Parables are brief metaphorical narratives that have two levels of meaning (1). My guidelines for interpreting parables from the synoptic gospels are:
- Understand the parable as a simple story designed to be easily understood by a 1st Century audience (‘1st level’ of meaning)
- Look for anything in the simple story that might be unusual or challenging for this original audience. This may be a clue to the ‘2nd meaning’.
- Look at the context of the parable for hints as to how to understand. For example, is any explanation given? Is the parable in response to a question? How did the original audience respond?
- Consider the main characters of the story. Is there something to be learnt from each character? Is there a ‘master’ character that might consolidate what you learn from each subordinate character?
- Develop an understanding of the main point of the parable
- Check how this understanding fits within and supports the overall message of the Gospel
- Think about ways to apply this understanding of the parable to yourself
Applied to parables in Luke 15:
- Everybody understands the experience of losing something of value, whether it’s property, resources or people.
- The sheep and the coin appear to be modest loses. The response of the man and the woman in finding what was lost appears to be excessive. The behaviour of the father in the Lost Son story is highly unusual according to the customs of that day. The father appears to be excessively gracious, compassionate and forgiving to the Lost Son.
- Jesus tells the parables to address the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling about Jesus’ association with ‘sinners’. To be lost is to be a sinner in need of repentance. Jesus implies from the first two parables that his listeners should be joining with the angels of God in heaven and rejoicing over sinners who repent (15:7,10).
- The man, woman and father all appear to represent God. We learn that God cares for those who are lost, seeks the lost, and is compassionate and forgiving when the lost are found. The Lost son is another main character who presents a lesson on repentance. The older brother character represents the point of view of the Pharisees and scribes who do not share God’s joy at the repentance of sinners
- God loves to welcome repentant sinners into his family. I think Jesus is presenting himself as being the agency of God in seeking and saving the lost.
- Jesus repeatedly taught that his mission was focused on seeking and saving the lost (Luke 4:18-21, 5:32, 19:10). Jesus also taught the importance of repentance (Luke 3:3, 15:7).
- I don’t want to be like the Pharisees who took no joy from repentant sinners. I am a repentant sinner myself. I should take more joy in God’s calling of me to repentance, as well as much joy from others who repent and turn to God. My ministry should be more closely reflective of Jesus’ ministry with an increased focus on those who are lost rather that just on those who are already found. Will I be a follower of Jesus with the attitude of the older brother, or will I adopt the attitude of the outrageous radical loving Father?
1. Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 299–309.
2. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth. 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 2014.
3. David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament, 337–342.
4. Garwood P. Anderson, ‘Parables’, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 650–663.