A parable is a simple story told to illustrate a moral or spiritual truth. Typically the characters in the story are human beings – not, as in fables, animals or inanimate objects given human characteristics – and the story is a straightforward narrative of commonplace events. Usually the moral or spiritual truth implicit in the story is not stated explicitly: listeners or readers are expected to see it for themselves.
- One of the best-known parables in the Old Testament is the parable of the poor man’s ewe lamb, told by the prophet Nathan to King David to convince the king of the wickedness of his behaviour in sleeping with Bathsheba and then sending her soldier husband, Uriah, to his death so that he could marry her: ‘There were two men in one city; the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up; and it grew together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and his own herd to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him’ (2 Samuel 12. vv. 1-4, King James Version). For more examples from the Old Testament see Judges 9, vv. 7-15 and Ezekiel 17, vv. 3-10.
- Jesus often used parables as a vehicle for his teaching. One of the best-known in the New Testament is the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15, vv. 11-32): A man has two sons. The younger of them, having asked his father for his inheritance, travels abroad and wastes his inheritance on ‘riotous living’ (v. 13). Finding himself penniless, he returns home intending to ask his father for employment as one of his servants. His father, however, welcomes him back with open arms, but his older brother is resentful and will not join in the celebrations. Many other parables are to be found in Matthew 13: the parable of the sower (told in vv. 3-8 and explained in vv. 18-23), the parable of the tares (told in vv. 24-30 and explained in vv. 36-43); the parable of the mustard seed (vv. 31-32); the parable of leaven (v. 33); the parable of treasure hidden in a field (v. 44); the parable of the merchant and the ‘pearl of great price’ (vv. 45-46); and the parable of the net cast into the sea (told in vv. 47-48 and explained in vv. 49-50). In vv. 10-17 Jesus explains to his disciples why he speaks in parables.
- Among the parables in the Qur’an are the parable of the owner of two gardens (18, 32-44); the parable of the life of this world as water (18,45); and the parable of the spider’s house (29, 41).
N.B. Although English translations of the Bible and the Qur’an sometimes use the word parable of material which does not clearly satisfy the conditions set out in the first paragraph above, you are advised in academic writing always to respect these conditions.
- Etymological note: The English word parable comes from the Greek παραβολή (parabolē), ‘juxtaposition’, ‘comparison’, ‘illustration’, ‘analogy’, 'parable’, a compound formed from παρά (para, ‘beside’, ‘near’) and βάλλειν (ballein, ‘to throw’). In English translations of the Qur’an ‘parable’ translates mathal, ‘example’, ‘illustration’, ‘proverb’, ‘parable’.