Scripture Parables ; their Nature/ Use, and Interpretation.


The word" parable" is derived from the Greek word parabole, to throw beside, to compare. It is difficult to give a distinctive definition of a parable; for an ordinary definition either excludes some essential element of a parable, or includes other forms of figurative expression. Worcester's Dictionary thus defines parable: "a short tale, or fable, founded on something real in nature or life, from which a moral is drawn, by comparing it with something of more immediate concern." Archbishop Trench defines it thus: "A parable is a fictitious, but probable, narrative, taken from the affairs of ordinary life, to illustrate some higher and less known truth." The parable differs from the fable, because, in the fable, inanimate and unreasoning things are pictured as acting as human beings. But the parable deals with possible things; and it is only fictitious in the sense of being invented for the occasion. The allegory, in the strict sense, differs from the parable, because, in the allegory, ideas and qualities are personified. The allegory is generally self-interpreting, while the parable needs explanation.

In the common English translations of the Sacred Scriptures, especially of the Old Testament, the word " parable " is used in three senses: 1, as an enigma, or obscure saying; 2, as any figurative discourse; and 3, as a fictitious, but possible, narrative, invented to convey and illustrate a truth. But, when treating of parables.the list generally includes those which are, strictly speaking,distinctively parables,  rather than fables, allegories, prophecies, or visions. A parable is a sensuous picture of a truth; i.e., a truth brought out so that the senses can grasp it. It is not merely a figurative statement of a truth, but a statement by correspondences, or the law of natural and spiritual counterparts.


There is a well-defined analogy between all inward things, as spiritual causes, and all outward things, as the natural effects of those causes. The things of the physical world are but the outward images, embodiments and manifestations of the things of the inner world of-the spirit. And so, in referring to the experiences of our inward life, we use the terms which apply to our bodily life; but we use them in a figurative or symbolic manner. We speak of seeing a truth, of a warm affection, of a clear thought, or of a sweet feeling. And, when such terms are used with exactness, and in accordance with the relation existing between our bodily life and our mental life, we speak according to correspondences, or natural and spiritual counterparts. And this is the law by which the Scriptures were written. The literal sense treats of outward things, the things of man's natural life ; while, within the literal sense, as a soul within its body, there is a consistent, coherent, continuous spiritual sense, always treating of the spiritual side of man's nature. And the inward, spiritual meaning of the Scriptures is to be discovered by a knowledge of the law, the facts, and the application, of correspondences.

Thus, the inward, spiritual sense expresses spiritual truths, applicable to spiritual life, and the literal language in which such truths are concealed, expresses those truths by analogy ;i. e., by the imagery of symbols, correspondences and representatives.


The fact that our Lord uses the parable, in both the Old and the New Testaments, is known to all. The next point must naturally be, why the Lord spoke in parables. And, in this matter, we are not left to conjecture, for the Lord, Himself has answered this question, In His holy Word. In Matthew, xiii. 13, we read, "Therefore speak I unto them in parables, because they, seeing, see not: and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand." The truth is like a sword: properly used, it will defend and serve us; but abused, it may injure him who handles it. And, as the greater our knowledge of truth, the greater our condemnation, when we neglect it, so it is not best for a man to be introduced into the clear understanding of truth, until he is in condition of mind to be able to obey the truth, if he is willing.Thus, while the logical statement of truth would commend itself to the understanding of thinking men, the parable, on the other hand, would afford the means of carrying the truth to those who were ready for it, and of passing over those who were not prepared to hear plain truth.


It has generally been supposed that a sufficient reason for the Lord's use of parables was to be found in the striking character of the parable, and its consequent attractiveness. The form of the parable is best calculated to arrest the attention of the hearer, in th: beginning, and to hold it, until the lesson is fixed In the mind, when recognized. In the parable, truth is brought before the mind with great power. Analogy serves an important use in fixing the lesson in the memory. Spiritual things are so different from the ordinary natural things of man's life in this world, that they are apt to glide away from the memory. But, when we see their relation to the every-day matters of natural experience, the imagery of the parable makes a striking impression upon our imagination. Truths are thus presented In duplicate; the spirit of the truth is provided with a body of facts, and the body is provided with a spirit of principle. And each side of the truth serves to fix in the mind, not only itself but also the other side. The parables attract attention, because they are pictures, embodying principles. In them the abstract principle is embodied in concrete form. And, again, parabies attract the attention of all minds, because they are pictures formed of the familiar things which all men know. We live in this world, in an active life, amid the works and duties of the body; and our thoughts are linked to our senses, by means of their experiences. And, especially in the beginning of the opening of our spiritual minds, we can have definite ideas of spiritual things; only as they exhlbit some relation to our common life. The parables attract attention, because they treat of the vices which are inherent in all fallen natures and of the virtues which must be learned and practised by all regenerate men. The truths which are taught in the Lord's parables can never be "out-dated, like a last year's almanac;" but they are like the Lord's tender mercies, "new every mormng, every evening new.


Again, the perception of analogy is common to all phases of human nature. The Orientals, to whom the letter of the Scripture was originally given, were very apt in perceiving analogies. But the same kind of ability lies in all men: and it is operative in all, when not silenced by irrational dogmas, or choked by sensuous life. The form of truth used in the parable is thus applicable to all natures, and in all dispensations. And so it was the best and most universal form for the teaching of spiritual truth to natural men, in the world in general. For styles and modes of thought, and of expression, change with the times. But the principle of analogy will always remain with men, because it finds a congenial soil in all natures.

The natural senses are open in all men, but the spiritual mind is open in few. And so the most universal way of reaching men, in all climes, and all times, is to reach, first, their senses; and then the truth, by analogy, will pass in, beyond the senses, of the man who is open to spiritual life.


Again, in the parable the truth passes into the mind, and strikes the will, and compels the prepared mind to open itself to a truth which the understanding would not have received, if given in logical statement. Many a truth, coming to men in clear intellectual light, would have found the mind closed to it, through prejudice. But the striking form of the parable converts the will, and thus forces the door of the intellect, in minds that are ready for the change.

As an illustration of this condition, take the case of Nathan's rebuke of David, concerning Bathsheba. The parable presented the truth to David; and he expressed his indignation against the evil doer. But he had no perception of his own identity with the sinner. But the truth having found its way into his will, the application of the truth to himself was easily made, by the word of the prophet.


Again, if a man is not willing to repent, the form of the parable serves the purpose of judgment, in making the man define his spiritual position. For, while the parable is the best form for presenting the truth promiscuously, among all nations, yet no form of truth can, of itself, carry conviction of its truthfulness to the hearer's mind, and turn him from his evils, unless he is willing to repent. Repentance depends upon the state of the man's will towards the truth.

Thus, the parable serves to give the truth to those who will use it, and, at the same time, to hide the truth from those who would profane it, being unprepared for its lessons. Like the shell of the nut, the literal parable protects the kernel from abuse, while preserving it for use. Or it is like the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud, which lighted and pointed out the way of the journeying Israelites, while, at the same time, they concealed the people from the pursuing Egyptians.


Again, not only did the parable present the truth to him who was ready for it, and conceal it from those who were unprepared for it, but it also fixed the image in the mind of the heedless hearer, so that he could hold the image until he should become ready for the reception of the truth contained within it. The literal parable was, again, like the husk of the seed planted in the earth, protecting the inward life, or germ, of the seed, until the conditions were ready for the seed to unfold itself, and spring up into new life.


Jesus, as He was about to leave His disciples, assured them that the Holy Spirit would come, and teach them all things, and bring all things to their remembrance, whatsoever He had said unto them. And this was accomplished, partly by bringing up the images which, by means of parables, had been sown like seed in their minds, and then unfolding the inward and spiritual meaning. These parables afforded mere images, to unheeding minds; but, as the mind, itself, expanded in the light of truth and the warmth of love, then these images unfolded, and were filled with higher life, in the higher aspects of truth.

And, in fact, what is genuine spiritual teaching? It is not so much the communication of accurate information, as it is the opening and training of the hearer's mind, so that he can receive all the truth that dwells within the information. The seed is the Word. And its growth depends not merely on what is planted, but also on the condition of the soil in which it is planted. The degree of the truth seen, and the phase of the truth received, will always depend on the condition of the mind into which it is received.

This is abundantly shown in the parable of "The Sower," whose seeds fell into different kinds of ground. The same fact, the same doctrine, and the same parable, which communicate nothing but natural ideas to the natural-minded man, open the spiritual truth to the spiritual man, and celestial truth to the celestial man. See, for instance, how even the disciples of the Lord, in their sensuous states of mind, were perplexed over His parables. But, "He cometh with clouds," to those who live in the obscurity of the clouds, rather than in the clear light of the sun.


The light reveals, to each man, what the man is mentally in position to see; as, in the bright light of the physical sunshine, a witness, in one location, sees the beauty of the scene, while another, in a different position, sees nothing but the glare of the sun, which blinds him to the view. It is not enough, then, that we hear what our Lord speaks; but we must also be in condition to hear in the right way.

And so Jesus said, "Take heed how ye hear; for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken, even that which he seemeth to have." "He that is of God, heareth God's words." And Jesus said, "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine."

The two-fold character of the parables of our Lord, is like that of the Lord, Himself. He was, in His Humanity,presented either as a mere man, or as God, according to the openness of the minds who received Him. The doctrine of the Divine character of Jesus Christ is "the stone which the builders rejected" from man-made creeds but which "is become the head of the corner," in the New-Jerusalem. And it must also be, not only with the parables, but also with all truth, and most of all with the greatest truth, as to the character of Jesus Christ, that He can best make it known to His own disciples, and in the measure of their discipleship. As we approach the Lord in character we gain clearer views of His character. And so it is with all truths; as we love them, and use them, in forming our character, we understand them more and more fully.


A more external reason why Jesus spoke in parables, is to be found in the fact that it was necessary for Him to do certainworks on the earth, and that, had He at once plainly indicated the whole spirit of His work, He would have brought down upon Himself the enmity and violence of the Jews, before the completion of His work, and in a way to interfere with His mission. Thus, in the providence of the Lord, all the purposes of the Divine Love co-operate.

Jesus taught in parables, and thus presented the truth in such form that every hearer could take, from His teachings, such phase of the truth as he was in condition to receive. Thus good men could be aided in the work of regeneration ; men who were ready could be led to repentance and reformation; men who were not now prepared to see the spiritual side of truth could have the image fixed in the memory, for future use; men who would abuse the truth, if shown to them clearly, were protected from the grievous sin of profaning known truth; and men who were ready for the judgment could be shown in the light. And so Jesus often said, " He that hath ears to hear let him hear." He that had open ears, could hear; but the truth could pass by, without injuring, him whose spiritual ears were closed.


To understand the parables, we must comprehend the principle of analogy. And this requires some openness of thought, because it requires a consideration of both sides of our life, the spiritual and the natural. For the clear understanding of the parable, it is necessary to be able to think rationally; to perceive the logical connection between ends, causes and effects. And it will also help us, in understanding the parables of the Scriptures, if we understand the principles and facts of nature, with which they deal. For the correspondence of the spiritual with the literal sense, is not merely with the form of the statement, but also with the sense, the idea. And so, to have a well-defined picture formed in our minds by a parable, we must have an adequate knowledge of the things which are employed as the symbols of truth.


And, as the parable is a linking of natural and spiritual phases of truth, we shall have clearer knowledge of the spiritual truth which is inculcated in the parable, as we acquire a good knowledge of the doctrines of the church; in which spiritual truth is contained. It is true, in this matter, as in other spiritual things, that more is given to him who already has much; because what he already has, is the means of acquiring more.


The best way to comprehend what the Lord meant, in His teachings, is to feel as the Lord felt, towards those whom He taught. He came, not to destroy, but to save; to bind up the broken-hearted. And as we appreciate, and enter into, His feelings and thoughts, we can also appreciate His conduct and His teaching. For these were all means to the same end, the salvation of men. If we, from a selfish standpoint, and for condemnation, look upon human nature, we shall not be able to grasp the teachings of Infinite Love.


The parables of our Lord stand by themselves, in a class of their own. They are not merely figurative teachings; they are Divine parables, teaching by correspondences.  The parables are not merely detached ideas, but they are inter-related. They all belong to one family. See, especially, the several parables given in chapter xiii. of Matthew, beginning with the parable of "The Sower." These parables are all connected, illustrating the progress of regeneration.

We consider the parables of our Lord, as one who walks in a picture-gallery, examining the works of art. We see them individually, and also collectively. Each teaches its own lesson; and yet, like paintings in a series, each serves to explain the rest, and all help towards the understanding of each. But, as we view the parables of our Lord, let us remember that we are walking in a picture-gallery of heaven; that If we will, a heavenly guide, the Holy Spirit, will attend us; to explain the pictures, But we must carry with us a spiritual and heavenly appreciation, or the instruction of our guide will be of little practical use to us.


There are characteristic differences between the parables in the different gospels, as there are between the gospels themselves. The four gospels are statements of truth from different standpoints;from the four quarters of the compass, in the world of spirit : from the approaches to the holy city, on its four sides. But, though thus differing in particulars, and in various characteristics, yet the gospels, and their parables, all teach the same great truths of the same infinite Divine Love.


And the Divine Love, in reaching men, employed not only the spoken parable, but also the enacted parable. See, for instance, Jeremiah, at the command of the Lord, taking an earthen bottle, and taking with him, to the valley of the son of Hinnom, the elders of the people, and there breaking the bottle, and prophesying (Jer. xix. 1-11.) See Jeremiah making bonds and yokes, and sending them to various Kings, with the word of the Lord (Jer. xxvii. 2.) See Hananiah, breaking the yoke from Jeremiah's neck, and prophesying (Jer. xxviii. 10). See Jeremiah, buying a field and going through the legal forms, and then prophesying (Jer. xxxii. 6-15).

See, also, Ezekiel and Zechariah enacting parables. See, also, enacted parables in the Apocalypse; for the visions, or seeings, of the prophets, were enacted parables. And so, the whole journey of the Israelites was a grand enacted parable, illustrating the journey of regeneration.

In a more universal sense, our Lord teaches us by parables, in all our daily experience, amid the things of earth. For what is our life on earth, but a parable of spiritual life. Everything that we see and hear, speaks to us spiritual lessons, which we may, if we will, hear and heed.


The further we go back, in history, towards the condition of mankind represented in the allegory of the Garden of Eden, the more we find the prevalence of the parable, as a method of expressing truth. When a fuller spiritual insight lifted men above the grosser and more sensuous phases of life, the whole of outward nature was a speaking parable of the inner world of the mind.

Such men "looked through nature, up to nature's God. "Nature was a mirror, in which they saw their own image. And if we find even the works of the Lord teeming with analogies, is it wonderful that we find His Word, also, written in the language of analogy?

All the things of the more literal dispensations in the church, have been but figures and images of the spiritual realities which come to us in Christianity.

"The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ."


Among the parables of the Lord, it is noticeable that some seem to have been given to illustrate great truths, while others seem to have been pointed rebukes of prevalent sins. But closer scrutiny reveals the fact that both these elements are actually present in each parable. The enforcing of doctrine, and the precept for the life, go hand in hand, co-operating, like the light and the heat in the rays of the sun. For Christianity is not a creed, but a life. The creed is for the sake of the life. "All religion relates to life, and a religious life is to do good.

"Doctrine is the theory of life, and conduct is the embodiment of the theory, in life.


And, now, as to the interpretation of the parables of our Lord, what is the law? May each reader have his own way of reading them? Is there no law of interpretation, which can be known and used? In all things of nature, and of man, we find law. Divine Love works by methods; and these methods are laws. And, if all things of both worlds in which men live, the spiritual and the natural world, are governed by law, by order, then all the influences which reach men, must operate according to some order, which is 1aw. And, if the parables which were spoken and written were framed in accordance with some law, then they can read by law.

If there is a law, it can be revealed, and men can employ it. If we know the principle of the law, and the facts of the case, we shall be able to apply the law to the case. If, in reading the parables of our Lord, we are left to the notions of each individual reader, then there is no basis of known truth to be derived from them. But if there is a known law, then we have a sure foundation on which to build the teachings, Every science has its laws and its terms, and every art has its modes. In music, and, in fact, in all writing, there are signs for sounds. And when we learn these, they tell the same story to us all, each according to his knowledge and his skill. We are not left to individual notions and caprices,


And, as we have already shown, the parables of the Scriptures are written according to the law of correspondences or natural and spiritual counterparts. This is the great law which underlies all connection between the natural and spiritual worlds, including the relation between the things of man's body and the things of his spirit. The latter of the parable deals with the things of man's natural life, but the spiritual principle which the parable illustrates is a law of man's spiritual life. And because such a relatIon exlsts between man's body and his spirit, therefore the truth is put In the form of a parable, that it may be based upon the outward things that are common to our natural life, and, by analogy, may open its inward meaning to our spiritual mind.

Thus in the law of correspondences, or natural and spiritual counterparts, we have a fixed principle of interpretation open to all open minds, in all ages, in all countries, and in all conditions of progress. And this is a fixed principle, or law, of interpretation, not only to the parables, but also to all other portions of the Sacred Scriptures; and, in fact, to all the experiences and the phenomena of our human life. There is one God, one truth, and one law of interpretation. "And he that hath ears to hear, let him hear."


And the fact that there is a fixed law of interpreting the parables of our Lord enables us to answer the questions, How much of a parable may we receive, as teaching truth? Are we to gather a general principle, or to carry out the interpretation into the details of the parables? Many theologIcal arguments have been held over these points. But, if there be a Divine law, according to which the parables are framed, that law must be full and thorough, throughout the parable. A!l the details are parts of the picture; and every general thing is made up of its particulars. And, in fact, see how the Lord, Himself, in interpreting His own parables, carried out the thought in particulars. See His explanation of the parable of "The Sower," who went forth to sow seed. Jesus gives the interpretation of the particulars, And we must, in addition to this fact, remember that Jesus gave only an external interpretation, suited to His audience, and did not, even with His disciples, enter into the more elevated spiritual teachings of the parables.

Thus, the question, whether to carry the interpretation into the details of the parables, was settled by the method employed by Jesus, Himself And the reason of this method is clear, from the principles of correspondences.

We may carry the interpretation into the details of the parable, as long as we follow the principles and the facts of correspondences.


The only danger lies in departing from correspondences and in drawing mere inferences, which are unwarranted, either by the correspondences of the parable, or by the general tenor of the teachings of the gospels. For instance, in the parable of "The Ten Virgins," if, from the fact that five were wise and five were foolish, we should infer that just half the human race were to be saved, and half to be lost, we should make a foolish inference, utterly unwarranted by anything in the parable, or by anything else in the teachings of our Lord. And such an inference would not be an application of the law of correspondences, for a correspondence is between an external thing and its internal, that is, between some natural thing and its spiritual counterpart; as for instance, between the natural sight of the eye of the body, and the spiritual sight of the eye of the mind, the intellect. But the unwarranted inference before stated, would be a mere comparison of one external thing with another external thing, an inference following no law of man's life. While, therefore, we may carry out all the actual correspondences of the Scriptures, we must beware of drawing gratuitous and unwarranted inferences.


The great trouble, outside of the New-Church, has been that men have not known the principle of correspondence, as a Divine principle. They have supposed a parable to be an image in the same sense as a marble statue is an image of a man, true in outward form, but without color; or as a painted portrait is an image, true in color, and in representation of the form; but both the statue and the painting being like the original only superficially, and not at all in the inward parts, or contents. But this is not the case with the parable. The parable is not an image, as the statue, or the painting, is an image of the man, but as the outward embodiment of a passion is an image of the passion which it expresses; as the smile and the open hand are images of the love which controls them; and as the frown and the clenched fist are images of the anger from which they spring.

From the parable, therefore, we are to draw not natural inferences about external things, but spiritual causes of natural effects.


In the interpretation of the parables, we shall always best reach the spiritual lesson, by grasping, first, the main and central truth, to teach which the parable was given. And then all the collateral circumstances will take their places, as parts of the whole picture. He who considers a parable, from the knowledge of its central truth, is like a man who stands in the centre of a great park, from which centre radiate many paths, ending in the circumference of the circle.

The centre of the circle represents the central principle of the parable, and the radii represent the circumstances of the parable, all leading up to the central principle, like paths from the outside to the centre of the park. As the man who stands in the centre of the park, sees the plan of the whole park, and the connection between its parts, so the man who mentally stands at the centre of a parable, in the knowledge of its central truth, sees the general plan of the teaching of the parable, and the relation and connection of its different parts.

And yet, like the man who walks about the circumference of the park, and does not comprehend either its plan or its connections, the mind that does not grasp the central principle of the parable, but halts in some of its circumstances, is not in mental position to comprehend its teachings. What the central truth of the parable is, in any case, we may often learn from the context; i. e., from the introductory circumstances, and from the application. By seeing what the Lord was discussing, and what He wished to apply, we can see the force of the intended teaching. And we can thus see that, in truth, as in geometry, the circumference is always drawn from the centre, and not the centre from the circumference. The central truth will always interpret and apply the parable.


Forthe parables are not argumentative, but illustrative; they were not given to teach new doctrine, but to illustrate and confirm doctrine already given. And only as we see its central truth can we grasp the application of the parable. All the circumstances of the context also unite in urging the central truth which the parable illustrates.

The truth that is in the parable will always be clear to those who are in the light of truth. The central principle, or truth, may not always be easy to find; but it will always, be easy to see, when found; as, in all the sciences, an expert may be needed to find the law, or to make the invention, but all can appreciate the result when found.

The parables of the Scriptures are the Lord's work; and they must be interpreted by the Lord's revealed laws, and for His purposes.

They were given, to illustrate spiritual truth, and not to lead men to fanciful notions, in their application to prophecy, or to national or ecclesiastical history. In the history of the churches, the parables have been pressed into the service of all sects and theorists, to prove their respective creeds. And the figurative and undogmatic form of the parables, renders them especially liable to such abuse. Outside of the New-Church, the general idea seems to be that the spiritual teaching of the parable is "a sense to which one mounts up, from the steps of that which is below." But such is merely a figurative natural sense, not a distinctively spiritual sense.


It has been objected that, in the New-Church, the spiritual interpretation is entirely disconnected from the letter of the parable. But this is the very point which shows that the New-Church has the correct method of interpreting the parables. For the relation between the letter and the spirit of the parable is the same as the relation between man's body and his spirit. These seem to be entirely disconnected; and yet they are in the closest possible connection. You cannot mount up to an understanding of the human spirit, from any study of the human body, as such. In fact, some of the most pronounced infidels are among the leading students of natural science. The more they study physical life, the less they believe in the existence of a spiritual life.

And why? Precisely because, to the outward thought, the spirit and the body are entirely disconnected.

Their connection is not by continuity, but by correspondence. The man who would clearly understand spiritual life must find the proof of that life, not by the external and sensuous study of the physical body, but by the opening of his own spiritual mind. And when the spiritual mind is opened, the very facts of nature, which before were stumbling-blocks to the man's perception of spiritual things, become, now, to his open eyes, confirmations, illustrations and applications of spiritual life. It is not, then, against the New-Church method of interpreting the parables, to say that the spiritual meaning thus developed is entirely disconnected from the literal sense. It is not disconnected, except as the spirit and the body of a man are disconnected. It is not disconnected, to him who is able to see the existing connection.

The spiritual sense of the Scripture, like the spirit of man, yields the secret of its existence to him who has eyes to see. Spiritual principles being known, the parable yields its secret and its application, seen in the light of truth. For truth is seen from the centre to the circumference. But without clear spiritual truth, men have no fixed law of interpretation; and then they may go to the parables, "not to draw out, from the Scripture, its own meaning, but to thrust into the Scripture" their desired doctrine. Thus, men abuse the Scripture, to uphold their own dogmas. But to him who, in a child-like spirit, goes to the letter of the Scripture, ready to receive whatever the Lord desires to teach him, the whole Scripture becomes, spiritually, "a well of water, springing up into everlasting life."

Author: Edward Craig Mitchell 1887

Articles in the Parables Section were extracted from: The Parables of the Old Testament Explained by EDWARD CRAIG MITCHELL (1903) and The Parables of the New Testament Spiritually Explained by EDWARD CRAIG MITCHELL (1888)

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