So, what are parables?
What they are not is allegories, although they may contain allegorical language. Rather, they are folk literature, given orally, relating realistic, everyday circumstances. Their appeal is that the hearers recognize the concrete examples, such as family dynamics, lost items, sowing and harvesting, master and servant. As with all biblical literature, we have to remember that the parables were given in a particular context. The points of reference, those things which are the focus of the stories, are our concern. If we don't understand what the points of reference are, we won't hear the message.
The parables are told with the purpose of generating a response. They teach by aiming for a reaction from the hearers. Fee and Stuart liken it to the telling of a joke. We won't get a joke if we have no familiarity with the points of reference. The punch line will mean nothing to us. It is that surprise at the end which generates shock, surprise, laughter, or anger which provides the parable with its power. If we don't understand the points of reference in parable, it's like hearing an "inside joke." Jesus did not tell the parables to exclude others. He told them to get a reaction from whomever he was speaking to. Fee and Stuart say this:
... the story parables do not serve to illustrate Jesus' proasic teaching with word pictures. Nor are they told to serve as vehicles for revealing truth - although they end up clearly doing that. Rather the story parables function as a means of calling forth a response on the part of the hearer. In a sense, the parable is the message itself. It is told to address and capture the hearers, to bring them up short about their own actions, or to cause them to respond in some way to Jesus and his ministry.
Since the parables are meant to elicit a response, it's important to understand the context and the original hearers.
The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is prompted by the question, asked of Jesus by a lawyer: who is my neighbor? Right away, we know the context. There are four characters in the story, the man in the ditch, the priest who comes by first, the Levite who comes by next, and then the Samaritan who stops. The priest and the Levite are not the points of reference, although they move the story. When determining what the points of reference are, we should look at who the focus is at the end. In this case, it's the man and the Samaritan. The point of the story is that the Samaritan, although the Jews would have found this shocking, was the one who showed himself to be a neighbor.
As Jesus unfolded the story to the lawyer, perhaps the lawyer was growing increasingly uncomfortable, as he heard Jesus say that neither the priest nor the Levite stopped. Jewish leaders were very proud of their almsgiving and acts of charity, yet both the priest and the Levite walked past. The surprise comes at the end, when the Samaritan not only stops, but goes the extra mile. This is what is supposed to grab the attention of the lawyer, and make him think.
The original hearers of that parable would have understood those points of reference, but it may be far removed from our culture today. Perhaps a scenario that we would relate to is a young mother, eight months pregnant, walking out of a grocery store with her other four small children trailing behind her. As she gets to her vehicle, she discovers that she has a flat tire. There she stands, with a full cart of food, swollen ankles, and four children charging around asking, "Mommy, what will we do?" Getting out her cellphone, she discovers that it is dead. The woman sees a deacon from her church drive by in his car, but all he does is wave to her. Next, the youth pastor from the megachurch down the road drives past on his motorcycle, looks at her, but because he's due at the high school to play basketball with some kids, he drives past. The one who stops is a young kid about 21 years old, with a big set of spacers in his ears, a nose ring, and tatoos running up and down his arms, one which says "God is dead." He changes the tire for her, helps her get all of her groceries loaded into the van, buckles the kids in their seatbelts and sends her on her way after he runs into the grocery store and buys her and her children a cold drink.
Now, that's a rather crude re-telling of the point, but you get the idea. When we read the parables, our task is to look at who Jesus is trying to "catch" with his story, and how he uses the points of reference to do so.
There is more that could be said about parables, but I'm quite sure I'm over 900 words at this point, and one post can't do them justice. I think it would be a wise investment to purchase a good work on the parables not simply to be told what they mean but to learn by example how one studies them.
Robert L. Plummer in his book 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible recommends three books: