Holman Bible Dictionary
The difference between a parable and an allegory turns on the number of comparisons. A parable may convey other images and implications, but it has only one main point established by a basic comparison or internal juxtaposition. For example, the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32 ; Matthew 13:31-32 ; Luke 13:18-19 ) compares or juxtaposes a microscopically small seed initially with a large bush eventually.
An allegory makes many comparisons through a kind of coded message. It correlates two areas of discourse, providing a series of pictures symbolizing a series of truths in another sphere. Each detail is a separate metaphor or what some call a cryptogram. If you are an insider who knows, you receive the second or intended message. Otherwise, you can follow only the surface story. Jonathan Swift's Guilliver's Travels is an allegory as is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress . In the Old Testament, Ezekiel recounts an incident in nature about great eagles and vines (Luke 17:3-8 ) and then assigns a very allegorical application to each of the details (Luke 17:9-18 ).
The word allegory never appears in the Gospels. Parable is the basic figure Jesus used. Though no parable in the Synoptic Gospels is a pure allegory, some parables contain subordinated allegorical aspects, such as the parable of the wicked tenants ( Mark 12:1-12 ; Matthew 21:36-46 ;
Luke 20:9-19 ). Even in the parable of the Mustard Seed the passing reference to the birds of heaven nesting in the branches (Mark 4:32 ) may be an allegorical detail, but the distinction of the parable establishing a basic, single comparison remains and aids interpretation. See Allegory .
Parables Prior to Jesus Though Jesus perfected the oral art of telling parables, their background can be found in the Old Testament and in secular sources. The Old Testament employs the broader category of mashal , which refers to all expressions that contain a comparison. A mashal can be a proverb ( 1 Samuel 10:12 ), a taunt (Micah 2:4 ), a dark riddle (Psalm 78:2 ), an allegory (Ezekiel 24:3-4 ), or a parable. The stories of Jesus are linked with the heritage of the prophetic parables in the Old Testament (Isaiah 28:23-29 ; Isaiah 5:1-7 ; 1 Kings 20:39-43 ; Ecclesiastes 9:13-16 ; 2 Samuel 12:1-4 ).
Perhaps the most interesting antecedent of the parables of Jesus comes from Nathan's word to David. Nathan told the unsuspecting David the seemingly harmless story of a rich man and a poor man living in the same city (2 Samuel 12:1-4 ). The poor man owned only a single little ewe lamb he loved as a household pet while the rich man possessed large flocks; yet when the wealthy farmer had a guest to serve, he seized the poor man's single lamb for the dinner! The teller of the story was living dangerously as he seized a teachable moment to confront the life of the most famous king of Israel. He sought to get inside David's guard and cut the iron bonds of his self-deception to strike a moral blindness from his eyes. In a sense, it was a well-laid trap since David responded with moral outrage, thus condemning himself. Nathan then applied the parable to the king's affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:5-14 ). This eventful parable and others in the Old Testament belong to the same tradition in which our Lord stood.
The parable was also recognized as a literary type before the time of Jesus in the writings of the Greeks concerning rhetoric. The famous writer Homer included 189 parables in The Illiad and 39 more in The Odyssey . Plato's poetic speech was rich in similitudes interwoven into his speech, but not so much independent unities like those of Jesus. Some of the illustrations of Socrates were parabolic. Aristotle recognized the place of parable in his writings.
Stormy debate rages among Bible students regarding the further question of parables from the rabbis before and during the ministry of Jesus. Scholars like C. A. Bugge and Paul Fiebig pointed to numerous rabbinic parables deriving from the beginning of the first century A.D. Others, such as Jeremias, found almost none until after the days of Jesus. We do know of parables from the rabbis soon after the time of Jesus, and we do recognize that the parables of Jesus are not only far more compelling but center in the coming kingdom of God rather than in exposition of the Law or Torah as the rabbinic parables.
Jesus' Special Use of Parables Many of the parables grew out of the conflict situations when Jesus answered His religious critics. These answering parables, usually for Pharisees and sinners simultaneously, expose and extol. Jesus exposed the self-righteousness of His critics and extolled the kingdom of God. When John the Baptizer was accosted for being too serious and Jesus for being too frivolous, Jesus came back with the parable of the playing children (Matthew 11:16-19 ; Luke 7:31-35 ) to expose the inconsistency of the criticism. In His most famous parable, He extolled the forgiving love of the father and exposed the hostile criticism of the unforgiving elder brother (Luke 15:11-32 ).
In fact, Jesus interpreted His ministry and its place in salvation history by means of parable. He addressed different audiences such as the crowds, the disciples, and the critics with definite purposes. Indeed, the Teller as well as the tale is important. That is, the fact that Jesus was the author affects the meaning. As Jesus interpreted His ministry through parables, these sometimes have a “Christological penetration.” Jesus Himself appears indirectly in the story (Mark 3:23-27 ). The parables are not merely clever stories but proclamation of the gospel. The hearer must respond and is invited by the story to make a decision about the kingdom and the King. The parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-12 ) represented a blatant confrontation.
These stories got Jesus in trouble as He made veiled claims of kingliness and exposed the hypocrisy regnant in the religious hierarchy. One of the reasons they crucified Jesus was because of His challenging parables and the claims of his Kingdom.
Jesus' Different Kinds of Parables Jesus could turn people's ears into eyes, sometimes with a still picture and then again with a moving picture. He uttered (1) parabolic sayings referring to the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13 ) or throwing pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6 ). These parable germs or incipient parables were generally one liners with a picturesque appeal to the imagination. Remarkably, the Gospel of John has no parables as such; it does include thirteen parabolic sayings.
Jesus also spoke (2) simple parables which represent a picture elaborated into a story. These extended pictures portray a general situation growing out of a typical experience and appealing to common sense. They are often specifically concerning the kingdom of God and are introduced with a saying, “The Kingdom of God is like.” Examples are the paired parables of the treasure and the pearl (Matthew 13:44-46 ), the tower builder and the warring king (Luke 14:28-32 ), and the lost sheep and lost coin (Luke 15:3-10 ). They are extended similes.
Additionally, Jesus told his famous (3) narrative parables that represent a specific situation and often include in the first sentence reference to a certain person. While Matthew reported a great many parabolic sayings, Luke contains numerous narrative parables, such as the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8 ), the compassionate Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37 ), and the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21 ). A narrative parable is a dramatic story composed of one or more scenes, drawn from daily life yet focused on an unusual, decisive circumstance.
Special Literary Considerations Narrative parables and the simple parables total more than forty examples. Certain metaphors recur in the different parables. For example, seed parables such as those of the sower, the seed growing of itself, and the mustard seed in Mark 4:1 focus on the nature of the coming kingdom. Master/servant parables reflect a time of critical reckoning. Kingly parables, especially in Matthew, portray the sovereignty of the divine judgment and grace. Householder parables feature an authority figure whose purpose is resisted or rejected yet whose will is finally achieved. This latter category points to the realism of rejection of the will of God fully allowable on the one hand by the divine provision of freedom, yet on the other hand the divine insistence of the eventual triumph of His loving purpose.
Attention to parable form also brings up the prominence of the question format, the refusal parables, and the place of direct discourse. Jesus intended to involve His hearers, and so He constructed many parables that amount to one big question. The parable of the servant and his wages moves by means of two questions (Luke 17:7-10 ). The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8 ) includes four questions. These interrogatives within parables often define a dilemma (Luke 12:20 ; Mark 12:9 ) or call for an agreeing nod in one area of life that carries over to another.
The refusal parables are those that express the intention of a character not to do what is requested: “I do not will.” The elder brother refused to enter the festivities in honor of the prodigal son (Luke 15:28 ), and wedding guests rejected the invitation to attend the festivities of a wedding (Matthew 22:3 ). These and other examples of the refusal to do the will of God recognize the reality of human pride, stubbornness, hypocrisy, and rejection Jesus encountered during His proclaiming ministry.
Direct discourse is also immensely important in many of the parables because it brings the stories to life. Through the human conversation the parable often makes its point, especially in the last speech. Surely Jesus delivered these lines from each of the parabolic characters in a most animated fashion and even interpreted His parables by the tone of His voice.
Common Theme of Jesus' Parables Jesus' great thesis centers on the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15 ). Each parable explores and expands the theme. The kingship of God or Yahweh may be found first in the Old Testament (Psalm 24:9-10 ; Isaiah 6:5 ). Daniel 4:1 proclaims the divine sovereignty over the secular kingdoms, and the Ten Commandments require full obedience to God.
Jesus lifted the theme to new heights and through His parables portrayed the nature of the kingdom (Mark 4:26-29 ), the grace of the kingdom (Luke 18:9-17 ), the crisis of the kingdom (Luke 12:54-56 ), and the conditions of the kingdom such as commitment (Luke 14:28-30 ), forgiveness (Matthew 18:23-35 ), and compassion (Luke 10:25-37 ).
The parables further proclaim the kingdom as ethical, experiential or existential, eschatological, and evangelistic. Several parables accentuate ethical concerns such as attitude toward one's fellows (Luke 18:9-14 ; Luke 15:25-32 ; Matthew 18:23-35 ). —Jesus insisted on being religious through relationships. The rousing call to repentance embodied in many parables requires a moral and spiritual reorientation of life around the kingdom.
Many parables reach the watertable of common experience and illumine existence or life. Jesus could expose a pale or petrified life. He could convey the moving experience of being lost in the far country and then to come to oneself and go home (Luke 15:17 ). His parables exposed the inauthentic life aggressively self-centered and greedy (Luke 12:13-21 ; Luke 16:19-31 ).
As Jesus proclaimed through parables, God was bursting into history, the hinge of history had arrived. He announced it with urgency. He brought an otherwordly perspective to bear in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21 ). He foresaw the full future coming of the kingdom (Matthew 13:8 ,Matthew 13:8,13:30 ,Matthew 13:30,13:32 ,Matthew 13:32,13:39 ).
The parables are evangelistic because they sought to stimulate a decision and change a life. They invited the audience to repent and believe. The parables intended to awaken faith. The Teller's faith was contagious. The segment about the elder brother (Luke 15:25-32 ) is unfinished and open-ended. He could choose to swallow his pride, activate his own forgiving spirit, put on his dancing shoes, and join the party.
Unspoken Parables Like the prophets, Jesus enacted some of His intended message. His parabolic acts were boldly done. For example, He chose from His larger following a special group of twelve disciples (Mark 3:13-19 ), symbolizing His creation of a new Israel. Throughout His ministry, Jesus graciously received spiritual and social outcasts as the Friend of sinners, indicating the Father's loving grace. He cursed the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14 ,Mark 11:12-14,11:20-21 ), pointing to the divine judgment on Israel. He rode into Jerusalem in regal humility on the first Psalm Sunday, calling forth Zechariah's expectation. He cleansed the Temple (Mark 11:15-19 ), enacting God's will for Israel to be a light to the nations. At the last supper as He broke the bread and poured the wine, He enacted with miniparables the loving sacrifice of Calvary.
Parables Perspective on Life Some of the stories carry a pastoral and others a prophetic relevance. They have both sugar and steel. The parable of the mustard seed speaks pastorally about ending despair, and the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8 ) encourages to hang in there. The parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9 ) speaks prophetically concerning national priorities; the parable of the wicked tenants accosts arrogant religious leaders; and the parable of the rich fool confronts false confidence in materialism. Through the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, grace peers down on two people praying in the Temple, and appearances take a pounding. Grace shines on worship, and revelation happens! See Kingdom of God ; Jesus.
Peter Rhea Jones
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Parables'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/p/parables.html. 1991.