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What is a Parable?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


When trying to understand one of Jesus’ parables, there are four vital questions to answer about it. Let’s go over them.

Question #1: What is the nature of the details in a parable?

Is it a pure Allegory?

Allegory is an extended metaphor. Metaphor equates two things explicitly (e.g. You are a dog!) or implicitly (e.g. Tell that dog to go!) In this type of allegory, all the major components have one for one representation. In The Parable of the Four Soils, each type of soil represents a different kind of heart response to the Word/seed, preached/sowed by the preacher/sower. One must be careful not to push too hard at the details. One should not seek private meanings in any part, and should not seek out representation in the colorful details unless obviously intended. There is no reason, for instance, to discover what the sower’s bag represents.

Is it an Analogy?

Analogy makes a general situational comparison rather than a point-for-point representation. You must capture the essence of the comparison in the analogous situation without trying to exploit the details. Here, the primary dynamics involved in a situation are more important than finding specific points of representation.  We might consider the Parable of the Lost Sheep or Lost Coin, where a general situation is set forward. Something precious has been lost and then found. What kind of person wouldn’t rejoice under such circumstances? There is no reason to give, the cracks in the woman’s floor, her broom, or even her lamp representative meaning.

In the rabbinic parables of Jesus’ day, only the most essential items represented something, and only in a highly limited way. We saw this in the Prodigal Son story. The Father, the Prodigal, and the Older Brother are all caught in a complex analogical relationship to the situation in which Jesus finds Himself at Levi’s dinner party. Jesus uses the three main figures in the story to reveal the responses of grace, gratitude, and resentment from the witnesses when the MOST valuable thing has been lost and found. Nothing else needs anything more than the most surface consideration. The ring, fatted calf, and robe, for instance, are merely common symbols of restored sonship, or joy.

Is it a Real Parable?

A real parable follows the technical definition of a parable—An extended simile. In these, we should find words like, “like” or “as” used to make comparisons at multiple points. In The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed and is shown to be like the mustard seed in more than one way. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom starts small. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom will grow quite large.

Question #2: How is the parable structured?

Is it a three-pole parable?

Here, two different elements are contrasted in the way they relate to a third element. In the Parable of the Lost sheep, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the field to search for a lost one. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, two groups respond differently to the demands of their position in a wedding and are welcomed or rebuffed by the Bridegroom based on that response. The points of contrast expose the core of the message.

Is it a complex three-pole parable?

In these structures, we still have two different elements are contrasted in the way they relate to a third element, but one sides is complicated. In The Parable of the Talents, “A” gives money to three servants; two succeed one fails. In The Parable of the Four Soils, four receive A… the word… but three fail for different reasons and one succeeds. The point of contrast in each parable is why some succeeded and others failed. We have the same pattern in The Parable of the Vineyard workers where five different groups work different lengths of time for a vineyard owner. All get paid the same. One, however, has a really bad attitude about it. The meaning is found in the conflict.

Is it a two-pole parable?

Two pole parables focus upon two separate items that are tracked together, each one’s actions navigating the other’s. The relationship between the parts will vary, but the dual nature of the action should be obvious. Consider the Sower and the Seed, where a farmer plants a seed that goes on growing by itself as the farmer goes about his business elsewhere. In The Parable of the Unjust Judge, he keeps refusing justice to a woman who eventually wears him down. We have the Unproductive Fig Tree, where the farmer vacillates between two opinions about what to do with an unproductive fig tree.

Is it a one-pole parable?

One pole parables focus on a single subject, contrasting different actions, stages, or outcomes. These often have a second figure, but the parable focuses on a primary actor. In The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the smallness of the seed is contrasted with the hugeness of the plant. Leven goes into a lump affecting the whole thing. The Kingdom is a pearl and a man sells all and buys it. Would you build a tower without counting the cost of it? You might not have what it takes and humiliate yourself.

Let’s take the last two together.

Question #3: What is the parable’s topic? & Question #4: What is the parable’s purpose at the moment? To explain? To filter?

Is it a parable designed to address a personal concern of the moment?

Jesus often uses parables to bring clarity to a discussion. Here the context of the parable is all important. Jesus defends His disciple’s lack of fasting by drawing an analogy with the way people differentiate their treatments of old vs. new things. Jesus tells the stories of the lost sheep, coin, and son, to explain His attendance at Levi’s dinner party. Jesus tells the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee to shine a mirror on the Pharisees’ inner life before God.

Is it a Kingdom parable?

Kingdom parables are used by Jesus as filters for a mixed audience in which He finds selfish seekers, overt enemies, and earnest would-be disciples. These are not designed to prevent knowledge, so much as to draw in the earnest and sift out the lazy and hostile. Here we find The Parable of the Four Soils, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Net. Jesus gives the secrets of the Kingdom of God but leaves the uncommitted out of the loop. Indeed, many of Jesus’ Kingdom parables tell the listener how important it is that they listen carefully, press in, and give everything for the privilege of the Kingdom.


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Digging Deeper: The Prodigal Son Part 1

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM


Allegory or Analogy?

Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 says:


The beauty of this manifesto is powerfully illustrated in The Parable of The Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

There is something in the prodigal son story that resonates with almost everyone who reads it. In one sense, every sinner who has come to Jesus is a prodigal come home, for every heart is born far from God, and it is only through repentance that we return to that place from which our first parents fled—God is our home.

Interpreting the Prodigal

The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been a powerful witness to Jesus’ mission but has also fallen victim to bad interpretation. Being imagined to possess meaningful applications to life and worship that can be found in the smallest of details, The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been picked over like a chicken carcass. Not infrequently this feeding frenzy is done without regard to the rules of parable telling in Jesus’ own day and in complete obliviousness to the context of its telling.

One of the biggest confusions is that some approach the prodigal son as an allegory while it is, in actuality, an analogy. The difference is monumental.

Now I love a good allegory (I cut my teeth on Pilgrim’s Progress) but if one treats an analogy like the Parable of the Prodigal Son as an allegory even its good things can warp into ugly things. This is because, in an allegory, we treat everything as having meaning. The smallest points suggest to our seeking minds the most significant truths… even if we have to add to the picture to do so.

Luke 4 As Allegory

In an allegorized Prodigal son, specific reference is sought in every detail of the parable. The Father represents the heavenly father, the prodigal represents the sinners and tax-gatherers, and the older brother represents the religious leaders. So far so good. How far should we push the details though?

Should we seek specific meaning in the famine? The pods of the pig slop? The pigs? What about those around the prodigal who “gave him nothing?” What specific meaning should we give to the ring? The robe? The shoes? The fatted calf? Who do the servants represent? Honestly, do we really want to go there? Do we believe Jesus intended us to go there?

More pointedly, if the older son represents the religious leaders of the day, do we really want to suggest that the father’s words to his older son in the parable are point-for-point words of Jesus to the religious leaders? Does Jesus preach to Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees, on behalf of the Father, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”?

If we go with allegory rather than analogy, is the younger son is still out of his inheritance? If all that the father has belongs to the older brother, what remains for the younger brother? “Welcome back, Son, but you are still impoverished.” “Now that the party is over, let’s talk about that new job as a hired hand.”

How much crazier could we get if we began to imagine details drawn from the world of family farms and sought meaning in them? There is no end to the possible mischief we could get up to if we allegorize. I’ve seen it… it gets ugly.

Luke 4 As Analogy

As an analogy, however, one seeks in the prodigal son story a broad situational comparison. The details are present to add commonly recognized realism to the story. In analogy, we learn simple lessons about one thing drawn from general similarities between it and some other common occurrence.

Jesus is dining with those whom the Pharisees have labeled tax collectors and sinners. These are, however, people who have become Jesus’ followers. Do the religious types want to know why he would allow them to become part of His ministry? Jesus answers their question with three connected parables. We might label these three together as—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. While there are some vague representations found in the audience (Each person in the audience is supposed to find himself or herself somewhere in the stories) the details must not be pushed too hard. The big picture speaks.

Jesus asks twice, who wouldn’t rejoice if a lost precious thing were found?

The answer is found in the final story, but the details are meant to enhance the main point rather than making independent points of their own. These are analogies NOT all-encompassing allegories.


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