What is a parable?

The parables of Jesus are some of the hardest parts of the gospels to understand, yet Jesus commonly used the parables to teach about the coming dominion of God.  There are many different understandings and definitions for what a parable is suppose to be and do, but sometimes these definitions do little to help guide the Christian into a deeper understanding of God's dominion.  

"From the Greek word parabole which translates the Hebrew mashal which means "to be similar, to be comparable." A parable is an extended metaphor, or simile, frequently becoming a brief narrative, generally used in Biblical times for didactic purposes. (Not to be confused with an allegory.)"

The definition used by Pastor Day in church comes from The Rev. Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman.  He says:

Parables function as Parables function as metaphors metaphors challenging or inviting the audience intn a new or deeper experience of God’s dominion dominion, a dominion identified with those who are the LAST, LOST, LEAST, LITTLE, & LIFELESS.`

Click here to check out a presentation that Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman's created as an introduction to Parables.

Composed by The Rev. Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman.


Parable: from the Greek word parabole which translates the Hebrew mashal which means "to be similar, to be comparable." A parable is an extended metaphor, or simile, frequently becoming a brief narrative, generally used in Biblical times for didactic purposes. (Not to be confused with an allegory.)
from the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.


[The parable is] a fiction capable of re-describing life.

Paul Ricoeur, "Biblical Hermeneutics," Semeia Vol. 4 (1975) 89


At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.

C.H. Dodd Parables of the Kingdom (London: Collins, rev. edn, 1961) 16








You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experiences...

W. H. Auden in M. K. Spears, The Poetry of W. H. Auden


Parable is most definitely a referential speech-form. Therefore to treat Jesus’ stories as creative art is to mystify their workings and obscure their nature.

Andrew Parker, Painfully Clear: The Parables of Jesus, 27 (italics in original)


We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables… We want them to tell us what to do and they refuse to answer.
John Dominic Crossan In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus 81-82; 62 in Tolbert








With Jesus, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people's satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings.

Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, page 6


Parables are ordinary stories, brief fictions realistically protraying aspects of first-century Palestinian life… Read as poetic fictions the stories of Jesus do not inevitably produce a single specific summary "meaning," but rather legitimize a limited range of plausible readings.
Charles W. Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions: The Creative Voice of Jesus 3-4


Neither a parable nor any other metaphor "says one thing and means another." A parable is a particular way of speaking, not a code, and what it means is what it says.

Matthew Black , Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy (1962)








The parables require, even compel, interpretation, and their meaning derives from the fusion of the parabolic narrative and the belief system of the interpreter. Hence the parables are ever new, adapting easily to the concerns of each new age, even each new interpreter.
Mary Ann Tolbert, Perspectives on the Parables: An Approach to Multiple Interpretations (Fortress: Philadelphia, 1979) 40


[Parables] function not as discussion-openers but as conversation-stoppers. Instead of engaging opponents in dialogue in order to lead them to a reasoned point of view, Jesus, through his parables, throws such light on what his adversaries are about that they are forced to see their attitudes as essentially foolish.
Andrew Parker, Painfully Clear: The Parables of Jesus, 65


A parable is a small story with a large point. Most of the parables that Jesus told have a kind of sad fun about them… With parables and jokes both, if you’ve got to have it explained, don’t bother.


Frederich Buechner in Listening to Your Life, for July 26 from Wishful Thinking, 66-67








[In light of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed], this meant the parables were not earthly stories with heavenly meanings but earthy stories with heavy meanings, weighted down by an awareness of the workings of exploitation in the world of their hearers. The focus of the parables was not on a vision of the glory of the reign of God, but on the gory details of how oppression served the interests of a ruling class. Instead of reiterating the promise of God’s intervention in human affairs, they explored how human beings could respond to break the spiral of violence and cycle of poverty created by exploitation and oppression. The parable was a form of social analysis every bit as much as it was a form of theological reflection.
William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed


Parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings.


Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives. Parables are not illustrations; they do not support, elaborate or simplify a more basic idea. They are not ideas at all, nor can they ever be reduced to theological statements. They are the jeweled portals of another world; we cannot see through them like windows, but through their surfaces are refracted lights that would otherwise blind us -- or pass unseen.
Walter Wink, “Letting Parables Live” online at  www.religion-online.org








Only when treated as art and not in the first place as an instrument or weapon of warfare… has the parable a word to say to other generations than that to which it was addressed. (165; 28 in Tolbert)

G. V. Jones, The Art and Truth of the Parables London: SPCK, 1964


The parables of Jesus are not—at any rate primarily—literary productions, nor is it their object to lay down general maxims…, but each of them was uttered in an actual situation of the life of Jesus, at a particular and often unforeseen point. Moreover, … they were mostly concerned with a situation of conflict—with justification, defense, attack, and even challenge. For the most part, though not exclusively, they are weapons of controversy.
Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 21


If a king loses gold from his house or a precious pearl, does he not find it by means of a wick worth a farthing? So the parable should not be lightly esteemed in your eyes, since by means of the parable a person arrives at the true meaning of the words of the Torah.

Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs 1.1.8 (cited in B.B. Scott, Hear Then the Parable, p. 52)