How to Read a Parable


Christ’s simpler stories require no handbook of instructions, but there are many pitfalls in understanding parables.

How to Read a Parable

Understanding the parables of Jesus helps in understanding the gospel, but it also involves understanding him, his times, and his people. We must often work at interpreting Jesus’ parables now, because the world of parables has largely passed away. Its herds were mainly those of sheep and goats, small enough to get personal attention; beef was a luxury even for a rich man. Its farms were small, often rocky, and towers were built for visibility in guarding the harvest. That world sharply divided rich and poor, and the economics of both are revealed in strange coins. Custom was strong, for even the poor fed a guest liberally. Their simple homes had one room; wealthy homes were filled with servants. Jesus used all of these as symbols for his messages, and understanding these symbols holds high priority for us, since the Savior warned: “Take heed therefore how ye hear. …” (Luke 8:18.) And understanding the parables is vital, for he illustrated with parable doctrines that he obviously cared about teaching.

What, first of all, is a parable? A special teaching technique, parables have been called “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” This common definition is not a bad overview of parables. More insight comes as we examine how the word was formed. Parable has as its main element the Greek verb ballo, meaning to throw or place, modified by the prepositional prefix para, meaning basically alongside or near. So a parable is literally a parallel situation, a story deliberately close to the main point but not identical with it. Jesus’ stories came from daily life: from farming, fishing, home life, and nature. But the points made transcend farming, fishing, home life, and nature. We hear that a great many parables speak about business. True, but the real subject is the higher business of gaining eternal life, and it is extremely important to see the carryover from earthly to heavenly activities. The principles of salvation taught through parables are often adaptations of the principles of success in normal life. Jesus, then, teaches us through our own experiences.

Just counting the parables helps to understand what they are, since the first lesson is the difficulty of getting an exact total. What illustrations really qualify as parables? “Light of the world,” “salt of the earth,” “candle” (the Greek word for lamp), “under a bushel”? Although these are often classified as parables, they are really only simple comparisons, for the parable involves an entire story that moves to a dramatic close.

A second numerical lesson is that there are about 40 parables that fit this “dramatic story” definition. The sheer number should warn us about a simple answer to the question of why Jesus presented them. In so many stories, one suspects that he had more than one purpose.

What were Jesus’ purposes in giving parables? The leading quotations on the subject are found in three of the Gospels, two of them giving the impression that Jesus taught in parables in order to obscure: “that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” (Luke 8:10; see also Mark 4:12.) But Matthew, who possibly kept an original record of Jesus’ teachings, gives fuller information. The Lord stressed that he was quoting Isaiah 6:9–10 and emphasized that he had to use parables because the people themselves were in spiritual darkness. [Isa. 6:9–10] (See Matt. 13:13–15.) Jesus, therefore, did not use the parable to obscure the truth, but often as a subtle invitation to think about it.

But there were other times when the Lord’s parables were anything but subtle. For instance, in Matthew 21 and 22 Jesus uses parables to condemn those plotting his death, accusing them of using their religion as a cloak to disguise their disobedience. [Matt. 21–22] He also accuses them of plotting to kill God’s anointed and promises that God (represented by a king in the parable) will destroy the murderers and burn their city. (Matt. 22:7.) Such are not parables of invitation but condemnation.

Yet one of these later stories reveals the power of the parable. Jesus described two sons, one of whom promised obedience but never obeyed, and the other, who openly rebelled, only to repent and obey later. (Matt. 21:28–31.) He asked his enemies which of the sons was more responsive to God, and they selected the disobedient son who repented. But Jesus’ example symbolized their own sins hidden under the name of religion. They had really judged themselves.

The parable is a teaching method recognizing the fact that one sees his own weaknesses better by viewing others who display the same weaknesses. Could this be applied in the home, where family members might participate in evaluating “outside” situations rather than being discouraged by withering personal criticism? Even the Lord was sparing in confrontation, generally reserving it until he had offered many other opportunities to understand. Even then his final warnings to his enemies used the “case system” to force them to think about his message.

This technique should be remembered: an effective method is to use third-person examples that hit close to home. The technique works on the premise that stimulating thought is the most effective teaching tool. It avoids one-sided scorn that too often triggers the self-defense reflexes and helps induce desired self-analysis instead.

But how does one interpret the parables given by Jesus? His simpler stories require no handbook of instructions, but there are many pitfalls in parables. Like poetry, they gain a good deal of power by creating a mood through comparisons. Yet their weakness as an effective way of communicating is the weakness found in any analogy. Analogies present one situation as being similar to a second, but since two situations always differ in some details, analogies can easily be pushed too far.

Almost any sample of imagery contains the same problem. For instance, Robert Burns opens a favorite poem, “O, my Luve’s like a red red rose.” How is his sweetheart like a red rose? Does she have red hair? A ruddy complexion? Is she blushing? Wearing red clothes? Showing red eyes from crying? Each answer, although logically possible, is strained. The comparison is valid only if kept on the general level that the captivating beauty Of the rose illustrates the captivating beauty of the loved one. To press the analogy to unwarranted detail forces it to break down. It is critically important to realize that the same thing can happen to biblical parables.

A clear example of this pitfall is Jesus’ story of a man waking his neighbor at midnight for food to feed an unexpected guest. The neighbor first tells the man that he can’t help, because it would disturb his family if he arose to get the bread. Yet the man’s persistence pays off, for the neighbor changes his mind and loans him bread—not out of friendship, but to avoid further disturbance. (Luke 11:5–8.)

This incident was meant to illustrate prayer. The persistent friend obviously shows that we get what we intensely want by keeping at it—and that God will similarly reward prayers of those who do not give up easily. The person knocking symbolizes the one praying; is not the neighbor behind the door the one who listens to prayers, our Heavenly Father? Already we are pushing Jesus’ story too far. It seems that it is simply not designed to show this point, because God in no way resembles the sleepy, unwilling lender who finally answers only as a matter of expediency.

Avoid the temptation to make every small detail of a parable have significance. Try to understand the main comparisons Jesus intended without bending his story to illogical lengths. It is a safe rule to err on the side of simplicity in interpreting parables, for Jesus generally apparently had only one main point in mind in a single story. There are exceptions, but they are not common.

Another principle of interpretation will help us know how far Jesus meant to carry a comparison: he usually gave some kind of application himself. Too often discussion will center on the story Jesus told, but that is not the real issue. We aren’t seeking to develop all possibilities of an illustration; we should try to learn Jesus’ purpose in using that particular illustration. This question is solved by carefully reading what went on just before and just after the parable.

In the case of the bothersome neighbor at midnight, for example, how does one know that the parable concerns prayer? By simply looking at the introductory verses that relate that Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray …” (Luke 11:1)—and where Jesus gave one form of the Lord’s prayer just before his story of the persistent midnight inquirer. (Luke 11:9.)

So the parables are in a setting like most current nonfiction: the author’s main ideas are usually found in his introduction and conclusion. No one should presume to interpret Jesus’ stories without first checking his introductions and conclusions.

Joseph Smith agreed. In beginning to interpret the parable of the prodigal son, he emphasized: “I have [a] key by which I understand the scripture. I inquire, what was the question which drew out the answers?” (Joseph Smith’s Journal, kept by Willard Richards, Jan. 29, 1843, cit. History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 1964, vol. 5, p. 261.) Here he demands what lawyers want when interpreting a case or what literature teachers ask in analyzing a passage—the context and circumstances that brought up the case.

In addition to the narrative context, we must know the religious and cultural issues of Jesus’ day, since some of them definitely color what he said. In the case of the prodigal son, for example, the particularism of the Pharisees is at issue. The scriptures indicate that Pharisees “murmured” at Jesus’ willing contact with “publicans and sinners” (Luke 15:1–2), but we would not catch the full force of the parable without knowing their concept of ceremonial cleanliness and how a man could be a “sinner” just by failing to comply with their rituals. Thus, a “sinner” could be a moral man who dissented from the rules of the Pharisees. James E. Talmage gives a good idea of this concept in Jesus the Christ, though additional cultural arid historical background for specific parables is generally found in good Bible dictionaries.

With these suggestions for reading a parable in mind, let us survey several parables. This will teach us two things: (1) doctrines Jesus illustrated frequently with parables; and (2) how we can use context, historical background, and Jesus’ own explanations in interpreting parables.

One main doctrine is the Savior’s witness to his divine calling. He is the “good shepherd” who would die for the flock, not one of the “hireling shepherds,” who cared only for themselves. (John 10:1–16.)

The context here is Jesus’ public testimony of his mission in light of the opposition of Jewish leaders. But important background is the “shepherd” language that all Jews heard, for throughout the Old Testament (as in Ps. 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,”) the good shepherd is contrasted to the false shepherds (often translated “pastors”) who lead God’s people astray. (See Jer. 23:1–2.) Jesus thus used divine terminology in proclaiming his divine mission. Since he developed the details of the shepherd parable himself, we cannot doubt what he intended.

The same thing is true in the case of the wheat and the tares. There are numerous symbols here that correspond to life, because Jesus designed these stories that way and he said so. But in the case of the wheat and tares, Jesus said the one who sowed the seed “is the Son of Man” (Matt. 13:37), or himself. There is no doubt that he was witnessing to his divine mission.

In addition, Jesus anticipated man’s varied responses to his messages. The leading example of that is the parable of the sower, which Elder Talmage suggested should be named “The Four Kinds of Soil,” since its main point concerns the way we respond to the seed of the gospel. (Jesus the Christ, p. 284.) Jesus explained this in detail—how in some the seed fails to root at all, and in others it roots but withers because of lack of determination in serving God, and in still others the gospel seedlings are choked by the weeds of worldliness and materialism. (See Matt. 13:18–22.) But even when the seed grows, it does so with various degrees of success, as good ground may have low, medium, and high yields. (Matt. 13:23.) This parable is a story of vital personal relevance, for everyone hearing the gospel message can find his own “category” and evaluate his “yield.” In other parables the Savior tells how to measure our productivity. Comparing God’s kingdom to treasure or to a costly pearl, Jesus drove the point home that one gains eternal wealth by selling “all that he hath” (Matt. 13:33–36) or, in other words, one must be willing to continue in his word and do all that he commands.

That requirement appears again in the parable of the half-built tower. The immediate background is Jesus’ challenge to the crowds that only he who bears “his cross” can be “my disciple.” (Luke 14:25–27.) Here Jesus speaks of the necessity of planning if one is to build a tower. He must count the cost or he will find, after the foundation is laid, that he is not able to finish it, and he will be ridiculed for poor planning. This episode is enriched by the cultural knowledge that farmers regularly built watchtowers and storage sheds from unwanted field stone. And the initial “question which drew out the answers” is followed by the story of poor planning, harmonizing with the concluding message of the Lord: whoever “forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33.)

This kind of forsaking involves not only financial and material sacrifice, but, above all, giving of oneself. The good Samaritan was a moral hero in Jesus’ parable. For one thing, he left the wounded man at the inn, paying in advance “two pence” (actually two denarii, one being the daily wage of an ancient working man). Even more, the Samaritan also risked his life to save another’s life and troubled himself to bring his human burden to safety. In regard to both kinds of giving the Lord applied his own parable with the command: “Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:37.)

Jesus gave some ten stories involving human relationships, an indication of their constant relevance in gospel living. For instance, the Lord often asked his followers to control anger and jealousy. One classic story is that of the unforgiving servant that Jesus related following Peter’s question on how often he should forgive. Jesus answered, “Until seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18: 22.) But this is only part of the background; earlier there had been a dispute among the apostles, and Jesus corrected them by presenting a definite program for settling personal grievances: talking privately, then, if necessary, in the presence of another party. Only after that should an unresolved grievance be brought to the Church, and only then if it is serious enough. In other words, Jesus’ injunction to forgive in an unlimited way is not an invitation to overlook major threats to physical or spiritual safety, since this problem-solving mechanism was established by Jesus at the same time he taught generous forgiveness.

Afterward, the Savior offered the story of one man who had been forgiven of a large debt but who uncharitably put harsh pressure on another who owed him a small debt. Forgiveness of the man’s large debt was then revoked, with Jesus warning, “So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” (Matt. 18:35.)

In overview, Jesus’ parables are a rich resource, one where we can understand the Lord’s testimony of his work, his own attitudes about our relationship to God and our fellowmen, and the prophecy contained in parable, particularly prophecies about readiness for Christ’s final coming. Through parables we share not only his conclusions but even his processes of thought.

It is doubtful that Jesus intended all his illustrations to be frozen in the mold of his place and time. His major comment about parables concluded with the challenge that one “instructed” in God’s kingdom would be like a wealthy owner “which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” (Matt. 13: 52.) We are encouraged to make creative use of the parables after we understand the Lord’s parable method. Before putting them to use, one must know both the stories and their settings, including the interpretations the Lord offered for each parable. Religious and cultural practices are also often necessary to understand the issues.

With this understanding, we can then use the parables in our lives. Joseph Smith took “old” parables and applied them to new situations in the restored gospel. Creative teachings could be implemented on two levels, whether in the classroom or the home. First, when we recognize that Jesus’ stories are filled with the daily life of another era, we can transpose them into our daily lives. An urban society could apply the parable of the sower as a story of an insurance salesman, getting no answer at some doors, getting turn-downs at others, contacting some who purchase policies and then allow them to lapse—and finally having the satisfaction of seeing many insured in various amounts for life’s uncertainties. The half-built tower could be adapted to today’s fuel shortage as the story of the careless driver who failed to look at his gas gauge and ran out of gas on the way to a critical appointment.

The situation of the good Samaritan is regularly in the newspapers, as many unconcerned citizens pass by those in danger while only a few risk their own safety to help. One young man saw the parable of the pearl of great price as the parable of the returned missionary, who found the most desirable girl and crossed off all other dates to win her.

Jesus’ method has unlimited application beyond the particular messages he gave in parable. The Lord commissioned members of the priesthood to perform physical miracles in his name; the invitation is just as open to do inspired teaching following his creative example. When responding to a call to the apostleship, President Marion G. Romney told about his missionary days, when Elder David O. McKay visited Australia and spoke immediately after visiting some impressive caves. He had observed the great formations made over long years by mineral deposits from mere drops of water. “Then he told us that was how a life was built. Every thought we thought, every word we spoke, every deed we did, registered on our character.” (Conference Report, Oct. 1951, p. 62.) It is no accident that this forceful comparison came from a very thorough student of the Lord’s life.

Jesus’ parables were designed for more than just reading. If every member is a missionary, every parent is a teacher—in fact, every person convinced of the gospel’s truth is someone’s teacher. And there is no superior training than sitting at the feet of the Master.

[illustration] Painting by James Joseph Jacques Tissot. © John H. Eggers Publications and the Brooklyn Museum

[illustration] Painting by James Joseph Jacques Tissot. © John H. Eggers Publications and the Brooklyn Museum

[illustration] Painting by James Joseph Jacques Tissot. © John H. Eggers Publications and the Brooklyn Museum

Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson is a professor of history and ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He lives in Pleasant View First Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake, and is engaged in special writing assignments for the Church.