One of the most recognizable vehicles of religious teaching is the parable. It is significant that many of the teachings of Jesus are remembered today through the parables he told. Parables are used as vehicles to convey spiritual truths. It is crucial to understand what parables are through defining them and establishing their characteristics and purpose.
Newman (70) asserts that a parable is figurative speech which has been given an extended meaning. He perceives it to be an elaborated simile. It describes an ethical, spiritual fact or rule. A parable utilizes common, everyday events, experiences or customs to deliver a specific truth. The essence of a parable is the link between a spiritual principle and a narrative. In addition, the Bible contains between 30 and 79 parables based on their organization. Jesus used parables generously to inculcate his messages especially to the poor and uneducated masses he was teaching. A parable is not necessarily true although it can at times be based on verifiable events. Essentially, a parable inculcates a message in a manner which is familiar with listeners.
Parables have a number of distinguishing features. To begin with, a parable is an everyday story that is meant to communicate a spiritual principle. In this regard, parables do not use personification of animals and other inanimate objects. This characteristic sets them aside from fables or fairy tales. The last two not only use personification but also deliver ‘earthly’ lessons (Newman 70).
Secondly, parables are a means to an end as opposed to being the end itself. This implies that the parable, by itself, is not important. The parables Jesus told would be mere stories without the concomitant didactic motive. Most of them ended with an overt or covert lesson. Parables are often fictitious stories which are not necessarily true. In contrast, myths are an end unto themselves and are considered by communities which own them as being true (Neman 71).
Thirdly, parables are profoundly religious in the manner in which they portray God (Hultgre 10). Although they do not directly describe the attributes of God or get into theoretical discourses about deity, parables bring out the familiarity and intimacy that should characterize God’s relations with man. That is why God is portrayed as a shepherd, farmer, king, father or vineyard owner and so on in the parables that Jesus told.
Fourthly, the parables of Jesus tend to culminate in atypical ways. In this regard, they fail to adhere to the conventional ways of doing things or expected human behavior. For example, the prodigal son is received back home despite all his untoward behavior; the good shepherd goes after one lost sheep although he has ninety-nine more remaining and the worker who was hired last in the vineyard was paid as much as those who had labored the whole day. This is a creative way of illustrating that the ways of God and those of man are different (Hultgre 10).
Parables are narrated to communicate spiritual truths (Gribble 14). When Jesus told parables, he always had a lesson he communicating to the listeners. However, parables only benefitted those who had responsive hearts. In Mark 4:11-12 Jesus told the disciples that they could understand parables because they had heavenly wisdom. In essence, for those who were not willing to live by the dictates of God, parables were mere stories.
Moreover, parables are crucial in retaining spiritual messages for purposes of changing the lives of individuals (Gribble 14). Unlike plain readings of the scripture, people who listen to parables are in a position to remember the lessons taught long after they read or heard about them. This is a major characteristic of most figurative messages like proverbs and metaphors.
Additionally, parables enable listeners to draw spiritual lessons from everyday events (Gribble 14). This ensures that wherever they are and whatever they are doing they have a reminder of spiritual truths. For example, Jesus’ parables were often about farming, vineyards and livestock rearing which were common activities in his community. Consequently, as people would go about sowing, they would remember the parable of the sower and the inherent lessons. Similarly, shepherds in the wilderness would be reminded of God’s love during their daily activities because they had heard the parable of the good shepherd.
In conclusion, a parable is a narrative which is utilized for passing a spiritual message to listeners. Jesus was particularly fond of this form of figurative language for communicating gospel truth to his disciples and the rest of the people who listened to him. Parables are narratives with a purpose but are a means and not an end. These stories are religious in nature, with the intention of creating the image of a loving and caring God to human beings. They often end in unorthodox ways in order to differentiate the character of God from that of man. The purpose of parables is to inculcate religious truths, assist listeners to retain spiritual lessons for long and also to draw lessons about God from nature.
Gribble, Richard. The Parables of Jesus: Applications for Contemporary Life, Cycle A. Lima,
OH: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1998. Print.
Hultgre, Arland. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans
Publishing, 2000. Print.
Newman, Willis. How to Study the Bible. Kansas City. MI: Newman International LLC, 2010.