What Is a Parable?

It is the major technique of Jesus’s teaching, right up there with his direct teaching. So how do we define it?

We have heard this statement for children: “A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” That is charming and it does express some truth, but it needs to be developed.

Literally, the word parable (parabolē in Greek) combines para– (pronounced pah-rah and means “alongside”) and bolē (pronounced boh-lay and means “put” or even “throw”). Therefore, a parable puts two or more images or ideas alongside each other to produce a new truth. It is a story or narrative or short comparison that reveals the kingdom of God and the right way to live in it and the Father’s ways of dealing with humanity and his divine plan expressed in his kingdom and life generally. The Shorter Lexicon says that the Greek word parabolē can sometimes be translated as “symbol,” “type,” “figure,” and “illustration,” the latter term being virtually synonymous with parable.

If you do not see yourself in the parables of Jesus, even the ones that pertain to first-century Jewish life or the retelling of the prophetic story of Israel, which culminates in Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God, then you are reading the parable deficiently. It would miss the point if we concluded parables were merely cute and charming but outdated stories that do not apply to us or teach us very little about our souls and even our modern world. Many parables tell timeless, challenging truths. Jesus invites us to see ourselves in some elements in nearly all his parables. They apply to us, two thousand years later.

Is a parable a fable or allegory? A parable is not a fable in which animals speak (Judg. 9:7-21). A parable is closer to an allegory because an allegory also has symbolic fictional figures and actions or truths or generalizations about human existence. However, the parable differs from an allegory because in Jesus’s parables the figures and their actions and the other features are much more streamlined and clear, without numerous symbols and coded messages. Allegories say something other than what is said on the surface by piling on metaphor after metaphor. It must be noted that Jesus’s Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-918-23 // Mark 4:1-9, 13-20; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15), there are many moving parts, and it comes close to be an allegory.

In contrast, in Jesus’s parables, he speaks as if the scene actually happened. In the story of an unjust judge the parable begins: “in a certain town there was a judge … (Luke 18:37). In the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, he even names the main fictional character and gives him five brothers (Luke 16:19-31). Further, Jesus’s parables have some profoundly meaningful elements, like the tenants on an owner’s land representing different classes of people who reject the owner’s son (Mark 12:1-1 // Matt. 21:36-46 // Luke 20:9-19). The interpretation says that Israel, the tenants, is about to reject God’s Son. Therefore, his parables have a central point without elaborate codes and overwrought comparisons, unlike fables and allegories.

Some scholars say that Jewish thought deployed parables (in Hebrew it is mashal) before Jesus lived, so he borrowed from the genre or kind of teaching method. No problem, for Jesus was part of his religious culture. On the other hand, most scholars say Jesus elevated the parable to a new level. I agree with these latter scholars, because a mashal can be a proverb (1 Sam. 10:12), a taunt (Mic. 2:4), a dark riddle (Ps. 78:2), an allegory (Ezek. 24:3-4, here Jesus’s parables line up with that passage). Jesus’s parables are more focused than most of the mashals, but he does share the prophetic parables in the OT (Is. 28:23-29; 5:1-7; 1 Kings 20:39-43; Eccl. 9:13-16; 2 Sam. 12:1-4). For example, Nathan the prophet used a parable when he rebuked David (2 Sam. 12:1-4). Nathan said that a rich man with lots of flocks took a poor man’s lamb and slaughtered it, much like David took Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, when the king could have had other women. Jesus’s parables can parallel Nathan’s because the elements in both stories are clear and strong and challenging. David was supposed to see himself in the parable. Similarly, as noted, we are supposed to see ourselves in Jesus’s parable.

Jesus used parables for a variety of purposes. Examples follow. He exposed religious leaders and contrasted them with sinners (Luke 7:31-35; 15:11-32). He proclaimed the gospel (Matt. 13). He clarified the kingdom of God (Matt. 13). He revealed deeper truths about our hearts and the Father’s heart: the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37); the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21); the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32); and the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-8). He also told parables because he wanted to hide kingdom truths, so that his listeners would have to dig deeper (Matt. 13:10-15; Luke 8:9-10). Only his true followers are willing to dig. And so parables are sometimes difficult to understand properly, but the effort to interpret them wisely can yield rich, life-changing results.

I like what William L. Lane says in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel about parables:

Basic to a parabolic utterance is the recognition of the two strata [layers] of creation: the natural and redemptive. Through parables Jesus called attention to what had previously been hidden in the redemptive order. The realism of his parable arises from the certainty that no mere [surface] analogy exists between the natural and redemptive order, but an inner affinity, because both strata originate in the purpose of God. That is why the Kingdom of God is intrinsically like the daily natural order and the life of men. The creativeness of the natural order thus becomes the vehicle for the tenor of the redemptive. A contemplation of the one order can illumine truths of the other, because both reflect God’s intention (p. 151, emphasis original)

Brilliantly stated: Creation and redemption work together to reveal God’s kingdom and the hearts of humans. Only a sharp and inspired mind like the one Jesus had could see the connection and then put them in succinct forms.

In summary, the parable is a story or quick comparison or illustration that places basic elements or objects or people of everyday life side by side next to kingdom ideas and truths to demonstrate who is the Father, his Son, the good news, the kingdom and humankind. In their simplicity, Jesus’s parables reveal profound truths.

How does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?

Jesus’s major teaching techniques were the direct method in which he used straightforward words (e.g. Luke 12), but his other major technique was in parables or illustrations (e.g. Matt. 13). How do we tell stories in our teaching? Do we even tell them? Maybe we should.


What Is a Biblical Mystery?


Works Cited

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