One of the challenges faced by prophets and spiritual leaders is explaining the abstract ideas of spirituality (such as faith) in a way that we can understand concretely. A solution to this problem is to use parables, allegories, and Metaphors / Similes.
All of these literary elements are very closely related, in some ways they even overlap, but they aren’t the same, so I will discuss each element in this post.
A parable is a simple story illustrating a moral or spiritual lesson. Here is an example:
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:
But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” – Matthew 13:3 – 9
In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a sower who sowed seeds in various places. Some of the seeds never had a chance to sprout; others sprouted but died quickly; some began to grow but were killed in the heat of day; there were seeds that were choked off by weeds and thorns; finally there were seeds that came into maturity – bringing forth good fruit.
It seems like a simple story. After the story, Christ pleads, Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. This is not meant to be a story about gardening, although I’m sure you can learn a bit about gardening from it, but Christ wants us to open our spiritual ears and hear the true meaning of His story.
Later, the Savior explains the meaning of the parable.
Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower.
When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.
But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it;
Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.
He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.
But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” –
Matthew 13:18 – 23
The parable of the sower really has nothing to do with seeds or plants – it is about all of us – hearing the gospel and choosing to either neglect it, receive it for a while but then cast it aside at the first sight of difficulty, or nourish the gospel until we have a testimony.
This abstract idea is very succinctly taught by the parable. In fact, I find it hard to describe without alluding to the parable in one way or another.
The apostles asked the Savior why he chose to teach in parables. Christ responds.
“Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” – Matthew 13:11 – 13
We can choose to understand the parables by allowing our spiritual eyes and ears to see and hear what the Lord has to say.
An allegory is very closely related to a parable. Like a parable, it uses concrete images to explain an abstract concept. An allegory isn’t a side-by-side comparison. Instead, it weaves back and forth between the concrete story and the abstract ideas represented by the story.
I hope this definition helps. A good example of allegory is The Allegory of the tame and wild olive trees found in the Book of Mormon in Jacob 5.
You can understand the meaning of an allegory in the same way you understand a parable or any of the scriptures – open your ears and eyes – in other words, Get the Spirit.
Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes are both ways we compare two things. In a metaphor, we say that something is actually something else.
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: …” –Matthew 10:16
The disciples are not actually sheep; and the world to which they are sent are not actually wolves. It is understood that this is simply a comparison – Apostles of Christ = sheep; world = wolves. When the apostles see this image, they begin to better understand their assignment – and perhaps even the danger that is involved.
A simile is when something is being likened to another thing, and the words “like” or “as” are usually used. It is a more obvious comparison.
“…be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” – Matthew 10:16
The comparison here is more obvious – the apostles need to be both wise and harmless. It is also very obvious that the comparison is not literal.
Jesus Christ gave this advice to the apostles as he gave them the assignment to go and preach the gospel. He wanted them to understand, concretely, the task that was before them.
Additionally, there is a huge difference between him saying Be wise and harmless versus Be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove. The simile illustrates how they need to act. It emphasizes these qualities.
When we study the scriptures, and we begin to notice the parables, allegories, metaphors, and similes, we can get a richer experience and understanding of the meaning that is being expressed. We don’t need to shy away from these literary elements. Instead, we can enjoy them!
If you would like additional scripture study tips, check out my free eBook: Getting More from the Scriptures: Techniques and Projects for Effective Scripture Study.