Dean Traylor splits his time being a special education teacher and a freelance writer.
“But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.”
— Luke 15:32
"He was lost, and is found" are possibly the most powerful words in the book of Luke. The line came from Jesus's sermon best known as "The Prodigal Son". Here, Jesus revealed a powerful lesson about loss and redemption; however, he did so in a speech formulated around a story laden with heavy symbols, analogies, and, most importantly, delivered in a way the audience would remember.
This peculiar hybrid of a narrative sermon is not the only one found in this holy book. Throughout the books of "Luke" and "Matthew" of the New Testament, Jesus uttered many sermons through this brand of storytelling. Most importantly, Jesus meant to do this - as he told one follower - in order to communicate with those that can understand his message of divinity.
Simply put, Jesus valued the power of the parables. These short tales focused on moral, philosophical or religious lessons in a succinct format that had the power to convey its message in a memorable way.
In fact, many theologians believed that parables did more to spread the word of the gospel than the mere reading of the Bible, itself. Thus, it comes as no surprise that many religious leaders of the Christian faith rely on those recorded in the New Testament, as well as from historical figures associated with the church.
By all means, it appears that parables are unique to Christianity, especially when it comes to the word of Jesus. In truth, they weren’t invented by Jesus, and predates Christianity by thousands of years.
Even in this day and age, parables have become a genre in literature. Movies, TV shows, novels, and short stories have incorporated it. And, in the age of the Internet, its size and succinct message may fit this new medium.
So how did the parables come about and become a vital literary vehicle for religion, entertainment and literature? Well, that's a story that needs to be told.
Been Around a Long Time
These types of stories have been around for eons. In fact, some scholars speculate (but haven't verified) that they were told around prehistoric campfires.
Still, the source of the word gives an indication where and when it officially started. The ancient Greeks named short stories “parabole”. This term referred to any illustration or writing done in narrative form. The word evolved in later periods of history. It came to represent stories with realistic outcomes and a spiritual lesson. Many of these tales were told through oral tradition with one generation passing it down to the next one.
To be noted, parable had the same trapping of fables, myths, plays and other forms of storytelling: it had characters, conflicts, moral dilemmas and consequences. Eventually, the Greeks began recording the first known parables. This was followed centuries later with the formation of the Bible.
Comparable to Fables
Parables are comparable to fables, myths, and fairy tales. Like fables, they are told to teach a lesson. And like myths they can describe the way things are supposed to be or were formed. They differ however, because they tend to use human characters, have believable or possible situations, and are analogies.
Usually, they start as similes, or sentences that helps to explain the theme. Many of Jesus’s parables started in this fashion: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” For the rest of the way, extended metaphors and allegories dominate its structure and theme.
There are debates about what is considered a parable. In some cases, scholars believed that the parables of Jesus is much different than the much older Jewish Rabbi parables. And, as Julian Spriggs points out in her online article, "Interpreting the Parables of Jesus" some argue that parables are not really stories, at all.
To be noted, parable had the same trapping of fables, myths, plays and other forms of storytelling...
The longevity of parables meant that the format has been used in numerous ways. Even within the pages of the Bible (in the books of Luke, Mathews and Isaiah), the parables served at least three functions while covering several themes unique to Christianity.
A writer responding to a question presented on the forum site, Quora.com, mentioned these types of parables as being identified as:
- Prophetic and Judicial
He added the type of topics these three forms of parables as being about:
- Service, prayer,
- Love of neighbor,
- God’s concern for the lost,
- Gratitude of the redeemed,
- Preparedness for Christ’s return,
- Judgement of Israel,
- Judgement (in general), and
- Judgement within the kingdom.
Another writer on Quora responded to the question and posted link to parablesonline.com (possibly defunct) that elaborated on the three categories.
According to this writer (and to the website) the three types of parables can be explained in the following manner:
- Didactic: meant for lesson or teaching purposes
- Evangelic: meant for preaching to non-believers or those “outside of Christ.”
- Prophetic and Judicial: stories/sermon meant to prepare believers for the second coming of Christ.
Parables in the Literary World
Parables are not limited to the Bible or to any religion in general. Writers such as the popular American writer, Edgar Allen Poe, and 18th century Polish writer and Prince-Bishop of Warmia, Ignacy Krasicki, experimented with this genre.
Also, parables were used in Plato’s Republic. The most famous parable from Plato was the “Parable of the Cave.” It tells the story of one’s ability to be deceived by shadows on the cave’s wall.
Parables in Other Religions
These stories are not mere products of Christianity or Greek myths. The spiritual movement within Islam – Sufism -- refers to parables as “teaching stories.” And, just like its Christian counterpart, the teaching stories focus on lessons and values.
Hasidic Jews have their own parables, too. The “mashal” represents moral lesson or religious allegory in short story formats. Among the most notable came from the Breslov form of Hasidic Judaism.
Rabbis passed on the oral tradition of the popular Jewish parable “The Rooster Prince,” (also known as the Turkey Prince).
The Rooster Prince was about a crazy prince who believed he was a rooster. He stripped off his clothes, sat under the dinner table and pecked his food off the floor.
His parents, the king and queen, sought the advice of a sage who finally “cured “the prince by taking off his own clothes and sitting under the table with rooster prince. The two soon became friends, and the sage managed to convince the prince that “roosters” can wear clothes and eat at the table.The lesson in this case is the importance of acceptance.One may argue that it is a lesson of tolerating those that are considered different from others.
Like Fables, they put the emphasis on the lesson or moral to be learned
A Modern Take on Parables
As mentioned, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story entitled: “Shadow: a Parable.” This heavily symbolic and complex story often reads like an apocalyptic tale rather than a classic parable (some may even question if it is a parable).
Other writers have tinkered with the concept, and creators from other forms of media have done the same. Authors such as Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson had stories that could fall under comparison to parables. This includes work they did on the influential show Twilight Zone (which became a parable for TV).
In many respects, powerful stories in any media will get labelled as parables, whether they fit the mold or not.
Final Word of Parables
A parable is a powerful literary genre. Like Fables, they put the emphasis on the lesson or morals to be learned.
Often, the message is of a spiritual and religious nature. Still, these stories -- whether it’s Jesus’ “Prodigal Son” or “The Rooster Prince” -- are forms of literature that lead one toward an awakening to a spiritual side. What more can one ask from an important literary genre?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Dean Traylor
Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on September 03, 2019:
major update to this article
James A Watkins from Chicago on May 02, 2019:
This is a very good article. I enjoyed reading it.