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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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