Jesus was a storyteller. Some of the most intriguing and provocative teachings in the New Testament are parables that Jesus shared with his listeners. Parables are short stories which illustrate a lesson. They help people understand an idea without telling them directly what to believe.
We share bible stories, including some very complex and challenging ones, with very young children in the Children’s Worship Center at Westminster, using figures to tell the stories visually as well as with words. Most stories are told with wooden figures stored in baskets. The parables, however, are always presented in gold boxes. We start each parable by holding the box and saying, “I wonder if this is a parable. Parables are very precious like gold. This box looks like a present. Parables are like presents that have already been given to us. This box has a lid. Parables seem to have lids on them. When you lift the lid, there’s something precious inside. Let’s lift the lid and see if this is a parable.”
Then we tell the story, simply, without elaboration, just as Jesus did. When we are done telling the story, we sit back and ask what we call “wondering questions,” which allow the children to consider what the story means or how the characters felt. There are no right or wrong answers.
How we share parables with children actually works for all ages, including the listeners in Jesus’ time and in our own. The beauty of parables is that the listener must interpret the meaning himself. Parables were a common literary technique in Jesus’ day, a time when most teaching was oral, not written. Jesus did not invent parables, but he used them masterfully.
Let’s look at one of Jesus’ most famous parables, “The Prodigal Son.” In this story, a father has two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance, which he takes and squanders on loose living. Broke and starving, he returns home to contritely ask his father if he can live with the pigs and eat the food they eat. Instead of berating the younger son, the father welcomes him with open arms and throws a huge party to celebrate his return. The older son who has dutifully worked alongside his father all along is angry at his brother’s joyful reception, grumbling that no one ever threw a party for him. The father tells the older son that his brother was lost and now is found, which is reason to rejoice and celebrate.
This story never fails to elicit strong reactions in people. Some sympathize with the older brother, some with the younger, some with the father. Some find it joyful; some think it isn’t fair. Jesus let the story sit with his listeners with no explanation. He could have said, “God’s love is freely given to everyone, regardless of whether or not they deserve it.” But, the message is powerful when relayed in a story that every listener can identify with.
Jesus not only taught using parables; he used his stories to challenge his listeners and turn their assumptions upside down. Consider the parable of "The Good Samaritan," which is much more than a nice tale about being kind to others. The traveler who was robbed and wounded and left in a ditch was a good Jew. The ones who passed him by, ignoring him and refusing to help, were a rabbi and a priest, supposedly pillars of society. The one who stopped and helped was a Samaritan, a hated man from a culture long despised by Jews. In the story, the Samaritan didn’t just stop for the wounded Jew. He bound his wounds, exposed himself to danger, took him to safety and paid for his lodging and care. Hearing this story would have unsettled Jesus’ listeners about how their world was supposed to be. It still does for us today.
A modern-day storyteller, the Rev. Fred Rogers (aka “Mr. Rogers”) said, “What a tough job to try to communicate the gift of Jesus Christ to anybody. It can’t be simply talked about, can it? Jesus himself used parables — so I guess that’s our directive: try to show the kingdom of God through stories as much as possible.”
Interested in learning more about Jesus’ parables? The Rev. Patrick Heery will lead a Wednesday Noon Study series on the parables beginning Sept. 12 in the church education building. Bring a bag lunch and engage in discussion about these challenging and life-changing teachings.