How to study parables

What are parables?

The word parable is translated from the Greek word parabole which means “to place beside”. A parable, then is a story that places one thing beside another for the purpose of teaching. It is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. When Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like....”, He was placing an earthly thing beside a heavenly truth for the purpose of teaching.

Why did Jesus speak in parables?

Matthew 13:10­17, 34-35, 51-52 (NIV) 10 The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" 11 He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.' 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.....34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world."......51 "Have you understood all these things?" Jesus asked. "Yes," they replied. 52 He said to them, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."

Parables are meant to hide the truths from those who choose not to believe

In response to the disciples’ question on why He used parables, Jesus said that "the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them (ie the unbelievers).” He goes on to say in verse 13 “This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” Other verses are even clearer on what Jesus meant.

Mark 4:11­12 (NIV) He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that, "'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'"

Luke 8:10 (NIV) He said, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, "'though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.'

In other words, Jesus used parables so that some people would not understand. They would think Jesus is talking nonsense.

Is Jesus deliberately hiding the truth from some people so that even though they are interested, they would not understand and believe? I do not think so for the following reasons:

1. Many of the parables grew out of the conflict situations when Jesus answered His religious critics like the Pharisees and sinners. If Jesus wants to hide the truth from the unbelievers, he did not need to answer them at all.

2. His mission to save the world excludes the idea that He would want to deliberately exclude some from salvation.

Luke 19:10 (NIV) For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."

John 3:16 (NIV) "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Why then did Jesus say He spoke in parables so that the unbelievers would not understand?

God only reveals to those who are interested to know the truth. The Bible says in Deu 4:29 that if “you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

For those who choose not to see the truth even though it is plain to them, God may give up on them and refuse to give them the truth in plain form. God blinds further those who choose to be blinded by falsehood.

Romans 1:20­21, 24 (NIV) 21 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities­­ his eternal power and divine nature­­ have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened..... 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.

Jesus Himself said that we should “not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matt 7:6) Unbelievers will not accept the truth even if it is given to them in plain form. Jesus had performed enough miracles to convince anyone while He was on earth. Though the Pharisees witnessed the miracles, they continued to disbelieve out of will. Therefore, Jesus gave up on them.

But God was not being unfair to them. These people choose to be blinded and is not in this state as a result of God’s will. Verse 15 says “For this people's heart has become calloused (ie dull of hearing); they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.” It is not God who closed their eyes.

Theological difficulty

Those who are familiar with the Bible may say that there are indeed verses that say that God deceives people into believing a lie. For example in 2 Thessalonians 2:11, we read “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie.” The explanation for this is in the peculiarity of the Hebrew language. In Hebrew thought, God is all supreme and everything that happens can be said to be “caused” by God because that thing would not have happened unless God allowed it. (Compare 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1)

Parables are meant to teach difficult truths in a simple way

Jesus’ attitude is totally different towards those who are interested to know the truth. His disciples were interested to know the truth although they did not understand the first time round. Verse 36 says that His disciples came to him and said, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field." And this is what Jesus did. He did His best to make them understand. And when He asked, "Have you understood all these things?" Jesus asked. "Yes," they replied.

Jesus likes to use parables because they contain objects that the audience can relate to. Jesus always customized His message when He teaches. When He was answering the Pharisees, He quoted Bible verses. When He teaches the general audience, majority of whom are farmers, Jesus used familiar things like seeds, soil, sheep to illustrate difficult truths.

Verse 35 says that "I (God) will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world." These hidden things can only be understood by our finite minds if God employs the use of parables.

Parables catch us off guard and teaches us about our sin in a way that will not make us defensive.

Nathan used a parable to convict King David of his sin. Nathan told the unsuspecting David the seemingly harmless story of a rich man and a poor man living in the same city (2 Sam. 12:1­4). The poor man owned only a single little ewe lamb he loved as a household pet while the rich man possessed large flocks; yet when the wealthy farmer had a guest to serve, he seized the poor man's single lamb for the dinner! He sought to get inside David's guard and cut the iron bonds of his self­ deception to strike a moral blindness from his eyes. In a sense, it was a well­ laid trap since David responded with moral outrage, thus condemning himself. Nathan then applied the parable to the king's affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:5­14).

How should we study the parables?

Study each parable in its context.

Luke 10:30­35 (NIV) A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

The parable of the good Samaritan has been interpreted by some people as follows. They interpret Jerusalem as the city of God, representing heaven. Jericho is a condemned city, so it represents hell. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho goes down, and so does the road to hell. Each person is a pilgrim on the Jericho Road and has been robbed by Satan, who are represented by the robbers, and left half-dead (physically alive and spiritually dead). Religion cannot save us but only Jesus Christ, who is the Good Samaritan. The oil represents the Holy Spirit and the wine Christ’s shed blood. The inn represents the church. The Samaritan promises to come to the inn again the same way Christ will return again to His church.

While many of these things are true and taught in the Bible, they are not taught in this particular parable. How do we know that? By looking at the context. The parable was told in response to the question “Who is my neighbor?”. Therefore, it is teaching us about how we can become a good neighbor to someone in need.

As parables deal with symbolic things, lose the context and you will interpret the whole parable wrongly.

Dig into the manners and customs during Jesus’ days.

When Jesus spoke in parables, the people understood the message more clearly than if Jesus had spoken in plain truth. This is because the parables gave them something they can relate to. But when it comes to Bible readers in the twentieth century, we are at a tremendous disadvantage. Since we could not relate to anything the parable teaches, we would probably be better off if Jesus had spoken in plain truth. How do we overcome this great disadvantage? Only by digging into the manners and customs of Jesus’ day.

Matthew 18:21­27 (NIV) Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy­ seven times. 23 "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27 The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

Everybody who reads the parable knows that the master forgave the servant of a debt of 10,000 talents. But how many actually know the impact it had on the listeners. A talent is the equivalent of 20 years’ wage for an average man. Yet the master forgave the servant of a debt of 10,000 talents! If we do not study into what the parable would mean to the original listeners, we would miss out on the force of the whole parable.

Look for the main truth the parable teaches.

Parables are usually told to illustrate one or two main truths. It is not necessary and even dangerous if we try to account for every single detail in the parable as the example of the good Samaritan shows. If Jesus Himself interprets the parable in detail (like in the parable of the sower), then there is no problem. If not, then look at the context of the parable and try to look for one or two main point that you think the Lord intended to teach.

Do not apply the interpretation of one parable to another parable.

In the parable of the sower, the seed represents the Word of God and the soil represents human heart (Matt 13:3-8, 18-23). However, in the very next parable - parable of the tares, the seed represents the children of the kingdom and the field represents the world (Matt 13:24-30).

Parables are intended to illustrate doctrine, not declare it.

Do not build a whole doctrine only on the parable if that message is not taught clearly elsewhere in the Bible. For example, it would be dangerous to teach salvation by good works based on the parable of the sheep and goats alone because this doctrine is not taught elsewhere in the Bible.