Parables have been used in the Bible as a basic tool to illustrate an important point of teaching to the listeners and are simple stories of daily life events with definite imagery conveying a specific point through each. Most of the parables carry a simple easy to understand message that was and is often missed by scholars depending on their own wisdom and knowledge rather than humbly seeking the direction of the indwelling Holy Spirit. To such these remain stories while the underlying message is completely lost.
What is a parable? – The word ‘parable’ is taken from the Hebrew word ‘mashal’ translated as “to rule, have dominion, reign” and is believed to imply that the superiority or conquering power of a parable gets derived from the high degree of wisdom needed to both form and appreciate it and its true meaning, often hidden within. Since a parable offers a comparative assessment of two aspects of the story it required the user and the listener to form an opinion and judge the same and that probably is the reason of the meaning of the root word – to rule, reign or have dominion. The Scripture list the use of parables by God in the Old Testament where Balaam is supposed to have used this word ‘mashal’ to convey his point to Balak, the king of Zippor (Numbers 23:7;18).
As per usage the word ‘mashal’ has been combined with various other words in the Bible to provide a better understanding of the same. Some of these examples are:
- 1 Kings 9:7 – used with ‘sheniynah’ meaning a sharp or cutting word or a taunt or a pointed saying. Many of the parables were used for rebuking the Pharisees and Sadducees, who considered themselves above everything and others.
- Micah 2:4 – used with ‘nahah’ meaning groan, lament or bewail thus classifying a parable as a form of lament for the sinful deeds of others. Most parables are used to highlight an aspect of sinful living of the hearers to help them identify their weakness.
- Matthew 13:35 – Greek word parabolais meaning parable is used with the word ‘krupto’ meaning hidden, dark obscure utterances as mentioned in Psalm 78:2 also where Hebrew word ‘chiydah’ conveying the same meaning is used. The dark sayings referred to were sayings of old used as riddles or allegories in daily use.
In the Old Testament parables have been also used as prophetic utterances conveying certain events likely to happen later and this was in the form of a punishment for sinful actions. Isaiah used this to proclaim a ‘proverb’ (mashal) against the king of Babylon. Lord Jesus used parables as dark sayings as well as stories with mysterious meanings that were obvious to many but concealed from the arrogant.
Definition and Differences – A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson while a fable though similar is a longer version of the parable. Various fables exist carrying a similar advice as Biblical parables but there are many more with a typically different set of lessons to give. The differences between a metaphor, allegory and a parable are of their length, complexity and purpose. First, the metaphor, which is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable to suggest a likeness between the two. It thus becomes an implied comparison between two dissimilar things, for example – ‘Food for thought’ or ‘curtain of night’. On the other hand analogy is comparison between one things and another made to explain or clarify thus suggesting this one similarity will apply in other aspects also. It would be applied to explain a difficult idea in a simpler and easily understandable form. An example ‘paper currency was to what plastic currency (credit/debit cards) are to modern culture’. The third is allegory which could be a poem, a story or a picture to illustrate a hidden meaning and as such is longer lasting. In comparison to an analogy it appeals to imagination while the analogy is more appealing to logical reasoning and while a metaphor lacks many details an allegorical saying will provide much more information and can be rather long and even complex. The best example of an allegorical tale is John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. The parables of the Scripture follow a simple and easy to memorize format to be memorized by simple folks to survive long through the then prevalent oral tradition of psassing it on to generations through songs and plays before these could then be put to paper for posterity.
Motive of using parables – A parable has been used in the Old and New Testament both by the Rabbis/prophets and Lord Jesus as a tool for teaching, declaring judgement and to illuminate or hide a matter. While the Rabbis/prophets used the parables to provide a clear teaching, Lord Jesus addressed two specific audiences at the same time through the same parable- where one could perceive the facts while the other could not.
In answer to the disciples question about the reason for speaking in parables, Lord Jesus replied “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak in parables: though seeing, they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand” (What???). Lord Jesus used His Divine knowledge to perceive the method required to teach the rural simple masses that the truth gets revealed to them but remains hidden from the “religious scholars” who always tried to trip Him through their questions rather than seeking knowledge.
There are basically seven apparent reasons for use of parables in the Scripture:
- Reveal truth in a form intended to create more interest.
- Make known new truths to interested hearers.
- Make known mysteries by comparison with things already known.
- Conceal truth from disinterested hearers and rebels at heart.
- Add truth to those who love it and want more of it.
- Take truth away from those who hate and do not want.
- To fulfill prophesy.
(Source for these seven points– Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible)
Another perception has been created that Lord Jesus spoke only in parables and not otherwise as mentioned in (Matthew 13:34-35 & Mark 4:33-34). However, the usage of parables was as a method of teaching only and where required specific points were further clarified to the disciples in private also, since ‘multitudes’ came to Him for various reasons. He as Son of God, Himself being God and having been filled with the Holy Spirit was well aware of the method required to be adopted for each group of people and taught them accordingly. Lord Jesus’ assertion that “I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things. And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left me alone, for I always do those things that please Him” (John 8:28-29) clarifies the fact of His speaking and doing everything under Divine guidance and power.
What He spoke included an image of this world superimposed with the truth and knowledge of the heavenly realm. It was only because of this that the parables of Lord Jesus carried a witness of the spiritual world where the illustrations of this world were used to reveal the mysteries of the other. The parables carried actors of this sinful world to act out the play of the other, easily understood by some and totally lost to the others who were not tuned in to His teachings for learning. The Son of God used the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’, one among many others to teach a major doctrine of love of God as displayed by those who were created in His image and likeness. The parables used by the prophets in the Old Testament or by Lord Jesus carried a message from the Father “who at various times and in various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). The worldly stories carry the message of God the Father to get ‘His children’ back to Him. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and is accepted to be written under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit using 40 writers with diverse backgrounds during a time span of 1500 years. It is this fact alone that the Scripture will always be “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
It is generally said that the parables of Lord Jesus are contained only in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) since the Synoptic Gospels contain only a general view of the whole story revealing a more comprehensive and broader view of the Savior’s life and teachings. Apostle John’s Gospel is considered to be ‘Non- Synoptic’ because of its indirect or abstract nature but the specific stories carried therein about the “sheep, gate and shepherd” (John 10:1-5) and about the “pregnant woman” (John 16:28) could be termed as parables. However, many scholars consider these to be allegories only and this view is more prevalent in the Catholic interpretations.
Themes – Parables being ‘true to life’ stories having various realistic situations of life using certain amount of imagery to provide answers to questions governing life. Apparently the themes contained in the parable will have to be similar in the Gospels to reveal the truth. There are three basic doctrines iterated in the parable of Lord Jesus and these are:
- About the Kingdom of God – The Soils – Matthew 13:3-6; Mark 4:4-8; Luke 8:5-8; The Weeds – Matthew 13:24-30; The Mustard Seed – Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19; The Yeast – Matthew 13:33; Luke 13-20-21; The Treasure – Matthew 13:44; The Pearl – Matthew 13:45-46; The Fishing Net – Matthew 13:47-50; The Growing Wheat – Mark 4:26-29.
- About Service and Obedience – The Workers in the Harvest – Matthew 20:1-16; The Loaned Money – Matthew 25:14-30; The Nobleman’s Servants – Luke 19:11-27; The Servant’s Role – Luke 17:7-10.
- About Prayer – The Friend at Midnight – Luke 11:5-8; The Unjust Judge – Luke 18:1-8.
- About Neighbors – The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:30-37.
- About Humility – The Wedding Feast – Luke 14:7-11; The Proud Pharisee and the Corrupt Tax Collector – Luke 18:9-14.
- About Wealth – The Rich Fool – Luke 12:16-21; The Great Feast – Luke 14:16-24; The Shrewd Manager – Luke 16:1-9.
- Gospel Parables
- About God’s Love – The Lost Sheep – Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:3-7; The Lost Coin – Luke 15:8-10; The Lost Son – Luke 15:11-32.
- About Thankfulness – The Forgiven Debts – Luke 7:41-43.
- Parables of Judgement and the Future
- About Christ’s Return – The Ten Virgins – Matthew 25:1-13; The Wise and Faithful Servants – Matthew 24:45-51, Luke 12:42-48; The Travelling Owner of the House – Mark 13:34-37.
- About God’s Values – The Two Sons – Matthew 21:28-32; The Wicked Tenants – Matthew 21:33-34, Mark 12:1-9, Luke 20:9-16; The Unproductive Fig Tree – Luke 13:6-9; The Marriage Feast – Matthew 22:1-14; The Unforgiving Servant – Matthew 18:23-35.
There are parables of Lord Jesus recorded in non-canonical Gospels of Thomas and James also contain 15 and 3 parables respectively but are not recognized.
Chronological Order of the Parables – The chronology of the parables is quite revealing in itself about the sequence adopted by the Lord in His teachings. The sequential order develops the whole concept that the Lord desired to teach the disciples to follow and the first set is about the newness of the story that is then to build a foundation for what is to follow. These are followed by the Kingdom of Heaven series which establishes the foundation on thus far stated rock-like surface to build upon further. This is followed by the behavior establishing parables teaching about the conduct of a ‘good Christian in various life situations as a disciple, worker or a tenant. Then comes the use of God given talents to use these with diligence and careful consideration and finally the Day of Judgement. The parables thus establish a pattern of development of a True Christian in to a God loving individual ever-ready to do His will.
Lord Jesus probably used parables to encourage the listeners to actively participate in His teaching methods to ‘adopt’ the resultant lesson as their own to adapt it to their lives. The Pharisees and Sadducees’ repeated attempts to make Him commit a noticeable mistake to discredit His teachings, was also a reason to use the parables. The simple format used facilitated easy memorization of the parables by the masses to ensure preservation through repeated oral transmission as per the then prevalent customs. Lord Jesus used various means to reveal God to the sinful humanity to lead them back into the presence of God and that is what must be seen through each and every word spoken by Him!!