Of Words and Symbols


A parable is said to be a story (whether true or imagined) which teaches a spiritual or moral lesson.  Jesus often taught with parables.  These stories were verbal symbols which took complicated or at least unappreciated truths and put them into situations in which the audience could easily grasp.  He often used agricultural or domestic images in His stories as they were readily appreciated by His hearers.

Some of these are elaborate stories, such as the Prodigal Son with its multiple lessons of relationship and jealousy.  Others are brief,  such as “”Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” in Matthew 7.  The image is mildly comical, but its meaning is quickly understood.

I often have students ask if Jesus’ parables are all actual events.  This is actually a point that gets debated in some theological circles.  The answer I give is  a nuanced “I don’t know.”  There is the part of me which firmly holds that a sinless Jesus will not bear false witness. However, if His audience understood the words to be in the rabbinic tradition of elaborate illustration, it wouldn’t be a lie, as they would be looking for the point not the who, what, where, why and whens of journalism.  Not being of that time and place I rest on the “I don’t definitively know if the whole story is factual, but the underlying truth is a fact.” For the record, I do lean in myself to the literal truth of them though. It is a matter of faith not “proof.”

It is because of this that I see parables such as the rich man and Lazarus as theologically valid when discussing the afterlife, not just as a lesson on greed and charity.  So when studying let us find all of the Lord’s “truths” the literal, the implied, and symbolic. The bible is a far richer book than many see on first reading, it has many levels, and many treasures to be found.


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