Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
The parable is a comparison or similitude, a short, simple, usually fictitious, story from which a moral or spiritual truth is drawn. The parable as a teaching tool is effective in at least five ways: (1) They capture and grip our attention. (2) They stimulate the thinking ability. (3) They stimulate feelings and reach the sense of right and wrong of the heart. (4) They assist in our ability to recall. (5) They are always applicable to human life in every generation. The primary reason the Bible writers use parable is to teach. However, they assist in other ways as well.
- Understanding a parable will sometimes force the student, unwilling to buy out the time, to abandon the pursuit of an answer. Their interest is mere surface and not a matter of the heart. – Mt 13:13-15
- Parables have the capacity to give the hearer a warning and a reprimand, yet there is no room to retaliate against the speaker because the hearer is left to discern the application himself. “And when they saw it, the Pharisees began to say to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when he heard it, he said, “Those who are healthy do not have need of a physician, but those [who are sick]. But go and learn what it means, “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Mt 9:11-13.
- The parable can be useful in giving correction to another, helping to sidestep prejudice. This was the case when the prophet Nathan had to counsel King David on his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband – 2Sa 12:1-14
- Parables have the ability to expose a person as to whether he or she is truly a servant of God. Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54, ESV) By this, Jesus was able to remove those who were not there because of their love for him. (John 6:60-66)
The parables of the Bible contain more than one facet. At times, they may have a prophetic meaning. This may be applicable to the generation listening and others to the distant future, like the time of the end.
Barriers to Understanding Parables
These misconceptions can affect our ability to arrive at a correct understanding. The first is the error of viewing them as good stories that teach a moral lesson. For instance, many scholars simply view the parable of the Prodigal Son as a piece of fine literature. In addition, some scholars consider the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as an illustration of reward and punishment after death.
Further, even though the parables have been drawn from real life and the natural things around us, they are not real-life events. The misconception can come from the start of the parable itself: “Once upon a time,” “A man had,” “There was a man,” “A certain man was.” (Jg 9:8; Mt 21:28, 33; Lu 16:1, 19) Matthew and Mark had this to say about Jesus and parables, “All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.” – Matthew 13:34; Mark 4:33, 34.
The second barrier to understanding the parables is attempting to make every detail of the parable fit symbolically or worse still allegorically by an arbitrary application or interpretation. An allegory is a work in which the characters and events are to be understood as representing other things and symbolically expressing a deeper, often spiritual, moral, or political meaning. As an example, let us look at Augustine (354 – 430 C.E.), a Church father in early Christianity who used allegory to interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Allegory of Good Samaritan
- The man going down to Jericho = Adam
- Jerusalem from which he was going = City of Heavenly Peace
- Jericho = the moon (the meaning of the name from its Canaanite root), which signifies our morality (there is a play here on the terms “moon” and “Jericho” in Hebrew)
- Robbers = Devil and his angels
- Stripping him = Taking away his immortality
- Beating him = Persuading him to sin
- Leaving him half-dead = Due to sin, he was dead spiritually, but half-alive, due to his knowledge of God
- Priest = Priesthood of the Old Testament, i.e., the Law
- Levite = Ministry of the Old Testament, i.e., the Prophets
- Good Samaritan = Christ
- Binding of the wounds = Restraint placed upon sin
- Oil = Comfort of good hope
- Wine = Exhortation to spirited work
- Beast = Body of Christ
- Inn = Church
- Two denarii = Two commandments of love
- Innkeeper = The Apostle Paul
- Return of the Good Samaritan = Resurrection of Christ
Step One in Understanding Parables
Read the context of the parable. We need to find out the setting of the parable, looking for the conditions and the circumstances. Why was the parable told? What prompted its being told? Below, we see the people of Israel being addressed as “rulers of Sodom!” and “people of Gomorrah!” What does that bring to mind? It reminds of us of the people of Canaan who were gross sinners again Jehovah God. Gen 13:13; 19:13, 24.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
Below we have the Psalmist praying to Jehovah to do to His enemies and His people “as you did to Midian.” What does that bring to mind? It reminds us of their being routed by God and over 120,000 being slain. – Judges 8:10-12
Psalm 83:2-3; Psalm 83:9-11
2For behold, your enemies make an uproar; those who hate you have raised their heads. 3They lay crafty plans against your people; they consult together against your treasured ones. 9Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin at the river Kishon, 10who were destroyed at En-dor, who became dung for the ground. 11Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna,
The two debtors (Lu 7:41-43). The reason as to the why of the parable of the two debtors, one of whom owed ten times as much as the other, and the parable’s implications for us are found in what prompted its telling, Luke 7:36-40, 44-50.
The why of the parable came about because of the attitude of the one entertaining the guests, Simon, toward the woman who came in and anointed Jesus’ feet with oil.
Step Two in Understanding Parables
Consider the cultural backgrounds, such as the laws and customs of the setting, as well as the idioms that were spoken of earlier.
Building on The two debtors (Lu 7:41-43). The reason as to the why of the parable of the two debtors, one of whom owed ten times as much as the other, and the parable’s implications for us are found in what prompted its telling, Luke 7:36-40, 44-50.
To have an uninvited person arrive was not out of the ordinary, but they would enter the meal and take a seat along the wall, conversing with those who were invited as well as those who were reclining at the table in the center of the room.
Jesus’ parable of the two debtors was quite applicable to the situation. Jesus was pointing out that Simon, the host, did not provide water for Jesus’ feet, nor did he greet him with a holy kiss, as well as not greasing his head with oil. These were common customs in the first-century culture. However, this woman, who had sinned greatly, sought Jesus out and showed him greater love and hospitality than Simon, the host.
Below is the parable of the dragnet (Matt 13:47-50). A knowledge of Levitical law deepens the understanding here. Leviticus 11:9 defines what the Israelites might eat “of all that are in the waters … any that has fins and scales.” Verse 12 of that chapter holds out what Jehovah God said was unclean and therefore detestable to the Jewish people.
47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Below Jesus curses an unproductive fruit tree. Why, what purpose did it serve? An understanding of the historical setting gives us the answer. Fruit trees in first-century Palestine were taxed, with unproductive trees being cut down; therefore, Jesus used this as an opportunity to make an illustrative point. On his return to Jerusalem, Jesus grew hungry. As was the right of any Jew under Mosaic Law, Jesus chose to have figs for breakfast; he noticed the fig tree by the road. Seeing the leaves on it, Jesus assumed it had fruit. Nevertheless, the leaves had sent a false message. The tree had no fruit; the promise of fruit was an empty one.
Remember step one? Find the context. In the section before this, Jesus had judged Israel and its religious leaders and found them wanting for their idolatrous behavior. (21:12-17) Using the fig tree in an illustrative way, he used it as a small parable, exposing the fruitlessness of Israel and its awaited doom. In a similar manner, the religious leaders falsely advertised the fruit of doing God’s will and purposes, but as the tree, they were liars. Beneath the leaves of their show display lie the unfruitful hearts of unbelievers.
18In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
20When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Step Three in Understanding Parables
This is a two-point step. The first point is to look to the author of the parable for the upcoming meaning of the parable. An interpreter of a parable by Jesus would see what he meant in the context it was spoken and then consider his teaching as a whole. The second point is, do not assign subjective meanings to the elements of a parable. Generally, a parable teaches one basic point. We do not want to follow the path of allegorical interpreters that find significance in every tiny aspect of the parable, like Augustine in his interpretation of the Good Samaritan. No, we need to look for the main point. Discovering the main point of a parable can be achieved using the following four stages.
Stage One: Discovering the Main Characters
In any given parable, it is highly important to find the main 2-3 characters. Throughout these stages, let us again examine the parable of the Good Samaritan. To better understand the significance of the characters and the impact of this parable to its original audience, we need to look back at step two of understanding parables, the cultural background. Our modern mind thinks of the Samaritans as good because of this parable, but this is not how Jesus’ audience would have viewed them. Jews considered them a detestable enemy of God. The Samaritan’s history was marked with idol worship and defiance of God’s law. This combined with hundreds of years of betrayal and conniving, served to fuel the Jewish fires of hatred toward them. Commenting on the attitude of Jews toward Samaritans, the Talmud no doubt expressed the feeling of many Jews: “May I never set eyes on a Samaritan.” In addition, the Talmud taught, “a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.” So intense was anti-Samaritan feeling that some Jews even cursed Samaritans publicly in the synagogues and prayed daily that the Samaritans would not be granted everlasting life.
Luke 10:30-37 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
30 Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and laid blows upon and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by coincidence a certain priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And on the next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
- The man going down to Jericho
- The Robbers
- The Priest
- The Levite
- The Good Samaritan
- The Innkeeper
- The lawyer
The three main characters are the priest, the Levite, and the good Samaritan. Think about it, does it really matter who the man is? Jesus told the story of one man, who is a victim without making known the man by race, occupation, or reason for traveling. What about the robbers and the innkeeper? They only serve the function of getting us to that main point. They are like the extra in a movie. Their only role is to move the movie along.
Stage Two: Looking to the End
As is true with any kind of story, the end of the story carries the weight of importance. This is no different with parables. The ending is where the answers lie. Look at the end of the story one more time; take note of Jesus’ question to the lawyer. Jesus removed the attention from the term “neighbor.” Essentially the lawyer had asked, ‘who is the one that I should show my neighborly love to?’ Notice his attention is on the one receiving the kindness. However, Jesus asked, “which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Notice that Jesus’ focus was not on the recipient of the love, but the one who showed the love, the Samaritan.
Stage Three: Who Carries the Conversation
We may have noticed that there is no conversation between the man going down to Jericho and anyone else. There is no conversation between the robbers and the man, the priest and the man, the Levite and the man, the Samaritan and the man. The only direct conversation is between the Samaritan and the innkeeper. The focus of the conversation is between the Samaritan and the innkeeper, which highlights the Samaritan’s motive and heart attitude.
Stage Four: Who Gets the Most Press
Generally, whoever gets the most coverage in a story is the primary character, followed by the secondary person that must exist to facilitate the story and its main point. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, there is little doubt that the Samaritan gets the most coverage throughout the parable, as he gets six verses, while everyone else received one verse. However, the man who went down to Jericho receives just as much coverage, with seven verses actually. Yet, his role is secondary to the active role of the Samaritan.
Thus, our two primary characters are the Samaritan and the man. It might be added that this “man” who went down to Jericho and fell victim to robbers was a Jew, as the context of the story shows. The lawyer asking the question is also a Jew, likely with many other Jewish listeners. The priest and Levite in the parable were Jewish religious leaders, who ‘when they saw him [their own Jewish countryman lying there dying from a robbery] they passed by on the other side.’ However, we have a Samaritan willing to help a Jewish victim. Thus, the primary point involves both characters (they who received the most press). Remember Jesus’ focus was on the person showing the love, not the victim needing a loving act of kindness. A true neighbor [the Samaritan] takes the initiative to show love to others [the man going down to Jericho] regardless of their ethnic background.
- What is a parable?
- In what five ways is the parable as a teaching tool effective?
- In what other ways do parables assist as effective teaching tools?
- What barriers are there to understanding parables?
- How is the allegory of the Good Samaritan a perfect example of excess and demonstrates the interpreter’s ability to make a text say whatever he wants?
- Explain step one in understanding parables.
- Explain step two in understanding parables.
- Explain step three in understanding parables.
- Explain the importance of discovering the main character.
- Why should we look at the end of a parable?
- Why should we focus in on, who carries the conversation?
- Why is important to discover, who gets the most press?
 W. Hall Harris, III, The Lexham English Bible (Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), Mt 9:10–13.
 The stages to discovering the main point are based on Dr. Robert Stein’s book, the Basic Guide to Biblical Interpretation, specifically pages 147-148.
 Denarius: (dēnarion; Roman, silver) The denarius was equivalent to a day’s wages for a common laborer (12 hours). It was sixty-four quadrantes. It had an image of Caesar on one side. It was the “head tax” coin demanded by the Roman government from their subjects.–Matt. 20:2, 9; Mark 14:5; Lu 10:35; 20:24; John 6:7; Rev. 6:6.
Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All