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What Is a Parable?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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A parable is a story designed to illustrate a moral, religious or spiritual lesson. It is distinct from a fable in that a parable employs more precise symbolism to convey its meaning. In other words, each element in the story can symbolize a different aspect of the lesson. The most famous parables are those told by Jesus Christ in the Gospels of the New Testament. Other religious figures and spiritual thinkers have also employed parables.

A fable is a well-known narrative device used to convey a moral or a bit of wisdom. The most famous fables are attributed to Aesop, a Greek storyteller who lived 600 years before Christ. Fables often employ animals or natural forces to symbolize aspects of human nature. These are not always direct symbols, however; many aspects of the story could be changed or removed without altering the lesson. A parable is more precise in its use of symbols.

One of the most famous parables is The Good Samaritan, told by Christ in the Gospel of Luke. In the story, a Jewish traveler is waylaid by thieves and left for dead in a roadway. The next two passersby, both members of the Hebrew clergy, see the man but ignore his plight. The Samaritan goes out of his way to aid the traveler, despite the political enmity that existed between Samaritans and Jews at the time. Christ’s choice of characters is deliberate to illustrate his point, that true mercy overlooks superficial differences.

Commonly, parables are believed to reduce complex moral or spiritual beliefs to concepts so simple even children can understand them. The parable described above, for example, has become so widely known that “good Samaritan” is a commonly used to describe anyone who selflessly helps another, Christian or otherwise. Christ himself, however, often said that not everyone would understand the meaning of a parable. He concluded several parables with the phrase, “He who has ears, let him hear.”

Parables are not limited to Christ, or even to Christianity. Sufis, spiritual scholars of the Islamic tradition, often employed parables called “teaching stories.” The Pilgrim’s Progress, a 17th century novel by English author John Bunyan, is sometimes described as an allegory, but has many aspects of an extended parable. Literary scholars sometimes refer to Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, published in 1924, as a parable. Its story of a good man assailed by evil forces has parallels with Bunyan’s story, The Good Samaritan, and the life of Christ itself.

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