“An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” That’s the answer commonly given to the question of how a parable should be defined, at least the one I’ve heard all my life.
Is that truly the case, though?
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew term commonly translated “parable” is masal, and is translated as “proverb” much more than it is translated “parable.” It is also translated as “discourse” or “byword” in some English versions. All of these terms are part of the definition of masal. It is telling that the term’s usage in the Old Testament is not connected to anything that could be considered a “story,” either as we understand it today or in any way similar to how Jesus constructed most of His own parables which we tend to consider as stories (cf. Num. 23:7ff; 24:3ff, 15ff, 20-21, 23ff; Deut. 28:37; 1 Sam. 10:12; 24:13; 1 Kings 4:32; 9:7; 2 Chr. 7:20; Job 13:12; 27:1ff; 29:1ff; Ps. 44:14; 49:4; 69:11; 78:2; Prov. 1:1, 6; 10:1ff; 25:1ff; 26:7, 9; Eccl. 12:9; Is. 14:4ff; Jer. 24:9; Ezek. 12:22-23ff; 14:8; 17:2ff; 18:2-3; 20:49; 24:3ff; Mic. 2:4; Hab. 2:6).
In the New Testament, “parable” comes from the Greek term parabole. It means “to place beside, to cast alongside.” In other words, it’s referring to a comparison. From parabole we get our English word “parallel,” a word we use in many cases in ways synonymous with “compare” or “comparison.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words says that a parable “signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison.”
Jesus used parables to teach spiritual concepts about God’s kingdom to those who were willing to learn (like His inner circle — Matt. 13:10-17). Since parables are basically comparisons, this explains why He started so many of them by saying things like “The kingdom of heaven is like…” or “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” (cf. Matt. 13:31, 33).
Yes, but they are still “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning,” right? They’re still basically stories, aren’t they?
Notice what Luke cites as a “parable.” Do they look like “stories” in any way?
Luke 5:36-39 (ESV)
36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old.
37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.
38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.
39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’ ”
Luke 6:39-42 (ESV)
39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?
40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.
41 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.
Let me ask this also. Did Jesus ever say that He was about to tell His listeners a story before He gave them a parable? I can’t find an example of it.
Is it possible that Christ meant “A sower went out to sow…” or “There was a man who had two sons…” to be fictional stories? Yes, it’s possible. However, it’s equally possible, and in my opinion more likely, that when Christ spoke of a sower going out to sow or a father with two sons, He was speaking of actual people who actually did the things He said they did. The reason He did this, regardless of whether these people were fictional or non-fictional, was to make a comparison between something with which His listeners would relate and God’s kingdom so that they would have a better understanding of the latter.