Maybe the answer is obvious, but whenever people say “obvious,” some investigation may be in order. Start with “A parable is a short and simple story that represents a message about values.” Short? As short as a couple of sentences or as long as a few hundred words. Simple? Usually simple means easy to understand or uncomplicated, but here there is a difficulty. On the surface a parable sounds simple enough, but when it comes to what it means, it gets more complicated. Maybe we should scratch out “simple,” though the story itself should at least sound straightforward.
A parable’s representation of something else is metaphorical, but not allegorical. In an allegory each part of the story, or each key part of the story is a symbol for something else, which it should resemble in some important aspect. A parable may sometimes become an allegory, when the teller of the tale decides to interpret its elements as symbols for something specific. Jesus’s parable of the sower and the soils (Mark 4) becomes an allegory when the soils become symbols for several specific kinds of human responses, like deafness, apostasy, fickleness, weakness, conflicted values, and faithfulness, and the sower becomes the preacher of the gospel. In its original telling, as a parable, the story merely suggests a comparison. It is more or less obvious to the listener how amazing it is that a bountiful harvest usually follows the scattering and waste of much of the seed. Many parables have been interpreted allegorically. The allegorical method of interpretation dominated the early centuries of the Christian church. In the same centuries rabbis continued to teach with parables, leaving the interpretation to the imagination and consternation of their listeners.
The interpretation of parables does sometimes lead to frustration and other times to inspiration, to disturbance and to comfort, to puzzlement and to satisfaction. If it leads nowhere, it is not a parable. If it answers its own questions, and leaves no sense of incompleteness for us to think about, it is probably not a parable. If the analogy is too perfect, and we see a meaning immediately that is exact, it is unlike the parables of those teachers who used parables so well, like Jesus of Nazareth or the Baal Shem Tov.
What about the values that parables suggest? Is there a limit to the kinds of values that can be espoused in the parable form? While I may favor humane and compassionate suggestions over cruel and selfish ones, parables can be moving expressions of all of the attitudes people rank as important.
Where will we find parables? That is what I’d like to know. I’m looking for them In nature or human interactions, in memories or imagination, in dreams or lived moments that make an impact, everywhere that my attention is grabbed and something is discovered.
As far as how the parables I find may be used, I must leave that up to the listener. Have fun with them. Make a sermon out of them. Let them suggest experiences when you have discovered your own parables. Carry on.