Question: How can we interpret and apply the parables of the Savior?
Answer: It is important to distinguish between the interpretation of a parable and the application of a parable. The thought to which it is linked, the connection in which it is placed, the person to whom it is addressed, all give the clue to the right interpretation.
As far as the application, if the original meaning is to be grasped, it is important to consider its context and setting. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “As the Master Teacher, Christ tailored His tutoring, depending upon the spiritual readiness of His pupils.”
34 All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them:
35 That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.
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Frank F. Judd Jr. has taught:
Interpretation and Application
Discovering how to interpret and apply the parables of Jesus is essential to getting the most from them. To interpret a parable, one must study what it meant to them, there, then. To apply a parable, one must ponder what it means to me, here, now. “The only true interpretation is the meaning the parable conveyed, or was meant to convey, when first spoken. The application of a parable may vary in every age and circumstance” (Bible Dictionary, “Parables,” 741).
The most important helps in making a proper interpretation are the explanations given by the Savior Himself. They are usually given in the same chapter as the parable, just before or after the parable. For example, after the Savior gave the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and tares, He explained each of them to His disciples. It is also helpful to learn the background and setting of each parable. We can do this by finding answers to such questions as: To whom was Jesus talking? Why did He address this parable to this particular audience? What was the concern or question that caused Jesus to give this parable? How did this parable answer that question or situation?
Be cautious in identifying the symbols and their meanings, asking the Lord in prayer to help you understand. Guard against over interpretation, trying to press every little detail of the parable for a precise meaning. Jesus’ parables were intended to be understood by the Spirit, in a straightforward and simple manner. Concerning the parable of the prodigal son, the Prophet Joseph Smith said: “What is the rule of interpretation? … Understand it precisely as it reads.”
Although there is normally one original interpretation of the elements in a parable, there may be many principles and applications that can be drawn from it. Elder Merlin R. Lybbert said, “The beauty of the parables of the Lord is that they have many applications, and thus their teaching value is unending.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has also stressed that the occurrence of multiple meanings or applications in scriptures “underscores the importance of our seeking revelation from the Holy Ghost to help us interpret them.” He has also said, “The Holy Ghost is a better guide to scriptural interpretation [and application] than even the best commentary.” Thus, to discover the most appropriate application of a parable “our minds need to be enlightened by the Spirit of the Lord.”
This does not mean, however, that we should ignore other valuable resources to guide our study of the parables of Jesus. Modern scripture, particularly the Doctrine and Covenants, elucidates the parables of the Savior...The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, found in the Bible footnotes and appendix, also provides additional details concerning the setting, content, and interpretation of many parables. The inspired teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles are important resources to guide us. And the Prophet Joseph Smith commented extensively on several parables.
Source: Come, Follow Me–For Individuals and Families, p. 47; Excerpts from New Testament, “Parables of Jesus: The Priceless Parables,” by Frank F. Judd Jr., Ensign, January 2003; Bible Dictionary.