There are some 162 parables! (And sometimes when the disciples couldn't understand something, they would assume it was a parable.)
First, a couple of broad principles
- Down through the centuries, interpreters have often gone for deeply allegorical, obscure meanings, BUT the first audience was fairly simple and straightforward and these were spoken, so let's not beat them to death. Interpretation should start with one reasonably obvious meaning.
- Sheep are raised for their wool and goats for milk and meat, but the parable of separating the sheep from the goats is probably not teaching that a vegetarian life is more holy.
- The parable of the workers in the vineyard is probably not about unionizing workers to get equitable pay rates.
- These were first told in the Aramaic language and then recorded in Greek, so an English pun probably won't teach us anything.
- Matthew 5:13 says (King James Version) “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing.” (One elderly preacher misread “savour” as “saviour” and preached a seemingly endless sermon on how terrible it would be for Christians to lose Jesus.)
- Sometimes Jesus or the Gospel writer just flat tells us what the parable means and to whom it was told and why. Often, though, we must work the meaning out for ourselves—and we are more likely to understand and remember if we do.
Several broad categories of parables
- The old covenant versus the new covenant
- The barren fig tree (The gardener wants to save it and the master gives it one more chance.) (Luke 13:6-9)
- The great dinner (Those who were first invited refuse, so strangers and despised people are invited.) (Luke 14:15-24)
- How should we live now?
- The tax collector and the pharisee praying in the temple (Luke 18:9-14)
- The good Samaritan helps a wounded Jew. (Luke 10:25-37)
- The end of the age is coming soon.
- The wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
- The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
- Separating the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46)
- What does God think of you?
- The lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7)
- The lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)
- The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)
- What is the kingdom of God like?
- The mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32)
- The leaven in the bread dough (Matthew 13:33)
- The seed sprouting in the field (Mark 4:26-29)
- The hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44-46)
There are probably other categories, and these are only representative examples.
The blind men and the elephant—a parable from India
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall.” Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear. (from Wikipedia)
Three InterVarsity questions
Going back to the Kingdom parables (Item E above):
- What does it say?
- What does it mean?
- What does it mean to me?
And a last verse
- Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)