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Mar 7, 2022

Today I would like to give pointers for understanding Jesus’ parables. I consider the parable to be one of the greatest of all teaching devices, and a legacy of the Greatest Teacher. I will end this episode by sharing a non-Biblical parable.

One little detail to understand is that the word ‘parable’ (Greek paraboles) had a wider meaning than we normally think of in English, and you may see this sometimes in the New Testament. In English, we normally think of a parable as a story that points to some deeper meaning. However, as an example, the word ‘parable’ is used for a one-sentence figurative teaching in Mark 7:17 where it refers back to Jesus’ statement in verse 15: 

GW “Nothing that goes into a person from the outside can make him unclean. It’s what comes out of a person that makes him unclean.”

In verse 17, the disciples ask Jesus to explain that ‘parable’. 

With that footnote, I want you to know that I will really just be talking briefly about what we normally think of as parables, the story type.

In the episode notes, I give links to more complete and scholarly information than what I will present to you. In particular, I recommend viewing the 6 minute video from bibleproject.com entitled The Parables of Jesus. Also in the episode notes, I have links to both a video and a good summary about Interpreting Parables by Bob Utley.  


Bob Utley’s Special Topic page on Interpreting Parables:

Bob Utley’s video on Luke 15:

Don’t miss the cool video from BibleProject.com! Title: The Parables of Jesus


I appreciated the original thinking and humorous examples in this short article:



As I was thinking about what to mention to you, I was reading a historically-interesting commentary by Christopher Wordsworth from 1856, and I almost stumbled into a common error in interpreting parables, which is thinking of them as allegories. An example of this is Luke chapter 15, where we have the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. Wordsworth gives an allegorical interpretation, assigning an identity to all the characters. In this case, the shepherd is Christ, who searches for his lost sheep. That’s not too bad. But seeing the woman who loses one of her coins as a picture of the church, is definitely stretching things. Similarly in the Parable of the Lost Son, the father is interpreted as God, the younger son as the Gentiles who repent, and the older son as the Jews. 

One of the things that leads people to take an overly allegorical approach to the parables has to be Jesus himself, in his foundational teaching about the parables found in Mark 4, Mat. 13, and Luk. 8. In Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower, He might almost contradict my last point about allegorical interpretation. It just happens that the Parable of the Sower (also called the Parable of the Different Kinds of Soil) has clear allegorical elements (the birds, path, rocky soil, etc), whereas for many other parables it doesn’t help to seek an allegorical identity for the various participants. A second thing that is unusual in the Parable of the Soils is that it has clear multiple teaching points, whereas most parables have a single, simple point.

I have mentioned all this heavy stuff to bring us around to this simple point: When we get too fancy in our interpretation of parables, we tend to miss the main point, which is to ask, “How does this apply to me?” The cool thing about parables is that Jesus intended them to be multi-purpose. People who were ready to believe in Jesus would get one interpretation, and the religious leaders criticizing Him would understand Jesus’ meaning very differently. Both groups got a correct interpretation, as Jesus intended, even though the interpretations were different. 

This propensity of parables to be interpreted differently has a plus side and a negative side. On one hand, we must remember that parables are not good for determining doctrine. Let’s not decide the timing of Jesus’ second coming based on parables, but some of the parables clearly illustrate something about Jesus’ second coming. The plus side is that the Holy Spirit may use Jesus’ parables to say something very pointedly appropriate for you.

I have been amazed that in the Parable of Different Kinds of Soil I sometimes find that I am dangerously close to living amongst thorns, way too concerned with the cares of this life. But in a few months when I come across the parable again, I find that I have moved over to the rocky soil, meaning that I might glibly say that I love God’s Word, but on that day if I am honest, I have to admit that my roots are dangerously shallow.

Another illustration of a personal application for me is this, which I don’t think I have ever shared with anyone before: When I read the story of the prodigal son, I am reminded that I acted like the prodigal son, when I was young and thoughtless, by asking for part of my inheritance early. I didn’t realize that this was tantamount to wishing my father dead. How this must have hurt him! I wish I could tell him how sorry I am that I ever did that.

Don’t look to parables for decisions about moving to another city, quitting your job, or selling your house. That’s not what I mean by a personal application. 

Finally, here are three final pointers:

  • Understanding the context and the audience Jesus was speaking to is key to understanding what Jesus was saying.
  • You can see a progression in Luke’s Gospel that leads from more general parables about the Kingdom of God, to Jesus’ identity as the king who will return, and to whom everyone will give an account.
  • Look to see if the Gospel writer or Jesus himself tells what He was driving at. And also take note of any surprising twist in the story. Such twists often give an important clue to the meaning.

Let me illustrate that idea of a surprising twist found in some parables. One of my favorite booklets that we printed to display our translation in Indonesia is a collection of 25 parables. If I am in Indonesia, I like to have that booklet handy in my bag. There was one devout Islamic taxi driver that took me to my home at least six times. Because of frequent traffic jams in Jakarta, a 20 minute trip can take two hours on bad days. So I started reading the parables to him. He was interested, and it was way better than trying to debate with him about our religions. After many of the parables he would say, “OK, yeah. I think we Muslims could agree with that one.” That continued until we got to the Parable of the Vineyard owner in Matthew 20. That’s the one where the vineyard owner gives all the workers the same pay for a full day’s work, even though some workers only worked for one hour. He responded, “What?! He did that? That’s crazy. That’s unfair!” This gave me an opportunity to talk about God’s kindness. We call it grace. God wants to be generous with us, because none of us can manage to earn our salvation. God designed this counterintuitive situation so that all glory would go to our Savior, and none would go to us.

As I will not be living in the same place in Jakarta when I go back (in July 2022), it is not likely that I will take that route again with the same taxi driver. It is not appropriate for me to share his name. But you can join me in praying for that taxi driver that I read parables to.

To give you a chance of hearing a parable for the first time (like Jesus’ followers had), I’ll read The Innovator by G. Williams Jones, from his book with the same name, published by Abingdon Press, copyright 1969. 

The complete name of the book is The Innovator and Other Modern Parables.

Announcement: If anyone knows of any of the heirs of G. William Jones, please ask them to contact me.

May the Lord bless you ‘Real Good’!