According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of a parable is "a usually short, fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle." Parable also means to "cast alongside" something else. These two definitions explain that a parable is a fictitious story cast alongside a spiritual truth. Jesus often used parables as teaching aids, which made comparisons of spiritual matters to earthly stories that His followers could easily understand.
What is a parable?
In the Synoptic Gospels, there are 35 recorded parables that Jesus preached. Although early in His ministry He did not use parables as a teaching device, He relied on them towards the end of His life. His disciples, who noticed the change, asked Him why He spoke in parables (Matthew 13:10).
Jesus explained that the parables have a two-fold purpose. Because the parable is a device, those who desired to understand His messages did, and those who were indifferent did not. The spiritually blind people who did not understand Jesus' message, such as the Pharisees, publically rejected Jesus (Matthew 12:22–32). Isaiah prophesied that some of those who heard Christ's message would not understand, and they would think that Christ's teaching was nonsense (Isaiah 6:9–10). Jesus spoke in parable so that answers and truth would be available to those who desired to understand.
Jesus did not just tell a parable and expect His disciples to understand every word. To be sure that His disciples received His messages, He explained everything when they were alone (Mark 4:34). Jesus often gave interpretations of His parables, but sometimes He left them open for His followers to unravel. In Matthew 13, Christ explained both the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. When the parable is left open for us to interpret, we have three guidelines that we can use to help us decipher meaning.
1) We can compare Scripture with Scripture. The principles that Christ taught through parables are also found elsewhere in the Bible. His parables will never resist other truth in the Word of God. We can compare other truths to His parables to discover what elements of the parable mean.
2) We can consider the context of the parable. Introductory words, such as those found in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, give the reader a frame for understanding. Luke 18:9 precedes this parable with, "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt." From this context we see that the parable is about spiritual pride. We see this type of framing seven times in Matthew 13 when Jesus tells the crowd what the kingdom of heaven is like.
3) We can distinguish between what is the core of the parable and what is added for detail. Like any story, added detail draws the listener into an experience. To understand parables, we should sort the details from the core truth and understand that every small detail does not carry spiritual meaning. An example of this occurs in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1–23). When Jesus explains this parable, it is irrelevant that there are four different types of soil. The quantity of soil types is simply an added detail.
Parables are also found in the Old Testament. Solomon uses analogies and comparisons by way of emblematic symbolism in Proverbs to teach spiritual wisdom. The parables in Proverbs are short and concise, unlike Christ's detailed stories.
God gifts us the ears to "hear" His truth when it is embedded within a story. Jesus beckons for us to seek spiritual truth and to not simply listen for the sake of entertainment: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 9:9, see also Mark 9:23).
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