The Greek word translated as “parable” means, basically, a comparison. A parable compares one thing with another.

But by definition, there will be some points of comparison that are not warranted. After all, if there were a perfect correlation between the two things, they wouldn’t be two things–they would be one thing!

In an Ensign article called “How to Read a Parable,” Richard Lloyd Anderson writes this:

Analogies present one situation as being similar to a second, but since two situations always differ in some details, analogies can easily be pushed too far.

Almost any sample of imagery contains the same problem. For instance, Robert Burns opens a favorite poem, “O, my Luve’s like a red red rose.” How is his sweetheart like a red rose? Does she have red hair? A ruddy complexion? Is she blushing? Wearing red clothes? Showing red eyes from crying? Each answer, although logically possible, is strained. The comparison is valid only if kept on the general level that the captivating beauty Of the rose illustrates the captivating beauty of the loved one. To press the analogy to unwarranted detail forces it to break down. It is critically important to realize that the same thing can happen to biblical parables.

So an important tool for the study of parables is to ask ourselves: In what ways is the comparison invalid? Anderson uses the example of the persistent neighbor in Luke 11 to suggest that it is not the case that God answers our prayers just to stop our nagging! In the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, the soil is what it is, but we, unlike the soil, have a choice as to how we will respond to the seed/word.

C.H. Dodd’s famous definition of a parable is “ . . . a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

I love the idea of a mind teased into thought. Someone who is thinking has created time and space for the Spirit to speak.

I can imagine someone, years after hearing Jesus speak, pricking her finger on a thorn, thinking about the danger that accompanies beauty, and better understanding what Jesus meant about the cares of the world in Matthew 13:22. It is much harder to imagine her remembering an abstract theological discourse years later, or being prompted to remember it via events of daily living.

11 comments for “Parables

  1. Julie, I like this line from your post: “Someone who is thinking has created time and space for the Spirit to speak.”

  2. Ben S: “Good stuff back in them archives…”

    I can’t help observing that they only go back to 1970. I believe there is a lot of good stuff from before then too (along with a few embarrassing things also).

  3. More on the subject, is it just me, or is the creation of parables out of fashion?

    What I mean is that it is unusual to hear a Parable of Dodd’s definition in General Conference. What we get there is usually personal experiences instead of “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life.” In conference we get concrete instead of stories that leave “the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

  4. I like your point that the imagery of parables sticks with our minds and can be brought up in every day situations.

    One thing I also noticed when studying about parables for my class last week was that the Hebrew definition of parables is not only just a comparison, but a comparison of worldly things with spiritual ones. I also noticed that Talmage in Jesus the Christ does a great job of clarifying what a parable is vs. a fable, allegory, etc. The key difference is the comparison of worldly things with spiritual ones.


  5. Excellent post. Thanks. When I taught Matthew 13 in Gospel Doctrine last Sunday, there was a point (I don’t remember exactly when) where I felt the need to insert into the discussion that, of course, the parable is merely an analogy and therefore at some point it’s limited and doesn’t precisely describe every circumstance. I think it was during a discussion of the parable of the sower.

    I think what makes parables fascinating (and particularly the ones that Jesus doesn’t explicate for his disciples) are that they are ambiguous and therefore inherently fun to discuss.

  6. It is worth noting that Christ’s explanation of the reason he taught with parables in Matthew 13 is, at least in the original Greek, a chiastic passage, one that was a focus of the lecture Jack Welch heard on his mission in Germany, concerning chiasmus in Matthew as evidence that Matthew was writing in the Hebrew literary tradition (and perhaps did his first draft in Hebrew). That prompted Welch to search for “hidden” chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, and contibuted to Welch’s going on to found FARMS in support of the application of scholarly analysis to the Book of Mormon.

    Jack Welch has done a detailed recounting of the complex of meanings that grew up over time in Chrisitanity to explicate the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which was published in one form in the Ensign and in expanded form in BYU Studies.

    One of the interesting insights about the Parable of the Sower/Four kinds of soils was pointed out by John Tvedtnes, namely that the four categories of people who are represented in the parable are pretty much the same four categories that are depicted in Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life. Since Lehi’s dream was sent to him by Jehovah, we have essentially two parables by the same “author” that teach the same lesson. And note that the meaning of Lehi’s dream was not at all transparent to Nephi and his brothers; it was the effort of asking God for an understanding that led to Nephi’s much expanded vision, explaining not just the details in his father’s dream but also of the specific historical events that would result from the choices made by the four categories of Lehi’s descendants over a thousand years.

    This suggests that parables functioned not only to hide their full meaning from some, but also to entice others into asking for more understanding, and preparing themselves to receive revelation. When Christ said “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”, he is not just saying that the attentive will comprehend the hidden meanings, he is inviting us to “hear” more by asking for more. Again, this is a major theme of the temple endowment: the encouragement to ask for more light and knowledge, and the promise that the request will be rewarded, through successive stages, until the fulness of comprehension is received in the presence of God.

    Thus, when we see the same phrase, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”, repeated seven times in Chapters 1-3 of Revelation, it is my hypothesis that this is an indication that this entire passage is a parable that relates to stages of the Endowment, with the culmination being the reader sitting down in the presence of the Lord, and being ready to receive the greater revelations in the succeeding chapters.

    I think a case can be made for specific correlations between the seven stages in Cahpters 1-3 and stages of the Endowment. For example, in the seventh stage, when Jesus knocks and asks for entry, we are at a stage when the endowed saint has taken upon himself the name of Christ in several ways, forming an identity with the Christ who knocks to enter, who is described in Revelation 3.

    If elements of the temple prayer circle were among the teachings of the resurrected Christ to the apostles (see Nibley’s article), if they performed vicarious ordinances for the dead, then it seems possible that at least some of the early and still faithful Saints were participating with the apostle John in a version of the Endowment. I suggest that this hidden meaning gave extra significance to the rest of Revelation when read by the endowed early Saints, and may have even acted as a form of authentication for the book that would be recognized by the most faithful. After all, the authenticity of Revelation was questioned for centuries; I think that was partly due to the loss of a knowledge of the Endowment among the largely apostate church after the First Century.

  7. Some parables are simply hard to understand because we may not understand their terminology or their images. What about this single-verse parable from Matthew 13:

    Verse 51: Jesus saith unto them, Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea, Lord.

    52: Then said he unto them, Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.

    What’s the meaning of that? I had our class discuss this in our lesson on Sunday (I was a substitute teacher) because I wanted to discuss a parable that we aren’t that familiar with.

    I found, using an extensive research method called googling, that “things new and old” is an idiom meaning “many things”. Perhaps it means that someone who studies (a scribe) needs to share what he has learned? I simply don’t know. I suspect Julie Smith would likely have a very different and interesting interpretation.

  8. The phrase describing a “scribe” who “bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” causes me to think of a genizah, where old copies of the scriptures are “hidden”. Hugh Nibley referred to this tradition in connection with the brass plates of Laban being hidden in a treasury until Nephi deceives Zoram into retrieving them. The entire context of these statements causes me to think that the “things . . . new” relate to the new understanding that the disciples obtained from Jesus and his parables and explanations. So the “treasure” includes both old recorded information, and new information received through revelatory teaching. Certainly, Christ established the precedent for teaching the “new” revelations about his atonement and role as the Son of God by reviewing the prophecies found in the “old” writings of the prophets, during hs ambulatory conversation with the disciples en route to Emmaus. Whatever the original purpose of their journey, it was interrupted by their excited return to the apostles to testify of seeing, and being taught by, Jesus.

  9. @ Kent, the reason it goes back to 1970 is because that is the first year the Ensign was published, not really to try to hide embarrassing stuff. Although it is probably not a coincidence that the publication of the Ensign coincided with the correlation movement.

    Also, parables have been out of fashion for pretty much the whole Restoration. Think about it, how often did Jesus Christ speak in parables in the New Testament? Now, compare that with how often he shares one to the Nephites in the Book of Mormon or to the Saints in the D&C. What do you notice? He almost never speaks in parable in Restoration scripture. The reason for this is that the Lord prefers to speak in plainness rather than in veiled parables. In fact, a careful study of the New Testament will show you that the Lord only began teaching in parables AFTER persecution got heated. It was his way of concealing the truth from those looking for a reason to kill him (see “Parables” in the Bible Dictionary.) You’ll notice that His Apostles were confused as to why he spoke to others in parables but to them in plainness (see Matt 13). How he intended to use them to encourage investigators is exaplained well by Raymond above. I think it is important to remember that prables werent really the same as saying “repentance is like soap” or some other simple analogy used as a teaching device to convey tangibly an abstract point. They were meant to hide the truth from the insincere and unworthy, assuring that only those who had the “ears to hear” and the desire to know more would pursue further to find out more.

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