A parable is a story, but not like just any story we have heard. They are short stories that make a point, but a point that is highly dependent upon its audience and context. They do not come straight out and say what they mean, which is why interpreting them is part of what makes up a parable. You have to be able to get the meaning, or in the case of the Bible, Jesus says the true meaning has to be given to us from the Father. A parable is a short story or saying that has a type of “punch line.” This is not a “ha ha” funny kind of punch line but more of a shocking point that makes it memorable and even offensive to the listener. It is something that not only jolts you awake, but makes you think. So a parable is a hidden or dark saying, a figure of speech, like a riddle or even like a dark joke. I’ve always heard the following definition that a parable is an “earthly story that conveys a moral or spiritual truth,” but as I’ve reviewed above, there is just a bit more to it than that. If we take seriously that all the Bible speaks of Christ, then they are not just about morals, but about Him. Some may (and many do) leave from the presence of Jesus not understanding, or maybe only glean a moral insight about life without grasping the real point of what is going on. Parables really force us to struggle with the surrounding texts to answer, “What’s the point?” They are like our modern day use of illustrations when it comes to teaching and preaching. They were (and are) a communication tool for getting people engaged in the conversation. You were no longer a passive listener but presented with a word puzzle to figure out.
A good bit of parables is to make allegorical comparisons. We are warranted in doing so in attempts to interpret parables as Jesus does so with His own parables. In Matthew 13 Jesus interprets the parable of the sower and teaches that the sower is the Son of Man, and that the field is the world. This is a key because in most all parables the key figure is the God or Christ- like figure being portrayed. In most cases this should be your starting point. The problem with using allegory and simile in parables is that sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop. As a Sunday school teacher of mine used to say, “Sometimes a tree is just a tree, sometimes a bird is just a bird.” Again it is the makeup of a parable to use something from everyday life to teach. If everything about the everyday life becomes allegory throughout, then the reality of that situation is lost. It is like a mirror reflection of reality, but like a mirror something is different, or just a bit off, there is a strangeness to it that makes you ponder over it.
Within other parables you may need to test the relationships that are being established via comparisons. Use the formula “A” is to “B” as “a” is to “b” with regard to “X.”Kind of like those SAT tests most of us have taken in life. They are a riddle of sorts on the test to figure what is being compared, and so too is the parable trying to get you to make educated comparisons to discover the truth in view (Luke 14:7-24).
Also I’ll point out that most parables have about as many points as it has major characters; as like the parable of the prodigal son. We commonly reflect on the relationship of the son that leaves and returns to his father. Typically we stop there and there is little to say about the son who remained. But he is included for a reason, we are left wondering if he will go in to celebrate with his brother or not, and in this we see the question posed to the Pharisees. Will they go in with those being saved or not? Jesus indicates that there is room for them too, and is just as interested in their salvation, as the son who was lost. So like our formula above Jesus is to sinners, as the father is toward the younger son, welcoming him into the kingdom. So also Jesus is to the self-righteous, as the father is toward the elder son, correcting and yet still inviting him into the kingdom as well.
Parables have a variety of effects upon their audience. We see from Matthew 13:13, and Mark 4:11-12 that parables are a form of judgment. Plain words are taken away both because they do not perceive what they should see already, and as a result they are left in a condition so that they will not see or grasp the sayings. The parable comes from matters of everyday life, stories of sowing seeds, weddings and common events but they all have some unusual twist or exaggeration that makes them more memorable and thought provoking. Some are even open ended to allow the listener to fill in the blank about how or what ending is appropriate. A parable has that shock effect that stuns those who are hostile to Christ. They cannot accuse him of saying anything outright and straightforward. They have to make their own interpretation of the saying also. They are stunned in a sense to have to put their hostilities aside and figure out just what was said. In some cases the meaning is rather easy to grasp and they become more enraged (Luke 20:19).