Whatever most people make of Jesus, there is one thing he is never accused of — being a bad teacher. Jesus is widely accepted as one of the greatest teachers who ever lived, even among people who reject him as the Son of God. So what made this homeless preacher really capture people’s attention — even people today who may or may not even follow him as a religious leader?
Jesus knew how to tell a good story.
He was an unparalleled teacher because he knew the power of a short story. The way it connects with people, and communicates simply. Jesus knew parables 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 one’s definition of “parable”), it’s important for his followers to know how to interact with his parables. Whether it’s a one-sentence story like the parable of the hidden treasure in Matthew 13, or a chapter-length story like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 — it helps to understand it when you know why Jesus used parables in the first place.
First, consider the usefulness of parables 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 new frame of reference. It was perfect for preaching the kingdom of heaven to a bunch of fisherman, farmers, and carpenters. For example, try this: describe “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 lofty concepts such as the kingdom of heaven.
Not only do they communicate through the familiar, but because they begin with common points of reference, parables 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. More importantly, we know he’s not only talking about fishing nets and treasure; he’s talking about something bigger, something spiritual. 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 you were taught or truth you discovered?
HOW SHOULD WE READ PARABLES?
How then should we read Jesus’ parables? Is there a right and wrong way? Is it possible to misread them or miss their meaning? The short answer is ‘yes.’ Oddly enough, another of the benefits of teaching in parables is that 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. 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. Often parables were heard once only, so they needed a simple meaning that could be easily understood, as well as 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 meaningful is the story of the good samaritan when you know Jews and Samaritans absolutely 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 observable, undeniable truths. When Jesus said the kingdom is like a mustard seed, no one will object to the properties of a mustard seed; even though it’s small, 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 parables are great teaching tools, but they don’t accomplish much if you don’t act on what you learned.
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