What’s a Parable?

I thought I’d interrupt the blogs to do a little scholarly clarification – not that I have a PhD in Scripture. Modern scholars often speak of Jesus speaking in a parabolic manner. So what, exactly, is a parable?

It is not a metaphor, since the metaphor simply likens one thing to another. For example, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls (Mt 13:45) is a metaphor. A parable is also not an allegory, since an allegory does not have to convey a moral teaching. Consider the following allegory, and ask whether Jesus is establishing a moral teaching:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
John 15:1-5

In the above passage, there is no introduction of fictional characters, and no moral teaching. Rather, Jesus strings together metaphors to teach his followers something about the relationship between God, Jesus, and his disciples. Now, compare the allegory in John 15 with a true parable in Matthew 13 – the parable of the sower. Admittedly, there is only one human character in the parable – the sower . But the message is contained in how the seed perform:

A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep,
and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.
Mt 13:3-9

Jesus is polite enough to explain the parable. Rather than explain it myself, I’ll simply quote Jesus:

The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart.
The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away.
The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit.
Mt 13:19-22

A parable is a fictionalized account that portrays people or a human activity, that is believable, possibly ironic, and is intended to convey a profound spiritual or moral meaning. Aesop’s fables are also parables; “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is an example of a tale intended to convey a lesson to its audience. Jesus did not invent the parable, but he was a master of its use.

The gospels contain between 30 and 40 parables, depending on whether you include much shorter stories. Pierson groups the parables into principle themes. He says five parables are devoted to describing the divine nature of God, eight are devoted to the Kingdom, nine to stewardship, nine to obedience to God, and six to the themes of love and forgiveness.

Finally, I should not fail to mention that the Gospel of John contains no parables. John wrote his Gospel after Matthew, Mark and Luke were written, and he knew that the parables were well-recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are called “synoptic” because of the overlap and commonality among the parabolic stories.

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