Read / Articles /

How to Read the Parables

Answers | Justin Martz | 8 mins

As we read the accounts of the Gospel, we encounter Jesus speaking in parables. Jesus was a master teacher and communicator, and He was intentional with all He said and did. It is in these parables that we see some of His most well-known teachings, such as "The Four Soils," "The Lost Sheep, "The Prodigal Son," etc. But what do they mean? How are we supposed to understand them? And what role do they play in the literary design of each Gospel account? 

What is a parable? 

People learn lessons through stories' and parables are a type of story that teaches lessons in a different way. They are common throughout history and are some of the most well-known and common ways that Jesus communicated. The Greek word for parable is “parabola” (παραβολή) which means “to set alongside.” In this way it refers to a story that is “set alongside” another for comparison or contrast. But how should we understand them in the Gospel accounts? 

How do they fit into the story? 

In our article, “How to Read the 4 Gospel Accounts,” we discussed how each account discusses the “Good News” of Jesus; that He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world. Through His life, death, and resurrection, He restored humanity and inaugurated the Kingdom of God. Each Gospel has two main objectives: First, to accurately represent the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is the Messiah and King of the world. And second, to convince the readers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior who is pictured in the Old Testament. Once someone accepts Jesus as the Messiah, His teachings become lessons on how to live life as a member of His Kingdom, in the world today. This is the framework in which parables should be understood. 

Jesus’ intent with parables 

First, how did Jesus use parables, and how did the Gospel authors intend for them to be understood? The parables are used strategically by Jesus in His ministry. Jesus taught lessons about the Kingdom of God using known situations that would be understood by the hearers. However, His audience always consisted of mixed crowds of those who believed, were curious, or had rejected Him. For those who wanted to listen and understand, those who had “ears to hear” could see that Jesus was speaking about the Kingdom of God. For those who rejected Jesus, like the religious leaders, they didn’t really catch what He was talking about. The intent of Jesus was to connect the Kingdom of God to the reality and lives of those who were there to listen. He gave comfort, as they saw that He, as God, was inaugurating His Kingdom through His life, death, and resurrection. The Gospel authors carry this intent on to their readers by wanting them to see how people responded to Jesus’ parables, and who was responding positively and negatively. 

Understanding the parables in context

Understanding the parables correctly means understanding the context. Asking yourself questions like, “Is Jesus answering a question?” or “How is He introducing the parable?” and “How are people responding to the parable?”

One example is the parable of the “Good Samaritan” in Luke 10:25-37. Here, a “lawyer,” or expert in the Torah, asked a question to “put Him to the test.” Jesus answered by asking what the lawyer saw in the Torah and he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agreed with the answer, but then the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” This is where the parable comes in. Jesus is answering, “Who is my neighbor?” to the expert in the Torah. The Samaritan, someone considered despicable by the scholar, is the hero, and the religious elite figures are the villains. This stoey is not about being a good person, but about challenging social assumptions and norms about who are “good” people and who are “bad” people. In context, the Jews saw the Samaritans as inferior to themselves. As a part of the Kingdom of God, we are to take that lesson. One people group is not superior to another. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom where there is multiethnic, racial, and class equality.

Another example is the parables listed in Matthew 25; "The 10 Virgins," "The Talents," and "The Sheep and the Goats." These parables can be somewhat tricky to understand, until we see them from the context of “The Kingdom of God” (Matt. 25:1). In context, these parables are about Jesus’ confrontation with the leaders of Jerusalem, who have rejected the right path and lost their opportunity to lead Israel toward covenant faithfulness. These parables are all about His confrontation with them and warning for judgment if they don’t accept His offer of God’s Kingdom. When seen outside of this context, these parables can lead to a misunderstanding of their meaning. They serve as warnings to the reader about rejection of the Kingdom of God.   

So what is the point? 

The main point of parables is in the context of the design by the Gospel authors. In the Gospels, Jesus connects God’s Kingdom to things that people would relate to, and confronts religious leaders about their rejection of His Kingdom. In other words, the arrival of God’s Kingdom both confronted the Israel of Jesus’ day and comforted them after their long period of exile and oppression. For us today, the parables continue to be a source of comfort or confrontation. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world, anticipated in the Old Testament. The Gospels display this reality to their readers and want their readers to experience Jesus, who He was, and what He said. The parables still speak to the readers, in the text, to challenge us to believe in Jesus and His Kingdom. When you accept Jesus as savior, the parables become comfort, knowing that what God has promised in the past, He does and will deliver in the future. His Kingdom has come, and we can be a part of it until it comes fully when He returns.

Written By

Justin Martz

Husband and father. “The Professor” and teacher of Sun Valley University, and in my DMIN program. Love to read, listen to podcasts, and watch movies. I am also an associate at Rayhons Financial Solutions.

Published on Feb 6, 2023