I recommend that you study my essay on interpreting stories before working through this section. At some point you may also want to compare Interpreting Allegory in order to get a clearer picture. This essay is part of the Participatory Study Method.
What is a Parable?
A parable is a short story or word picture that illustrates a single point of spiritual truth.
That definition gives us a basis for looking at the parables of Jesus, though it is not quite complete. Some of the parables of Jesus are somewhat longer and make more than a single point. But a good basic rule in interpreting parables is to look for the one main point of the parable, and be wary of other points that are brought out of it.
A good basic parable is the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32). Here Jesus uses a small seed producing a large plant as the illustration of the small and unpretentious beginnings of kingdom work among people, which produce great results. There is a single point. It is a simple word picture. It makes the point clearly. In the case of a parable like this one, do not get distracted into issues such as the actual size of a mustard seed, the actual size of the resulting plant, how long the plant takes to grow, or who planted the seed. None of those have anything to do with the point.
It is somewhat more difficult to deal with the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9). Here Jesus tells a slightly more extended story, and uses more individual elements as meaningful. But there is still a central point: The kingdom is planted far and wide, but it does not bear fruit everywhere. In the interpretation provided in verses 18-23, we have meanings attached to many elements of the parable. This is similar to the way one understands an allegory. Note that many scholars believe that we are hearing the voice of the early church in the explanation, as they made use of the teaching of Jesus in their day to day lives. It’s OK to try to milk this parable for everything you can get from it before looking at the interpretation. There was a reason that Jesus spoke in parables, rather than simply giving the interpretation.
Parables make you think, and help you make the truth expressed more a part of yourself than a simple statement would. They are also more likely to be remembered. Thus the parables themselves act much like the seed that is described in this parable. Each person is free to get as little or as much from the parable as he or she desires.
Finally, we can consider the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32). Notice that the parable before this, of the lost coin, is a typical, short word picture. But the story of the prodigal son is more than a simple parable. I would suggest in a parable such as this one that you look at the essay Interpreting Stories, and follow the suggestions there for getting all you can from stories.