The word parable (Hebrew mashal) signifies in general a comparison, or a parallel, by which one thing is used to illustrate another. It is a likeness taken from the sphere of real, or sensible, or earthly incidents, in order to convey an ideal, or spiritual, or heavenly meaning. In the Old Testament this is used to denote (1)a proverb(1Sam.10:12; 24:13; 2Chr.7:20), (2)a prophetic utterance(Num.23:7; Ezek.20:49), (3)an enigmatic saying(Ps.78:2; Prov.1:6). In the New Testament,(1)a proverb(Mark 7:17; Luke 4:23),(2)a typical emblem(Heb.9:9; 11:19),(3)a similitude or allegory(Matt.15:15; 24:32; Mark.3:23; Luke.5:36; 14:7);(4)ordinarily, in a more restricted sense, a comparison of earthly with heavenly things, "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning," as in the parables of our Lord.
No language is more concrete in its presentation of laws and principles, or more vividly figured, than that which the Old Testament affords. But of parables strictly taken it has only a few. Jotham's apologue of the trees choosing a king (Judges 9:8-15) is more properly a fable; so is the scornful tale of the thistle and the cedar in Lebanon which Joas of Israel sent by messengers to Amasias, King of Juda (2 Kings 14:8-10). Nathan's rebuke to David is couched in the form of a parable(2 Samuel 12:1-14)so the wise woman of Thecua (2Samuel 14:4); so the Prophet to Achab(1Kings 20:39); and the song of the vineyard (lsaiah 5:1-8). It has been suggested that chapters 1-3 of Osee must be construed as a parable, and do not contain a real history. The denunciation of woe on Jerusalem in Ezekiel 24:3-5, is expressly named a mashal, and may be compared with the Gospel similitude of the leaven. But our Lord, unlike the Prophets, does not act, or describe Himself as acting, any of the stories which He narrates. Hence we need not take into account the Old Testament passages, Isaiah 20:2-4;2 Jeremiah 25:15; Ezekiel 3:24-26, etc.
Nathan rebuking King David (2 Samuel 12:1-14)
That the character of Christ's teaching to the multitude was mainly parabolic is clear from Matthew 13:34, and Mark 4:33. Perhaps we should ascribe to the same cause an element of the startling and paradoxical, e.g., in His Sermon on the Mount, which, taken literally, has been misunderstood by simple or again by fanatical minds. Moreover, that such a form of instruction was familiar to the Jews of this period cannot be doubted. The sayings of Hillel and Shammai still extant, the visions of the Book of Enoch, the typical values which we observe as attaching to the stories of Judith and Tobias, the Apocalypse and the extensive literature of which it is the flower-all betoken a demand for something esoteric in the popular religious preaching, and show how abundantly it was satisfied. But if, as mystical writers hold, the highest degree of heavenly knowledge is a clear intuition, without veils or symbols dimming its light, we see in our Lord exactly this pure comprehension. He is never Himself drawn as a visionary. The parables are not for Him but for the crowd. When He speaks of His relation to the Father it is in direct terms, without metaphor. It follows that the scope of these exquisite little moralities ought to be measured by the audience whom they were designed to benefit. In other words they form part of the "Economy" whereby truth is dispensed to men as they are able to bear it (Mark 4:33; John 16:12). Since, however, it is the Lord that speaks, we must reverently construe His sayings in the light of the whole Revelation which furnishes their ground and context. The "real sense of Scripture", as Newman points out in accord with all the Catholic Fathers, is "the scope of the Divine intelligence", or the scheme of Incarnation and Redemption.
Instruction by parables has been in use from the earliest times. A large portion of our Lord's public teaching consisted of parables. He himself explains his reasons for this in his answer to the inquiry of the disciples, "Why speakest thou to them in parables?" (Matt.13:13-15; Mark.4:11,12; Luke.8:9,10). He followed in so doing the rule of the divine procedures, as recorded in Matt.13:13. The parables uttered by our Lord are all recorded in the synoptical (i.e., the first three) Gospels. There are no parables in St. John's Gospel. In the Synoptics Mark has only one peculiar to himself, the seed growing secretly (4:26); he has three which are common to Matthew and Luke: the sower, mustard seed, and wicked husbandman. Two more are found in the same Gospels, the leaven and the lost sheep. Of the rest, eighteen belong to the third and ten to the first Evangelist. Thus we reckon thirty-three in all; but some have raised the number even to sixty, by including proverbial expressions.
An external but instructive division parts them into three groups:
those delivered about the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 13);
those on the way up to Jerusalem (Luke 10-18);
those uttered during the final stage of Our Lord's life, given in either Gospel; or parables of the kingdom, the Christian's rule; the judgment on Israel and mankind.
|The sower (Matthew 13:3-8)||Lost Drachma (Luke 15:8-10)|
The sower (Matthew 13:3-8; Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:5-8)
The tares or cockle (Matthew 13:24-30)
The mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:31-32; Luke 13:18-19)
The leaven (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20-21)
The hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44)
The pearl of price (Matthew 13:45)
The draw net (Matthew 13:47-50)
The unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35)
The labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)
The two sons (Matthew 21:28-32)
The wicked husbandmen (Matthew 21:33-45; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19)
The marriage of the king's son (Matthew 22:1-14)
The ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
The Pounds or the Minae (Luke 19:11-27)
The two debtors (Luke 7:41-43)
The good Samaritan (Luke 10:37)
The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8)
The Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8)
The Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21)
Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
The great supper (Luke 14:15-24)
Passing over the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9)
Lost Drachma (Luke 15:8-10)
The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)
The unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9)
The unprofitable servants (Luke 17:7-10)
The Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14)
The mustard seed (Mark 4:31-32)