Essay Example Parable

The interpreter should be wary of over-elaboration or over-simplification when it comes to the parables (Tasker 1962, p. 933).  But this does not mean we reject the allegorical interpretation that was always intended by Christ. For if allegory was missing, the Parables found in the New Testament would not have differed to those of the Old Testament, they would have been merely simple illustrations (e.g. 1 Sam. 24:13; Ezekiel 18:2-3). Rightly, John Chrysostom of Constantinople who was from the Antiochian School, was resistant to “flights of fancy,” preferring to discern the scope and purpose for each parable, rather than to “find a special significance in each circumstance or incident” (Unger 1980, p. 824). This does not mean however, that Chrysostom shied away from interpreting the Parables himself. See, for example, Homily XLV. Matt. XIII. 10, 11, where Chrysostom explains why the Pharisees did the very opposite to what Christ called the crowds to do: “not only disbelieving, not only not hearkening, but even waging war, and disposed to be very bitter against all” that Christ said, all because “They heard heavily.” St Gregory of Nyssa considered “allegorical interpretation necessary at points where symbolism or the words covered a deeper meaning”, and he also accepted the literal interpretation (Stavrianos 2012, p. 43) Even St Basil of Caesarea wrote in the Hexaemeron VIII.2 (PG 29:188), as quoted by Stavrianos (2012, p. 44), wrote: “to take [just] the literal sense and stop there is to have the heart covered by the veil of Jewish literalism.”

The Rise of the New Hermeneutic

The Impact of Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism & Literary-Critical Studies

In 1888 Adolf Jülicher's two volume seminal work, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu was a major influence against the centuries-old tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Parables of Christ. Jülicher was more preoccupied with the form of parables, seeking “clear-cut definitions” of differences between parables, allegories, similes, and metaphors. He simply took the parables literally and stressed they only had one point of comparison, not many (Caird 1980, p. 161). C.H. Dodd (1935) who was then followed by J. Jeremias (1947) and A.M. Hunter (1958) “rejected Julicher's moralistic interpretations in favour of the now generally accepted thesis that the parables had a particular reference to the ministry of Jesus and the crisis it inaugurated…” (Caird 1980, p. 162).

In an attempt to develop and in some cases correct Jülicher’s claims, form criticism and redaction criticism scholarship in Germany, and literary-critical studies in the United States, have proliferated in the field of “new hermeneutics” (Blomberg 1991, pp. 50-55; Goldingay 1995, p. 79). As a result, there are now definitions abounding for different types of parables (e.g. simple simile, simple metaphors, simile story, metaphor story, example story). Stein (1994) beautifully, dedicates several chapters to the form of Jesus’s writings, and the parables, describing him as an “outstanding” and “exciting” teacher; a “personality” who was “authoritative”. He continues to describe that Christ used certain devices of language to attract attention from his audience, including exaggeration, hyperbole, ‘paronomasia’ (i.e. pun), simile, metaphor, riddles, paradox, fortiori statements, synonymous parallelism, and more (Stein 1994, pp. 7-24).

The whole topic has become somewhat of a minefield if the critic is drawn in to the details of labelling. Perhaps about the only light to have come forth from all of this modern scholarship, is the uniqueness of the Parables of Christ in the Gospels. No matter how hard scholars have tried to encapsulate the formula used by Christ when speaking in Parables, they have found themselves in a tangle. They could have only been written by the Son of God (Lithgow 1907, p. 538). Scripture is the living Word, the text is dynamic and ever-changing, it is universal yet personal (Hogan 2016, pp. 119-120), and couched in history, all at the same time.

Modern Scholarship versus Early Christian Teaching on the Parables

It would be all too easy to dismiss the work of the modern scholars which has gone against the grain of tradition, as being written by those ‘who had eyes but could not see’. Jeremias lays blame for the state of parabolic interpretation with the “early Christian teachers” (Tasker 1962, p. 932). But even Stein (1994, p. 37) himself had to admit: “[i]t would appear that some parables possess undeniable allegorical elements” (e.g. the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matt. 22:1-14). Dodd in particular takes exception with the fact that Christian preachers today deliver sermons that are far removed from the original meaning/ function of the parable, as set in the time of Christ (i.e. Sitz em Leiben). Stavrianos (2012, p. 29), in his study of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) in Patristic thought, emphasises: “…even though the central truth of the parable remains the same, Christians in every era can adapt it to their reality, thus giving it new meaning and perspective.”

There is no doubt, that outside the confines of the established church, there are so-called preachers who teach falsehoods, for example, the so-named “prosperity gospel” whose message bears no relationship to what was intended by Christ. These are contemporary secular interpretations. St Basil of Caesarea warned against those who would take Holy Scripture, and instead of using common sense for their explanations, use “fancy wishes… to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own end” (St Basil quoted in Stavrianos 2012, p. 44). Of course, the Fathers seemingly would agree with Jülicher, that the "parables were intended to illustrate one truth only" (Tasker 1962, p. 932) but the Fathers would deviate in their belief, emphasising that each Parable consisted of multiple layers of the “one truth”. Consider a kernel and its shell; it is one object that contains several layers, despite that scholars such as Via and Crossan prefer the onion motif of layering (Parris 2002, pp. 34-37). As devoted Christians, the more layers uncovered, the closer the relationship hypostatically proceeds to Christ the Saviour.


Christ’s Parables are Accessible, Personal, Prophetic and Universal

Christ Incarnate did not come speaking in complex technical “God language” that no one would be able to understand but using baby language, “goo-goo, ga-ga” principles. He came to deliver His message by empathically placing Himself in the shoes of humans, with all their weakness and frailty: “Jesus comes and stands where the hearer already stands" (Craddock 2002, pp. 88-89). Born in a manger, Christ continued his mission with the humble parabolic “story” formula which carried the most profound of messages. His parables (i.e. teachings) were inextricably linked to His Person (Blomberg 1991, p. 74). Such was His love for humankind that he set his parables in everyday life, to captivate the imagination equally of the rich and poor man, the educated and uneducated, the respected and the outcast, the healthy and the sick. Whether tax collector, fallen or adulteress, Samaritan, Publican or farmer- all people are His Creation, and He went to great lengths, even descending from on high to reach all people, and to save all people, using accessible language. “He mixes the realistic with the extraordinary and improbable” (Via 1974, 105). He gives the hearer the freedom to manoeuvre (Peta Sherlock private comms cited in Goldingay 1995), to find the space required to make correction. It is a daily choice one makes whether or not to follow Him.

Christ’s parables were not only prophetic in depicting how He Himself would suffer (Matt. 5:1-12; Barbu 2009, p. 262-263) but somehow simultaneously represented universal contexts in which hearers could fully relate: “[d]ifferent facets also come home to individual hearers at different times in their lives; there is no once for all hearing of a story” (Goldingay 1995, p. 78). As Potapov (2000) has written, Christ spoke in parables for three reasons: (1) to help listeners recall vivid images from ordinary life, and to ponder on the deeper message behind the allegory; (2) parables carried a double meaning and were deliberately indirect so that Christ could carry out the divine plan in full without being prematurely accused by the Pharisees; and (3) the parable format preserved the purity of Christ’s teachings. In Table 3, an original table, is presented stating 15 main reasons why Christ spoke in parables.

Table X. 15 Reasons Why Christ Spoke in Parables

Reason/ Description

Comprehensibility: Christ spoke in parables, effectively stories with meaning, so that everyone could understand his teachings.

Uniqueness: Christ's parables are unique in their manner. He only spoke to the masses without using this approach.

Non-Coercive: Parables are illustrations set in-context that help people to remember to love others. It is easier to forget a list of commands versus a story that has a setting in everyday life. Christ did not come giving laws to be followed. He could have said: "I command you to do x or y." But he was not coercive and did not wish to force anything on anyone. Instead, he spoke lovingly and softly, and even gave the listener the opportunity to reflect on the interpretation of his story.

Tangible: Everyone remembers stories because they are tangible and people can relate to them.

Artistic and Imaginative: Christ's parables are unique, and beautiful, and moving to one's soul (Rindge 2014, p. 403). They are better than the finest poetry or music. They often began or closed with rhetorical questions that Jesus Himself went on to answer, that “transforms the audience” by imagination (Rindge 2014, p. 408).

Participatory: There is a moral at the end- that take home message for each listener. They were therefore in some way participatory. The listener would be drawn in to hear His word. E.g. Matthew 21:30-32: "Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Layered Meaning, One Truth: Christ's parables have got more than one meaning as the traditional parables found in the Old Testament had only one single meaning (mashal). This shows the connection to allegory, and multiple meanings.

Accessible: Christ spoke simply to give the masses a choice to believe in Him through faith. The unbelievers would not understand even his simple parables, not because they were complex but because they maintained their unbelief through hardness of heart. Still because Christ was not speaking in sophisticated language to deliver his teachings, he gave each person a choice whether or not to follow him.

Universal: Christ's parables were universal, would withstand the test of time and continue to be relevant (Hebrews 13:8), and applicable to all even if they had not been in a given described context. E.g. we may not all sow seeds today but we have all seen in one way or another on television or the internet someone else sowing seeds. We get that seeds need to be thrown into furrows in soil in order to take root etc.

Empathic: A fine methodology ensues in the parables themselves. We the hearer of the Word, can place ourselves almost with certainty in the shoes of one or more of the characters depicted in the parable itself. We all know whom we'd like to be in the story, yet find ourselves challenged at various times having sinned against God and our fellow brothers and sisters in a manner that places us somewhere where we do not wish to be. At times the penitent might feel convicted especially in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, that they have sown seed by the wayside (v. 4), on stony places (v. 5), among thorns (v. 7) (Marshall 1978, p. 320). The hope, of course, for the Christian is to always sow seed on "good ground" (v. 8) and that is one’s life-long challenge.

Human: Christ places himself on the same 'level playing field' as his fellow man by speaking to them using every day contexts.

Perfection: Christ comes preaching a unique message in a unique way. There is something different about Him. His message is perfect. It is fair, and it is true. The parables were perfect, like the Logos. The parables are profound, like nothing that has ever been preached before. The moral of the stories are so convincing in terms of ethics, living by these principles would mean a life worth living.

Antinomic & Paradoxical: There is something antinomic, almost paradoxical about Christ’s message. Often members who would otherwise be shunned by a community, are held up as an example to us, because they have repented of their ways. In the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32) the hero is the son who repented, not the second son who seemingly never sinned because he did not take his father's inheritance squandering it away in the world like the prodigal. This approach turns things upside down but does so legitimately. There is hope for even the greatest sinner. Are we willing to believe and grow in faith?

Personal: Christ pierces the conscience and personal thoughts and heart of every person through the parables, and offers him a way toward personal and inner transfiguration (Barbu 2009, p. 262). He takes us to that point so effortlessly it seems, until we recognise through a process of self-awareness that we need to continue to develop our character. So he might have preached to the masses, but inwardly, every individual would reflect on the person he/she was. The allegory is a strong device type. But despite the seeming simplicity of the stories they are so difficult to uphold morally.

Concealment: Christ spoke in parables to ensure the divine plan would be completed without interruption (G.A. Kennedy cited by Black 2000, p. 389). If the Pharisees would have detected his claim to being the Son of God, Christ would have been unable to continue preaching to the crowds freely.

Caption: The research conducted in preparation for Table 3 has been taken from a vast list of sources which appear in the wider Bibliography of this paper. Note: while the table is original in full, it has been greatly inspired by the ten Lectures of Fr Nikolai Sakharov for CF102 at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies.


While modern parabolic scholarship (e.g. form criticism and literary-critical studies) has been at odds with the tradition as recorded by the early church fathers, there are two main points of agreement. First, that in fact some of the Parables are truly meant as “allegories” in the technical literary sense, and second, each parable has a single truth, though the Fathers would contend there are multiple layers of the same truth to be extracted at face value, in moral value and spiritual, among other perspectives. The warnings of St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great should be heeded when the Parables of Jesus are over-elaborated but at the same time Christ’s example is altogether present in the Scriptures. In this paper, the Parable of the Sower was used to illustrate “allegory in action”, and here is found Christ’s own example of explaining what He Himself meant by the story. While the Parables are easily recognisable in the Synoptic Gospels, there are numerous examples of parables present in the Gospel of John. The technique however in John’s writing, seems juxtaposed against the writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke the evangelists. In the Synoptics, Christ speaks to the crowds in Parables and then each has the choice of whether or not to apply these principles to themselves personally. While in John, we see “encounters” between Christ and typological figures (e.g. the Good Samaritan) that then can be used to represent universal principles. The Parables are the basis for Christian Ethics despite that they are never made explicit, hearers who wish to come to a closer knowledge of God and enter a deeper personal relationship with Him, are led to a place of everlasting love.


(1993) The Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms (New King James Version), Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Barbu L. (2009) The ‘poor in spirit’ and our life in Christ: an Eastern Orthodox perspective on Christian discipleship. Studies in Christian Ethics 22: 261-274.

Beavis MA. (2001) The Power of Jesus' Parables: Were they polemical or irenic? Journal for the Study of the New Testament 82: 3-30.

Blomberg CL. (1991) Interpreting the parables of Jesus: Where are we and where do we go from here? Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53: 50-78.

Bozorth RR. (2005) Auden. In: Smith S (ed) The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 175–187.

Caird GB. (1980) The Language and Imagery of the Bible, London: Duckworth.

Christos P. (1989) Greek Patrologiae, Vol. 4, Thessalonika: Kyromanos.

Craddock, F.B. (2002) Overhearing the Gospel: Revised and Expanded Edition, Chalice Press.

Dodd CH. (1978) The Parables Of The Kingdom, Glasgow.

Goldingay J. (1995) Models for Interpretation of Scripture, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Kingsbury JD. (1972) The Parables of Jesus in Current Research. Dialog 11: 107.

Hogan PC. (2016) Jesus’s Parables: Simulation, Stories, and Narrative Idiolect. Narrative 24: 113-133

Hunter AM. (1960) Interpreting The Parables, London.

Jeremias J. (2002) The Parables of Jesus, London.

Kennedy GA. (1984) New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

  Marshall IH. (1978) The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Exeter: The Paternoster Press.

  Papadopoulos S. (1999) St John Chrysostom, Vol. 2, Athens: Apostolic Mission.

Papakosta S. (1929) The Parables of the Lord, Athens: Zoe.

Parris DP. (2002) Imitating the Parables: Allegory, Narrative and the Role of Mimesis. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25: 33-53.

  Potapov V. (August 6, 2000) Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary. Available at:

Rindge MS. (2014) Luke’s Artistic Parables: Narratives of Subversion, Imagination, and Transformation. Interpretation: Journal of Bible and Theology 68: 403-415.

Sider JW. (1983) Rediscovering the Parables: the Logic of the Jeremias Tradition. Journal of Biblical Literature 102: 61-83.

Stavrianos K. (2012) The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Patristic Thought. Greek Orthodox Theological Review 57: 1-4.

  Stein RH. (1981) An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Stein RH. (1994) The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

  Tasker RVG. (1962) Parables. In: Bruce FF, Tasker RVG, Packer JJ, et al. (eds) The New Bible Dictionary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press,        932-934.

Trench RC. (1867) Notes on the Parables, New York: D. Appleton & Company.

Unger MF. (1957) Parable. Unger's Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody Press.

Via O. (1974) The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension, Philadelphia.

Whedon DD. (1874) A Popular Commentary on the New Testament, London: Hodder & Stoughton.


Allen HJB. (2012) The Parables of Christ are Timeless: An example of Roland Allen’s originality introduced by his grandson. Transformation 29: 186-188.

Altizer TJ. (1980) Total Presence : The Language Of Jesus And The Language Of Today, New York: The Davies Group.

Bailey KE. (1983) Poet and Peasant through a Peasant's Eyes.

Ball M. (2002) The Foolish Risks of God, London.

Barclay W. (1999) The Parables of Jesus, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

Baukham R. (1983) Synoptic Parables Again. NTS 29: 129-134.

Bergstrom C. (1996) Parables: The obvious and the obscure. Calliope 6: 9.

Berryman JW. (1979) Being in Parables with Children. Religious Education 74: 271-285.

Black CC. (2000) Four Stations en route to a Parabolic Homiletic. Interpretation 54: 386-397.

Black M. (1960) The Parables as Allegory. BJRL 42: 273-287.

Boobyer GH. (1951) The Interpretation of the Parables of Jesus. Expositor Times: 131-134.

Boucher MI. (1977) The Mysterious Parable: A Literary Study, Washington.

Breech J. (1983) The Silence Of Jesus. The Authentic Voice of the Historical Man, Philadelphia.

Bridges LM. (2007) Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel in Ordinary Time: The Extraordinary Tales of God’s World. Review and Expositor 104: 325-362.

Brooks A. (1921) The Teaching in Parables. Expositor Times: 170-172.

Carlston CE. (1975) The Parables of the Triple Tradition.

Cole A. (1961) Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Cousins P. (1960) The parables of the kingdom and the first-century messianic hope. Religion in Education 27: 107-109.

Craig BM. (2016) Reflections on the Readings of Sundays and Feasts. The Australasian Catholic Record March-May: 97-117.

Crossan JD. (2002) Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology. 56 3.

Culbertson PL. (1995) A Word Fitly Spoken: Context, Transmission, and Adoption of the Parables of Jesus, New York.

Dahl NA. (1951) The parables of growth. Studia Theologica - Nordic Journal of Theology 5: 132-166.

Douglas JD. (1962) Parable. The New Bible Dictionary. Inter-Varsity Press.

Drury J. (1985) The Parables In The Gospels: History And Allegory, London.

Dunnett WM. (1984) The Interpretation of Holy Scripture: Issues, Principles, Models (An Introduction to Hermeneutics), Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Dykes DO. (2011) Jesus Storyteller: Timeless Truths from His Parables, Texas: Fluency Organisation.

Florovsky FG. (1987) Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation.

Gerhardsson B. (1988) The Narrative Meshalim in the Synoptic Gospels: A Comparison with the Narrative Meshalim in the OT. NTS 34: 339-363.

Gerhardsson B. (1991) "If we do not cut the parables out of their frames". NTS 37: 321-325.

Green EH. (2009) Speaking in parables: the responses of students to a Bible‐based ethos in a Christian City Technology College. Cambridge Journal of Education\ 39: 443-456.

Harnisch W. (1992) Language of the possible: The parables of Jesus in the conflict between rhetoric and poetry. Studia Theologica - Nordic Journal of Theology 46: 41-54.

Hedrick CW. (2004) Many Things in Parables: Jesus and His Modern Critics, London: Westminster John Knox Press.

Hendrickx H. (1986) The Parables of Jesus, London.

Hendriksen W. (1979) New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Luke, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.

Hunter AM. (1958) The Interpretation of the Parables. Expositor Times: 100-104.

Jones GV. (1964) The Art and Truth of the Parables: A Study in their Literary Form and Modern Interpretation, London.

Jones PR. (1980) The Modern Study of Parables. SWJT 22: 7-22.

Jordan GJ. (1934) The Classification of the Parable. The Expository Times: 246-251.

Jülicher A. (1888) Die Gleichnisreden Jesu

Keddie GJ. (1994) He Spoke in Parables, Oregon: Wipf & Stock.

Kendall RT. (2006) The Parables of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Chosen Books.

Kirkwood WG. (1983) Storytelling and self‐confrontation: Parables as communication strategies. Quarterly Journal of Speech 69: 58-74.

Kirkwood WG. (1985) Parables as metaphors and examples. Quarterly Journal of Speech 71: 422-440.

Kissinger WS. (1979) The Parables of Jesus.

Kistemaker SJ. (1980) The Parables of Jesus.

Ladd GE. (1964) Jesus and the Kingdom.

Ladd GE. (1993) A Theology of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Lambrecht J. (1981) Once More Astonished: The Parables of Jesus.

Leary C. (1986) Parables and Fairy Tales. Religious Education 81: 485-499.

Linnemann E. (1966) Jesus of the Parables: Introduction and Exposition.

Lithgow RM. (1905) A Simple Scheme of the Parables. Expositor Times: 470-472.

Lithgow RM. (1907) The Theology of the Parables. Expositor Times: 538-542.

Lithgow RM. (1908a) The Development of Christ's Doctrine During His Earthly Ministry. Expositor Times: 126-131.

Lithgow RM. (1908b) Man's Spiritual Development as Depicted in Christ's Parables. Expositor Times: 543-547.

Lithgow RM. (1909) The Symbolism of the Parables. Expositor Times: 217-220.

Lithgow RM. (1911) The Eschatology of the Parables. Expositor Times: 469-474.

Lithgow RM. (1912) The Minor Parables, the Metaphors and Similes of the Synoptic Gospels. Expositor Times: 537-540.

Little JC. (1976) Parable Research in the Twentieth Century. ET 87: 356-360.

Marshall IH. (1963) Eschatology and the Parables.

McLaughlin EW. (2009) Engendering the Imago Dei: How Christ Grounds Our Lives as Parables of the Divine Image. Priscilla Papers 23: 16-20.

Ministry CCAR. (2003) What are the parables that Jesus taught? Available at:

Morris L. (1974) Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Moule CFD. (1961) The Parables of the Jesus of history and the Lord of faith. Religion in Education 28: 60-64.

Oesterley WOE. (1936) The Gospel Parables in Light of their Jewish Background.

Orr J. (1939) Parable. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Pianzin TM. (2007) Parables of Jesus: In the Light of Its Historical, Geographical and Socio-Cultural Setting, Oklahoma: Tate Publishing.

Plummer A. (1981) The Gospel According to S. Luke, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Reardon P. (2003) The Parables and the Structure of the World, New Jersey.

Ricoeur P. (1981) The 'Kingdom' in the Parables of Jesus. ATR 63: 165-169.

Sabourin L. (1976) Parables of the Kingdom. BTB 6: 115-160.

Schwager D. (2015) The Parables of Jesus. Available at:

Scott B. (1989) Hear then the Parables: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus.

Slee N. (1983) Parable teaching: Exploring new worlds. British Journal of Religious Education 5: 134-146.

Slee N. (1985) Parables and Women's Experiences. Religious Education 80: 232-245.

Smith BTD. (1937) The Parables of the Synoptic Gospels.

Stein RH. (1985) The Parables of Jesus in Recent Study. WW 5: 248-257.

Tasker RVG. (1961) Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Trench. Notes on the Parables. 9.

Wenham D. (1989) The Parables of Jesus.

White EGH. (2000) Christ's Object Lessons, USA: Review and Herald Publishing Association.

Wink W. (1973) The Bible in Human Transformation: toward a new paradigm for Bible study: Fortress.

Woodhull K. (2013) The Art of Parabling: Leveraging the Narrative Parables of Jesus as Models of Missional Engagement. Missiology: An International Review 41: 74-86.

Young CE. (1950) Christ the Teacher. Religion in Education 17: 46-49.

[The following is an essay on parable, coming out of some thoughts and study I've had on art and philosophy more generally.]

I am looking for aspects of parable in contemporary life. What this means today needs explaining, because this form, as with other allegorical forms, has changed. What do parables — traditionally told as lessons for children — have to offer us today? My interest here is in the specific way they cast a trail of bread crumbs into the speculative, possibly even opening a path into a non-hegemonic ethics.

A parable is an allegorical tale, but history has changed the mode of allegory, so our notion of parable has changed as well. We can sense this distance by comparing Kafka’s parables with the traditional parable. Ambiguity of interpretation1 and a “mysterious instruction”2 are features of modern allegory, as Benjamin describes. Modern allegory rises out of the waning of medieval theology, as people and things are freed from their places in a traditional order. The idea of one teaching, or one interpretation, begins to falter. The lamb is no longer baby Jesus. A baroque sensibility turns away from Christian and didactic meanings and reaches toward the visual domain in “highly charged metaphors”3. Benjamin’s analysis of modern allegory comes about in his study of the 17th century German baroque ‘lamentation play’, or Trauerspiel. Benjamin argues that this German theater — long denigrated as “an incompetent renaissance of tragedy”4, or “plays written by brutes for brutes”5 — may only be truly appreciated with an understanding of its allegorical character.

The philosophical understanding of allegory, and especially the dialectical understanding of its extreme form, is the only background against which the image of the Trauerspiel stands out in living and — if one may venture to say so — beautiful colours, the only background not darkened by the grey of retouching.6

The stage of theater is apt for demonstrating the new mode of allegory, due to the significance of visual emblems, figures, and scenes. As Benjamin insightfully remarks, this suggests “connections between spectacle proper and allegory”7. Allegory is no longer “a playful illustrative technique”8, but becomes “a way of seeing”9, one characteristic of the developing modern consciousness. Generated out of our shared conventions, allegory’s mystical wisdoms are gathered immanently, rather than being passed down transcendentally. The ruin provides a dominant metaphor for this common store we share, famously encapsulated in the quote: “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”10 The allegorizing mind picks up thoughts like fragments from a ruin.

A philosophical understanding of allegory, and hence of parable, begins with the concept of ‘figure’, the word used as shorthand for the persons and things used in expressions of allegory. The figure in allegory is a stand-in. “Figure is presence and deferral of presence, a substitute for lost presence.”11 The concept of figure is central to Rancière’s theorizing on aesthetics, and, although he does not name it so, his characterization of ‘figure’ aptly describes its expression in allegory:

This is what the word ‘figure’ sums up: the figure is two things in one. It is the literal, material presence of a body, and it is the poetic operation of metaphoric condensation and metonymic displacement ....12

Through the concept of figure, Rancière ties the sensory presence of art with what is not materially present. The figure is both the presence and stand-in for something more. An example is the Belvedere Torso which inaugurates his book Aisthesis, Rancière’s tracing of the emergence of modern aesthetic consciousness as it wends its way through ‘scenes’ in history. The headless and limbless Torso stands for a lost sense of classical beauty, one consisting in harmony and organic unity. Simultaneously, in its incompleteness, the Torso signals a new vision of beauty, one in touch with “the world before representation”13 and “the ideality of becoming”14. In pulling from the ruin of history, in finding in this mutilated fragment a figure for something more, we meet with the “poetic operation” which Benjamin names as allegorical. In other scenes of Aisthesis, we find further overlap in the concerns of Benjamin and Rancière, suggesting an agreement on the guideposts of the path to the emerging modern consciousness. Benjamin’s exploration of theater as the exemplary space of allegory is paralleled in the many scenes in Aisthesis devoted to the theater arts, and Rancière’s discussion of montage (in Vertov) recapitulates Benjamin’s examination of dialectic in montage, a primary mode for the expression of allegory in cinema. Their coincident concerns affirm that modern life is an unprecedentedly visual one, and that the concept of figure gets at its phenomenal import.

There is another aspect to the concept of figure which deserves exploration. In the word ‘figure’, a vestige of Judeo-Christian theology lingers, drawing in a stillness outside of human history. This gives the figure as used in allegory and parable the possibility of an extra charge and responsibility. This remainder of theology is felt in Benjamin’s language in describing allegory, for example in his use of the words ‘fulfillment’ and ‘redemption’. Although Rancière’s use of the concept of figure does not explicitly make reference to its theological significance, this could not have been an unwelcome aspect, as his use of the word ‘figure’ continues its liberal usage in Auerbach’s Mimesis, a book which he acknowledges as a guiding model for Aisthesis. In Mimesis, the concept of figure provides an explicative handle for Auerbach, a way to read a transhistorical dimension to artworks. According to Auerbach, the significance of texts descending from the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as the Old and New Testaments, on down to Dante’s Inferno, demand an appreciation of the concept of figure. The weight of these texts is made substantial by a comprehension of certain persons and events in the works as figures. Figural interpretation “establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first.”15 One prefigures the other, the other fulfills the one, and “comprehension ... of their interdependence is a spiritual act.”16 Comprehending this connection lifts the figures out of the mundane stream of history. And in this act of comprehension, the reader is as well brought out of the ordinary stream of events.

Now we are in a position to better understand the theological background of Benjamin’s allegorizing gaze. The world becomes script, fragments become runes, linking to an Ur-history or omni-temporal dimension. The impact of the figural interpretation, which lifts its objects out of the stream of history, is felt in the allegorical way of seeing. The divine light has dimmed, however, replaced by a baroque, secular outlook. It is interesting to compare this notion of figural interpretation with Benjamin’s later concept of the dialectical image. Like Auerbach’s use of the concept of figure to reflect on literature through the ages, Benjamin uses the concept of the dialectical image to interpret the nascent cultural forms of modernity in his epic study The Arcades Project. Here is his characterization of the dialectical image, also called dialectics at a standstill:

It is not what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words: image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: not temporal in nature but figural [bildlich].17

The legacy of figural interpretation is unmistakeable here. The now, the immediate moment, is placed in relation to the what-has-been, the what-has-ever-been, or Ur-history. A figural interpretation treats an ordinary occurrence as simultaneously a part in a world-historical frame, and thus regarded as above all time.18

Allegory’s impulse to reach outside of time or across time can lead to a stronger comprehension of an artwork’s relation to history, more so than historicist readings, or considerations of a work’s ‘timelessness’. This is powerfully demonstrated by Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus. What would Klee’s Angelus Novus be without Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history? Without the concomitant image of the ruins of progress piling up at his feet, would Klee’s angel have the same freighted stare? This is the light of the allegorizing gaze, its tendency to pull both images and comprehension out of the normal passage of time, casting fulfillment upon its objects.

Although the basis for allegorical thinking resides in art, its tendency extends to our understanding of images and events outside of art. Its light does not end with artworks. We cannot read Benjamin’s melancholic countenance without also thinking of his tragic passing. (Every untimely death has a parabolic reach.) Allegorical and parabolic connections tend toward “mysterious instruction” without losing an essential ambiguity. This dimension of modern consciousness demands a fuller appreciation, yielding a richer interrelation between art and life. Art proposes ways of being, what Adorno would term ‘art as comportment’.19 Aesthetic comportment is an attitude, a stance, and a way of being. As such it is not limited to activity in the studio, or contemplation in a museum. If we consider that ‘ethics’ in the proper sense is concerned with ways of being, it suggests a way to bring into relation aesthetics with ethics. Art as comportment informs action and colors thoughts. My sense is that the strength of Benjamin’s thinking springs from his particular cast of mind; his philosophical concepts are an attempt to elucidate his own intensively felt outlook. He exemplified the allegorizing mindset he described. His friend Adorno, in his tribute, would characterize Benjamin’s gaze as Medusan: “Before his Medusan glance, man turns into the stage on which an objective process unfolds.”20

Man as the scene of theater returns us to the space of parable. Parable follows allegory in developing from simple illustration into a more elusive form of expression. Although classically used to convey a moral lesson, the didactic purpose has been lost, or rather, enfolded like a vestigial tail bone. A distilled theater of human action is the space of parable. On its stage, figures of allegory act and become, tracing potentials of human endeavor. Parable limns the becoming of ‘figures’, where usage of this word pulls in its aforementioned characterizations in allegory: It signals Rancière’s operation of “metaphoric condensation and metonymic displacement”, as well as retaining its transhistorical significance for Auerbach. We follow the figures in a parable, and it is this notion of becoming from one potential to another which is key to a parable. A becoming, even if merely indicated, is crucial, as the pleasure in a parable consists in reading this trajectory. Reading a parable is interpreting, and, as in the case more generally with allegory, the light of a parable does not descend from above, but is elaborated endogenously in the activity of reading. Benjamin’s observation that modern allegory invites us to decipher “a commentary on the images, spoken by the images themselves”21 holds as well for the parable.

Here are a couple examples. Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire invites a parabolic reading. The painting offers the viewer a perspective of the burning museum from above, and, along with the depiction of the building details in contrast with the flattened gradient of the background, one gets the feel of an architectural rendering. This miniaturization produces the effect of a bemused, Olympian view — a beholding eye outside of time. This effect is belied by the presence of smoke and fire, as well as the ‘news report’-like title. Immediacy and tragedy are rendered deadpan, like engine knock that’s been muffled. The painting presents two temporal perspectives simultaneously — one seeing a museum burn, and one speculating on this ‘tragedy’. This leads the artwork into a figural reading. Is it tragic? The ambiguity of presentation allows a dream-like quality to hover — for example, as possible wish fulfillment on the part of a young artist — over the institutional spaces of aesthetic experience.

All of Walid Raad’s work encourages parabolic readings, as may be gleaned by their titles, as well as his penchant for weaving fact with fiction. I’ll sample his Already Been in a Lake of Fire: Notebook Volume 38. The cars are weathered with use and history, and their placements on the page suggest having been thrown. Although the scrapbook format has an almost playful feel, like the work of an adolescent going through a stack of magazines, the ominous history contained within the document elicits a figural aspect to the car cutouts. They are suspended between times: They are simultaneously in flight and rubble. In being read along this trajectory, the cars accrue galvanic weight. Over and above the cognizance of the cars as anonymous instruments of terror, one sees simultaneously the cutting and pasting of the artist, and the fiction of the investigation.

In both examples, the artist’s attitude is mute, as if acknowledging that the pleasure of a parable is in the interpretation. However, its “mysterious instruction” is ambiguous, unlike in its traditional, didactic form. Benjamin incomparably describes the difference between the traditional parable and the modern parables of Kafka:

The word “unfolding” has a double meaning. A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper. This second kind of “unfolding” is really appropriate to the parable; it is the reader’s pleasure to smooth it out so that he has the meaning on the palm of his hand. Kafka’s parables, however, unfold in the first sense, the way a bud turns into a blossom. That is why their effect resembles poetry.22

This quote leads to insights about the kinds of meaning we find in art. The parable, in leaving behind the purpose of teaching a univocal meaning, starts to resemble art. For in art, meaning is not transmitted like a set of formulas or in a how-to manual. Its model of teaching is exemplary, that is, we learn to make art from artworks themselves. What is learned comes a posteriori, after the artwork, in interpretation. In Benjamin’s quote, the parable becomes poetic by leaving behind its medieval purpose, a meaning given a priori.

Exegesis fulfills the parable. In a parable, a figure is simultaneously itself and a stand-in for something more, so the becoming traced in a parable happens on two levels. There is the material level, which we sense ordinarily, and there is the other level, which taps into a store which we hold collectively as a species. This collective store may be called our cultural history. (Of course, the usual caveats exist for universalizing claims regarding ‘our’ cultural history. But, with the disclaimer that the store is not exactly the same for everyone, we may still grant that our expressive acts imagine an audience that shares a big ‘something’ with us, as is implied in the term ‘cultural history’.) A parable addresses an audience that is both ‘we’ as individuals and ‘we’ that is collective, and this address happens ‘at once’, that is, one address calls to both levels. The figures in a parable thus act on a more immediate stage as well as on a collective stage. Now, this collective stage is not immediately present, so this sense of a collective happens imaginatively. And it is in the joining of the materially present with an imagined socius that consciousness is delivered onto the field of a wider plain. This brings the present moment into touch with human history, bridging across times. This effect of opening up the immediate space and immediate moment is a spur to reflection and interpretation.

But it is more than just a reflection and interpretation of the matter at hand, as if we were composing for a school report. It’s not just making connections, or piecing together relationships across points in history. A parable traces a becoming of its figures. This tracing of a becoming is a vestige of the simple narrative arc of the traditional parable, and its trajectory points to ‘consequence’. This is where a moral dimension comes into play, linking the parable to its historical roots. The reading of a becoming in a parable entails some kind of judgment of this trajectory, since the use of figures in a parable presses on us a kind of weighing. This weighing is not the trivial judgment of an event, like saying, “This piece of news is good, and this one bad.” We are being asked for more than our opinions on what’s happening before us. The figural dimension of parable enjoins us to consider how the ‘turn’ of a parable echoes in time. It’s a bit like the ethical outlook induced by Nietzsche’s eternal return: How do we welcome a becoming that is to recur throughout history? Although less grandiose than Nietzsche’s vision, I think the promise of parable is that its characteristics of the ‘outside’ view and of inheritance give parable a purchase onto ethical territory, just not the one-way moralism of medieval parable. The ambiguity of parable means that interpretation is not fixed, and that exegesis is dialogical. Illuminating in this regard is the Jewish tradition of midrash, in which many voices debate the exegetical meaning of Torah texts. Through its ongoing revision, midrash yields a living body of instruction. What this illuminates is that the truth from interpretation is through interpretation.

Closing out this essay is a bit about finding the parabolic in the figure of the artist, thoughts on which really began my desire to study this subject. I see the predominant figure of parable in a work of art as being the artist herself. Central to this view is a conception of the artwork as more than just the concrete object, that it also includes the act of its coming into existence. This act of becoming is given by the ‘gesture’ of the artist, and is the act of significance which is essential to considering the work as art. I use the word ‘gesture’ to describe the decisive acts in making work. The process of the unfolding of a work of art involves the artist’s gestures, and this process is the becoming of the work. The concept of gesture encompasses other notions which connect the artwork to the artist, but which themselves are too limited, like ‘hand’ or ‘signature’, which connote too much of the manual or stylistic tendencies of the artist, or ‘intention’, which is too reductive. The artist’s gesture is both mental and physical, and it binds the artwork to the artist. Upon encountering a work, in order to read it as a work of art, we hold in our mind its provenance as something made by an artist. It is not enough that the work has an artifactual quality to be considered art; we also have in mind the artist’s gesture in making the artwork. I think a great part of art interpretation, and a distinct pleasure upon viewing art, is the imaginative re-telling of the artistic gestures which went into the process of its becoming. We look for the artist’s methods and intentions, even when they are hidden. In the gesture, we read something of the artist’s comportment, the artist’s stance, the way she responds to the world. This is how thoughts of artistic gesture open onto the terrain of parable. The becoming effected by the artist’s gesture echoes with previous and future gestures. In this view, art interpretation is figural interpretation, a meeting up of the immediate sensoria with what is absent.

But if the artist is the figure, what is the parable? Bas Jan Ader presents a sort of canonical figure of the artist. The slightness of his gestures seems to bring out a parabolic aspect more sharply. How do we read it? The incompletion of his final gesture, In Search of the Miraculous, calls out for interpretation. So let’s start with the book which was his only companion on the journey, Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. If the figure in parable joins an immediate presence with a ‘more’ not present, for Hegel, this ‘more’ is named Spirit: “The I that is we and the we that is I.”23 It is self-consciousness of the individual as also that of a people. In the Phenomenology — Hegel’s account of Spirit’s passage in history — art holds a special significance. For Hegel, art is the concrete expression of the ethical life of a people, of its Spirit, so one gains insight into the successive stages of Spirit by studying art through the ages. The art object is an object of spiritual accomplishment, and thus an object of reflection — “art presents itself in the form of speculative illumination.”24 A primary achievement of Hegel, one having extraordinary influence on subsequent thinkers, is his understanding of the historicality of Spirit, and hence of art. Art is, and must be, of its time. Ader falls because he cannot paint like Mondrian. He wanders night-time Los Angeles with the song Searchin’ in his head. He sets sail across the Atlantic, reading Hegel while he rests. His gestures are never only falling, wandering, and sailing. They are calling out for echoes. They are reaching for Spirit.


Victor Liu


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *