4 Interpretive Guidelines for Understanding Jesus’ Parables
When reading and studying the parables of Jesus, it’s important to keep in mind these four guiding principles.
1. Don’t treat parables like allegory.
An allegory is most often completely filled with symbolic meaning. Every detail means something that can be traced to the overriding principle that is being illuminated. Parables usually have one basic, central meaning. Trying to oversymbolize them can have the effect of tearing them apart. A person doesn’t understand the beauty of a flower by disassembling it. Like a blossom, a parable is best understood by seeing it in its simple and profound entirety.
2. The Rule of Three.
Like all good storytelling, parables usually follow the Rule of Three. Do you remember the stories you heard as a child—such as “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Three Bears”? Both of these stories are filled with more “threes”: three wolves, three beds, three bowls of porridge. Jesus did this often in the telling of the parables. And is it any wonder that many parables deliver three important truths or that most sermons rest on three important points?
3. The Rule of Two.
Parable characters often follow the Rule of Two. There were usually two people who experienced tension between righteousness and sin, good and evil. When you look for these two elements you will find an important part of the development of the parable.
4. Code words and phrases.
Jesus’ parables used certain phrases and code words that communicated in subtly powerful ways to His audiences. For instance, “How much more” is used to build a bridge from temporal things to spiritual realities. “He who has ears to hear” calls people to critically important issues of spiritual life and death. “Verily, verily, I say to you,” means that Jesus is speaking with earnest intensity; don’t miss it. Look for these phrases and understand where they’re leading you.
Excerpt adapted from R.C. Sproul’s What’s in the Bible? (2011, Thomas Nelson).