Parable

parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables have human characters. A parable is a type of metaphorical analogy.

Some scholars of the canonical gospels and the New Testament apply the term “parable” only to the parables of Jesus, although that is not a common restriction of the term. Parables such as the parable of the Prodigal Son are important to Jesus’s teaching method.

Etymology

The word parable comes from the Greek παραβολή (parabolē), literally “throwing” (bolē) “alongside” (para-), by extension meaning “comparison, illustration, analogy.” It was the name given by Greek rhetoricians to an illustration in the form of a brief fictional narrative.

History

The Bible contains numerous parables in the Gospels of the New Testament (Jesus’s parables). These are believed by some scholars (such as John P. Meier) to have been inspired by mashalim, a form of Hebrew comparison prominent in the Talmudic period (c. 2nd-6th centuries CE). Examples of Jesus’ parables include the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Mashalim from the Old Testament include the parable of the ewe-lamb (told by Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:1-9) and the parable of the woman of Tekoah (in 2 Samuel 14:1-13).

Parables also appear in Islam. In Sufi tradition, parables are used for imparting lessons and values. Recent authors such as Idries Shah and Anthony de Mello have helped popularize these stories beyond Sufi circles.

Modern parables also exist. A mid-19th-century example, the parable of the broken window, criticises a part of economic thinking.

Parable of the Good Samaritan, as depicted by Jan Wijnants (1670)

Parable of the Good Samaritan, as depicted by Jan Wijnants (1670)

Characteristics

A parable is a short tale that illustrates a universal truth; it is a simple narrative. It sketches a setting, describes an action, and shows the results. It may sometimes be distinguished from similar narrative types, such as the allegory and the apologue.

A parable often involves a character who faces a moral dilemma or one who makes a bad decision and then suffers the unintended consequences. Although the meaning of a parable is often not explicitly stated, it is not intended to be hidden or secret but to be quite straightforward and obvious.

The defining characteristic of the parable is the presence of a subtext suggesting how a person should behave or what he should believe. Aside from providing guidance and suggestions for proper conduct in one’s life, parables frequently use metaphorical language which allows people to more easily discuss difficult or complex ideas. Parables express an abstract argument by means of using a concrete narrative which is easily understood.

The allegory is a more general narrative type; it also employs metaphor. Like the parable, the allegory makes a single, unambiguous point. An allegory may have multiple noncontradictory interpretations and may also have implications that are ambiguous or hard to interpret. As H.W. Fowler put it, the object of both parable and allegory “is to enlighten the hearer by submitting to him a case in which he has apparently no direct concern, and upon which therefore a disinterested judgment may be elicited from him, …” The parable is more condensed than the allegory: it rests upon a single principle and a single moral, and it is intended that the reader or listener shall conclude that the moral applies equally well to his own concerns.

Parables of Jesus

Main article: Parables of Jesus

Medieval interpreters of the Bible often treated Jesus’ parables as allegories, with symbolic correspondences found for every element in his parables. But modern scholars, beginning with Adolf Jülicher, regard their interpretations as incorrect. Jülicher viewed some of Jesus’ parables as similitudes (extended similes or metaphors) with three parts: a picture part (Bildhälfte), a reality part (Sachhälfte), and a tertium comparationis. Jülicher held that Jesus’ parables are intended to make a single important point, and most recent scholarship agrees.

Gnostics suggested that Jesus kept some of his teachings secret within the circle of his disciples and that he deliberately obscured their meaning by using parables. For example, in Mark 4:11–12:

And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” (NRSV)

Quranic parables

In the Quran, parables are used extensively, in a variety of forms and covering many themes. According to Afnan Fatani a contemporary scholar it is not the instructive stories but rather the cognitive role they play to illustrate abstract religion and to make the unfamiliar appear familiar that makes them important. They are meant to teach moral lessons, and usually the figures involved are of little importance as more attention is paid to the lesson than the figure. Below are some examples of parables in the Qur’an:

In verse 18:45, for example, worldly life is compared to the fall of rain and the cycle of vegetation:

“And strike for them a parable of the worldly life: it is like the water which we send down from the sky, and then the plants of the earth mingle with it. But then they become dry and broken and are scattered by the winds. And God is capable of all things.”

The Quran’s Q39:28-30 boasts “every kind of parable in the Quran”. The Quranic verses include parables of the good and evil tree (Q14:32-45), of the two men, and of the spider’s house. Q16:77 contains the parable of the slave and his master, followed by the parable of the blind man and the sighted.

Other figures of speech

The parable is related to figures of speech such as the metaphor and the simile. A parable is like a metaphor in that it uses concrete, perceptible phenomena to illustrate abstract ideas. It may be said that a parable is a metaphor that has been extended to form a brief, coherent narrative. A parable also resembles a simile, i.e., a metaphorical construction in which something is said to be “like” something else (e.g., “The just man is like a tree planted by streams of water”). However, unlike the meaning of a simile, a parable’s meaning is implicit (although not secret).

Examples

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia