A Call for Discernment: Interpreting the Parables

The Parables of Jesus

In our book Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, we define a parable as “a short narrative that demands a response from the hearer” (426). Parables are realistic in that they do not contain fanciful elements that would be found in myths or fairy tales, yet they are not true stories like historical narratives. The characters and the story serve a didactic purpose in teaching a particular spiritual lesson to a particular audience. Furthermore, a parable is indirect, shaped in narrative form, and uses the past tense. Jesus will often tell a parable to respond to a particular situation, and those who do not have ears to hear will interpret the parable negatively, but those who truly know Jesus will interpret it positively. Jesus tells parables to eliminate the possibility of a neutral listener.

Throughout church history, the parables have been treated as allegorical, often giving far too much free reign to interpretation. Origen of Alexandria (AD 185–254) developed a threefold sense of interpretation: literal, moral, and spiritual. Interpreters in the Middle Ages added a fourth kind of interpretation, anagogical or eschatological. While many church leaders in the period of the Reformation spoke out against an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, many interpreters continued to allegorize. Modern interpreters provided other approaches to the parables (such as social-scientific ones) that often obscured the relevant meaning.

Interpreting the Parables

So how should we approach the parables? First, we must keep in mind that parables are not historical narratives; they are realistic, but made-up stories designed to teach a spiritual lesson or truth, often about the nature of God’s kingdom. Second, “While not falling back on the pattern of extreme allegorization and subjectivity that dominated the interpretation of the church for so long, it is clear that the parables may be more allegorical in character than is generally acknowledged” (436). Finally, we can recognize some general patterns in the New Testament parables. For example, many of Jesus’ parables have a triadic structure. They have three characters or groups of characters: a master and two contrasting subordinates. “The implication of this is that the perspectives of the main characters reflect different parts of the overall meaning of the parable” (437).

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Note: This summary was written by Mark Baker with Andreas Köstenberger. Mark is the Professor and Assistant Director of the Scarborough College Darrington Campus in Houston, TX. This post originally was published on the Biblical Foundations website.


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