Author: Ron Graham


What is a Parable?
—And how are parables interpreted?

This page provides a clear and concise definition of the word “parable”, followed by an explanation of the nature and interpretation of parables.

1 What Does “Parable” Mean?

Definition of “Parable”

A “parable” is an illustrative story, by which a familiar idea is cast beside an unfamiliar idea in such a way that the comparison helps people to better understand and grasp the unfamiliar idea. A simple story is told, certain features of which are analogous or parallel to the points or principles one wishes to drive home. For example, a blind man tried to guide another blind man, and they both fell into the ditch. This illustrates that while a man leaves his own shortcomings uncorrected, he cannot help others to correct theirs (cf Luke 6:39ff).

The word “parable” comes from the Greek word parabolee. In the Greek para means beside, and ballo means to cast or throw. So parable, in a very basic sense, means to cast beside. The word “parable”, in its more developed sense, still retains that underlying meaning.

2 How Does a Parable Work?

The Parable that Nathan the Prophet told to David the King lets us see in action the process described above. Nathan the prophet used a parable to awaken David to the sin he had committed regarding Bathsheba (2Samuel 12:1-15).

David, a former shepherd, had no difficulty in seeing the injustice done to the poor man deprived of his pet lamb by a rich and powerful man. He became quite angry about it, and wanted to punish the person who had committed the injustice. Then Nathan simply said to David, You are the man!”. David then realised that the story illustrated his own act of injustice. The analogy was so strong that David immediately saw his own sin. His anger at another man's unjust deeds became shame and penitence regarding his own.

Like Nathan, Jesus was a Master of the parable, and often used parables to point out people's sins.

3 How is a Parable Interpreted?

Jesus was an artist in the telling of parables. He painted vivid word pictures to dramatise his teachings. Jesus told his parables in such a way that they were easy to visualise, and thus to remember.

Understanding a Parable.

It's important to understand that in a parable there are certain features that carry the moral or point. Other details are there simply to make the story vivid, memorable, and complete in the mind's eye of the hearer. We should interpret the parables according to the simple principles they are meant to teach. Jesus himself sets us a pattern for interpretation, when he interprets certain of his parables in this simple manner.

Example 1. Jesus told the short parable of the two debtors to Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-47) to open his eyes and to help him see things differently. In Simon's eyes, he is the lesser debtor to God, and the immoral woman the greater. Yet Jesus shows Simon, with a piercing parable, that Simon therefore has the lesser love for God!

Now Simon would have missed the point of that parable entirely, had he wondered about the significance of why the amounts of money owed by the debtors are divisible by five, or whether there was any hidden meaning in the fact that the higher debt was exactly ten times the lesser debt.

Example 2. Likewise, the parable of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46) makes a point about the value of the kingdom of God compared to earthly wealth. The pearl stands for the kingdom of Heaven, and all the merchant's possessions —which he sold to gain the pearl— represent earthly wealth.

The point of this parable is that gaining the kingdom of Heaven is worth sacrificing any amount of worldly possessions should that be necessary. We would be distracted from that point if we tried to find some significance in the fact that the merchant sought fine pearls rather than fine rubies or fine diamonds.

Example 3. The parable of the weeds in the field (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) is an example of Jesus interpreting his own parable. We should take Christ's own interpretation of one of his parables, as a paradigm or pattern or pattern for interpreting his other parables.

Short Quiz

1. What does the Greek word parabolee mean?

2. What did the parable represent that Nathan told to David?

3. Are the interpretations of parables complicated?

4. What pattern do we have to guide us when we interpret the parables?

5. What is represented by the factor of five in the numbers Jesus used when telling a parable to Simon the Pharisee?