Parables vs. Allegories
Parables, found in both testaments, are real life-type stories told get a point across. A true parable can be thought of as an extended simile (i.e. where something is ‘like’ something else). Parables were told so as to catch people’s attention and provoke a response – to address the audience, show them up and cause them to do something (e.g. 2 Samuel 12).
“Some parables are close to being allegories, because many details are intended to represent something (they have many points of comparison, like Luke 8:5-15).”
An allegory, on the other hand, is basically an extended metaphor (i.e. where something is said to ‘be’ something else). It uses a story (often supernatural) for illustration purposes. Allegories (usually found in the Old Testament) always need to be interpreted or decoded as virtually everything has a symbolic meaning (e.g. Daniel 8:1-11; 20-26).
How to Read a Parable
“Parables were told so as to catch people’s attention and provoke a response – to address the audience, show them up and cause them to do something (e.g. 2 Samuel 12).”
By contrast, the only allegorical elements in a parable are the so-called ‘points of comparison’. These are usually identified by the context (e.g. Luke 15:1-2 allows us to identify the prodigal and elder sons respectively). The original target audience would have immediately understood them (e.g. Mark 12:12 where ‘the builders’ & ‘the stone’ feature among the points of comparison). So, interpreting a parable in some ways destroys it – a bit like having to explain a joke! Some parables are close to being allegories, because many details are intended to represent something (they have many points of comparison, like Luke 8:5-15). Even then, the details of a parable must be interpreted with reference to the points of comparison to keep the focus on its central meaning (e.g. Luke 15). More usually, none of the details are important and don’t need interpreting. Often, too much is read into the details of the story, and instead of functioning to provoke a response it becomes an allegory which is more of a teaching device.
The Purpose of Parables
For the most part, parables don’t serve to illustrate Jesus’ teaching or as a way to reveal spiritual truth – although they do end up doing this (especially the kingdom ‘parables’). Jesus told parables – something to get a response from people – because (lit. ‘as a result of the fact that’) they refused to accept his teaching: ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding’ (Mark 4:10-12).
Brian Johnston, The Church of God in Leigh