Understanding Parables In 8 Steps

Parables are found in three of the four gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. We love them because they are stories! And stories are enjoyable and easy to listen to.

But a parable is somewhat unique – it has two “levels” of meaning. It is an interesting, but fictional, story from which real life spiritual or moral lessons can be drawn.

The story itself is usually meant to evoke emotions, such as pity for someone, or anger at bad behaviour or attitude. The stories sometimes have a twist or unexpected ended. Jesus used parables to get his audience to join him in condemning unjust acts or attitudes, only to turn around and tell his audience that they were the ones doing the bad things.

This means that when you are studying a parable, you need to understand the fictional story itself first, and then figure out how it applies to the people to whom it was first told. After that, you can then attempt to find out how it applies to your everyday life in your context.

In short, you are asking:

  • What does the story of the parable mean?
  • What did it mean to the people to whom it was first told?
  • What does it mean to me?

The following are hopefully some simple steps you can use to study and understand a parable.

Step 1: To Whom Was it told?

Jesus almost always addressed parables to a specific person or group of people. Sometimes it was to lawyers, Pharisees, or to the crowds that he wanted to teach. For example, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, his primary audience was to a Jewish religious expert, even though you can reasonably assume that there were other people listening, including the disciples.

You may have to go back a few verses to find out the primary audience. It is also important to remember the wider context of the gospels. Jesus told the parables to mostly Jewish crowds/people and often it was in order to expose and rebuke the deadness of their religiosity.

Step 2: Why Did Jesus Tell this Parable?

What lesson is being taught, what problem is being addressed or what question is being answered? Jesus often told parables in order to address a particular problem – whether it was some sort of behaviour or attitude – or to teach a lesson.

In the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Luke 13:18, Jesus wanted to teach people a lesson about the kingdom of God and what it looks like. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15:1, Jesus was addressing the problem of self-righteous religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes, who were shunning sinners, thinking that they themselves were perfect. The Parable of the Good Samaritan answers the question “who is my neighbour?”

Step 3: Read The Parable Several Times Over

I recommend reading it aloud at least two or three times. This will help you to look at the parable with a fresh set of eyes and notice things that you’d never seen before. One of the main problems we encounter with parables is that we are too familiar with them. But time and time again, after serious and faithful study, I have been humbled to realize that I either had a wrong understanding of the parable, or had missed out some very important aspects.

Step 4: Identify The Main Characters And Places

Identify the main characters in the parable. There will always be two or three or more key actors (remember, they may not always be human! In the Parable of the Weeds, the seeds are main “characters”). And one of the characters is usually God!

In the Parable of the Lost Sons (often called the Parable of the Prodigal son) in Luke 15:11, the three main characters are the father, the son who demands his inheritance and the brother who remains behind.

If specific areas are mentioned, try and find out a few more details about the said place. It’s also helpful to explore cultural issues that are spoken of in the parables. In the Parable of the Lost Sons, it’s a good idea to find out what it meant to demand your inheritance before your father had died.

Step 5: Ask Questions

This is to help you try and figure out the meaning of the parable. Ask questions like:

  • What would a Jew have expected to happen in the story? In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the listeners would have expected the religious leaders to have been the ones to help the wounded man
  • Who is the “bad” guy and who is the “good” guy? Put yourself in the shoes of Jewish listener and try to think whom they would have expected or thought would be the bad or good guy. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, most Jews would have expected the Samaritan to be the evil villain.
  • What were the main characters like? Describe their actions or what people may have thought of them. For example, Pharisees were very popular and were admired by many people, whilst tax collectors were hated and shunned.

Step 6: Who’s Who?

At this point, you are trying to find out what the text would have meant to the audience to whom Jesus spoke the parable. Tie in the characters in the parable to the people whom Jesus was addressing. Which main character in the story related to which person or group of people in Jewish society?

In the Parable of the Two Lost Sons in Luke 15:11, the merciful father represents God, the prodigal son represented the “sinners” (tax collectors, prostitute etc.) and the bitter, unmerciful brother represented the Pharisees and the scribes.

Step 7: What Did The Parable Mean To The First Audience?

Sometimes Jesus would later on explain the meaning of the parable to his disciples! This makes trying to understand it so much easier, so try and scan the passages following the parable to see if he does so. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells and explains the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Weeds.

Most times though, you will have to figure out the meaning of the passage from the parable itself. The following questions may be helpful:

  • Is there a warning or rebuke against certain behaviour or attitudes?
  • Is there a good example to be followed?
  • Is there a lesson to be learnt or knowledge to be gain?

Step 8: What Does This Parable Mean For Me?

Finally, you can ask what the parable means for you. Ask the following questions:

  • How am I like the bad character whose behaviour and attitudes are being rebuked by Jesus?
  • How should I be like the good character whose behaviour and attitudes are being applauded by Jesus?
  • How should I change my bad behaviours and attitudes?
  • What can I learn about God and his kingdom?

And that’s it! I hope these steps will help you to understand parables much better as you read them.

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