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Parables Podcast Series

Finding Meaning in the Parables

How do you determine the meaning of a parable? And how should you apply it to your life? In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss how to identify the meaning and significance of the parables of Jesus.
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Episode Details

April 20, 2020
82 min

Episode Details

April 20, 2020
82 min

Show Notes


Essentially, the way we understand Jesus’ meaning is to identify the main characters of a parable and note that each character is embodying some point—some part of the message.


  • Parables carry both meaning and significance. The meaning is what Jesus originally meant by the parable in his context, while the significance is how we experience that meaning. Both are essential to understand the parables.
  • One of the main ways to interpret the parables is to identify the main characters/objects in them. These characters each embody a part of the main message.
  • We honor Jesus and the tradition of his parables when we adapt their meaning and significance to our world today.

The Parables in Context

In part one (0:00–10:20), Tim and Jon recap the series so far. Tim explains that the word “parable” is a compound word in Greek meaning “to set alongside.” The parables are set alongside the reality of Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God, not just as moral ideals.

Many people grew up reading the parables through the lens of personal relationship with God. While this misses the original context, we should ask ourselves: how do Jesus’ parables about him in his world speak to people outside his context?

The Gospel authors recorded the parables because they saw enduring value in them. The original context can become a guide to the significance we pull from it today.

Meaning and Significance in the Parables

In part two (10:20–17:45), Tim and Jon discuss the difference between meaning and significance in the parables. Tim explains that meaning is what is intended to be understood while significance is how we experience that meaning. We should always strive to understand meaning while realizing that different people will experience the significance in different ways.

Tim shares that many Bible readers tend to listen for significance first, bypassing original meaning. How do we bridge both meaning and significance today?

Characters in a Parable

In part three (17:45–33:45), Tim and Jon talk about characters as a key way to identify meaning within the parables.

Parables have historically been interpreted between two extremes, allegorical and creative realism—either that meaning is in the eye of the reader, or there is only one main point to every parable. Jesus seems to interpret his own parables differently.

When Jesus tells parables, he identifies main characters in the story. The parable of the sower, for example, identifies one main character (the sower of the seed) with four sub-characters (the four soils) and a counter-character for each (the birds, rocks, thorns, and fertile ground). Craig Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables) prescribes this as the main way for understanding Jesus’ meaning in the parables—by seeing each character as embodying a part of the main message.

One way to tell whether an object is a character in a parable is to ask whether it is indispensable to the main plot. Characters can also serve together as composites (for example, the parable of the hired workers).

Tim and Jon walk through a few three-character parables. Many of these have an authority figure (father, king, master, landowner), usually embodying Jesus or God. Along with this authority figure are two subordinates, usually contrasting a positive and negative response (a slave, subject, son, debtor, etc.). The parable of the prodigal son is a classic example that is easy to understand and come away with the main meaning.

A Surprising Parable

In part four (33:45–49:15), Tim and Jon unpack two-character parables in the Bible. The first kind contrasts two opposite characters (like a tax collector and a Pharisee). These are similar to three-character parables, except in these cases, the listener serves as the evaluator. The second kind of two-character parable includes an authority figure and a subordinate.

Tim and Jon dive into a parable that has confused Jon for a long time—the parable of the shrewd manager.

Luke 16:1-13
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.

“For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

This parable shows a character who has to make a decision. He deals shrewdly with his master’s wealth, and in a surprise twist, the master commends him for his shrewdness. Jesus compares this to how those in the world deal with one another. Then Jesus brings a twist by pointing out that the manager was commended for valuing relationships over money.

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager: The Meaning

In part five (49:15–61:00), Tim and Jon continue to unpack the parable of the shrewd manager.

In Jesus’ mind, relationships are more important than money and should be served by money rather than the other way around. This is why the master praises the manager—not because he stole his money, but because the manager didn’t allow money to distract him from the greater goal of relationships. This is how Jesus views money and calls his followers to view it.

This parable forces the listener to decide what it is they trust.

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager: The Significance

In part six (61:00–67:30), Tim and Jon talk about the significance in the parable of the shrewd manager.

Tim points out that the rich man forces a choice. Whether we live for Jesus and his Kingdom forces a moment of decision on us. Will we trust that Jesus is more trustworthy than all the economic structures around us? If those who don’t know Jesus cheat one another because they know the value of relationships over money, then how much more should we use the money God has freely given us by God for the benefit of others?

Adapting the Parables

In part seven (67:30–end), Tim and Jon conclude the conversation with a review.

To read the parables well, first pay attention to the narrative context of the Gospel authors, namely Jesus announcing the Kingdom of God in the first century. Then, understand the significance of the parable for readers beyond the Gospel. Look for how the characters or other indispensable elements in the parables correspond to characters in the narrative. This whole package helps to define the parable’s significance for us today.

Finally, once you have the basic plot arc of the parable, understand the basic meaning and significance, Tim says that we owe it to Jesus to adapt these parables to our own day, just as he adapted the parables to his audiences.

Additional Resources

Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables

Show Music

  • Defender Instrumental by Tents
  • Ocean Patio bu Philanthrope x Dayle
  • Instrumental by Kaleidoscope
  • Jumping off the Porch by Broke in Summer
  • My Room Becomes The Sea by Sleepy Fish
  • doing laundry by weird inside

Show produced by Dan Gummel.

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