In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear that “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing” (Matt. 13:34). St. Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them many things in parables” (Mark 4:2) and that Jesus told the disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables” (4:11). The parables themselves are so famous and familiar that some of them, like the “good Samaritan,” have even made their way into common usage, detached from their original context. In fact, the very idea of a parable as part of our Lord’s teaching is so familiar that we may overlook them, but I would venture to suggest that we could learn some important lessons about evangelization from the nature of a parable.
The Old English term for this literary device was bispell, a compound of “by” and “tale or discourse.” The specific word “parable” arrived in English around the thirteenth century, coming from French via the Latin parabola (comparison), which in turn came from the Greek parabolē, whose component parts literally mean “placing side by side.” In the development of language, the Latin parabola came simply to mean “word,” developing into modern forms such as the French parler (to speak).
What this etymological excursion tells us is that the word parable has, at its heart, the fundamental issue of communication. It is purposeful, not decorative, and its function is to express a moral or spiritual truth by means of a realistic story.