Greek: parabole, a placing beside, comparison
The Greek word occurs frequently in the Greek Old Testament as the translation of the Hebrew word mashal, meaning: proverb, by-word, wise saying, similitude, parable. It occurs with especial frequency in the Synoptic Gospels, where the parable is a characteristic of the teaching of Christ, not in the sense that Christ created the type (for we find parables occasionally in the Old Testament, and, independently, in Rabbinic Literature), but in the sense that Christ made a very special use of the parable; after Him the Apostles do not seem to have used it in their teaching. As used in the Gospels, the word parable means a narrative of more or less fictitious character, but dealing with objects or occurrences taken from nature or the life of man, which serve as terms of comparison to illustrate a supernatural truth of the moral, religious order. In this narrative the expressions are to be understood in their ordinary sense, the words keeping their natural literal sense. The parable thus differs from the allegory in which the words are used in the figurative sense, the allegory being really a series of metaphors, as for instance when Our Lord says: I am the Good Shepherd; the Door; the Vine, etc. (John 10:15). It differs from the fable or apologue (which is not represented in the New Testament) in that the latter uses as actors, plants or animals, etc., which are made to speak and act more or less unnaturally, and in that the fable teaches a truth of the natural order or common sense.
In the Gospels we find parables and allegories, and an intermediate class in which both kinds are more or less mixed. To understand a parable correctly, we must ascertain the precise point of the comparison, and subordinate the rest to that point, without trying to find a lesson in each one of the details of the story: several of the details are there simply to give consistency and interest to the narrative, but are not intended to convey a lesson. Thus for instance ill the parable of the Cockle (Matthew 13:24 sq.) the sleep during which the enemy oversows cockle, and the servants of the good man of the house conceal no special mystery. Accordingly one must beware of finding in a parable a lesson about a point which the parable is not meant to illustrate, and of making applications to cases not intended by Our Lord: thus from the fact that one-fourth of the seed yields fruit (Matthew 13:3-9; 18-23) we may not infer that only one-fourth shall be saved.
The parables, the number of which is given quite differently by the different authors, according to their more or less strict definitions of “parable,” deal with truths of moral religious character, e.g., Prodigal Son, the Two Debtors; or with the Kingdom of God in its various aspects (nature, growth, consummation, etc.): see Matthew 13; these latter parables concerning the Kingdom of God are in fact prophecies of Our Lord concerning the future development of His work. Entries on parables available on this site include