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Why did not the wise bridesmaids share their lanterns with the foolish? †Are we not taught as Christians to share and love? Where was the bride and why was the bridegroom late? (7/26/09)

A parable is an engaging and memorable short short story with a single theological point.

At least, thatís the definition Iíd give you if you passed me in the hall and said, ďWhatís a parable?Ē

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is a good example of a short short story with a single theological point (Matthew 25:1-13). You donít know when the end is coming, so be ready! Thatís all there is. No bride, no reason given for the groomís tardiness, no sharing, no presents, no honeymoon - because none of those things are the point of the parable. Just, be ready!

On the other hand, if we sat down and had some tea and a donut, Iíd give you a much broader definition. When you start reading about parables (or better yet, start reading parables), you will quickly discover that well-known parables range from little similes ("The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened," Matthew 13:33) to long allegories (e.g., The Sower). The short end goes all the way down to using a single word for something else - ďtell that foxÖ,Ē meaning Herod. The long end goes all the way up to a lifetime, as when Hosea married an adulterous woman and then bought her back after she ran off and ended up on the slave-auction block; Hosea and Gomerís life together was a parable of Godís love for Israel.

The one thing that all parables have in common is that they compare a hard idea to an easy idea. Parable is almost a loan-word from Greek to English. Parabole means ďput alongside,Ē and so a parable puts one thing alongside another. In the vast majority of parables, some everyday event thatís easy to understand is put alongside a theological concept thatís harder to understand.

Think about the conditions that Jesus worked under: huge crowds, no printing presses, here today and somewhere else tomorrow. Sure, he gave straight-up lectures, like the Sermon on the Mount, but much of his teaching was in the form of parables, because people could remember it. If they remembered the parable, they had a decent shot at remembering the theological point. A long time ago in a sermon, the Rev. Dr. Robert Templeton told the Parable of the Windshield Wiper. ďPrayer is like a windshield wiper. When itís raining, the windshield wiper clears your vision for a moment. Prayer is like that. It clarifies your thought for a little while, and you can see your way more clearly.Ē Now, I normally have trouble remembering a sermon for more than about five minutes, but I have remembered this parable about prayer for 30 years.

Prophets and rabbis had a lot of the same problems, and in teaching through parables, Jesus drew on a long and lively prophetic and rabbinical tradition. Two of the best known prophetic parables are Nathanís Parable of the Poor Manís Ewe Lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-4) and Isaiahís Parable of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-8). I mentioned above Hoseaís acted-out parable of Godís love for Israel (Hosea 1:2-9, 3:1-2). Ezekiel also acted out a number of parables about the siege of Jerusalem (for example, Ezekiel 4:1-3 and Ezekiel 5:1-4).

One reason we sometimes try to find a second or third or fourth point is that some of Jesusí well-known parables do indeed have more than one point. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there are several points (Luke 15:11-32). Some of us turn away from God and waste our gifts. God wonít drag us back, but He will take us back if we repent. In fact, God will be thrilled to take us back. Some of us donít turn away and waste our gifts, and we can get really snippy about God taking other people back, which makes God unhappy.

Other parables are allegories. Everything stands for something. In the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9), the Sower is Jesus, the seed is the word, the soils are four different types of hearers, the birds are devils, the weeds are troubles, etc. Thereís really only one point - a lot of people hear the word, but not everyone who hears will be fruitful for God - but each detail stands for something specific.

Parables are designed to help us understand Godís message more clearly, a little bit at a time. If you have a lot of questions about a parable, most likely youíre trying to read something into it that†is really not the point.


Copyright 2009, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter.  All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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