Definition and Examples Of Parable

Parable (a transliteration of the Greek etymon παραβολή; in Latin “similitudo,” “collatio,” literally “to set down beside,” or “comparison”) can be generally defined as “a more or less developed comparisonOpens in new window in which two things or processes from different fields are set side by side so that in virtue of the similarity the unknown may be elucidated from the known” (TDNT5.745 – 46).

In other words, Parables are brief stories that use odd comparisons to promote images that are ordinarily difficult to explain.

Observations and Definitions By Scholars

DoddOpens in new window (1935, 16), observes the parable, as

Boucher (1977, 23), in his detailed knowledge, offers:

  • “the parable is a structure consisting of a tropical narrative, or a narrative having two levels of meaning; this structure functions as religious or ethical rhetorical speech.”

CrossanOpens in new window, (1980); LambrechtOpens in new window, (1981); ScottOpens in new window, (1989); TolbertOpens in new window, (1979), also share their views:

  • “parables are short, concrete narratives that stem from the oral tradition.”
  • They display “a sharp economy in the presentation of characters and plot” (Tolbert, 1979, p. 17).
  • They appear “scrubbed clean, with few if any useless details” (Scott, 1989, p. 36).
  • Crossan (1980) adds, “it may well be the very brevity of the narrative that first impels us to look elsewhere for its fullest meaning” (pp. 4 – 5).

Hence, brevity is a central feature of an effective parable.

However, AristotleOpens in new window in his observation (Rhetorica 2.20.1ff.) regards parables as a sub-class of comparative proofs which he names paradigms (paradeigma). These proofs are said to be artificially inductive in which case they make their points based on the comparisonOpens in new window or through historical illustration (or the exemplumOpens in new window).

Parables can be distinguished from fablesOpens in new window (called logoi) in that they are shorter comparisons that draw on actual historical examples. They are then comparisons drawn from everyday life or common experience. Rhetorically their function is to prove or support the veracity of the general proposition being advanced.

In ancient rhetorical manual, the parable (similitudo) is described as being used to embellish the presentation, to prove something, to say something more clearly, or to put something more clearly, or to put something vividly before the eyes of the audience (Ad Herennium 4.45.59).

Parables are said to compare the usual and the unusual (Lambrecht, 1981), Juxtapose the familiar with the unfamiliar (TeSelle, 1975), or frame the ordinary within the extraordinary (Tolbert, 1979). Common to all of these views is the sense that the configuration of the story places the known with the unknown. This juxtaposition tends to radicalize the comparison, provoking the hearer to reconcile what seems off, shocking the hearer into potentially new insights (Lambrecht, 1981). The realistic element of parables also shocks the imagination by conveying the idea that “important things happen and are decided at the everyday level” (TeSelle, 1975, p. 76).

The comparative function of parables is often signified by a presentation by means of a comparative particle such as (“as, like”),

  • as in Mark 4:26: “the kingdom of God is like a man …”
  • Matt. 25:14: “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them …”
  • Mark 4:31: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground …”.

The verb (“to be like, compare”) and adjective (“like, similar”) are often used to introduce parables,

  • as in Matt. 13:24: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man …” (Carson 1985, 277 – 82).

Importance of Parables

By making comparisons, parables function metaphorically, providing the hearer with many possible choices or interpretations (Kirkwood, 1985; Scott, 1989; Tolbert, 1979). The juxtaposed elements in parables encourage the listener to confront the disparate elements in the story. A further confrontation exists because parables challenge us to act.

A parable exemplifies a particular way of behaving or state of mind (Kirkwood, 1985). The audience applies the spur to iself because, while the parable provides an obvious choice for conduct, enacting the choice is challenging. Because parables are metaphoric they can illustrate ideas that defy rational explanation through language.

The parable of the prodigal son
The Parable of the Prodigal son.

In the same way that scientists use models to illustrate what cannot be fully described, poets and philosophers have long relied on metaphors to invoke images that would perhaps otherwise escape linguistic description. Because parables invite us to see the familiar in a new way they invite spiritual insight. TeSelle (1975) contends, “meaning and truth for human beings are embodied, hence embodied language, metaphorical language, is the most appropriate way perhaps the only way – to suggest this meaning and truth” (p. 15).

Effective parables creatively use incongruity to motivate audiences to move beyond the limitations of language and into the realm of spirit. They speak to the total person, evoking a holistic response. (p. 240).

In sum, parable as a figure shares similarity with AnalogyOpens in new window, and often linked very closely to the historical illustration or the ExemplumOpens in new window. However, a parable has as its function not the clinching of a proof but clarifying or making a point more vividly.

Generally, it needs to be said that it is not the length of a parable or its specifc form (it is more like a straight analogy, or more like a brief narrative) that makes a parable a parable from a rhetorical point of view but rather the content should be determinative—it must involve a comparison from everyday life, whether elaborated at length or not, whether involving a story element and so a plot, or not. It is also germane to add that rhetoricians like QuintilianOpens in new window also specified that in general a parable should be, more often than not, about things or concepts rather than about persons (which would be an historical example).

Further Readings:
Wikipedia ParableOpens in new window
Ben Witherington, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament | Gospel of Persuasion: Parable of Mark & LukeOpens in new window
David Edward Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature & Rhetoric | ParableOpens in new window
Steven C. Combs, The Dao of Rhetoric | Zhuangzi and the Rhetoric of Evocation:ParableOpens in new window