The Difference Between a Parable and an Allegory

Do you know the difference between a parable and an allegory? The answer is a simple one that deserves further development: A parable is an extended simile; an allegory is an extended metaphor.

Similes and metaphors are two different kinds of trope, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “a figure of speech which consists in the use of a word or phrase in a sense other than that which is proper to it.” Other tropes — our list is not exhaustive — are the rhetorical question, personification, and irony. The two tropes we are discussing here, simile and metaphor, either liken or identify one thing with another. The joining together of two concepts is what they have in common, while the different verbs — to liken or to identify — draw the contrast between them. Similes use the words like or as to join the different concepts; metaphors use some copulative (generally to be) whereby one concept is strictly identified with the other.

“Your eyes are like limpid pools” is a simile (an awkward one, alla Pepé Le Pew), as is the more serious “my Luve is like a red, red rose” (Robert Burns). A good poetic example of a metaphor is “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (Keats; this rich passage, by the way, also employs a chiasmus and an ellipsis). Holy Scripture employs both tropes: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters” (Canticles 2:2) is a good Biblical example of a simile; and, from the same inspired love song comes this metaphor: “A cluster of cypress my love is to me, in the vineyards of Engaddi” (Canticles 1:13). Note in each example that the simile likens one thing to another, while the metaphor identifies them. This is the difference.

When a simile is extended, that is, when it is drawn out into a longer narrative, the result is a parable. This would explain why so many of Our Lord’s parables are introduced with a simple one-sentence simile, such as the opening verses of these seven “parables of the kingdom”:

  • The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field (Matt. 13:31).
  • The kingdom of heaven is like to leaven… (Matt. 13:33).
  • The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field (Matt. 13:44).
  • Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant seeking good pearls (Matt. 13:45).
  • Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a net cast into the sea, and gathering together of all kind of fishes (Matt. 13:47).
  • The kingdom of heaven is like to an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard (Matt. 20:1).
  • Then shall the kingdom of heaven be like to ten virgins, who taking their lamps went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride. (Matt. 25:1).

When a metaphor is drawn out into a longer narrative, the result is an allegory. We had an allegory in a recent Sunday Gospel (for the Second Sunday after Easter, “Good Shepherd Sunday”):

At that time Jesus said to the Pharisees: I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd giveth his life for his sheep. But the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming and leaveth the sheep and flieth: and the wolf catcheth and scattereth the sheep: and the hireling flieth, because he is a hireling, and he hath no care for the sheep. I am the good Shepherd: and I know Mine, and Mine know Me, as the Father knoweth Me, and I know the Father: and I lay down My life for My sheep. And other sheep I have that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd (John 10:11-16).

This is the Allegory of the Good Shepherd, which you will occasionally find called by this correct name, while some insist on imprecisely calling it a parable. But Saint John’s Gospel has no parables strictly so-called. The Beloved Disciple does not even use the word parable, but, instead calls the extended figures of speech in his Gospel by the word, paroimia (παροιμία), which is sometimes translated as “proverb.” True, paroimia may mean parable (as Msgr. Knox frustratingly translates it), but the concept is much broader and includes also allegory as well as proverb, aphorism, and hidden saying. Using the common rhetorical distinction between parable and allegory, this discourse on the Good Shepherd can only be called an allegory. The same Beloved Disciple also employs many allegories — pictorial ones — in his Apocalypse.

The Epistle that the Church joins to this beautiful Johannine allegory on Good Shepherd Sunday (1 Pet. 2:21-25) features a lovely simile that plays on the same figure of Jesus the Shepherd and us His lambs: “For you were as sheep going astray [sicut oves errantes]: but you are now converted to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” Had Saint Peter chosen to extend that particular simile, he would have given us what we could call the “Parable of the Sheep.”

Some readers may be familiar with the “allegorical sense” as one of the four senses of Holy Scripture. (These four senses are known as the quadriga, and there are many pages on our site dedicated to this important study.) According to Saint Thomas (ST, Ia, Q. 1, A. 10), the allegorical sense is present “so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law.” Thus, Saint Paul’s beautiful allegorical reading of Abraham’s two sons, Ismael and Isaac:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, and the other by a free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman, was born according to the flesh: but he of the free woman, was by promise. Which things are said by an allegory [ἀλληγορούμενα, from ἀλληγορέω, allēgoreō]. For these are the two testaments. The one from mount Sina, engendering unto bondage; which is Agar: For Sina is a mountain in Arabia, which hath affinity to that Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But that Jerusalem, which is above, is free: which is our mother (Gal. 4:22-26).

The two sons are the two testaments; they are not like or as the two testaments. Beginning with this clear, simple metaphor, Saint Paul builds out a narrative from which he draws important doctrinal lessons which are foundational for our life as Christians, concluding with the triumphant last verse (31) of that chapter: “So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free: by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free.”

Thus the literal or historical sense is transformed into doctrine that informs our faith and serves as the foundation of a Christian moral and spiritual life.

The inspired authors and Our Lord Himself employed both parables and allegories. The former is usually a bit simpler, the latter, deeper. Each is delightful and profitable for the Christian soul to ponder and meditate.

Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Logos, the Word-made-Man. It is fitting that He employs divine wordplay in human speech. As with the entire economy of the Incarnation, He does this “for us men and for our salvation.” With His grace, mediated to us through His Holy Mother, let us strive to profit from the words of the Word, who encourages and warns us on this very point in the parable with which He closes the Sermon on the Mount:

Every one therefore that heareth these my words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock. And every one that heareth these my words, and doth them not, shall be like a foolish man that built his house upon the sand, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall thereof (Matthew 7:24-27).

Featured: Jesus among the Doctors, by Lodovico Mazzolino; painted in 1524.