6 Tips for Understanding Christ's Parables

Quick Question:

Why did Jesus so often teach in parables?

Was it to obscure the truth?

That is what I have been told for years.  Jesus used parables so that the wicked or unlearned wouldn't be held responsible for not living the truths hidden inside.

Studying parables this week, I've come to learn that it wasn't so much to keep the truth from us, but so that we would do the work ourselves to find it.

In studying this powerful teaching technique I have found some tips to help us better understand the parables taught by Christ and find the truths contained therein.

Before I share these tips, I want to make sure that we all are on the same page as to what a parable is and what it isn't.

The word parable comes from two Greek words:

Para = alongside or near 

Ballo = to throw or place 

Basically it's like creating a parallel situation that is similar but not exactly the same as another situation.

Christ used comparisons in his teachings but not all of them are considered to be a parable. "Light of the world" or "salt of the earth" do not qualify as parables.  That's because a parable is a story that usually has a dramatic ending.

Or as my lovely daughter likes to say, "TWIST!"  

We read about 40 different parables taught by Jesus.  Many believe that he did this to obscure truth.  In the book of Matthew, Christ quotes Isaiah 6:9-10.  In verse 10 Isaiah says:

... and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

Christ wasn't trying to keep the truth from us as much as He was trying to help us come out of our spiritual darkness so that we could see the truth.  As we read and study the parables, our eyes and ears will be opened so that we can see and hear what it is that Christ was trying to teach us.

Here are some tips to use when reading Christ's parables.

Tip #1 - Look for yourself in the parable. 

An advantage to Christ teaching in parables is it didn't make the listener defensive.  When we feel attacked, we can quickly shut off the message.  But if we are hearing about someone else, we are more apt to listen and consider what is being said.

For example:  

In Matt. 21: 28-31, Christ gives a parable about two sons.  One son says he won't obey, but then later repents and does.  The other son says he will obey, but then doesn't.  Christ then asks which son was more responsive.  Obviously the son who repented and then obeyed.

By judging the two sons, the audience actually judged themselves.  Christ explains this by saying that the publicans and harlots will go into the kingdom of God before they do.  Why?  Because his audience was using religion to hide the fact that they were actually plotting Christ's death.

We can follow the apostles' example when Jesus told them that one of them would betray Him.  They all responded with, "Is it I?"

When we read parables we can ask ourselves, Who am I in this parable?  Who do I want to be in this parable? 

Tip #2 - Don't push the analogy too far.  

Interpreting parables can have pitfalls because it is only a comparison and not to be taken literally.  If we get too caught up into the details we can lose the true meaning.  

For example:  

In Luke 11:5-8 Christ tells a parable of a man asking a neighbor for bread at midnight.  At first the neighbor doesn't want to give him any bread for fear of waking his family.  But the man persists and the neighbor eventually gives him the bread.  

This parable is meant to teach us about the power of prayer.  We are not to give up hope too easily.  

But are we really to think of Heavenly Father as a sleepy man who doesn't want to bothered?  He answers our prayers just so that we will leave Him alone?  Of course not.  Parables are meant to show us a truth, not to be taken so literally that we lose the truth.  

Tip #3 - Pay attention to what happens before and after a parable. 

To help us avoid the pitfall of missing the point of the parable, we need to search for what Jesus was trying to teach us.  One way to do this is to read what Christ said before and after the parable.  

For example: 

Let's go back to the parable about the sleepy neighbor.  How do we know it's about prayer?  

In Luke 11:1, one of the disciples asks Jesus to teach them how to pray.  

Then in Luke 11:2-4 He gives a form of the Lord's prayer.  

After the parable, in Luke 11:9 He says "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you."

Christ goes on in verses 11-13 to explain that fathers don't give bad gifts to their children, and if an imperfect father can give good gifts, our Heavenly Father can give us the Holy Spirit if we ask Him.  

By looking at the verses before and after a parable, we can get a better understanding of what Jesus was trying to teach us.  

Tip #4 - Look for the questions. 

Joseph Smith said that he had a key for understanding scriptures.  He would look for the question that brought on the answer.  

For example:  

In Matt. 13:10 one of Christ's disciples asks Him, "Why speakest thou unto them in parables?"  Christ's answers his question with the parable of the seed on stony places.  He points out the exact same seed can grow in one place and not in another depending on where it lands.  


Two people can hear the exact same parable and one will see the truths being taught and the other will completely miss the point.  

I'm a big fan of looking for questions when I read the scriptures.  All of my ideas for my Come Follow Me articles this year have started with a question.  This article was the result of me asking Why does Christ use parables so often?  Last week's article about Simon the Pharisee was because I asked the question Why was Simon so upset that Christ let the woman touch Him?  Questions take me on amazing journeys in the scriptures. 

By the way, did you know that there are 543 questions in the Book of Mormon and that Christ asks 35 of them directly?  If you are looking for a new way to study the Book of Mormon, you could try underlining all the questions and then looking for their answers.  

Tip #5 - Learn the religious and cultural issues of Jesus' day.  

This year I've learned a new word.


Do you know what this word means?

Don't feel bad, I didn't either.

It basically means the study of methodologies used to interpret the Bible.  I didn't know it but I've been doing quite a bit of hermeneutical studying lately.  I've learned that one methodology is to study the cultural and religious traditions during the time of Christ.

For example:  

For a better understanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan, it's helpful to know how Jews felt about Samaritans.  When the Samaritan stops to help the injured man, he is actually risking his own life by doing so.  That's how hated Samaritans were by the Jews.  When he gives the man at the inn two pence or two denarii, that was two days of pay.  Knowing the cultural context gives us a greater appreciation for what the Good Samaritan did and how we can do likewise.

To get a better understanding of the cultural and religious practices of Christ's time, here are some sources I turn to:

Messages of Christ YouTube Channel - My friend Daniel Smith puts together amazing videos teaching us the historical context of stories found in the Bible.

You will also want to look at his companion website, Redeemer of Israel.  This Easter read what he says about the Holy Week.  If you live in Utah look for when he hosts his free Passover dinners.  They are incredible experiences.  In 2019 he's hosting one on April 13 in Salt Lake City.  Click here for more information. 

BYU Documentary Messiah Behold the Lamb of God - I really like watching these videos.

BYU scholars traveled to Israel to show us the locations where different stories from the Bible took place.  They share both scholarly and faith-filled insights as to who Christ was when he lived on the earth, and who He still is today.  I take lots of notes when I watch these videos.

BYUtv Scripture Discussions - I have been watching these videos for years.  (Can you tell I'm a visual learner and like to watch videos?)

The production is pretty basic, but the content is rich with insights and historical information.  Before lds.org made scriptures available online, my paper scriptures were covered with notes from these videos.  In the past when I couldn't go to church, I watched these videos as my Sunday School class.  Now that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has moved towards home-centered gospel learning, I watch these videos more often.

LDS Bible Dictionary - Sometimes I forget we have this resource and it's a good one.  It has lots of information on the people, places, and traditions observed.  I wish we read from the Bible Dictionary more in Sunday School.

Gospel Topics on ChurchofJesusChrist.org - I'm amazed at how many people don't know about this page on the official Church's website.  It's a gold mine.  I come here quite often.  Instead of telling you what it is, I'm going to show you.  (Visual learner, remember?)  Let's take a tour of the gospel topic, Mother in Heaven

First you get an overview of the topic.

Seriously, read this one; it's really good.

Then you get a list of resources for the article.

Then you get links for related topics.

Next you'll find links for talks given by prophets and leaders on the subject.

And then finally you see links to any related media.

Time to Ponder - As great as it is to learn from scholars, experts, and the prophets.  Ultimately the Holy Spirit is our teacher.  Whenever I'm studying a parable or a story from the scriptures, I like to give myself some "brain time" to just think about what I've read or learned.  I pay attention to thoughts and impressions that come to my mind.  I write those down and then look for scriptures, talks, or other sources to either act as a second witness or to find answers to questions that arise.  While Google is nice, the Holy Ghost is better.

Tip #6 - Modernize the parable.  

Jesus' method of teaching in parables wasn't meant to be frozen in time.  Once we learn what the historical and cultural setting is, we can then look for modern-day examples of the same parable.

For example:

Let's look again at the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Who are treated like Samaritans today?  Muslims, LGTBQ community, ex-convicts, welfare recipients, the list is endless.

Here's a modern retelling of the Good Samaritan using a woman as the Samaritan. See if you can spot all the disenfranchised communities this person represents.

Can I just say how much I love this video?  Every time I watch, I pick up on something new.  Here's a lesson I learned watching the video:

When the woman takes the man to the health care center his face still is dirty with blood.  While she did her best to get him the help he needed, she didn't do for him what she was not trained or qualified to do.  This can apply to mental health.  Sometimes people have mental health issues that are bigger than we are equipped to handle.  Instead of trying to treat them ourselves, we can find the right trained professionals who know best how to care for the person.

Anyway, I really like this video.

Before I end this article, I just want to thank Richard Lloyd Anderson who passed away last August.  He was a BYU professor of history and ancient scripture.  I could not have written this article without  him. These tips came from reading his excellent article in the September 1974 Ensign titled, How to Read a Parable.    


This article coincides with the March 18-24 Come Follow Me 2019 lesson "Who Hath Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear."

Not an official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.