What is a Parable?

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  • What is a Parable?


    by Leland Ryken

    A simple and brief story, usually allegorical, that primarily serves to teach and only secondarily to entertain. Parable is a major—and often misunderstood—biblical genre.

    Although there was an era in which biblical scholars claimed that the parables are not allegorical, that viewpoint has been discredited. The parables are obviously allegorical texts. We should immediately make the contrast between interpreting an allegorical text andallegorizing a text. The latter procedure involves foisting allegorical meanings on a text that was not intended to be interpreted allegorically. This is an unnatural thing to do with language and discourse. The parables of Jesus are allegorical in the sense that numerous details in most of his parables stand for something else. There is, to be sure, an allegorical continuum on which we can place individual parables: in some parables, nearly all of the details have an allegorical or “other” meaning; in others, fewer details are allegorical; and at the far end of the continuum, only a few details have a second level of meaning. Even in the latter case, though, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, the story embodies an obvious, simple meaning, and by a slight extension of the term allegory, such a parable falls under the rubric of allegorical story. C. S. Lewis defined allegory as “giving an imagined body to the immaterial,” and the parable of the good Samaritan gives shape to the abstraction “neighbor.”

    There are seven good reasons to believe that the parables of Jesus are allegorical stories:
    1. Jesus himself interpreted two of his parables for his disciples, and in both instances he gave an allegorical or “other” meaning to nearly all of the details in the stories. These are the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the weeds; the interpretations are found, respectively, in Mark 4:13–20 (parallels in Matt. 13:18–23; Luke 8:11–15) and Matthew 13:36–43. That Jesus intended allegorical meaning as the hermeneutical principle for the parables generally is made clear by his lead-in to his answer to the disciples’ question about the parable of the sower, as recorded in Mark 4:13: “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?”
    2. The simplicity of the stories hints at a deeper level of meaning, since the stories are too simple to interest us only at the surface level. For example, we intuitively grasp that in the parable of the sower, Jesus was not giving tips on farming.
    3. Many of the details in the stories already had established symbolic meanings (e.g., God as the owner of a vineyard, sowing of seed as symbolic of the preaching of God’s Word, and God as Father), and Jesus could depend on his hearers picking up on these traditional meanings.
    4. Even though the parables are realistic in their story material, most of them have a “crack” in the realism—an unrealistic detail that teases us into seeing something more in the story than the literal level. Examples of such unrealistic details stuck into the prevailing realism of a parable are a hundredfold harvest, a pay scale that gives the same wage to workers despite variations in how much time they spend on the job, and help for a wounded man on the road coming from the least likely source (a Samaritan).
    5. The etymology of the word parable is perhaps the most conclusive proof of all: the Greek root parabole means “to throw alongside.” In other words, double meaning lies at the heart of a parable. The narrative details have a corresponding “other” meaning. Thus, the seed that the farmer sows is the message of the gospel; the different soils are the range of human responses; and the contrasting results stand for belief or unbelief in the gospel. An allegorical thread of meaning exists “alongside” the narrative details.
    6. The religious purpose of the parables requires us to interpret them as allegories. When Jesus begins a parable with the statement, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . . ,” the only way in which we can make the parable fit that religious theme is to interpret it on a second level.
    7. The context of the parables within the Gospels pushes us to see them as allegories. Jesus was a teacher of religious truth, not a professional storyteller whose main goal was to entertain people (although his parables are high points of storytelling in the Bible, filled with artistry and technique). If we do not interpret the stories as allegories, they remain at the level of interesting stories or at most stories with embedded moral
    8. exhortations.


    The parables of Jesus are the very touchstone of the folk imagination and obey the usual rules of popular storytelling, including the following: (1) the rule of simplicity (a single, easily grasped storyline); (2) the rule of contrast or foil; (3) verisimilitude (lifelikeness; homely, everyday realism); (4) repetition, especially threefold repetition; (5) universality, especially as achieved by the use of archetypes (such as lost and found, father and son, and sheep and shepherd); (6) suspense (generating curiosity about an outcome); (7) the rule of end stress (in which the crucial element comes last, and often as a foil to what has preceded it); (8) reversal of expectation (the prodigal younger son accepted and the dutiful older son rejected; all workers paid equally despite disparities in the amount of work they have performed; or help coming from the least likely source in the parable of the good Samaritan); and (9) the “rule of two,” meaning that usually only two characters are together at a time. Additionally, the characters in the parables are rich portraits, interesting in themselves. All of the foregoingelements are sufficient to make the parables entertaining at the narrative level, even though this does not get to the religious level of meaning.

    The process of mastering a parable for individual reading or teaching falls naturally into a four-phase sequence, as follows: (1) conducting narrative analysis—reliving the story for its story qualities (see preceding paragraph); (2) interpreting the allegory—attaching the correct “other” meaning to the details in the story that carry second or symbolic levels of meaning; (3) determining the themes—interpreting the allegory is part of narrative analysis and does not by itself account for the ideas embodied in a parable; and (4) applying the themes—first to the situation of the original audience and then to our own lives and culture.
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