Hebrew maashaal, Greek parabolee, a placing side by side or comparing earthly truths, expressed, with heavenly truths to be understood. (See FABLE.) The basis of parable is that man is made in the image of God, and that there is a law of continuity of the human with the divine. The force of parable lies in the real analogies impressed by the Creator on His creatures, the physical typifying the higher moral world. "Both kingdoms develop themselves according to the same laws; Jesus' parables are not mere illustrations, but internal analogies, nature becoming a witness for the spiritual world; whatever is found in the earthly exists also in the heavenly kingdom." (Lisco.) The parables, earthly in form heavenly in spirit, answer to the parabolic character of His own manifestation. Jesus' purpose in using parables is judicial, as well as didactic, to discriminate between the careless and the sincere.
In His earlier teaching, as the Sermon on the Mount, He taught plainly and generally without parables; but when His teaching was rejected or misunderstood, He in the latter half of His ministry judicially punished the unbelieving by parabolic veiling of the truth (Matthew 13:11-16), "therefore speak I to them in parables, because they seeing see not ... but blessed are your eyes, for they see," etc. Also Matthew 13:34-35. The disciples' question (Matthew 13:10), "why speakest Thou unto them in parables?" shows that this is the first formal beginning of His parabolic teaching. The parables found earlier are scattered and so plain as to be rather illustrations than judicial veilings of the truth (Matthew 7:24-27; Matthew 9:16; Matthew 12:25; Mark 3:23; Luke 6:39). Not that a merciful aspect is excluded even for the heretofore carnal hearers. The change of mode would awaken attention, and judgment thus end in mercy, when the message of reconciliation addressed to them first after Jesus' resurrection (Acts 3:26) would remind them of parables not understood at the time.
The Holy Spirit would "bring all things to their remembrance" (John 14:26). When explained, the parables would be the clearest illustration of truth. The parable, which was to the carnal a veiling, to the receptive was a revealing of the truth, not immediate but progressive (Proverbs 4:18). They were a penalty era blessing according to the hearer's state: a darkening to those who loved darkness; enshrining the truth (concerning Messiah's spiritual kingdom so different from Jewish expectations) from the jeer of the scoffer, and leaving something to stimulate the careless afterward to think over. On the other hand, enlightening the diligent seeker, who asks what means this parable? and is led so to "understand all parables" (Mark 4:13; Matthew 15:17; Matthew 16:9; Matthew 16:11), and at last to need no longer this mode but to have all truth revealed plainly (John 16:25). The truths, when afterward explained first by Jesus, then by His Spirit (John 14:26), would be more definitely and indelibly engraven on their memories.
About 50 out of a larger number are preserved in the Gospels (Mark 4:33). Each of the three synoptical Gospels preserves some parable peculiar to itself; John never uses the word parable but "proverb" or rather brief "allegory," parabolic saying (paroimia). Parabolic sayings, like the paroimia) in John (John 10:1; John 10:6-18; John 16:25; John 15:1-8), occur also in Matthew 15:15; Luke 4:23; Luke 6:39; Mark 3:23, "parable" in the sense "figure" or type, Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 11:19 Greek Fable introduces brutes and transgresses the order of things natural, introducing improbabilities resting on fancy. Parable does not, and has a loftier significance; it rests on the imagination, introducing only things probable. The allegory personifies directly ideas or attributes. The thing signifying and the thing signified are united together, the properties and relations of one being transferred to the other; instead of being kept distinct side by side, as in the parable; it is a prolonged metaphor or extended simile; it never names the object itself; it may be about other than religious truths, but the parable only about religious truth.
The parable is longer carried out than the proverb, and not merely by accident and occasionally, but necessarily, figurative and having a similitude. The parable is often an expanded proverb, and the proverb a condensed parable. The parable expresses some particular fact, which the simile does not. In the fable the end is earthly virtues, skill, prudence, etc., which have their representatives in irrational creation; if men be introduced, they are represented from their mere animal aspect. The rabbis of Christ's time and previously often employed parable, as Hillel, Shammai, the Gemara, Midrash (Lightfoot, Hor. Hebrew, Matthew 13:3); the commonness of their use was His first reason for employing them, He consecrated parables to their highest end. A second reason was, the untutored masses relish what is presented in the concrete and under imagery, rather than in the abstract. Even the disciples, through Jewish prejudices, were too weak in faith impartially to hear gospel truths if presented in naked simplicity; the parables secured their assent unawares.
The Pharisees, hating the truth, became judicially hardened by that vehicle which might have taught them it in a guise least unpalatable. As in the prophecies, so in parables, there was light enough to guide the humble, darkness enough to confound the willfully blind (John 9:39; Psalm 18:26). A third reason was, gospel doctrines could not be understood fully before the historical facts on which they rested had been accomplished, namely, Jesus' death and resurrection. Parables were repositories of truths not then understood, even when plainly told (Luke 18:34), but afterward comprehended in their manifold significance, when the Spirit brought all Jesus' words to their remembrance. The veil was so transparent as to allow the spiritual easily to see the truth underneath; the unspiritual saw only the sacred drapery of the parable in which He wrapped the pearl so as not to cast it before swine. "Apples of gold in pictures (frames) of silver." The seven in Matthew 13 represent the various relations of the kingdom of God. The first, the relations of different classes with regard to God's word.
The second, the position of mankind relatively to Satan's kingdom. The third and fourth, the greatness of the gospel kingdom contrasted with its insignificant beginning. The fifth and sixth, the inestimable value of the kingdom. The seventh, the mingled state of the church on earth continuing to the end. The first four parables have a mutual connection (Matthew 13:3; Matthew 13:24; Matthew 13:31; Matthew 13:33), and were spoken to the multitude on the shore; then Matthew 13:34 marks a break. On His way to the house He explains the parable of the sower to the disciples; then, in the house, the tares (Matthew 13:36); the three last parables (Matthew 13:44-52), mutually connected by the thrice repeated "again," probably in private. The seven form a connected totality. The mustard and leaven are repeated in a different connection (Luke 13:18-21).
Seven denotes "completeness"; they form a perfect prophetic series: the sower, the seedtime; the tares, the secret growth of corruption; the mustard and leaven, the propagation of the gospel among princes and in the whole world; the treasure, the hidden state of the church (Psalm 83:3); the pearl, the kingdom prized above all else; the net, the church's mixed state in the last age and the final separation of bad from good. The second group of parables are less theocratic, and more peculiarly represent Christ's sympathy with all men, and their consequent duties toward Him and their fellow men. The two debtors (Luke 7:41), the merciless servant (Matthew 18), the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30), the friend at midnight (Luke 11:5), the rich fool (Luke 12:16), the figtree (Luke 13:6), the great supper (Luke 14:16), the lost sheep, piece of silver, son (Luke 15; Matthew 18:12), the unjust steward (Luke 16:1), Lazarus, etc. (Luke 16:19), unjust judge (Luke 18:2), Pharisee and publican (Luke 18:9), all in Luke, agreeable to his Gospel's aspect of Christ. (See LUKE.)
Thirdly, toward the close of His ministry, the theocratic parables are resumed, dwelling on the final consummation of the kingdom of God. The pound (Luke 19:12), two sons (Matthew 21:28), the vineyard (Matthew 21:33), marriage (Matthew 22:2); the ten virgins, talents, sheep and goats (Matthew 25). Matthew, being evangelist of the kingdom, has the largest number of the first and third group. Mark, the Gospel of Jesus' acts, has (of the three) fewest of the parables, but alone has the parable of the grain's silent growth (Mark 4:26). John, who soars highest, has no parable strictly so-called, having reached that close communion with the Lord wherein parables have no place. For a different reason, namely, incapacity to frame them, the apocryphal Gospels have none.
INTERPRETATION. Jesus' explanation of two parables, the sower and the tares, gives a key for interpreting other parables. There is one leading thought round which as center the subordinate parts must group themselves. As the accessories, the birds, thorns, heat, etc., had each a meaning, so we must in other parables try to find the spiritual significance even of details. The mistakes some have made are no reason why we should not from Scripture seek an explanation of accessories. The fulfillment may be more than single, applying to the church and to the individual at once, both experimental and prophetic. But
(1) The analogies must be real, not imaginary, and subordinate to the main lesson of the parable.
(2) The parable in its mere outward form must be well understood, e.g. the relation of love between the Eastern shepherd and sheep (2 Samuel 12:3, an Old Testament parable, as the vineyard Isaiah 5 also) to catch the point of the parable of the lost sheep.
(3) The context also introducing the parable, as Luke 15:1-2 is the starting point of the three parables, the lost sheep, etc.; so Luke 16:14-18 (compare John 8:9) introduces and gives the key to the parable of the rich man and Lazurus.
(4) Traits which, if literally interpreted, would contradict Scripture, are coloring; e.g. the number of the wise virgins and the foolish being equal; compare Matthew 7:13-14. But there may be a true interpretation of a trait, which, if misinterpreted, contradicts Scripture, e.g. the hired laborers all alike getting the penny, not that there are no degrees of rewards (2 John 1:8) but the gracious gift of salvation is the same to all; the key is Matthew 19:27-30; Matthew 20:16. So the selling the debtor's wife and children (Matthew 18:25) is mere coloring from Eastern usage, for God does not consign wife and children to hell for the husband's and father's sins.