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What is the definition of a parable?

The definition of a parable is a short tale that illustrates a moral principle.


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Last Updated May 25, 2023.

Parables use analogies to communicate their messages. A parable is a short, fictional story that conveys a lesson or truth, often of a moral or religious nature. Some parables are allegories in which individual characters represent abstract concepts. Unlike fables, parables use human characters rather than animals or inanimate objects. Often, the message a parable conveys is intended to be understood only by a select group of people familiar with the religious knowledge it references.


The parable comes from the Greek word parabolē, meaning “comparison,” from para (“alongside”) and ballein (“to throw”). 


Western parables are primarily modeled after Jesus’s teachings, many in the New Testament. One Biblical parable is the story of the Good Samaritan, in which a Samaritan stops to help an injured Jewish man, despite the animosity between their communities. This parable has been interpreted in numerous ways, with one interpretation stating that it reminds Christians to help follow Jesus’s teaching of helping those in need. 


Another famous parable is “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a story from medieval Spain that was adapted into a children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen. In the story, two con men convince a vain emperor that they have made him clothing from magic fabric that is invisible to anyone stupid or unfit for their job. Out of fear of humiliation, the emperor and his ministers pretend they can see the clothing, but when he goes out in public, a child points out that the emperor is naked, and the emperor realizes he has been tricked. The parable is widely regarded as a condemnation of pretentiousness and collective denial. 


see: allegoryanalogyfable

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