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The Greek word parabolem is used to translate the Hebrew mamshal, which can refer to different kinds of sayings, including a byword or a proverb. The particular form of saying which biblical scholars refer to as a “parable” proper consists of a brief story involving some point of comparison with a situation in life to which the speaker wishes to draw the attention of his hearers. The usual purpose is that a judgment can be passed upon the situation through the exercise of the motions of indignation or ridicule. A classical example in the OT is the story of the ewe lamb told by Nathan to David (2 Sam. 12:1-10).
In the NT one of the most striking features about the ministry of Jesus is His teaching in parables. Christian commentators used to treat these as allegories, with every detail being supposed to have some significance. In reaction to that it was suggested by A. Jülicher that a parable had one point only. It seems wiser to allow that we must look for the main point, but that there may be subsidiary points of importance and that some parables may contain features of well-known symbolism which must, in a limited sense, be taken allegorically. The parables of Jesus are concerned with the nature and coming of the kingdom of God. C.H. Dodd has suggested that the whole of their original meaning was connected with the immediate situation of the ministry of Jesus, but there is no valid reason for denying some future reference in addition.
C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (1935); J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (ET 1954); A.M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (1960).