The parables of Jesus are some of the best known and most loved parts of the Scriptures. However they have suffered from a history of mis-interpretation in the church, particularly because of the debate over whether parables should be allegorised. The parables are powerful and memorable stories told by Jesus during his ministry, through which he taught the crowds about the kingdom of God, confronted his opponents by exposing their hard hearts, and challenged his disciples (and us today) to whole-hearted commitment to him in every aspect of their lives.
Greek and Hebrew words used for 'parable'
The word 'parable' was not originally an English word, but is a transliteration from the Greek word 'parabole'. This word is used in the Greek New Testament to describe a wide range of non-literal pictorial language and figures of speech. These include longer stories like the owner of the vineyard (Mk 12:1ff), or comparisons to describe the kingdom of God, like the parable of the sower, which is then given a detailed allegorical interpretation (Mk 4:2ff). It can also describe shorter sayings like not putting new wine into old wineskins (Lk 5:36), or even a proverb (Lk 4:23).
In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, 'parabole' was the word used most frequently to translate the Hebrew 'mashal'. This word means to be similar or comparable, and was used to describe a wide range of figurative language, including a proverb (Prov 1:1), or fable (Ezek 17:2). Both words describe pictorial and figurative speech which catch the imagination of the reader and cause him to ponder on them.
Definition of a parable
Scholars have struggled to give a succinct and satisfactory definition of what a parable is. The English word parable describes a short narrative or story with two levels of meaning. Jesus was not the only person to teach using parables, as there are many similarities with Jewish Rabbinic parables. One popular definition is: 'an earthly story with a heavenly meaning'. However many parables are not stories, and most have a distinctly earthly meaning and application.
Jesus used parables to teach people about the kingdom of God and to challenge them to consider his claims. Through parables he also challenged people’s attitudes and behaviour and taught them how to live in the kingdom of God which had come near in himself. Parables are memorable stories which Jesus used to communicate spiritual truth. These stories often involve a surprising reversal of the expected outcome of the story showing the 'upside-down' nature of the kingdom.
History of interpretation
The early church fathers tended towards an allegorising approach to the parables, which often went to excess. Their aim was a find a mystical and spiritual meaning to the parables. The problem with this approach is its subjectivity and the danger of altering the intended meaning of the parable. This is seen in Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan, in which every detail is given a spiritual meaning. The man was Adam, who lost his immortality when he was beaten up by the robbers, who represent the devil and his angels. The Samaritian represents Christ, who took the man to the inn, which represents the church. Even the two coins represent this life and the life to come, and the innkeeper is Paul. Apart from the lack of any objective standard in determining the meaning of each element in the story, his interpretation changes the message of the parable, from “Who is my neighbour” (Lk 10:29), to a presentation of the Gospel (man’s relationship with God). Some other church fathers, particularly those from Antioch, used a more literal and moral approach to interpretation. The allegorical approach remained standard through the middle ages and into the Reformation, and still continues today on the popular level.
In the nineteenth century, there was a dramatic change in the approach to the parables, when the German scholar Jülicher reacted against this excessive allegorisation of the parables. He claimed that parables are not allegories, but make a single ethical or moral point by making a simple comparison, so they do not need interpreting. However, more recently, greater recognition has been given to the allegorical nature of parables. Some scholars speak about a continuum of allegory, with allegories such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress at the far end, and Jesus’ parables at other end. Many modern scholars emphasise the need to make a distinction between allegorising texts which are not allegories, and identifying allegory where it is genuinely used in the Scriptures.
Are parables allegories?
There are similarities between parables and allegories. Etymologically, the Greek words are close. In Hebrew parallelism, parable and allegory are used together (Ezek 17:2), showing the closeness of meaning. The word parable, literally means 'putting things side by side', whereas allegory means 'saying things in a different way'. A parable can either be an extended simile or metaphor, or a short story with characters and a plot. An allegory is a more detailed story in which all, or nearly all, of the details have significance in the message of the story. Some elements of the parable are to be taken allegorically, while there are other details which fill in the story, but which do not have a deep spiritual meaning. Jewish Rabbi’s claimed that parables made two or three main points, depending on the number of main characters in the story.
When asked to explain the parables, Jesus gave the disciples an allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower (Mt 13:18ff), and of the wheat and tares (13:37ff) in which every little detail of the story had a significant meaning. The parable of the vineyard (Mt 21:33ff) also has an allegorical message about God sending his prophets, and finally his son, who are rejected by Israel. Within the parables we should recognise a similar continuum of allegory as in other literature. Certain parables, like the sower, have more strongly allegorical characteristics than others, such as the good Samaritan.
Attempts at categorising the parables
Many scholars have identified four main types of parable, as follows: The first are similitudes, in which a comparison is made using 'like' or 'as', between a familiar real-life event and the kingdom of God. Examples would be the treasure in the field, or the growing yeast (Mt 13). The second category are example stories, with a good character whose example is to be followed, or a bad character who should not be copied, like the Good Samaritan or the Pharisee and the tax collector. The third are fictional stories which brings a moral or spiritual truth, like the parable of the banquet (Lk 14:15ff). And fourthly, some parables are allegories, in which all the details have a significant meaning, like the parable of the sower. However, there is much debate over the distinction between these last two categories.
Another way the type of parable may be defined is by looking at its original purpose. During his ministry, Jesus told parables to different groups of people for different reasons. He told many parables to the crowds of general public who followed him. These were similitudes, in which he proclaimed the coming of kingdom of God (Mk 4), confronting their preconceptions of the nature of the kingdom, and challenging them to respond in faith. Jesus explained the meaning of these parables privately to the disciples (Mk 4:34).
Other parables were used as weapons against his opponents, particularly the Pharisees. These were powerful stories with an unexpected turn of events at the end. They were intended to cut through their pride, show up their hypocrisy, and challenge their hard hearts (eg Lk 18:9ff). Examples of these would include the good Samaritan and the unforgiving servant.
He also told parables to his disciples, teaching them the principles of life in the kingdom of God and challenging them to committed discipleship, particularly in the areas of prayer (eg. Lk 18:1ff) and finances (eg. Lk 16:1ff). Some were told in the context of teaching on the second coming and final judgement (eg. Mt 24-25), others were in response to their questions.
Principles for interpreting parables
The standard principles of exegesis should also be used for interpreting the parables. It is essential to ask what the parable meant to the original listeners to Jesus, as well as to original readers of Gospels. These principles are particularly appropriate to the parables which contain a complete story, with characters and a plot, those originally told to the religious leaders.
The first step is to identify the original audience for the original telling of the parable. As noted above, this is either the crowd, the religious leaders or the disciples, or it can be a combination of these. In most cases, full parables with a story were originally told to the Pharisees or other religious leaders. However, for some parables, it is not easy to identify the audience, like the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19).
The second step is to look at the immediate context of the parable in the gospel narrative. The gospel writers frequently provided clues immediately before and after the telling of the parable, which form a framework, introducing and concluding the parable. These can give an indication of the original audience, as well as some event that triggered the telling of the parable. At the end of the parable, Jesus often gave a succinct summary statement and challenge. For example, the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16-20) is immediately preceded by someone in the crowd demanding that Jesus act as a judge between himself and his brother over a family inheritance (12:13). Jesus concludes with a pithy and sober warning that they should not follow the greedy and selfish example of the rich fool, but should be rich towards God (12:21). The parable of the Good Samaritan was told to a lawyer who was wanting to justify himself, and who asked “Who is my neighbour?” (Lk 10:29). This would indicate that the main meaning of the parable must be human relationships, not man’s relationship with God as Augustine suggested. Jesus ended with a challenge to the lawyer to “go and do likewise” (10:37), commanding him to follow the example of the despised Samaritan.
The third step is to consider their cultural background. Jesus told parables to ordinary people living in first century rural Israel. To make the parables relevant to them he took illustrations from every-day life. He spoke about people sowing seed by hand, using yeast to bake bread, looking for lost sheep, travelling down the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and pouring new wine into old wineskins. These would all be familiar to his original listeners, but not to us today. This can cause a communication barrier between Jesus’ culture and people in today’s western culture, often causing the impact of the parable to be lost. For example, today we always speak of the 'Good Samaritan', so it is easy to miss that the fact that Samaritans were despised outsiders. However, Jesus often introduced surprising or shocking elements into the stories. For example, the king forgiving a unbelievingly huge debt, or the despised Samaritan acting as a good neighbour.
Fourthly, it is necessary to consider the OT background to the parables. Jesus told parables to people who were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT). Many parables contain allusions to passages, phrases or even individuals in the OT or speak about familiar themes. Most of his hearers would have immediately made connections between his teaching and their scriptures. For example, in the parable of the vineyard (Mk 12:1-12), his hearers would probably immediately think of Isaiah’s song of the vineyard (Is 5:1-7) identifying the vineyard with Israel.
The fifth step is to identify the main characters in the parable. Many parables have three main characters: an authority figure such as a landowner, or king (who represents God), then two contrasting characters. In many parables, there is often a surprise element in that the normal assessment of the characters is reversed, so the more 'wicked' is praised, and the more 'righteous' is condemned. The prodigal son is an example of this, so the younger son is welcomed home by the father, and the older son is condemned for his hostility. Some parables are simpler and only have two main characters, a master and an inferior.
The sixth step is to determine what the message of the parable would be to the different people listening. In the parables, the different characters were intended to represent the different people listening. In this way, the parable can make two or more points and have a completely different message to the different people. The prodigal son would then have two messages. The younger son would represent the people in the crowd - the sinners who Jesus was criticised for welcoming (Lk 15:2). The older son would represent the Pharisees and scribes who grumbled at Jesus. So the parable is a message of grace to the crowd, while at the same time being a message of judgement to the religious leaders. Similarly with the parable of the unforgiving servant (Lk 7:41ff), the sinful woman would be represented by the first debtor with the debt of five hundred denarii, while Simon the Pharisee was represented by the second debtor owing only fifty denarii. The parable would be a message of forgiveness to the woman (v48), and a criticism of Simon (v46).
The seventh step is to note the surprising turn which would catch out the listener. It has been suggested that the parables have similarities with a modern joke, in which the listener becomes emotionally involved in the story by identifying with one of the characters, and then gets caught out by the punch-line. In the Good Samaritan, the surprising turn is that it was not a Jew, but a Samaritan who acted as a good neighbour by stopping and helping the man. Perhaps after the failure of the priest and Levite to stop and help, the lawyer was expecting that one of his own will be the third person who acted as a good neighbour? Another example is the parable that Nathan told David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba (1 Sam 12:1-6). David became emotionally involved in the story, becoming sorry for the poor man and angry at the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb, not realising until too late that actually he had behaved like the rich man. David condemned himself, saying that the rich man deserved to die. Nathan was then able to bring David to repentance.
Finally, it is helpful to look at the wider context of the parable. We should note which gospel the parable appears in, and how it fits with the themes of that particular gospel. For example, one of themes of both of Luke’s books is prayer, and this theme is found in the parables of the friend at midnight (11:5ff), and the persistent widow (18:1ff). It is also important to note where the parable comes in the overall structure of the gospel, noting which narratives come immediately before and after, and in which section of the gospel the parable is found. For example, Luke records many parables in the so-called 'Journey Narrative' (ch 9-19), at the start of which Jesus had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51) and the cross. His followers are also called to “take up their cross and follow him” (16:24).Within this section of the book there is a strong theme of teaching on commitment and discipleship in practical areas of life, so there are several parables about stewardship of finances, like the rich fool (12:13ff).
Jesus told parables with the intention that people’s lives are challenged and their behaviour and attitudes are changed as a result of hearing the parable and pondering on its meaning.
One danger is our tendency to identify ourselves with the 'good' character. It is all too easy to use the parables to confirm our good opinion of ourselves and to congratulate ourselves. Many of us will automatically assume that we are the good soil in the parable of the sower, and fail to ask whether the cares of the world are choking the growth of the kingdom in our lives. Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan causes us to identify with the man who was beaten up and miss the intended challenge to our attitude to outsiders and to cause us to ask whether we actually behave more like the priest and Levite. In the parable of the prodigal son, we need to be honest to ask ourselves whether we should we identify with the first or second son. What is our attitude when God forgives and welcomes back a 'bad' character? Are we jealous, or do we genuinely rejoice? Or do we look down on people who are less 'spiritual' than we consider we are, as in the Pharisee and the tax-collector?
Parables as stories
In contrast to most speakers today who use pictures to illustrate their message, Jesus spoke to the crowds almost entirely by using pictorial stories (parables), through which he communicated his message and taught profound theology. Jesus’ parables are memorable stories and have become part of western culture. They have inspired artists to paint them, and writers to appreciate their literature. We can certainly appreciate their art-form, but should never do so at the expense of hearing their message and responding personally to their challenge.
The Kingdom of God in the parables
The main message of Jesus’ ministry was that the kingdom of God had come near in himself, and that people needed to repent and believe the good news (Mk 1:14f). He told many parables, particularly to the crowds, in which he taught them what the kingdom was like, and challenged them to respond in faith. The parables cut through the popular expectation of a political and military Jewish kingdom and of a messiah who would lead his people into victorious battle against the Roman occupation.
The majority of the 'parables of the kingdom' are recorded together in the synoptic gospels (particularly Matthew chapter thirteen and Mark chapter four) as part of Jesus public ministry in Galilee. Many are introduced with the phrase “the kingdom of God is like ...” (eg. Mt 13:33).
In these, Jesus makes a comparison between the kingdom of God and a familiar aspect of everyday life, like sowing seeds, seeds growing in the ground and adding yeast to make bread. These parables do not always contain a full story with characters and a plot. Some are very brief, being hardly more than an extended simile.
These parables teach two aspects of the kingdom of God. One is the present aspect of the kingdom, that it has come near in the person of Jesus. They also speak of the future aspect, of the consummation of the kingdom and final judgement, which is frequently described as a harvest, when there will be an irreversible separation between the faithless and the faithful (eg. Mt 25:31ff). The parable of the sower teaches that growth of the kingdom depends on the state of the hearts of those who hear the message. The growing seed (Mk 4:26ff) teaches that the kingdom begins small and will grow through the work of God until the final harvest. The wheat and the tares (Mt 13:24ff) shows that evil will also continue to grow in the present time, but will be eventually destroyed. This teaching on the future challenges hearers to make a right response of obedience and faith in the present.
Parables which describe the kingdom as a banquet (Lk 14:16ff) or as a wedding (Mt 22:2ff) stress the present aspect of the kingdom, and that people are invited to come now. These also express surprise that many of the Jews failed to respond to the invitation, as the elder brother of the prodigal son (Lk 15:25ff).
Additional principles for interpreting parables of the kingdom
The approach to interpreting these parables need to be changed slightly, as their purpose and emphasis has differences from other parables.
The first question to ask is what does the parable teach us about the kingdom of God? We should study the parable carefully, and identify what is being taught about both the present and future aspects of the kingdom. This can include the growth of the kingdom, opposition to the kingdom, and what the growth of the kingdom depends on.
Secondly, we need to determine how this teaching would contradict the popular expectation of a military kingdom. It is important to remember that these parables were told to people, including the disciples, who had fixed expectations that the OT promises of the kingdom of God will be fulfilled politically in Israel when the Messiah came. They were expecting a sudden and dramatic coming of the kingdom, so would have questions about the ministry of Jesus, particularly because the kingdom seemed insignificant and that opposition and evil was still so obviously at large.
Thirdly, we need to identify what response to the coming of the kingdom Jesus was looking for. Jesus did not teach merely to satisfy people’s curiosity, but proclaimed the kingdom with the intention that people responded in repentance and faith (Mk 1:15). The brief parables of the treasure and of the pearl (Mt 13:44-46) teach that, although the kingdom starts small and seems insignificant, it is so valuable it is worth giving up everything in our lives for, so we can participate in it fully and enjoy its benefits.
Were the parables designed to be understood?
One of the most difficult issues with the interpretation of the parables is the rather cryptic statement Jesus made when the disciples asked him why he spoke in parables. This is recorded by all three synoptic gospels immediately following the parable of the sower in their collection of parables about the kingdom of God (Mt 13:10-15, Mk 4:10-12, Lk 8:9-10). This gives the impression that Jesus told parables with the intention that people would not understand them, and was deliberately veiling his message to prevent them from coming to understanding and salvation. In this passage, Jesus spoke about the “mystery of the kingdom” (Mk 4:11). A mystery is something which was previously hidden and unclear, and impossible for people to work out for themselves, which s now being given by divine revelation. Jesus is saying that the disciples are being given this divine revelation of the true nature of the kingdom and that Jesus was the Messiah, but those outside are not (4:11), so Jesus and his whole ministry remains an enigma (or parable) to them. The disciples had been chosen by Christ, and were being given the privilege of divine revelation. There is a similar pattern with the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, which was given to him by God, but the interpretation was only given to Daniel (Dan 2).
Jesus was probably using a play on words when he said “to those outside, everything comes in parables” (Mk 4:11). As noted above, the Hebrew 'mashal', and the Greek 'parabole', as well as the word 'methal' in the Aramaic Jesus probably spoke in, have a wide range of meanings, including a parable or riddle. So Jesus was not trying to be difficult or cryptic, but those outside could not understand Jesus, his ministry, the kingdom he inaugurated, or the parables used to explain the kingdom. All were like a riddle to them.
As illustrated in the preceding parable of the sower and the following explanation, the successful growth of the word of God depends on the state of the hearts of the hearers. The message of the kingdom comes to two groups of people: the first are those who respond with faith as God gives them revelation (the disciples), the second are those who respond in unbelief (the crowd). The quotation from Isaiah applies to those whose hearts are hardened, they hear the message and the parables, but do not understand because of their unbelief (4:12). As long as their unbelief continues, they will not be able to understand the parables or message of the kingdom of God - it will remain a mystery or parable to them. The parables will only be understood by those who are committed to Jesus and whose hearts are open to receive him and his message of the kingdom.
In contrast, the parables which Jesus told to the Pharisees were certainly understood by them. This can be shown by their reactions. For example, following the parable of vineyard, when they “realised they had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him” (Mk 12:12).
The parables contain rich theology and teaching about the kingdom of God and how to live in it. They bring a strong personal challenge to respond to the message of the kingdom with total commitment, as well as confronting wrong attitudes or behaviour. However they mirror the mystery of the kingdom and of Jesus’ ministry, and can be only properly understood when the message of the kingdom is received with soft hearts, faith and obedience.
Blomberg, C.L. Interpreting the Parables. IVP 1990.
Fee, G.D. & Stuart, D. How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth. Zondervan 1982. Chapter 8: The Parables - do you get the point?
Lane, W. Gospel of Mark. New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1974.
Morris, L. The Gospel According to Matthew. Eerdmans 1995.
Snodgrass, K.R. “Parables” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. ed. J.B. Green, S. McKnight, I.H. Marshall. IVP 1992.
Tasker, R.V.G. & Marshall, I.H. “Parable” in Illustrated Bible Dictionary. IVP 1986.
Wenham, D. The Parables of Jesus. IVP 1989.
Appendix I: List of Parables
|Lamp under a bowl
|Wise & foolish builders
|New cloth & old coat
|New wine in old wineskins
|Sower and soils
|Wheat & tares
|Owner of house
|Workers in vineyard
|Faithful & wise servant
|Sheep & goats
|Friend at midnight
|Unfruitful fig tree
|Lowest seat at feast
|Cost of discipleship
|Lost (prodigal) son
|Rich man & Lazarus
|Master & his servant
|Pharisee & tax-collector
Appendix II: Original audience for parables
Lamp under bowl (Mt 5:14-15, Mk 4:21-22, Lk 8:16, 11:33)
Wise & foolish builders (Mt 7:24-27, Lk 6:47-49)
Discipleship - told in response to questions:
Rich fool (Lk 12:13-21)
Unfruitful fig tree (Lk 13:6-9)
Cost of discipleship (Lk 14:25-35)
Parables of the kingdom:
Sower & soils (Mt 13:1-23, Mk 4:1-20, Lk 8:4-15)
Wheat & tares (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43)
Mustard seed (Mt 13:31-33, Mk 4:30-32, Lk 13:18-21)
Yeast (Mt 13:33, Lk 18:20-21)
Hidden treasure (Mt 13:44)
Valuable pearl (Mt 13:45-46)
Net (Mt 13:47-50)
Owner of house (Mt 13:52)
Growing seed (Mk 4:26-29)
2. Pharisees or other religious leaders
Lost sheep (Lk 15:1-17)
Lost coin (Lk 15:8-10)
Lost (prodigal) son (Lk 15:11-32)
Two sons (Mt 21:28-32)
Wicked tenants (Mt 21:33-46, Mk 12:1-12, Lk 20:9-19)
Wedding banquet (Mt 22:1-14)
Money lender (Lk 7:36-50)
Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37)
Lowest seat at feast (Lk 14:1-14)
Great banquet (Lk 14:15-24)
Pharisee & tax-collector (Lk 18:9-14)
New cloth old coat / new wine old wineskins (Mt 9:16-17, Mk 2:21-22, Lk 5:36-38) (also to John’s disciples)
Lost sheep (Mt 18:10-14)
Unmerciful servant (Mt 18:21-25)
Master & his servant (Lk 17:1-10)
Teaching on prayer
Friend at midnight (Lk 11:1-13)
Persistent widow (Lk 18:1-8)
Teaching on finances
Shrewd manager (Lk 16:1-15)
Teaching on eschatology
Fig tree (Mt 24:32-35, 13:28-39, Lk 21:29-31)
Watchful servants (Mk 13:35-37, Lk 12:35-40)
Faithful & wise servant (Mt 24:45-51, Lk 12:42-48)
Ten maidens (Mt 25:1-13)
Talents (minas) (Mt 25:14-30, Lk 19:12-27)
Sheep & goats (Mt 25:31-46)
4. Uncertain audience
Workers in vineyard (Mt 20:1-16)
Rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31)