Jesus Christ was the greatest teacher who ever taught,” declared President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985).1 One of the Savior’s most striking teaching methods was His use of parables. Concerning the parables of Jesus, President Howard W. Hunter (1907–95) said: “They are so simple a child can understand, yet profound enough for the sage and philosopher. …
“Each of the parables spoken by the Savior seems to teach a principle or give an admonition regarding the attributes necessary to qualify for exaltation.”2
The word parable comes from the Greek paraballo, which means “to set beside” or “to compare.”3 A parable, therefore, is a simple story in which the narrator compares the common experiences of his listeners to some divine truth (see Bible Dictionary, “Parables,” 740–41).
Jesus primarily employed two types of parables, depending upon His audience. The first is what we might call “parables of instruction,” which the Savior used to teach His disciples and curious seekers about basic gospel principles. These parables included such commonplace people and objects as a sower, an empty house, a great supper, a lost coin, a steward, a servant, laborers in a field, sheep and goats, as well as vines and branches. The principles taught include “faith, repentance, baptism, development of talents, forgiveness, perseverance in doing good, being a profitable steward, charity, mercy, and obedience.”4 Other parables might be described as “parables of rebuke” which the Savior directed toward those who had ill will for Him. The parables of the two sons, the wicked husband-men, and the marriage of the king’s son (see Matt. 21–22), which specifically condemn those who were conspiring against Him, are examples of this type of parable.
The Savior sometimes used a single parable to both instruct and rebuke. For example, the parable of the lost sheep teaches on one occasion about Heavenly Father’s genuine concern for our welfare (see Matt. 18:12–14), while on another occasion, it delivers a rebuke to a group of Pharisees and scribes for their self-righteousness (see Luke 15:1–7).
One day when a great multitude was gathered to hear His teachings, the Savior taught in parables. Soon thereafter the disciples asked Him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” He responded, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (Matt. 13:10–11). Alma taught Zeezrom the same principle: “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God … according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him. And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full” (Alma 12:9–10; emphasis added).
Those who heard the Savior’s parables of instruction, therefore, were able to understand those principles they were prepared to receive. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “As the Master Teacher, Christ tailored His tutoring, depending upon the spiritual readiness of His pupils.”5 In this way the parables both reveal and conceal at the same time. The Savior was not so concerned with concealing when He used parables of rebuke. To His enemies, He said, “Unto you that believe not, I speak in parables; that your unrighteousness may be rewarded unto you” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matt. 21:34; emphasis added).
The Master Teacher’s parables show both the justice and mercy of God at work among those who hear them. “Two men may hear the same words,” wrote Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933). “One of them listens in indolence and indifference, the other with active mind intent on learning all that the words can possibly convey; and, having heard, the diligent man goes straightway to do the things commended to him, while the careless one neglects and forgets. The one is wise, the other foolish; the one has heard to his eternal profit, the other to his everlasting condemnation.”6
Discovering how to interpret and apply the parables of Jesus is essential to getting the most from them. To interpret a parable, one must study what it meant to them, there, then. To apply a parable, one must ponder what it means to me, here, now. “The only true interpretation is the meaning the parable conveyed, or was meant to convey, when first spoken. The application of a parable may vary in every age and circumstance” (Bible Dictionary, “Parables,” 741).
The most important helps in making a proper interpretation are the explanations given by the Savior Himself. They are usually given in the same chapter as the parable, just before or after the parable. For example, after the Savior gave the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and tares, He explained each of them to His disciples (see Matt. 13:3–8, 18–30, 36–43). It is also helpful to learn the background and setting of each parable. We can do this by finding answers to such questions as: To whom was Jesus talking? Why did He address this parable to this particular audience? What was the concern or question that caused Jesus to give this parable? How did this parable answer that question or situation?
Be cautious in identifying the symbols and their meanings, asking the Lord in prayer to help you understand. Guard against overinterpretation—trying to press every little detail of the parable for a precise meaning. Jesus’ parables were intended to be understood by the Spirit, in a straightforward and simple manner. Concerning the parable of the prodigal son, the Prophet Joseph Smith said: “What is the rule of interpretation? … Understand it precisely as it reads.”7
Although there is normally one original interpretation of the elements in a parable, there may be many principles and applications that can be drawn from it. Elder Merlin R. Lybbert (1926–2001) said, “The beauty of the parables of the Lord is that they have many applications, and thus their teaching value is unending.”8 Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has also stressed that the occurrence of multiple meanings or applications in scriptures “underscores the importance of our seeking revelation from the Holy Ghost to help us interpret them.”9 He has also said, “The Holy Ghost is a better guide to scriptural interpretation [and application] than even the best commentary.” Thus, to discover the most appropriate application of a parable “our minds need to be enlightened by the Spirit of the Lord.”10
This does not mean, however, that we should ignore other valuable resources to guide our study of the parables of Jesus. Modern scripture, particularly the Doctrine and Covenants, elucidates the parables of the Savior. For example, the Lord has given an interpretation and application of the parable of the wheat and tares in Doctrine and Covenants 86:1–11 and 101:63–68. The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, found in the Bible footnotes and appendix, also provides additional details concerning the setting, content, and interpretation of many parables. The inspired teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles are important resources to guide us.11 And the Prophet Joseph Smith commented extensively on several parables.12
Your diligent study and application of the parables of Jesus will bring you closer to the central purpose of life: to come unto Christ and live His gospel. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) said: “Parables are a call to investigate the truth; to learn more; to inquire into the spiritual realities, which, through them, are but dimly viewed. Parables start truth seekers out in the direction of further light and knowledge and understanding; they invite men to ponder such truths as they are able to bear in the hope of learning more. Parables are a call to come unto Christ, to believe his doctrines, to live his laws, and to be saved in his kingdom.”13
The Savior will bless you in your efforts as you qualify for the promise of this declaration, given by Him to His ancient disciples: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear” (Matt. 13:16).