A brief note on the notion of a parable

If I talk to them in parables, it is because, though they have eyes, they cannot see, and though they have ears, they cannot hear or understand.” (Mt 13:13.)

The parables of Jesus weren’t riddles, traps, or trick questions—and they weren’t meant to be pored over and critically deconstructed to find some deeper or hidden meaning. They were given to people aloud and in realtime, 1 with the intention that the immediate audience would grasp the meaning, if not necessarily the implications. Whatever the merits vel non of the historical-critical method in the abstract, it is well to keep this background principle in one’s mind, just as we keep in mind that parables are allegories (that is, He is not relating actual events). 

If you find yourself saying that the parables are “mysterious,” that’s your cue that something is wrong. Parables were used to explain something mysterious in concrete terms that humans can understand. For example: “The kingdom of God,” which we cannot understand, is like “a mustard-seed,” which we can (somewhat) understand. If you find yourself asking “what was the motivation of the prodigal son in returning home, did he really have a change of heart, the story doesn’t say that, the father didn’t know what motivated the son,” or similar, then you’ve missed the forest for the trees. Do you see what you’re doing? You’re deconstructing the motives of the protagonist. You’re applying the tools of critical analysis. But the parables aren’t literature—they’re allegories, simple prima facie metaphors. The reason that it doesn’t say that the prodigal son had a change of heart is that his returning home is a metaphor for his change of heart, for his repentance.

Believe me, I understand the urge to turn every religious question into something that can be raked over by a conscious, deliberate, intellectual process. But where the parables are concerned, forget all the intellectual apparatus that is clouding your view; it isn’t helpful in this context. Stop deconstructing, stop parsing, stop overthinking, and remember that this was intended to be a metaphor that would be clear to simple people listening in person. Take it at the face value at which it is intended.

Notes:

  1. As Francis Cardinal George likes to emphasize, Jesus didn’t write a book. See, e.g., George, A tale of two Churches, CatholicPhilly.com, Sept. 10, 2014, http://catholicphilly.com/2014/09/think-tank/archbishop-chaput-column/a-tale-of-two-churches (“The Savior that God sent, his only-begotten Son, did not write a book but founded a community, a church, upon the witness and ministry of twelve apostles”); George, Scripture within the heart and life of the Church, The Catholic New World, July 21, 2002, http://www.catholicnewworld.com/archive/card_arch/card2002/072102_geo.html (“Jesus didn’t write a book, and one doesn’t have to be literate to believe that Jesus is Lord”) (each link last visited Sept. 13, 2014).