FIGURATIVE EXPRESSIONS IN HOLY SCRIPTURE
To interpret Holy Scripture properly, one must be familiar with the different types of figurative expressions used in the Bible. These figurative expressions fall into three basic categories: Figures of Speech, Analogies, and Allegories (which include the parables).
A. FIGURES OF SPEECH
There are many figurative statements in the Old and New Testaments, and not all are parables. Some are mere figures of speech; others are plain analogies. It is important to be familiar with the differences between them. First, the figures of speech:
Simile - This is a figure of speech where the similarity of two things is stated by using words such as "like" or "as." For example, "You are like an angel," or "She is as cute as a kitten." Usually, the comparison is obvious to the listeners, and the speaker does not need to justify or explain the comparison. An example from Holy Scripture is this: "One day with the Lord is as a thousand years" (2 Pet 3:8). Other examples of similes spoken by Christ are the following:
1. "Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves" (Matt 10:16).
2. "Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 18:3).
Metaphor - This is another figure of speech where the similarity of two things is indicated without using the words "like" or "as," but simply by identifying the two things being compared. If, for instance, instead of saying, "You are like an angel," you simply say "You are an angel," then you give the same compliment with greater impact. An example from Holy Scripture is this: "The Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer" (Ps 18:2). Like the simile, the comparison is obvious enough that the speaker does not need to elaborate or discuss the comparison further. Some examples where Christ spoke metaphorically are the following:
1. "You are the salt of the earth" (Matt 5:13).
2. "My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, that I may perfect his work" (John 4:34).
Hyperbole - This is a figure of speech that uses exaggeration to make a point and, for that reason, should not be taken literally. An example of this is when one says, "I've been waiting forever" when what is meant is that he or she has been waiting for an unusually long time. Here are some examples from Christ:
1. "If thy right eye is the occasion of thy falling into sin, pluck it out and cast it away from thee; better to lose one part of thy body than to have the whole cast into hell" (RKB Matt 5:29). Christ only wanted to say that we should not allow anything to compromise our eternal salvation, so He used hyperbole to make His point. His words should not be taken literally as a recommendation to pluck out our eyes if our eyes had been an occasion of sin for us.
2. "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). Again Christ only wanted our dedication to Him to be complete. We do not need to literally hate our family or our life to become his disciple. His remark was a hyperbole.
Christ Teaching in the Temple
A painting by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1712-1774)
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Proverb - This is another common figure of speech, which consists in stating a generally accepted truth. There is usually a deeper meaning behind the actual words spoken. The Book of Proverbs has plenty of examples of wise sayings or proverbs for practical life. Our Lord often spoke figuratively, and some of His remarks were proverbs. Here are some examples:
1. "Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also" (Matt 6:21).
2. "Every tree is known by its fruit" (Luke 6:44).
3. "They that are well have no need of a physician, but they that are sick" (Mark 2:17) - This was the comment Christ gave when the scribes and the Pharisees were wondering why He ate with publicans and sinners.
4. "Nobody uses a piece of new cloth to patch an old cloak" (RKB Matt 9:16)
5. "If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit" (Matt 15:14)
In a sense, all figurative statements depend on analogy or the resemblance of one thing to another. The different types of analogy-based narratives come from the different ways in which the resemblance or analogy is used. There are two basic types of narratives in this category: the similitude (which uses an analogy to compare two things) and the analogical argument (which uses an analogy to draw a logical conclusion).
Similitude - A similitude is based on a simile or metaphor, but is itself not a simple figure of speech. It is rather an expanded simile or metaphor. It is used when the similarity indicated by the simile or metaphor is not obvious and an explanation is necessary to show the comparison. For example, in his play, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, Shakespeare wrote: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." His statement involved a metaphor: "All the world's a stage," but it wasn't clear why he said that, until he added the next line: "and all the men and women merely players." By adding the second phrase, Shakespeare extended his first metaphor, and successfully manifested the similarity or similitude between the world and the stage. There is also an old similitude that says, "Humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows." This one involves a simile: "Humility is like underwear," but nobody knows why humility is like underwear until the next phrase is added, which manifests the similitude. When the likeness between two things indicated by a simile or metaphor is not obvious, and it is necessary to add some phrase or explanation that manifests the resemblance between the two things, then the resulting figurative narrative is called a similitude. A similitude is therefore really nothing but an extended simile or metaphor. The next three examples are from Holy Scripture and illustrate the nature of a similitude:
Example 1 (The Vine and the Branches): In the gospel of St. John Christ said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned." (RSVCE John 15:1-6) Notice that Christ used three metaphors here: (a) I am the vine; (b) you are the branches; (c) my Father is the vinedresser. None of these is clear without our Lord's additional explanation. But with His explanation, the analogy was clarified. It explains why Christ called Himself the vine, we the branches, and the Father the vinedresser.
Example 2 (The Good Shepherd): In another place in St. John's gospel Christ also said, "I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep" (NABRE John 10:11-15). This similitude is also an expanded metaphor. Christ identifies Himself as the good shepherd and explains why. Unlike the hired man, the good shepherd does not run away when the wolf comes. He defends the sheep against the wolf and even lays down his life, if necessary. After Christ's crucifixion, we now know the full significance of this similitude. We know why Christ called Himself the Good Shepherd. He died on the cross to save our souls from being snatched by the devil (the wolf). Some people would call this example a "parable," because they view Christ's narrative of a shepherd defending the sheep and laying down his life as a short "story." It is indeed a story, but the so-called story in similitude is there to explain the metaphor. In a proper parable, the story is not used to explain a figure (such as a simile or metaphor) but is itself a figure (an allegory) that needs to be explained. So, there is a fine line that distinguishes a plain similitude from a proper parable.
The Lord is my Good Shepherd
A painting by Bernhard Plockhorst (1825-1907)
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Example 3 (The Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price): In the gospel of St. Matthew Christ said, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field. Which a man having found, hid it, and for joy thereof goeth, and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant seeking good pearls. Who when he had found one pearl of great price, went his way, and sold all that he had, and bought it" (Matt 13:44-46). Again these are not proper parables but similitudes. There are two similes here. One compares the Kingdom of God to a hidden treasure, the other to a valuable pearl. The short "stories" that go with them only serve to explain the similes. They both teach that Heaven is so precious that we should be willing to give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom. It is permissible to call these similitudes "parables," if the word "parable" is broadly defined to include any figurative narrative that uses a story to show an analogy. In fact, St. Matthew himself was in the habit of calling these similitudes parables (See Matt 13:31 and 33). However, the similitude, as a type of "parable," should still be distinguished from the other type, called the proper parable, which will be more fully described below (under "Allegories").
Analogical Argument - This figurative narrative is not based on a simile or metaphor. It does not merely compare two things either but uses the analogy or resemblance between two things to develop an argument or to draw a logical conclusion. The basic form of an analogical argument is this: "If A and B are analogous, then a feature observed in A will also be found in B." Alternatively, the argument may be stated as "A and B are analogous. Therefore, as A has the feature C, so also does B have the similar feature D." An example of an analogical argument is this: "The heart is like a pump. As the pump operates according to a cycle of pressure and release, so the heart acts to produce cycles of high and low pressure in the arteries." In many cases the phrase "A and B are analogous" is not explicitly stated because the analogy is evident. The following examples from Holy Scripture further illustrate the analogical argument as a type of figurative narrative:
Example 1 (The Birds of the Air and the Lilies of the Field): “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (RSVCE Matt 6:25-33). Beautiful, isn't it? The argument is so straightforward and so clear that even uneducated people can easily understand it. There is no complicated simile or metaphor that needs to be explained. In fact, the analogy on which the whole argument is based is not even explicitly stated but merely taken for granted. Explicitly, the argument is this: "We are like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field in that we are all God's creatures. If God so cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, with more reason He would care for us, who are His more valuable creatures." Again, there is no parable here, but an analogy that Christ developed into an argument.
Example 2 (The Son Who Asked his Father for Bread): “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (RSVCE Matt 7:7-11) This example, like the first one, relies on analogy to develop an argument. In this case, the analogy is between the Father's relationship with us and our relationship with our own children. It first describes how we treat our own children. Then comes the argument: If we, who are sinners, know how to give good gifts to our children, with more reason we could expect God, who is all-good, to be generous to us.
Example 3 (The Woman in Labor): "Jesus, knowing that they were eager to question him, said to them, You are wondering among yourselves over what I have been saying, After a little while you will see me no longer, and again after a little while you will have sight of me. Believe me when I tell you this, you will weep and lament while the world rejoices; you will be distressed, but your distress shall be turned into joy. A woman in childbirth feels distress, because now her time has come; but when she has borne her child, she does not remember the distress any longer, so glad is she that a man has been born into the world. So it is with you, you are distressed now; but one day I will see you again, and then your hearts will be glad; and your gladness will be one which nobody can take away from you" (RKB John 16:19-22). The Apostles were wondering about Christ's earlier remark that the time would come when they would no longer see Him - which would cause them great sorrow, - but that after a little while they would see Him again. Christ used the analogy of a woman in childbirth to console them: As a woman in labor forgets the pain when the child is born, their sorrows will turn into joy when He comes again.
Allegories are like analogies in that they also use the resemblance of hypothetical things and events in the narrative with things and events in real life. However, the allegory is not used just to make a comparison (as in a similitude), or to develop an argument (as in an analogy), but to bring a message hidden within the narrative. It is the task of the reader or listener to interpret the hidden meaning behind the narratives.
Three types of Allegories will be distinguished, but the second and third types are only special cases of the first.
Allegory - In its most general form, an allegory is any figurative narrative that delivers a message. The message can be anything, a religious truth, a moral truth, a political truth, or a prophecy, that is hidden behind the figures used in the narrative. The figures could be events, common objects, places, and people, or they could be fanciful and mythical beings (like a beast with seven heads), or even numbers. The narrative itself could be in the form of prose, fictional story, poetry, or hymns. All allegories need interpretation, especially if the hidden meaning is not obvious.
An example of an Allegory in the form of poetry is The Arrow and the Song, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882):
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
One possible interpretation of the above poem is detailed below:
I shot an arrow into the air = I said an unkind word (the "arrow") thoughtlessly ("into the air")
It fell to earth, I knew not where = The unkind word was heard, but also by other unknown people.
For, so swiftly it flew = Because the unkind word spread rapidly
the sight could not follow it in its flight = No way to tell who else was affected by it.
I breathed a song into the air = I said a kind word (the "song") thoughtlessly
It fell to earth, I knew not where = The kind word was heard, but also by other unknown people.
For who has sight so keen and strong = For who has the power and ability
That it can follow the flight of song? = To trace the joy and happiness a kind word brings?
Long, long afterward, in an oak = Years later, in someone I once knew
I found the arrow, still unbroke = I found the wounds of unkindness still unhealed ("still unbroke")
And the song, from beginning to end = But the kind word - every thing it meant
I found again in the heart of a friend = Still lives in the memory of a friend I never knew.
That is an example of an allegory in the form of poetry. The figures (the arrow, the song) represent something totally different from the proper meaning of the words alone. But with the proper interpretation, the hidden meaning of the poem is revealed.
In Holy Scripture, the Revelation of St. John is an example of a prophetical book written in highly symbolic language. However, calling it a "prophecy" does not mean that it is only foretelling future events, such as the end times. In Holy Scripture, a prophecy refers to the teaching of a prophet, the prophet being God's spokesperson. In the Old Testament God sent prophets to the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Juda to warn them of the consequences of their sins. Their prophecy, therefore, wasn't exactly just a prediction of a future event, but a reminder of what could happen in the future as a result of their repeated transgressions. In the New Testament, St. John's Revelation was likewise describing in symbolic language the sad state of the early church during his time, which was being persecuted by the Roman Emperors, whom St. John symbolized by wild beasts. The Revelation of St. John was describing the first centuries of Christianity, not just the future. This is the literal sense of the narrative. Its imagery refers to the figureheads of Rome, not to today's personages such as the POTUS or the present Holy Father, as some contemporary writers and preachers seem to portray. However, although the condition and plight of the early Christians were the obvious subjects intended by St. John, it is permissible to give the narrative allegorical interpretations that extend into the future history of the Church, – even to the advent of the second coming of Christ, – because the battle between good and evil continues to the end of time. Such allegorical interpretations, to be acceptable, must be consistent with the whole of Scripture, the Traditions of the Church, and the teachings of our Faith.
Fable - This is a special type of allegory in story form that uses animals or plants (trees) as actors to deliver a moral truth. The power of a fable lies in its ability to illustrate by analogy the moral consequences of real-life situations. Aesop's Fables are the most well-known examples of fables. As a type of allegory, the fable has not been popular among sacred writers. In fact, the author is not aware of any fable in the New Testament. However, there are a couple of places in the Old Testament where the fable has been used: Jgs 9:7-20 and 2 Kgs 14:9-10 (or its parallel, 2 Chr 25:18-19).
Proper Parable - This is also a special type of allegory in the form of a fictional story that uses only common objects, people and places (no mythical beings or numbers) to deliver a religious or moral truth. The effectiveness of the parable to convey its message lies in the resemblance of the hypothetical events described in the narrative to possible or actual human events. Like some similitudes, parables always come with a story (usually written in the past tense). But, unlike the similitude, the story in a proper parable is not used to explain a figure of speech (simile or metaphor), but is itself a figure to be explained. However, the stories in many parables are self-explanatory, and additional explanations are hardly required. But other parables have a more profound meaning and require interpretation. In fact, there were two parables in the gospels where Christ was requested by His disciples to explain the parable; namely, (a) The Parable of the Sower and the Four Types of Soil, and (b) The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.
Note that parables may also be found in the Old Testament, but most of the well-known parables of the Bible are from Christ in the New Testament. For a list of the parables and other figurative teachings of Christ, click the button below:
Some parables deliver a moral message. For example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is a heart-warming tale of forgiveness. But there are also other parables that teach a doctrinal or religious truth. For example, the Parable of the Wicked Vine-dressers, which was related by three Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), contains not only a summary of the entire story of our salvation but also a prophecy of the death of Christ.
There was a rich man who planted a vineyard; he walled it in, and dug a wine-press and built a tower in it, and then let it out to some vine-dressers, while he went on his travels. When vintage-time drew near, he sent his own servants on an errand to the vine-dressers, to claim its revenues. Whereupon the vine-dressers laid hands upon his servants; one they beat, one they killed outright, one they stoned. And he sent other servants on a second errand, more than he had sent at first, but they were used no better. After that, he sent his own son to them; They will have reverence, he said, for my son. But when the vine-dressers found his son coming to them, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize upon the inheritance. And they laid hands on him, thrust him out from the vineyard, and killed him. And now, what will the owner of the vineyard do to those vine-dressers when he returns? They said, He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will let out the vineyard to other vine-dressers, who will pay him his due when the season comes. (RKB Matt 21:33-41) See also Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19.
Note the doctrinal teachings of this parable. The vine-dressers represented the Jews. God was the rich landowner, Moses and the prophets were the servants, and Christ was the landowner's son. God first sent the prophets to demand worship from the Jews, but the Jews refused. When finally God sent His own Son, they even killed Him. The end of the parable alludes to the exclusion of the Jews from the Kingdom and the calling of the Gentiles. For a full commentary on this parable, see St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily #68.
Proper parables only have a literal sense, which is the religious or moral truth intended by the author of the parable. Strictly, parables do not have spiritual senses because the spiritual senses are the meanings signified by real things and events, whereas the events related in parables are fictitious. A parable indeed may use real places (such as Jericho and Jerusalem in the Parable of the Good Samaritan) or real people (such as Abraham in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus), but the stories themselves are always fictional. However, saying that parables do not have spiritual senses does not mean that they cannot have an allegorical, moral or anagogical interpretation.
Sometimes, multiple interpretations can be given to a parable, but only the meaning or interpretation that matches the intent of the author is considered as its literal sense. Suppose a parable has a moral truth intended by its author; this would be its literal sense. If the parable can also be given an allegorical interpretation that leads to a doctrinal truth not intended by the author, then the new interpretation could be called an "allegorical interpretation." However, it cannot be called its spiritual sense because parables do not have spiritual senses. We have an example of this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable was given by our Lord in answer to a lawyer's question: Who is my neighbor?
The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)
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"And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, who also stripped him, and having wounded him went away, leaving him half dead. And it chanced, that a certain priest went down the same way: and seeing him, passed by. In like manner also a Levite, when he was near the place and saw him, passed by. But a certain Samaritan being on his journey, came near him; and seeing him, was moved with compassion. And going up to him, bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine: and setting him upon his own beast, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two pence, and gave to the host, and said: Take care of him; and whatsoever thou shalt spend over and above, I, at my return, will repay thee. Which of these three, in thy opinion, was neighbour to him that fell among the robbers? But he said: He that shewed mercy to him. And Jesus said to him: Go, and do thou in like manner" (Luke 10:30-37).
The obvious meaning of the above parable is clear: The true neighbor was the Good Samaritan who had compassion for the man who fell among robbers. This is its literal meaning. It encourages us to identify ourselves with the Good Samaritan or to be a Good Samaritan ourselves. However, many of the Church Fathers have given this parable an alternative interpretation (See, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea on Luke, Ch. 10, Verses 29-37). Instead of asking us to identify ourselves with the Good Samaritan, the Fathers thought that we could identify ourselves with the man who fell among the robbers, the Good Samaritan being Christ who came and rescued us. According to this interpretation, the man who fell among robbers was Adam (representing mankind). The robbers were the devil and his angels who stripped him of his immortality (which he enjoyed in the state of innocence). The Priest and Levite represented the Jews and Priests of Israel, who passed by but did not help him. The Good Samaritan was Christ, the beast of burden was His Body, and the oil and wine were the Sacraments with which He treated the wounds. The Inn was the Church, the Innkeeper was the Holy Father and the Samaritan's return is the Second Coming of Christ. What a beautiful allegorical interpretation! But it is just that, an allegorical interpretation. It is neither the literal sense nor the spiritual sense of the parable. Is it safe to read this type of hidden "meaning" in the sacred text? Sure, provided the interpretation does not contradict any part of Holy Scripture, is in agreement with Sacred Tradition, and is consistent with our Catholic Faith.
While allegorical interpretations can be used profitably in homilies to exhort the practice of virtue, it must be remembered that theological arguments must still be based on the literal sense of the Holy Scripture, not the spiritual senses nor the allegorical interpretations.