The Use of Parables

Throughout the Bible, Jesus often taught through parables (Matthew 13:10) in order to impart spiritual truth to His followers. Muslims also talk about the parables in the Qur’an. So it seems we have yet another reason to view Islam and Christianity as comparable. Of course, with a little investigation, we will find just the opposite to be true.

Are the use of parables in the Bible and Qur’an analogous, or are they completely dissimilar? To answer this question, great care must be taken to understand what a parable actually is. Just what defines a parable, and what does not? Some items in the Bible that are casually referred to as parables are better described as similitudes or metaphors. For example, when the kingdom of heaven is compared to leaven in the flour, (Matthew 13:33), linguistically this comparison is a straight similitude. Unlike a simile, which compares two unlike things, a similitude examines how something has a counterpart, a match, or how two like items resemble each other. Some teachings of Jesus are metaphors, figures of speech where a characteristic is applied to something that it is not directly applicable to. One such case is when Jesus says that Christians are “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).

Such statements are not parables in the fullest sense of the word. They are only comparisons on the level of similitudes or metaphors. There is nothing wrong with similes, similitudes, or metaphors. They certainly have their place in religious instruction. The Bible has many, and the Qur’an does as well. Here are two such examples from the Qur’an where the translator uses the term “parable” rather than “similitude”,

[22.73] O people! A parable is presented, so listen to it: Those you invoke besides God will never create a fly, even if they banded together for that purpose. And if the fly steals anything from them, they cannot recover it from it. Weak are the pursuer and the pursued.

[29.41] The parable of those who take guardians besides Allah is as the parable of the spider that makes for itself a house; and most surely the frailest of the houses is the spider’s house did they but know.

These and all other such verses from the Qur’an show examples of similitudes and metaphors, but not parables. So exactly what is a parable? A true parable is a story which evokes a response from the hearer. The true parable has a plot which develops into a climax, often with a surprising twist. Just like a joke, it has a “gotcha” at the end that often catches the listener off-guard. And just like a joke, when you stop to explain the joke, it loses its punch. The impact only occurs when you hear it with fresh ears.

For example, consider the parable of the landowner and evil farmers which begins in Matthew 21:33. In the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus recounts this hypothetical encounter about a landowner renting a vineyard to some tenant farmers. He sends some emissaries to collect the rent at harvest, but the renters injure and even kill people from the group. The storyline continues to develop (Matthew 21:36). It climaxes as the owner sends his own son, whom he presumes the renters will surely respect, (Matthew 21:37) but he is killed also (Matthew 21:38). Jesus asks the Pharisees what will happen to the evil famers, and they respond that the farmers will meet with the justice they deserve. But now comes the punchline. Jesus quotes the Old Testament (Matthew 21:42), and suddenly the Pharisees realize they are the butt of this “joke.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them.

The parable hits home on a completely new level. It sneaks up behind the listeners and surprises and astounds them. More than a straight comparison, instead it’s a full story with a developed plotline that catches the hearers unaware and strikes home with a heightened level of intensity.

Jesus taught using many other parables, and they challenge both the hearers of both His day and ours to higher levels of understanding and response. However, when Muslims speak of the parables in the Qur’an, they are only referring to similitudes and metaphors. The Qur’an has nothing comparable to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the seeds and the sower, or the prodigal son. The so-called parables of the Qur’an, as exemplified above, just quickly compare two items and then ask the reader to consider the likeness of those items.

Both the Bible and Qur’an use the word “parable” to describe some of their teachings. Yet the two books couldn’t be more different. Jesus teaches using hypothetical stories with plotlines that deliver a punch at the end. The Qur’an just contains similitudes and metaphors. The two corresponding holy books are completely different in this regard.

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