Introduction to the Parables

Introduction to the Parables

The imagination is the intellect at play, it is reason listening to a story. Of course Jesus, who invented the human mind, planned the learning process to include the capturing of the imagination. The master teacher, he loved to express his vivid and agile imagination whenever he could. Jesus loved to tell stories, all kinds of stories, depending on the audience. At one point in his ministry he evidently told nothing but stories to the crowds (Matt. 13:34). His favorite method of teaching seemed to be through extended metaphors, in other words parables. These parables always included simple, everyday realities, which had universal appeal and drew the audience in, wherever he was, whoever he was with.

The word “parable” literally means to “throw down in the midst of.” So one can say that a parable is a story that is a verbal object thrown into a particular setting, often a conversation. Parables slip past defenses, wake up and pull in the hearers. As Emily Dickenson once wrote, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Truth in indirection lies.” Rather than simply stating an abstract fact or conceptual proposition, Jesus often came at it sideways to get their attention, to inspire their imagination, to tell a truth at a slant.

Parables are meant to be provocative, homespun tales that have a main point. Sometimes there are many main points. Sometimes Jesus’ indirection  was like a smoke bomb, and the main point was clouded over and confusing, forcing the hearers to dig deeper and try to figure it out. Oftentimes, the parables were like firecrackers, the indirection thrown into the midst of the hearers in order to stir things up, pointedly aimed at people who need to take the story personally.

Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus, God in the flesh, loved to teach through the imagination, with stories, observations and anecdotes? He spoke truth indirectly, through story, because it appears that a chief element of faith itself is the ability to draw an image in your mind, to imagine the seen as coming from the unseen (Hebrews 11:1-2). How can we believe in the unseen without an active imagination?

It’s interesting too that Jesus’ parables, a primary teaching strategy, were a fulfillment of an OT prophecy found in Ps. 78:2, mentioned in Matt. 13:35: “I will open my mouth and tell stories. I will bring out into the open things hidden since the world’s first day.” (Message). Here is another in a long line of examples supporting St. Paul’s statement that all the promises to Israel find their YES in Jesus.

One can make the case therefore, as Kenneth Bailey does, that Jesus was in fact teaching theology through his parables: “Jesus was a metaphorical theologian. That is, his primary method of creating meaning was through metaphor, simile, parable and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning. He created meaning like a dramatist and a poet rather than like a philosopher.” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 279).

As many Bible teachers suggest, it is important to join the audience in Jesus’ parables, to try to imagine how a Middle Easterner in the 1st century would hear the story. If we want to understand the parable the way Jesus intended, we need to take into account the culture of the audience, the context of the story, the world in which Jesus taught. Some of his stories were simpler than others, but all of his parables were rich with kingdom meaning, and were, in Bailey’s words, “serious theology.” Therefore, parables are deep theology, learned indirectly, through a divinely inspired imagination and a winsome, compelling personality.

“Infuriating as this tactic (answering a question with another question) must have been to his opponents, another kind of answer Jesus gave to questions – the parables – was equally disturbing. His questioners usually wanted answers to what they considered binary problems – a simple yes or no would do. Thumbs up or down. Instead they often get analogues. Parables. Little stories that had to be chewed on awhile before one could decode their message. Sometimes more than one. ‘The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed?’ What kind of answer is that? Just this: the kind that can be carried around inside a person because, being a picture, it’s not easily forgotten. The kind that doesn’t allow you to simply check another item off your list of cosmic mysteries. The kind that gradually pervades your imagination and soaks into your bloodstream and becomes part of your very tissue and bones. The kind you can live with for days, months, years, while it sprouts and may one day even bear fruit.”  (Virginia Stem Owens, Looking for Jesus, p. 143)

It’s fun to think of Jesus as a seriously playful theologian who effectively used his imaginative stories to teach the truth, throwing them into the mix of people he encountered. We too can be in his audience as we look at his parables. Let’s see what we can learn by listening to his stories. Get your Bibles out and read each one as you dive into the following studies. And don’t forget a very important part of the process here… the section at the end of each parable reflection is called “Going Further.” It will ask open-ended questions and present scenarios meant to stimulate and provoke, to discuss and to apply to daily life. Enjoy the stories as they are unpacked, and learn how relevant they are to life today.

 

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