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What are Parables?

Jesus often spoke in riddles so his enemies could not entrap him (Mark 4:11-12, 33-34). These riddles we know as parables. The writer of Proverbs refers to "the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6), that is, wise sayings couched in figurative language that cannot be understood at first glance. You might compare the lesson of a parable to a diamond engagement ring hidden in some everyday object to surprise and delight the bride to be.

The word "parable" is an English transliteration of the Greek word parabole from which we also get the mathematical term "parabola." The Greek word refers to setting two things side by side for the sake of comparison. A parable is essentially a comparison, couched in figurative language, that has religious or moral significance. In Luke 4:23, for example, Jesus classifies the proverbial taunt, "Physician, heal yourself," as a parabole. It is a parable inasmuch as it makes an invidious comparison: Jesus to a quack doctor.

A parable, therefore, can take several forms (taunt, proverb, riddle, wise saying, or story), but it always involves some sort of comparison. When Jesus asked, "Can a blind man lead a blind man" (Luke 6:39), he was speaking in parables just as Ezekiel did when he said, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Ezekiel 18:2).

When the people of Jesus' day first heard his parables, they apparently did not understand them as readily as we do today. After all, the parables have been analyzed and explained for 2000 years. It is easy to forget that, on first hearing, their meanings often seemed mysterious. In his parables, Jesus compared the familiar (everyday objects or experience) to the strange (his revolutionary teaching about the kingdom of God). His enemies certainly sensed they were being attacked in the parables, but it was difficult for them to pin him down (Luke 20:19).

The most familiar parables are those twenty or so comparisons that Jesus developed into stories (for example, the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son). Interestingly, not one of these story parables is recorded in the Gospel of John. Most of them appear in Matthew and Luke. Intended no doubt both to teach and to delight, these story parables represent complex comparisons that may have multiple levels of meaning.

One danger in studying the parables is that the reader may over-interpret by reading too many comparisons into the story. Parables are normally not allegories. In an allegory like John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, virtually every detail of the story represents a point of comparison, whereas in a parable, Jesus usually has only one main point to make. The interpreter of a parable must eat the meat and discard the bones. Misunderstanding a parable generally involves mistaking bones for meat, that is, making something major out of a minor detail.

Jesus used his parables to disarm his listeners much as Nathan did with David (2 Samuel 12:1-15). The indirect comparisons deflected the anger of his enemies while clothing his message in the power of human interest. The ordinary objects compared—wineskins, vineyards, mustard seeds, fishing nets, shepherds—are no longer as familiar to us today as they were to their original audience. Ironically, while the literal meaning of a parable may require some explanation for modern readers, the figurative messages remain clear and true because people themselves have changed less inwardly than their surroundings have changed outwardly. To read a parable is to read literature. The parables of Jesus call us to imagine an ancient time, to look beneath the surface, and to experience the affective power of story.


1.How many main points does Nathan's parable have in 2 Samuel 12:1-4? Is Bathsheba the little lamb?

2.In 2 Kings 14:9-10, Jehoash, king of Israel, sends a parable to Amaziah, king of Judah. What point was he trying to make about the thistle and the cedar? Why do you think he used a parable to make it?

3.Do you believe in the power of stories? What is a fictional story that has had significant meaning for you or that has directly influenced your life?

4.Do you know any modern parables you can relate? Have you yourself ever used a parable to make a point?

5.Although John's gospel does not have any story parables, it nonetheless contains several examples of metaphorical language (John 3:8, 29; 4:35-38; 5:19-23; 8:12, 35; 10:1-5, 7-9, 11-13; 11:9-10; 12:24, 35-36; 14:6; 15:1-2; 16:21). Pick two of these passages at random and explain why they are parables or why they aren't. Is every comparison a parable? If not, what turns a comparison into a parable?

6.Jeremiah 10:3-4 has sometimes been called the "Christmas Tree" passage because some readers have seen it as a attack on Christmas trees. What do you think this passage is talking about? Is it a parable? Why or why not?

Comments (1)

A parable is a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, that illustrates a moral or religious lesson. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human characters.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 25, 2007 9:50 AM.

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