What is a parable?


This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Parables of Jesus

I guess it’s important to look at what a parable really is, before we dive right in and look at them.  While it would be sort of funny to put in the technical definition right away – here’s one that’s actually useful – 

In the NT the actual word ‘parable’ is used with the same broad variety of meaning as Heb. māšāl to refer to almost any kind of non-literal utterance.  1)Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 867). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.  

I think the key to this definition is to remember that it’s a “non-literal utterence”.  
In even more plain words, it’s something said that was not, is not, and was never meant to – be taken literally.

Realizing this would take away a lot of the complaints people have about many of the things Jesus said.  There are lots of examples of people who have issues with things Jesus said in parables that seem to be impossible in the “real” world.  And, while there’s always the possibility of miracles to explain some of what Jesus said, we also see many instances where Christians go out of there way – occasionally getting all twisted up in their words – trying to show how a literal interpretation of Jesus’ parables is possible.

It’s a shame.  It would be far easier to explain the definition of the word “parable”, than it would be to twist a parable to actually meet the requirements of being literally true.

It isn’t exactly easy to show the same definition of parable is still in use today. but let’s follow the trail from dictionary.com to show that the meaning of the word has not changed since Biblical times.  I’ve underlined the word from each definition that we’ll use in the subsequent definition to be looked up.

parable –

noun

1. a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.

2. a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like.

allegorical –

adjective

1. consisting of or pertaining to allegory; of the nature of or containing allegory; figurative:
an allegorical poem; an allegorical meaning.

allegory

noun, plural allegories.

1. a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.

2. a symbolical narrative:
the allegory of Piers Plowman.

3. emblem (def 3).

figurative

adjective

1. of the nature of or involving a figure of speech, especially a metaphor; metaphorical and not literal:
The word “head” has several figurative senses, as in “She’s the head of the company.”.
Synonyms: metaphorical, not literal, symbolic.

2. metaphorically so called:
His remark was a figurative boomerang.

3. abounding in or fond of figures of speech:
Elizabethan poetry is highly figurative.
Synonyms: ornate, ornamental, flowery, elaborate, florid, grandiloquent.

4. representing by means of a figure or likeness, as in drawing or sculpture.

5. representing by a figure or emblem; emblematic.

and there it is, finally – not literal.

It took a while, but clearly, whether it be Biblical times or today, parables are certainly not meant to be taken literally.  As such, any attempt to invalidate a parable based on the inability to take it literally / make any real world scenario be a prerequisite for accepting the validity of the parable is, by definition, a misuse of the literary tool known as a parable.  

As I said at the beginning – a parable was not, is not, and was never meant to – be taken literally.

More about parables


I’ll apologize in advance, but I feel a need to include the technical definition.  You’ll see why in the very last sentence of this definition.

‘Parable’ is ultimately derived from Gk. parabolē, literally ‘putting things side by side’. Etymologically it is thus close to ‘allegory’, which by derivation means ‘saying things in a different way’. Both parables and allegories have usually been regarded as forms of teaching which present the listener with interesting illustrations from which can be drawn moral and religious truths; ‘parable’ is the somewhat protracted simile or short descriptive story, usually designed to inculcate a single truth or answer a single question, while ‘allegory’ denotes the more elaborate tale in which all or most of the details have their counterparts in the application. Since ‘truth embodied in a tale shall enter in at lowly doors’, the value of this method of instruction is obvious.  2)Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 867). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

If only this definition was something that could enter in at lowly doors and was obvious.

Enough of that.  Let’s get into something more understandable.


The same book that brought us the previous definition also gives us this very useful piece of information –

The parables are the appropriate form of communication for bringing to men the message of the kingdom, since their function is to jolt them into seeing things in a new way. They are means of enlightenment and persuasion, intended to bring the hearers to the point of decision. Jesus, as it were, stands where his hearers stand, and uses imagery familiar to them to bring new and unfamiliar insights to them. Just as a lover finds himself restricted by the language of prose and must resort to poetry to express his feelings, so Jesus expresses the message of the kingdom in the appropriate forms of language.  3)Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 867). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

One of the keys there is that a parable’s function is to jolt them into seeing things in a new way, where “them” is the person hearing the parable.  When Jesus was talking to the Jewish people, many of the things He said were shocking to them, because they went so much further than what they heard from the rabbis.  Just one example of shocking, although it’s not a parable, is this one –

Mt 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

The next one, still not a parable, would have been a wake-up call to anyone – Jew or not – who was trying to live even a half-way decent life –

Mt 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

So – now we know that a parable is not to be taken literally, and it’s meant to wake people up to the realities of Jesus telling us something very different from what we’re used to.

The Hebrew view of parables

Given that Jesus was Jewish, and many of the people who heard him were Jewish – I think it’s important to look at what the word / literary form meant in Hebrew –

PARABLE (מָשָׁ֑ל, mashal; παραβολή, parabolē). A story or saying that illustrates a truth using comparison, hyperbole, or simile. Can be a model, analogy, or example.  4)Seal, D. (2016). Parable. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Just in case you’re not familiar with what hyperbole is, let’s look at that as well, from dictionary.com –

hyperbole

noun, Rhetoric.

1. obvious and intentional exaggeration.

2. an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.”.

Again, we see the part about not to be taken literally, but even more so, we see obvious and intentional exaggeration which takes the non-literal part of the definition even further.  Therefore, when we see complaints about things that obviously aren’t “true” – we need to examine the very real possibility that they were never meant to be true in the first place – but that they were an extreme example that was even exaggerated in order to make that wake-up call and jolt the hearer into paying attention and hopefully getting the intended meaning of the parable – as opposed to trying to figuring out what’s wrong with the literal words of the parable.  We’ll see examples of this – for instance in the Parable of The Mustard Seed in Mt 13:31-32.

Mt 13:31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

The mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world – and the plant that comes from it is not the largest tree in the world either.  Having said that – we’ll also see when we go through this particular parable that people go to extremes to actually attack not only the literal words in the parable, but also to destroy the message of the parable.

Why is this view of parables important?

In the process of researching just this one question – what is a parable? – what I found was any number of people arguing over the minute details of whether or not something is a parable, and then arguing again over how to interpret a parable.  There are so many different approaches to answering both questions.  Not surprisingly, they vary over time.  New ways to interpret are thought of – argued about – accepted by some – rejected by others.  The thing is – Jesus spoke in Aramaic, not English, Italian, German, Etc.  The Gospels were written in Greek (although there rumor of Matthew’s Gospel also being written in Hebrew, if true, it was yet to be found – but in any case, they were not written in English, Italian, German, Etc.  They were, as mentioned earlier – the words of Jesus, who was Jewish.  Also mentioned earlier – the audience was often-times Jewish people.  

BTW – it is this argument over what “exactly” is a parable that makes it so difficult to come up with a list of Jesus’ parables.  People can’t agree over which of the things Jesus said are parables, and which are something else – like maybe merely comparisons or maybe a proverb.  I expect I’ll be taking an approach to this that is more inclusive than some would like – since I’m going with a more general definition based on what we read at the top of the page.

It seems to me, that if God is never changing, but we do change – then the interpretation should first come from that point of view, and then see what it means to us today.  Not the other way around. 

And, before we argue about what any given word means in the English (or any other modern language using modern definitions) – we should first go back and see what the Greek words that were used actually meant in that time, including both the nuances of the language that have changed since then, but also the cultural themes that would have come to mind at that time as opposed to what we would think of today.

To that end, here’s a brief excerpt from The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology –

The conceptual background for the concept of parable in the New Testament was Semitic, not Aristotelian Greek. This single insight could have saved the history of interpretation of the parables of Jesus from several key misconceptions.  5)Payne, P. B. (1996). Parable. In Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology (electronic ed., p. 588). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

What is the purpose of the parables?

Finally, there’s the question of what’s the purpose of parables?  Are they to keep people from knowing – or are they to teach people what they don’t yet know?  To examine that question, let’s look at this from the New Bible Dictionary –

Some have found Mk. 4:10–12 very difficult to understand, for it seems to suggest that Jesus’ purpose in the parables was not to enlighten the unenlightened, but that the unbeliever might become hardened in his unbelief. It is possible, however, that what seems to be a clause of purpose in Mk. 4:12 is in fact a clause of consequence (so Mt. 13:13). The parables of Jesus may have the effect of hardening the unbeliever, just as Isaiah prophesied with regard to the effects of preaching the Word of God. The truth is that Jesus’ parables are unique. The parables of other teachers can to some extent be separated from the teachers themselves, but Jesus and his parables are inseparable. To fail to understand him is to fail to understand his parables. ‘For those outside everything is in parables’ (Mk. 4:11); the whole of Jesus’ ministry, not merely the parables, remains on the level of earthly stories and portents devoid of any deeper significance. Here ‘parables’ has virtually come to mean ‘riddles’. It is, therefore, possible for men to decline the invitation to understanding and commitment found in the parables, and in them Isaiah’s prophecy (Is. 6:9f.) is fulfilled (cf. Jn. 12:40 where the same prophecy is cited with reference to the disbelief of the Jews in the face of Jesus’ mighty works).  6)Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 869). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

It is, therefore, possible for men to decline the invitation to understanding and commitment found in the parables, and in them Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled.

I’ve said, in other places, that often-times there this question of whether or not we even want to believe in Jesus, in God, that the Bible is the word of God.  As it’s put in the quote above – it’s a question of whether or not we choose to accept God’s invitation to believe.

To be sure the whole thought is understood, let’s look at the referenced Isaiah prophecy –

Isa 6:9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
“ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

Isa 6:10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

It appears, from the English translation in the NIV, that it’s God preventing people from understanding and perceiving.  But – is that really the case?  Looking at the Hebrew, there is no word corresponding to “make” in verse 6:10.  It’s an assumed word, based on how the interpreter looks at the context.

However – if we look at Young’s Literal Translation, we see something quite different –

Isa 6:9 And He saith, ‘Go, and thou hast said to this people,
Hear ye—to hear, and ye do not understand,
And see ye—to see, and ye do not know.

Isa 6:10 Declare fat the heart of this people,
And its ears declare heavy,
And its eyes declare dazzled,
Lest it see with its eyes,
And with its ears hear,
and its heart consider,
And it hath turned back, and hath health.’  7)Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Is 6:9–10). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

This gives another point of view.

Between the two of them, we can maybe see something different happening.

Earlier in Isaiah, we read –

Isa 2:6 You have abandoned your people,
the house of Jacob.
They are full of superstitions from the East;
they practice divination like the Philistines
and clasp hands with pagans.

Isa 2:7 Their land is full of silver and gold;
there is no end to their treasures.
Their land is full of horses;
there is no end to their chariots.

Isa 2:8 Their land is full of idols;
they bow down to the work of their hands,
to what their fingers have made.

As with other places in the Bible, where we read similar things that God has “made happen”, that’s only a partial explanation of what’s going on.

Now that we’ve seen the three passages above, is it God that arbitrarily made the people incapable of understanding – or is God only enforcing what the people have already done to themselves.  And, by the way, what they have done to God – since all the stuff they did in the process of making themselves unable to understand was a sin against God.

So – when someone hears a parable, do they hear Jesus teaching them – or do they hear Jesus telling them something to prevent them from learning?  I’d say it depends on the person.  If they want to learn – they will.  If they don’t want to learn – they won’t.

As we go through the parables, we’ll look at some of the arguments put up by those who don’t want to learn.  At the very least, it’s informative and helpful to someone who does want to learn, but is hearing the words of those who don’t want to learn.  At the other end of the spectrum, maybe – with via the Holy Spirit – someone who hasn’t wanted to learn can overcome some the the obstacles in their way, and begin to accept God’s invitation to believe.

Conclusion

With all that in mind, and with even more that we’ll learn as we go through this series, let’s get started.

The first one will be the Parable of A Tree And Its Fruit.

I invite you to check back for its publication – or follow this site using one of the icons at the top – or receive an email for each new article via email using the subscribe button towards the top right.

 

Series Navigation<< The problem of the parables of Jesus

References   [ + ]

1, 2, 3. Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 867). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
4. Seal, D. (2016). Parable. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
5. Payne, P. B. (1996). Parable. In Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology (electronic ed., p. 588). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
6. Tasker, R. V. G., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). Parable. In D. R. W. Wood, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 869). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
7. Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Is 6:9–10). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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