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The Power of Parables

Whatever most people make of Jesus, there is one thing he is often not accused of -- being a bad teacher. It's widely accepted that Jesus is one of the greatest teachers that ever lived, even among people who reject him as the Son of God. Many who deny his divinity still acknowledge that he was a great teacher. No footnotes or citations even needed. So what was it that made this penniless preacher from Nazareth really capture people's attention--even people today who may or may not even follow him as the Teacher? 

The long answer is that he was (is), indeed, the Son of God. He was (is) the source of all knowledge, truth, and wisdom. He taught with all the authority of heaven--oh, and when you can do miracles, that helps. Trying to unpack his divinity as the source of his teaching skills is beyond the scope of this short attempt. So let's tackle the short answer instead.

Jesus knew how to tell a good story.

Jesus was able to take that for which we had no frame of reference, and make it clearly understandable.

He was an unparalleled teacher because he knew the power of a short story. The way it connects with people. The way it simply communicates. Jesus knew the power of parables, and he knew they were the perfect medium for making spiritual truth accessible. By casting the mysteries of the kingdom alongside everyday situations, Jesus was able to take that for which we had no frame of reference, and make it clearly understandable.

Since Jesus did this so often (he told 30-60 parables depending on how strictly one defines "parable"), it's important for his followers to know how to interact with the parables. Whether it's a one-sentence story like the parable of the hidden treasure in Matthew 13, or the story takes up almost an entire chapter, like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15--it helps to know why parables are such a good teaching tool. And it helps to read them with a few guidelines in the back of our minds.

WHAT AND WHY?

Without getting into Jesus's motivation for teaching in parables ("seeing, they would not see, and hearing, they would not hear"), let's consider the parables and their usefulness as a teaching tool. A parable is simply a story that reveals a parallel truth. It starts out with something familiar, and moves the hearer toward the unfamiliar with a frame of reference--the perfect method for preaching the kingdom of heaven to a bunch of fisherman, farmers, carpenters, and the like. Try describing "beauty." Not beautiful things, but the essence of beauty, itself. It's easier to just point to something beautiful and say, "it's like that." It's easier to give an example, a reference. That's what parables do. That's why parables are great for describing the kingdom of heaven. "The kingdom of heaven is like...."

We know Jesus is not only talking about fishing nets and treasure; he’s talking about something bigger, something spiritual.

Not only do they communicate through the familiar, but precisely because they begin in the realm of the common, parables often hold our attention because we get it. Most of Jesus' parables are simple, and he uses elements we can identify with (soil and seeds, fishing nets, treasure). He doesn't lose us because we don't know what he's talking about. We get it, so we pay attention. But more importantly, we know he's not only talking about fishing nets and treasure; he's talking about something bigger, something spiritual. And thus we have one of the biggest benefits of teaching in parables -- the hearer discovers the truth of the teaching for himself! And which do you remember more: information that you were taught or truth that you discovered?

HOW AND WHY?

How then should we read Jesus' parables? Is there a right way and a wrong way? Is it possible to misread them or miss their meaning? Again, there's a long answer, but the short answer is 'yes.' That's one of the other benefits to teaching in parables -- Jesus was able to conceal truth from people too lazy, prejudiced, or hard-hearted to think about their meaning. So it is possible to read them wrongly, but if you'll seek the truth and let a few simple principles guide you, you'll find the parables to be rich and rewarding. 

  1. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Parables are not allegories. There's a difference, and the biggest is that in a parable, every detail doesn't mean something or stand for something else. In most (not all, but most) of the parables, there is one main truth, and the details are insignificant. Remember, parables were heard once, in many cases -- so they needed a simple meaning that could be easily understood and make an immediate impact upon hearing.
  2. WHEN POSSIBLE, LEARN ABOUT THE SETTING (geography, social circumstances, etc.). Many times, this one takes some research or a good commentary, but it often adds to the meaning if you know something about the setting or elements in the story. For example, how much more impactful is the story of the good samaritan when you know Jews and Samaritans hated each other? Jesus wasn't simply teaching that we should help our neighbors, but that our neighbor is even our worst enemy.
  3. PUT YOURSELF IN THE STORY. There are different kinds of parables: true parables and story parables. True parables are based on a truth that can't be argued with. When Jesus said the kingdom is like a mustard seed, no one will object to the properties of a mustard seed, that even though it's a small seed, it grows into a large plant or tree. Story parables have characters and actions, and the force of the parable comes not from whether the story is true or not, but from the characters and actions in the story. When you're reading a story parable, figure out which character you are, and which character Jesus says you should be. This helps make the next one easier.
  4. MAKE THE TEACHING PERSONAL AND ACTIONABLE. Now that you know what Jesus is teaching, what are you going to do about it? Because it doesn't mean much if you don't put it into action.

And finally, check the teaching against the rest of the Scriptures. If you walk away with something different that what's taught elsewhere in the Word -- reread the parable and start over.

What would you add? As you've read and studied the parables, what guidelines have you used to help discern their meaning?