What is a Parable?

In the weeks to come we will hear a number of parables as part of the Gospel. So, what is a “Parable”? Definition: “At its simplest a 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, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, p. 5) Less accurate, but perhaps more to the point – when heard, a parable should give you pause and turn your world upside down.

As captivating as Jesus’ parable are, we do not always have the full cultural context for grasping the nuance. Consider the parable of the “Prodigal Son.” Unless one understands the honor-and-shame culture of 1st century Palestine, some of the impact will be lost. The parable of the “Talents” loses some of its edge when does not understand the significance of the amount in play and why in the world someone would in fact bury the funds. The parable of the “Good Samaritan” is reduced to the parable of a “good guy willing to help” unless one knows who the Samaritans are and what the Jews hearing the story would have thought of a Samaritan being the “hero” of the parable. But then again, that is why we study the Bible in every generation.

Given Dodd’s definition of a parable, what are the implications of this definition? Felix Just, SJ offers that:

  • The meaning of most parables is not so obvious, or at least it shouldn’t be. If we assume we know what Jesus is talking about, we are probably missing the main point; if we are too familiar with the story (having heard it so often before), we might not think carefully enough about its real meaning.
  • Most parables contain some element that is strange or unusual. They should cause you to say, “Wait a minute! That’s not how farmers do their work! That’s not what kings usually do! That’s not what normally happens in nature!” And this strange element should cause you to think!
  • Parables do not define things precisely, but rather use comparisons to describe some aspect of how God acts or interacts with human beings. Yet to say “A is like B” does not mean that “A is identical to B in all respects”; so one should be careful not to misinterpret or misapply the parables.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his Angelus message (July 10, 2011), commented on why Jesus used parable. He said that for Jesus the parable was “autobiographical” because “it reflects the experience of Jesus himself and of his preaching” as “different effects are achieved depending on the kind of reception given to the proclamation.” Pope Benedict said that Jesus makes a distinction between the general crowd and the apostles. “To those who have already decided for him, he can speak openly of the Kingdom of God” while to others he must speak in metaphor “to stimulate precisely the decision, the conversion of heart” needed. Jesus’ parables “require effort to interpret, challenging one’s intelligence but also one’s freedom.” In grace, one has to decide to engage the parable. “God does not force us to believe in Him, but draws us to Himself through the truth and goodness of his incarnate Son. Love, in fact, always respects freedom…After all the real ‘Parable’ of God is Jesus himself, his person, under the form of his humanity, hiding and yet revealing the same deity.” In this way “God does not force us to believe in Him, but draws us to himself through the truth and goodness of his incarnate Son.”

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