In a study of biblical hermeneutics, one must come to a proper understanding of parables and the correct interpretation of them. What are they? Why did Jesus use them? Why bother with understanding them? Jesus used many parables throughout his ministry and we have around thirty recorded in the gospels. The gospel of Luke records the most parables, and if a student of the word is to handle accurately the things of God, the parables must be properly interpreted. A study of the parables which Jesus taught brings us to a proper understanding of the Kingdom of heaven, end times, and other areas of theology.
The etymological meaning of a parable is, "a placing alongside of for the purpose of comparison." Parables represent a method of illustration so as to be able to say, "The Kingdom of heaven is like..." Parables are about common earthly things we are familiar with, things such as marriages, farming, feasts, household relationships, business ventures, or customs of the people. Beyond the earthly teaching is the spiritual lesson or the theological truth the parable is intended to teach. The earthly story bears an analogical relationship to the spiritual lesson and this relationship gives the parable its argumentative force. Parabolical teaching drives home doctrine and information on things like the Kingdom of Heaven, how the gospel spreads, the end of the age, the dealings of God with Israel and the gentiles, and similar things. It is no small thing to ignore the parables under the excuse that they are too hard to understand. A faithful student of the word will labor to understand these things because they have been given to us by God for a reason.
So now the question is, why did Jesus teach in parables and what is their purpose? The answer is found in the gospels. The gospel of Mark records this statement made by Jesus as He was conversing with His disciples, "And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them (Mark 4:10-12)." Parables are given that we might understand God's redemptive plan and Kingdom. They serve to give light to the disciple of Christ and aid in the hardening of the one who loves darkness more than light.
What basic principles are to be followed as one interprets the parables? First of all, it is important to bear in mind that every parable has two levels of meaning and needs to be interpreted appropriatly. Take for instance, the parable of the sower. The earthly meaning of the parable is about scattering seed and farming. The deeper and "true" lesson however, is about scattering the seed of the word of God. There are four basic principles to keep in mind when interpreting the parables. The first is, the perspective principle. The perspective principle operates on the assumption that the basic teaching of all the parables will in some form or some way teach us about Christ or the Kingdom or both. Christ is always teaching us about His Kindom and in some measure about Himself. How does the parable relate to Christ and the Kingdom of God? What is the relationship between the physical or earthly content and the spiritual content? The second principle is the cultural principal. What was it like in Jesus day and age? The parables come from His day. The culture, things such as manners, customs, practices of life, relationships, material things, social development, and the like. The third principle is the exegetical principle. What is the exact meaning? The one central truth? Parables are like a vehicle, the are carrying an exact meaning, so be careful not to get caught up in the vehicle and miss what it is carrying. Don't focus your attention where it was never intended to be. Many times Christ will interpret them himself. If he does interpret it, don't add to it! Always compare the parable as it is given in the different gospel accounts. Keep the context in mind, and look for clues as to the proper interpretation. Look at possible Old Testament parallels. The fourth and final method or principle to bear in mind is the doctrinal principal. Does your interpretation line up with the teaching of Scripture (analogy of faith), if no one else has ever interpreted the parable the way you do, be careful, your probably wrong! Is the doctrine found in other parts of the bible? Be careful not to read into the text. The Bible should never say what we want it to say! It always says what it says and we are to conform our hearts and minds to it. Also, keep in mind, that the primary doctrine was given to a specific people and it means what it meant to them in that day and in that time. We are to seek the primary meaning that was meant to the original hearers.