4 mistakes when reading the parables of Jesus

Continuing looking at the parables of Christ.

Peter Krol in his article “The Parables of Jesus: Revealing the Secrets of God’s Kingdom” writes:

Remembering Jesus’s two purposes for teaching in parables will help us to overcome four common mistakes.

Mistake 1: Read them as abstract, universal stories for humanity

Too often, we read the parables in a vacuum, apart from their literary context.

We read the parable of the soils, debating which and how many of the soils can be considered “true believers.” Yet the remaining parables (in Mark’s account, at least) clarify that those in the kingdom are only those who bear fruit (Mark 4:26–32).

“26 Also he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed in the ground, 27 And should sleep, and rise up night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he not knowing how. 28 For the earth bringeth forth fruit of itself, first the blade, then the ears, after that full corn in the ears. 29 And as soon as the fruit showeth itself, anon he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come. 30 He said moreover, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which when it is sown in the earth, is the least of all seeds that be in the earth: 32 But after that it is sown, it groweth up, and is greatest of all herbs, and beareth great branches, so that the fowls of heaven may build under the shadow of it.” (Mr 4:26-32 GenevaBible)

We read the parable of the Good Samaritan and conclude that we should be kind to people. Yet this middle section of Luke speaks far more deliberately to how Jesus wants his people to go about proclaiming his kingdom.

We read the parable of the talents as though it has to do with (ahem) our talents. Yet in context, it’s about how Jesus will one day evaluate those he placed in leadership over his people. Which is, it turns out, all of us.

Solution: To read parables properly, we must give close attention to any narrative introduction or conclusion. In addition, the narrators placed the parables where they did with distinct intention. It behooves us to follow the larger argument to see how the parable advances that argument.

Mistake 2: Read multiple versions of the same parable in the same way

Just because multiple Gospels include the same parable doesn’t mean the narrators use it to make the same point.

For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the parable of the unshrunk cloth. But that doesn’t mean they are saying the same thing! Matthew and Mark focus on the damage to the old cloth. Luke focuses on the damage to the new cloth. The trick of interpretation is to figure out why.

You may have noticed on the list above that I separated the parables of the talents and the minas. Every list I reviewed puts them together, treating them as the same parable. But though they have many similarities, they also have many differences. And their different contexts strongly suggest that they are talking about different things. Different “comings” of Christ.

Solution: To read the parables properly, then, we must consider both how Jesus used the parable, and especially how the Gospel narrator used the parable. And narrators often use the same raw material for different purposes.

Mistake 3: Read them as stories for people today

We’re attracted to the parables because of their down-to-earth style and relatability (at least, once we’ve grasped such cultural artifacts as vineyards, sowing, and harvesting). We must avoid the temptation, however, to read them as though Jesus spoke them to us today.

I’ve explained above how easy it is to misunderstand Jesus’s quote of Isaiah 6 when explaining the purpose of parables. The problem is that we read the particular words in Matthew (or Mark), and we stop there. But we do not hear those words the same way a first-century Jewish audience would. That audience would hear Isaiah and understand idolatry and the Psalms.

Accordingly, the parable of the wicked tenants was not a universal story about disobedient people of all ages. Jesus’s first hearers understood clearly that the parable was “against them” (Mark 12:12). We ought to draw applications for today, but not at the expense of bypassing the intended targets of long ago.

Solution: To read parables properly, we must hear them as first-century Jews would.

Mistake 4: Read them as though there was no Bible at the time

This relates to the previous mistake, but instead of failing to perceive the cultural connections to the first century, we fail to perceive the frequent and dramatic biblical allusions.

When Jesus spoke parables of a vineyard, people would hear metaphors of the Jewish nation (Isa 5:1–7, Ps 80:8–18). When Jesus spoke parables of things lost and found, people would hear echoes of exile and return (Ps 119:176, Jer 50:6). When Jesus spoke parables of sons and fathers, people would hear references to God’s great covenant and messiah (Exod 4:22–23, Ps 2:7–9).

Solution: To read parables properly, we must read them in light of their Old Testament context.




Jesus Revealing the Secrets of God’s Kingdom


Additional reading

  1. Jesus the Storyteller 3 Reflections of/ on Jesus’ ministry
  2. Nazarene Commentary Matthew 4:12-17 – Galilee Saw A Great Light
  3. Matthew 7:13-23 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: The True Disciple #5 Matthew 7:28-29 – The Crowd’s Reaction
  4. Matthew 9:27-31 – What others are saying about the blind men recognising the son of David
  5. Matthew 13 – Parables on Kingdom mysteries
  6. Matthew 13:1-9 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Parable: the Soil and the Seed
  7. Matthew 13:10-15 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Why Speak in Parables?
  8. Matthew 13:18-23 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Parable of the Seed and Soil
  9. Matthew 13:34-35 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Manner of Teaching Foretold
  10. Matthew 13:36-43 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Parable of the Zizania in the Field Explained
  11. Matthew 21:10-11 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Who Is This?
  12. Matthew 21:10-11 Who Is This? – a Question still posed today #1
  13. Forgiveness a command given for our well-being
  14. Matthew 21:33-41 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Parable of the Vineyard
  15. Matthew 21:45-46 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Religious Leadership Fearful
  16. A Look of the Expositor Bible at The Marriage Feast {Matthew 22:1-14 }
  17. Left in the dark or being in the dark seeing light
  18. Matthew Henry’s commentary on Matthew 25
  19. Mark 1 – Additional Bible Students notes on Mark 1:9-11 – An Approved Son Baptized
  20. Mark 3 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Mark 3:20-30 – Accusations of Everlasting Sin
  21. Mark 4 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Mark 4:1-9 – Teaching in Parables
  22. Mark 4 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Mark 4:10-13 – How Will You Understand?
  23. Mark 4 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Mark 4:33-34 – Public Parables, Private Teachings
  24. Mark 4 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Review Questions on Chapter Four
  25. Mark 6 – The Nazarene’s Commentary: Mark 6:30-34 – Jesus Pities Sheep Without Shepherd
  26. Light and Salt – Parables of Influence
  27. Yeast – The Growth of a Good Character
  28. Memorizing wonderfully 28 The one teaching about the Kingdom
  29. Jesus the Storyteller 3 Reflections of/ on Jesus’ ministry
  30. Today’s thought “Whoever is not with me …” (March 19)
  31. Evangelizing in the “Time of the End”
  32. Only once and with consequences
  33. Religion and believers #10 Infiltrating pagan teachings
  34. Today’s thought “My soul thirsts for God” (January 23)
  35. Today’s thought “Servants” and “citizens” (March 27)

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