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Charles Dickens called it “the finest short story ever told.” Whether he was referring to its literary quality or its theological message, it is true of both. The Prodigal Son is a masterpiece that is as compelling today as it was two thousand years ago. With an economy of words, the parable convicts, pardons, and warns in a more captivating way than simply saying those things directly. That’s the power of parables. They are designed to make us think, smile, be enraged, find courage, weep over sin, be surprised by God’s grace, or do a pulse-check on our faith.

Lutherans define parable as an earthly narrative with a heavenly meaning. Each parable makes a point in a way that direct discourse cannot. Would David have repented if the prophet Nathan had simply called him out for his sins? We don’t know. We do know that the king was totally absorbed in the parable of the rich man stealing his neighbor’s pet lamb. With his blood pressure rising and neck veins bulging, David never saw it coming. “You are the man,” Nathan explained (2 Samuel 12:7). Nothing more had to be said, other than to assure David that the Lord had also put away his sin.

As with other rhetorical devices, there are rules to follow when dealing with parables. The most important? There is one, single, main point. Incidental points are important for setting the stage, but to press a parable’s details beyond what they’re designed to do does an injustice to the speaker or writer’s intent.

The Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8), for example, does not teach that God is reluctant to answer our prayers or that we have to wear Him down to get a response. God is the opposite of the Unjust Judge. He loves to hear and answer the prayers of His people. But He does want us to have the tenacity and determination of the widow seeking justice. Why doesn’t He answer our prayers immediately? He explains in verse 8, “When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” If God answered our every prayer as we want, when we want, what would happen to our faith?

In many cases, the main point is found where the parable turns. The point of the Rich Fool is not his bumper crop or bigger grain bins. The parable’s hinge is that, even when he was all set for a comfortable retirement, he wasn’t set at all when death tapped him on the shoulder.

Another rule: pay attention to context. The parable might be in response to a question, such as, “How many times should I forgive someone?” Or, “Who is my neighbor?” At times, parables are placed back-to-back, making the same point from different perspectives. This happens with the Treasure Buried in a Field and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-45). A man stumbled upon the treasure by accident, when he wasn’t looking for it. The merchant was looking for something, and once he saw the Pearl, he immediately recognized what that something was. Most of us entered the kingdom of God without seeking it, much like the man stumbling upon the treasure. Others entered it when they were searching for something, and the Gospel suddenly found and enlightened them. In both cases, everything else in life becomes less important.

The keys to interpreting parables: Look for the single, main point. Pay attention to details that set the stage. Determine context or any lead-in questions. Identify the characters. Watch for the hinge where the parable turns. Test the interpretation against the clear words of Scripture.

James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.