Definition of Parables
Literally the word Parabole means a placing alongside of. It places a story alongside a spiritual truth in hopes of shedding light on its meaning. Some have defined it as an earthly story with a Heavenly Meaning. A parable is a comparison drawn from natural things or common life to open Spiritual things for us to better understand. Some call them extended simile's or comparisons. They could be closely linked to the fables of ancient literature. But where the fable usually centres on some unnatural actions of animals, parables did not have animals as their main characters.
Parables were a common method of Christ's teaching. In fact Matthew states that Matthew 13:34 All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: This was certainly not the only method employed by Jesus but Matthew indicates the popularity of Parables in His teaching. There are no parables recorded by John in his Gospel.
Jesus said to Nicodemus John 3:12 "If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?" Earthly things were often used to explain the heavenly.
There are three basic elements to a parable. The setting, the story, and the application. Not all parables have all the elements but they usually do.
Advantages of Parables
The question is sometimes asked why did Jesus speak of parables.
They greatly help the memory. The audience is more likely to remember stores; than other things delivered in a sermon. When they see the earthly things they are brought to think of the heavenly things. Parables cultivate the minds and intellect to study the meaning, and rivet the truth to the memory.
Heart and Will
Parables stir up our hearts and wills. They cause us to love them. Parables are precious to the Christian. They awaken our consciences and convict us of sin. As when hell is described as a furnace of fire, and our conscience as a gnawing worm. Parables stir up our emotions.
They instruct our feeble minds. They explain the deep things of God. There is some disadvantage to some who hear them. If they are not explained, they don't understand them. In our Lord's Day Matthew 13:11 "it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given." Thus it is a great blessing to have the parables of our Lord opened up for us so that we may be helped to understand them.
This appears as a strange purpose for parables but is one purpose given to us by our Lord himself. Some people in Jesus Day (the Jews) were so opposed to divine knowledge and the words of God, that God in judgment, gave them up to blindness of minds. Matthew 13:10-15 So Jesus spoke in Parables to hide the truth from the unresponsive and so aid in the hardening of their heart as they continuously rebelled against God.
Paul quotes the same verse in Romans 11:7,8 "What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded (According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day.
One can hear the parables and say they understand them and yet it does not affect their life spiritually. - hearing they hear not seeing they see not.
When a people have despised the knowledge of God's word in its spiritual power, and so sin against knowledge; they find the Gospel as a sealed book to them.
In Mark 4:11,12 Christ told the disciples the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
To the non-Christian all things seem as riddles, paradoxes, or fruitless parables. God's intention was to conceal from some.
To Search the Scriptures
Parables cause people search the Scriptures to find out their meaning. Christ would have His disciples studious and industrious to search out divine wisdom. There is nothing more difficult and hard to understand than a parable until it is opened and explained, so nothing is more clear than when it is fully understood. Through parables the great mysteries of the Gospel are revealed. They teach the wisdom of God.
To teach man's dependence on God
Parables reveal the great need men have of the teaching of the Holy Spirit to understand divine truth. To understand them you must hear them with the ear of faith. They are spiritually discerned. Pray for the Holy Spirits guidance and direction.
Jesus spoke of parables in Matthew 13:11 as "the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" This word mysteries means things of purely divine revelation. The Spirit of God alone must reveal the deep things of God to us if we are ever to have any understanding of the divine mysteries. 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 Man is wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit if they are to know anything of the Kingdom of Heaven.
To Reveal Truth
Christ spoke so often in parables to illustrate and open sacred truths in their mystery so those who are spiritually wise could understand. Christ spoke in parables to make it easy for the spiritual man to understand him. But since the great substance of our Saviour's ministry to the world is contained the form of Parables, they must not be neglected in the study of the Word of God. Matthew 13:12, 34; Luke 8:18
To Fulfill Prophecy
In Psalm 78:2 we read "I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:." Matthew Poole says, "God manifested in the flesh is the great mystery of the Gospel, the mystery hid from ages". Paul says in Ephesians 3:8,9 "Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: Christ spoke in parables 'so was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet'.
Guidelines for Interpretation
Because of the uniqueness of parables there needs to be a few principles set out in order to understand them. Parables are not like the rest of scripture and so are not to be interpreted the same way as the rest of Scripture. Parables are interpreted differently than historical passages of scripture or prophetic passages.
Think first of the story's natural meaning. The spiritual lesson must be based on that. A Parable is about a commonly known earthly thing, event, custom, or something like that. They are about farming, marriages, kings, feasts, household relationships, business arrangements, or customs of the people. This is what makes them such great teaching instruments. It is their earthiness. Seek to understand the earthly meaning first, before attempting to see the spiritual meaning.
Pay special note to the occasion in which the parable is taught. This will not always be given but when it is it will be extremely helpful. The purpose is sometimes determined from what is before and after the parable. If the setting is not clear it doesn't matter because you can extract the meaning from other things.
Locate the one main teaching of the parable. What is the Lord's main design, purpose and aim of the Parable. As a general rule parables usually have only one meaning. Jesus may give this meaning in the parable itself. The purpose of some details are simply to enrich and beautify the parable and has no deeper meaning than this.
It is not always to be expected, that every particular detail mentioned in the parable has a distinct meaning. "parables are not allegories...parables do not run on all fours" Benjamin Keach.
One abuse of the system is clearly seen with Origen who interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan like this. Adam is the man who fell among thieves. Jerusalem stands for heaven, Jericho for the world. The robbers are the devil and his angels, while the priest stands for the law and the Levite for the prophets. Christ, of course is the Good Samaritan, his body the beast, his church the inn, Father and Son are the two denarii. Christ's second coming is the Samaritan's promise to come again.
Not everything described in a parable is to be considered good actions or a pattern for our emulation. The unjust steward is not mentioned by Christ to justify his injustice.
Scripture interprets Scripture
Check the meaning with the direct teaching of Scripture. For example if you used the parable of the Prodigal Son to establish how a sinner gets back to God, then repentance would be sufficient and there would be no need for Christ's atonement.
If things are still unclear see if there is more information that can be extracted from the cultural and historical background.