What is a Parable?

Ok, so I’ll confess, this is not a question from the audience.  This is a question that I think the audience would have asked if they could see into the future. So, if you just want to wait until you actually have the question, you can do that. If not, read on.
This Sunday in Church we will encounter, perhaps for the first time since I’ve started this blog,  Jesus using a parable as a teaching tool. Parables are very common in Jesus’ repertoire of teaching and seem to be relatively common among ancient teachers in general. The prophet Nathan taught King David using parables and it seems that Ancient Greek and Roman teachers enjoyed using them, too.
So, what is a parable?
In the most basic sense, a parable is a comparison: kind of like an extended metaphor.  In the Greek of the New Testament, the word parable means, literally “to lay or cast beside,” combining the verb for throwing and the preposition for beside or along. Thus the word is, itself, an image of laying two ideas beside one another to see how they compare.
For Jesus, this usually means prefacing a story with a statement along the lines of “to what shall we compare the Kingdom of God?” Or “the kingdom of God is like . . .”
Jesus’ stories are usually draw from the common agrarian and civic life of his context and they are meant to be familiar to his hearers. They are stories that the people can readily imagine themselves, even if the overall action of the story takes a turn or twist. In many cases takes the story off in an unexpected direction (it was not ommon practic for shepherds to abandon their flocks in order to seek lost sheep) but these details ultimately help to reinforce the dissimilarity between the world we know and the Kingdom that Jesus is meaning to describe.
Jesus’s analogies are usually pretty straight forward and breaking down a parable is frequently as simple as figuring out which character represents God and which real-life people fit into the categories described by other players. On several occasions, Jesus even gives us a key to the parable, like in the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Sometimes, though, we are left to our own devices and on many occasions the mappings of story characters and real-life interests are not one-to-one. It is often important when thinking through a parable to give yourself the opportunity to imagine yourself in several different roles, seeing if the message of Jesus changes as you move around the story.
So, I know you didn’t ask, but there you have the brief on the Parables of Jesus.  As we move through the next several months of Jesus teachings we will encounter many parables, I hope you’ll take the time to think through them from several angles in order to see the depth of Jesus’ teachings.

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