The Greek word translated as “parable” means, basically, a comparison. A parable compares one thing with another.
But by definition, there will be some points of comparison that are not warranted. After all, if there were a perfect correlation between the two things, they wouldn’t be two things–they would be one thing!
In an Ensign article called “How to Read a Parable,” Richard Lloyd Anderson writes this:
Analogies present one situation as being similar to a second, but since two situations always differ in some details, analogies can easily be pushed too far.
Almost any sample of imagery contains the same problem. For instance, Robert Burns opens a favorite poem, “O, my Luve’s like a red red rose.” How is his sweetheart like a red rose? Does she have red hair? A ruddy complexion? Is she blushing? Wearing red clothes? Showing red eyes from crying? Each answer, although logically possible, is strained. The comparison is valid only if kept on the general level that the captivating beauty Of the rose illustrates the captivating beauty of the loved one. To press the analogy to unwarranted detail forces it to break down. It is critically important to realize that the same thing can happen to biblical parables.
So an important tool for the study of parables is to ask ourselves: In what ways is the comparison invalid? Anderson uses the example of the persistent neighbor in Luke 11 to suggest that it is not the case that God answers our prayers just to stop our nagging! In the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, the soil is what it is, but we, unlike the soil, have a choice as to how we will respond to the seed/word.
C.H. Dodd’s famous definition of a parable is “ . . . a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
I love the idea of a mind teased into thought. Someone who is thinking has created time and space for the Spirit to speak.
I can imagine someone, years after hearing Jesus speak, pricking her finger on a thorn, thinking about the danger that accompanies beauty, and better understanding what Jesus meant about the cares of the world in Matthew 13:22. It is much harder to imagine her remembering an abstract theological discourse years later, or being prompted to remember it via events of daily living.