It's easy to get lost in details and not see the bigger picture or miss the main point of a story or message. It happens more often than not. How often have you done a search on the internet, or wandered around on YouTube or FaceBook and forgotten what you set out to find?
This type of thing happened a lot with Jesus and His teachings. He didn't get lost or miss the point, those who heard Him did. Even when He told parables, those simple stories, they were either misunderstood or those who should understand completely missed the point.
Ironically, in the time of Jesus, it was the educated and religious leaders who most often missed the point of Jesus' teaching and miracles. Funny thing, it's still that way more often than it should be.
Parables and the main point
The parables Jesus told in the Gospels were, for the most part, true-to-life stories intended to teach one simple truth. They're not allegories, although many people try to interpret them as such. They are figurative stories like extended metaphors.
Some are longer than others and appear allegorical, and some are quite short. All have one simple truth or main point. Most of the time this is made clear by the context of the parable—it's cultural and chronological setting.
So we need to understand the parables of Jesus from the original hearer's point of view, as well as how Jesus intended them to be understood.
5 simple keys to understanding parables
- Immediate Context— This includes the surrounding Scripture text where the parable is found and its setting, including the cultural and historical context. Here are 3 specific things to look for—
- Occasion— understanding the situation of the parable provides insight into why the parable is told.
- Setting– this includes the basics of who, what, where, when the parable is told and how it's expressed.
- Historical setting– hear the parable through the ears of those who first heard it.
- Interpretation— Did Jesus interpret it?
- If He did then this is the interpretation! You don't need to make one up or look any further for more interpretation. Look at the context before and/or after the parable text to see if it's interpreted by the Lord.
- If it's not interpreted, rely on the context, details in the parable, and look to see if the parable is told in another gospel.
- Central Point— This would be the main focus or subject of the parable.
- Look for a constant element within the parable. Ex– the seed in the Parable of the Sower.
- Seeing the Central Point is key to understanding the one simple truth of the parable.
- Major Details— These are the most important parts of the parable that point to the Central Point. They are more important than other minor details that help tell the story.
- The Simple Truth— This is the reason why the parable is told. It's the point of the story and is usually indicated by the immediate context (see below for a downloadable guide).
3 linked parables
In Luke Chapter 15, Jesus tells three related parables. Each one focuses on what is lost (the central point). The first one tells of a man who seeks and finds a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). The second features a woman searching for a lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10).
They are also linked by the setting of the immediate context—
By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story. (Luke 15:1-3 MSG)
All three parables have the same simple truth—rejoicing over a repentant sinner (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 32). The implication is that there is greater rejoicing over the repentant sinner than those who seem to need no repentance (Luke 15:7) and who are not sinners.
But the third parable in the chapter has an extended story with much greater detail than the first two. The target of these parables becomes more apparent as the third story unfolds.
Parable of the lost son
The lost son is the main focus of the parable (Luke 15:11-32) but two other main characters—the father and an elder son—bring the story home, so to speak.
There's an obvious tension between the religious leaders and many of those who followed and listened to Jesus—the sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Neither one trusted or respected the other but for very different reasons.
This reflects the current tension between what are called the churched and the unchurched and de-churched. Those of us in the church see others as outsiders needing to repent or at least get into church fellowship.
Here's how the story plays out for each of the 3 main characters in the story.
The younger son
This is the primary story (Luke 15:11-21). The younger of two sons asks for his share of the family's inheritance in advance and heads off to a country far away. He quickly wastes his father's wealth living in rebellion to how he was raised.
Things deteriorate quickly when a famine grips the land. The son finally lands a job feeding pigs (an unclean animal under Jewish law) and wishes he could eat the pig's food because he's so destitute.
Here the story turns as he realizes his pitiful situation—
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20a NIV)
The father of these two very different sons is somewhat of an enigma. He willingly gives into the young son who makes a complete mess of his life. When this rebellious failure of a son returns home, he doesn't scold or condemn him but celebrates his return with great fanfare.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24 NIV)
For a third time the same simple truth is stated—For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
I love how the father lets his son confess his sin but moves right past it to a celebration! No wonder the son returned home. He knew the nature of his father. He knew how gracious he was! But the other son, well that's the other side of this story.
The elder son
The son who stayed home and worked in the father's field hears the celebration and is puzzled by it, so he calls a servant over to fill him in on what's going on. When he finds out he goes into a sulk and refuses to join the celebration (Luke 15:25-28).
Once again we see the nature of the father who goes out to his oldest son and pleads with him to join them. But this son will have none of it!
But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30 NIV)
The eldest son was angry, resentful, selfish, self-righteous, stubborn, and defiant towards his gracious and patient father. Obviously, this reflects the attitude of the religious leaders who criticize Jesus for associating with all these sinners (Luke 15:2).
But wait! It sounds an awful lot like you and me.
How often I've found myself angry or resentful and complaining to God about others while God is dealing with my hardened heart. As believers, we are too often more like the elder brother than the younger, and not much like the father. We miss the point of God's gracious nature!
We all have difficulty grasping the enduring mercy and far-reaching grace of God. We like and want God's mercy and grace for ourselves but often think they should be limited when it comes to others. I addressed this somewhat in a previous post.
Once we understand a truth we need to apply it in our own life. With parables, once we understand the parable from the point of view of the original hearers then we can look at how it can apply to our life in our present time and culture.
I can relate to the younger son, especially in my younger years. But I can also relate too well to the elder son and more often than I'd like to admit. Who I need to relate to is the father who's just like my Lord Jesus.
I don't always understand how and why God shows such mercy and grace as He does, but I'm thankful for Him doing so. His mercy and grace will always be greater than my sense of justice and righteousness (James 2:13) and I'm glad for that!
Do you have disdain and disgust for some people while denigrating others?
Then it's time to repent and ask God to soften your hardened heart!
Here's a simple guide for understanding and studying parables— Study Guide for Parables