Scholars of the Gospels might shake their head about this, me missing a point that should have occurred to me sooner, but I've recently had a sort of breakthrough about how I read Jesus' parables.
I owe Gerhard Lohfink for this change, his book Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was.
Because of years and years of Sunday School classes (as a child and adult) and decades of sermons, I've been trapped in and unable to shake a moralizing approach to the parables. Specifically, I would read a parable to find it's little moral lesson about how to live. Be like the good soil. Watch like the prepared virgins. Go to the banquet when you're invited. And so on.
I don't want to deny that any of these moral exhortations aren't in the parables, that the parables never offer guidance for virtue and holiness. I simply want to note that if you exclusively use this moralizing approach you'll find some of Jesus' parables disturbing and ill-fitting. Some of Jesus' parables end rather harshly. And some of the characters in Jesus' parables aren't very moral or nice. Some parables have no obvious moral lesson at all.
Consequently, lots and lots of Jesus' parables get ignored.
Plus, the Gospels often suggest that the parables were used to keep some people in the dark.
So how are we to read the parables?
As simple and as obvious as this is, the framework I'm now using is that Jesus' parables are just metaphors for the kingdom. Seems simple, but seeing a parable as a metaphor lifts it out of the moralizing frame. The metaphor might be shocking or strange, immoral or amoral, but it doesn't really matter. I'm not trying to squeeze virtue or moral advice out the parable. Jesus is trying to bring some aspect of the kingdom to my attention. And like any good story-teller, Jesus likes to violate our expectations, even our moral expectations, to bring a point home.
And the gain here is clear. Once you adopt this approach you stop avoiding the weird or uncomfortable parables and come to embrace them all. And when you do this, a bright clarity begins to illuminate the whole and Jesus' worldview begins to open up before you.