that Jesus said, ‘Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.’ Then He gave the Parable of the Doorkeeper (vv. 34–37)” (Zuck, 213).

C. Determine how much of the parable is explained in the text. For example, in Matthew 13:3–9 Jesus gave the Parable of the Sower and then gave his explanation of the parable in 13:18–23. Likewise, in 13:24–30, Jesus explains the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and then explains this parable in 13:36–43).

D. Take note that not every detail in a parable has special significance. Show discernment in knowing which parts of the parable are crucial to the point of the parable and those parts which function as window dressing. For example, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all have special significance, but the road, the innkeeper, and the two denarii function as supporting details for the main point.

Avoid what the church father Origen did (although of good report) when he claimed that the man who was beaten was Adam, the robbers were the devil and his demons, the priest was the Law, the Levites were the prophets, the Good Samaritan was Christ, the beast was Christ’s body, the inn was the church, and the two denarii were the Father and the Son.

E. Look for the main point of a parable. Most parables are driving home one overarching truth or principle although there may be exceptions at times.

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