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Parable in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of a Parable
  • 2:05 Examples of Parables
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Its name might sound like a nightmare from calculus class, but the parable makes learning easy and fun! Discover more about these instructional narratives, along with a few examples, in this lesson on parables.

Definition of a Parable

You might already be familiar with the term 'parable.' Perhaps you associate it with stories about Jesus from the biblical Gospels. However, the parable - a short narrative using metaphor and symbolism to illustrate a moral point - has been used since long before his time.

Parables like those in the bible or the holy books of Buddhism demonstrate the tendency of these stories to be largely religious in nature. Nevertheless, some, such as those used by Socrates and other Greek thinkers of the 5th century B.C. on, appear in a philosophical or other secular context. The word 'parable' itself is derived from the Greek paraballein, and three alternative meanings of this verb can help demonstrate some of the narrative's characteristics:

  1. To set beside or parallel with: Parables make excellent teaching tools because they use metaphors and symbolic imagery that are easily recognizable to the audience. As a result, a teller can convey highly complex moral truths in a way that is readily understandable and relatable to one's own life. This is especially useful for philosophers like Socrates who notoriously deal with complicated subjects. These short instructional narratives are then inserted alongside more intricate philosophical arguments in order to serve as a verbal illustration of the point.
  2. To compare one with another: Most parables present two (but sometimes more) scenarios from which the protagonist and the audience must choose. In this way, the listener becomes an active participant in arriving at the moral point that is being illustrated.
  3. To direct one's course towards: The entire purpose of the parable is to help audiences understand a moral or other philosophical issue in more relatable terms. By guiding the audience to comprehension of the point at hand, the teller can then better lead them toward applying the principle in their everyday lives.

Now that we've seen what they are and what they do, let's take a look at some parables from a variety of religious and philosophical traditions.

Examples of Parables

First, let's take a look at 'The Good Samaritan':

Many of the parables told by Jesus have parallels in other traditions. However, some belong to a special group of indigenous Jewish tales called, meshalim. These 'coded speeches' are parables that represent a long history of Hebrew moral storytelling and can be in the form of simple tales or long riddles. Though now widely known, it is obvious that Jesus originally intended the 'Parable of the Good Samaritan' specifically for his Jewish brethren.

Questioned by a lawyer concerning whom he should consider his 'neighbor,' Jesus tells the story of a rich man who was mugged and left for dead while traveling one day. Both a Jewish priest and a Levite (member of the Hebrew tribe of religious elders) pass the injured man without stopping. Finally, a Samaritan - a group of people historically ridiculed as 'unclean' in Jewish eyes - stops to tend to the man's wounds and pays for his stay at an inn. When asked who the man's true neighbor was, the lawyer must of course reply the Samaritan. Jesus' symbolism here not only instructs him to help those in need, but also not to prejudge people due to their perceived differences.

Next, let's take a look at 'The Prodigal Son':

This parable has versions in two religious texts: the bible and the Lotus Sutra, one of the holiest volumes for Mahayana Buddhists. In the biblical version, Jesus tells the story of a rambunctious young man who, against his wealthy father's wishes, decides to take his inheritance early. The misguided youth quickly blows through all the money and is left starving and destitute in a pigsty. When he finally returns to his father out of desperation and disgrace, the man welcomes his son home with open arms.

A similar situation occurs in the Buddha's story, when another rich man's son steals his father's money and runs off. Once he has wasted all he had, he is left begging in the streets, where he is eventually found by his father, who has become even richer during his son's absence. The rich man, unrecognized by his son, hires the young man on his estate. The son works hard and is granted several promotions in the household, but it is not until his father's death that he discovers he has inherited all that he has worked so diligently to be worthy of. Both versions of this parable symbolize a return to spiritual harmony in the presence of God (the wealthy father), either through humble acceptance (biblical) or hard work (Buddhist).

Finally, let's look at the story of 'The Emperor's New Clothes':

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