How can the parables of Jesus be relevant now?
Jesus lived and taught in a very different world, in a different social, religious and political milieu so how can what he spoke of then possibly be relevant for human beings now?
Could the short answer be…..
Structures and societies change but human beings remain human and human stories retain their point.
If Jesus had addressed himself to the particular political, social and religious issues of his own times rather than teaching through signs and parables, his words may be long forgotten. Instead, he consistently used stories which remain relevant no matter how much the specifics of human existence change.
Test this out for yourselves.
What are some of the challenges that face us as human beings in the 21st century?
Brainstorm a list of them (if you can’t think of any try the morning paper).
What are some of the parables of Jesus that you can think of? Can you identify some parables that might have something to say to the list of problems and concerns you identified?
Match up a couple and see if the story and the present day work together. If not, what’s the problem?
What about me?
The London Times once asked several well-known authors to write articles on the theme, “What’s Wrong with the World?” The Christian writer and humourist, G. K. Chesterton, wrote this reply:
Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton
What was Chesterton getting at?
Sometimes our own personal lives can be a minefield. Difficulties like loneliness, isolation, anger, jealousy, selfishness, greed, dishonesty, being excluded, boredom (can you think of any more?) affect just about everyone at some stage. What might some of the parables have to say to these problems?
Would the world be a very different place if each of us could fix our own problems?
Sometimes it’s not so clear what Jesus is getting at. Would you agree that he’s not just interested in his hearers getting the answers right.
Some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested that the parables are meant to confuse not to enlighten. Look at a powerpoint pdf intro to the parables by Mark Hoffman to see what he suggests about the point of parables.
What are parables actually? Do other religious traditions have them?
A simple explanation of what a parable is, is offered on the Wikipedia site and a powerpoint presentation Parable and Metaphor sets out a definition and explains the various types of parable found in the New Testament. It is clear that though the parables of Jesus are the ones Christians tend to know best, they grow from a long tradition of story telling in the oral tradition and literature of Judaism. While there are only a few parables in the Old Testament, the Talmud, the ancient collection of Rabbinic writing contains many.
A powerpoint presentation on the Rabbinic parables is helpful (though the speaker has a heavy and not very attractive American accent). Try viewing the slides without sound and read and/or comment yourself. Its value is that it chooses brief accessible parables so that students can see points of comparison and contrast with Jesus’ parables.
There are also parables in the Quran and in other religious traditions including the Aboriginal (though many of these are explanatory stories rather than parables). As a class choose some parables from different traditions and read them carefully.
- How are they similar to or different from Jesus’ parables? Having a problem working this one out? Scroll down this page to check some distinctive features of Jesus’ parables.
18 different angles on what a parable is. While the Wikipedia site mentioned above provides an ‘all purpose’ definition of a parable it is by no means the only one. (Having read a few, you might come up with one yourself?)
A table of brief comments, definitions and quotes by poets, writers and theologians often with quite different points of view about the nature of parables could stimulate great class discussion among senior students. It is all the more interesting since it picks up tensions in the understanding of their role and meaning. Some of the quotations are almost contradictory reflecting the various understandings and interpretations of the parables among scholars.
- Try putting each of the 18 quotations in a box and inviting each student to choose one and formulate an ‘on the spot’ response agreeing or disagreeing with its definition/comment. This could be followed up by a more thoughtful written response.
If you want to explore the relationship between the gospel parables and the Jewish tradition, there are some substantial extracts on line from a book entitled The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation
which traces the origins of parables to Rabbinic tradition and explores the relationship between them. The whole first chapter of this book can be found online.
Where can I find out more about Jesus’ parables?
A really helpful introduction to the parables of Jesus which makes an attempt to classify and explain their different styles is the Frontline site. Madeline Boucher is the chief writer (there are links to others) and the work is well organised and accessible.
Fr Felix Just’s site (as well as providing another short definition and useful explanation) has a colour chart of where the parables occur in each of the gospels. Here is a list of the parables organised according to topic.
- What does the list of topics tell you even before you find out the storyline/point of each?
- How many parables do you recognise just by their title?
What is Jesus trying to do when he tells his parables?
Even apart from any specifically religious meaning, maybe he’s inviting his listeners to think:
- Who am I?
- What am I doing?
- Why am I doing it?
- Is there someting else I could/should be doing?
Using a reasonably familiar parable like the Good Samaritan and in groups of six, invite each student to identify with a particular character in Jesus’ story: the traveller, the robbers, the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, the inn-keeper and respond to the questions above as each of them might. At the end suggest they respond as themselves.
There are a couple of other articles, more academic in tone, which teachers/senior students might also find interesting.
Parable Or Allegory? discusses the distinction between understanding the parables as allegories and the temptation to ‘allegorise’ them, that is to ascribe to them a single definitive meaning.
Interpreting Parables also warns against treating parables as allegories with set meanings and includes a very brief history of the interpretation of the gospel parables.
Interpreting the parables of the Galilean Jesus takes a look at the First Century society in which the parables of Jesus were set. It includes a section on ‘Honour and Shame’ which contributes to an understanding of society and teaching in NT times.
Can we work out what they are really about?
In a nutshell the parables are really about human beings and their relationship to God and the reign of God. While they do make a point, their meaning is open. The ever changing human context in which they are heard and the fact that each person who hears them is a unique individual means that no-one can provide a definitive ‘once and for all’ answer on the meaning of a particular parable.
Ever since Jesus told these stories his hearers have been talking about them and trying to draw meaning from them. Part of their richness is the diverse responses they have prompted in Christians down the ages and in the present time.
It is always worthwhile to
• ponder their meaning for ourselves and our own lives
• talk about them with others
• study what scholars and historians can reveal about their original context which was first century Palestine
• re-tell the stories or imagine new settings for them
• allow them to challenge our usual way of responding looking at things or acting
Test this for yourselves
Using the parable of the persistent friend Luke 11:5-8 (or another parable of your choice) follow these steps:
1. Read the parable carefully a couple of times noting who features in it and where it is set and what happens.
2. Compare notes with one or two others. What do you agree about? Where do your responses/interpretations differ?
3. Look in commentaries or online here or here to find out something about the social context of this story
4. Look carefully at what comes before and after the story in the text.
5. Imagine and retell the parable, retaining its meaning, in a 21st Century context.
6. What is the most surprising or challenging aspect of this parable?
7. What is the main point of the parable? What does it mean for you?
or follow these steps:
- Agree on a parable in with your students.
- To make sure you are all certain about the actual storyline, invite them to retell the parable to each other in pairs.
- Invite each student to write down any questions each can think of that explore the story. Table all questions.
- Then agree on one or two questions to explore at length as a group .
- What conclusions can you reach about the meaning of the parable?
One important way of uncovering the meaning of the parables for senior students is through formal exegesis. A site entitled Exegeting Parables suggests a way of going about this. Another article from Religion Online emphasises the need to accept and appreciate the Jewishness of Jesus in order to properly understand his parables.
In How do we interpret the parables and miracles of Jesus? Fr Gerard Hall comments that
‘what is remarkable with regard to the recorded parables and miracles of Jesus is their fundamental consistency. In all four Gospels, Jesus is presented as one who teaches in parables and performs miraculous deeds. Without the parables and miracles, the public ministry of Jesus would make for slim reading indeed’.
Fr Hall looks briefly at the Good Samaritan parable, noting its moral interpretation (go and do likewise) and its allegorical interpretation (St Augustine’s famous reading of the parable) before suggesting that the chief function of the this parable and all parables is to help hearers to an ‘anticipatory experience of the reign of God’.
• Explain why you would agree or disagree that the chief function of this (the Good Samaritan) parable and all of the parables is to help hearers to an ‘anticipatory experience of the reign of God’.
• In what sense is a parable true?
• Can a parable have more than one meaning? Choose a parable and set out some of its possible meanings.
• Which of the three ways of interpreting parables (moral, allegorical, experience of the Reign of God) seems most helpful to you?
• Explain in sentence or two how each of the three ways can cast light on the meaning of Jesus’ parables.
Why did Jesus tell stories when he could have simply told people what to do?
Which of these possible responses to this question seems the most likely explanation to you? Rate them 1-7.
• The parable which used images and situations familiar to its audience was a popular mode of teaching in the Semitic world in Jesus’ time.
• Stories are more enduring than instructions. If the situation changes, specific instructions may well become irrelevant, but a good story never loses its power and adaptability.
• Stories are also easier to listen to and retain than abstract ideas.
• Parables allow for making a rebuke or offering a challenge without making personal accusations.
• They are capable of multi-level interpretation.
• Parables plant thoughts, ideas and possibilities that may later influence attitudes, understanding and responses.
• They create a fictional world of archetypes that challenge assumptions and/or misconceptions concerning the Kingdom of God.
Parables are interactive! Another especially valuable aspect of the parable is that it invites the listener into active participation in learning. The point of the parable must be reflected upon and absorbed by the person who hears it. Parables are not instructions, commands or propositions. Jesus tells the parable but his listeners both then and now have to extract and apply the meaning. The story invites the hearer to interpret its meaning and to respond to it.
- Look again at this table of quotations expressing different understandings of the parables. Look at Row B which seems to agree that parables ‘do not tell us what to do’. Other quotations seem to suggest that in a way they do. What do you think?
- Consider one or two key ‘life lessons’ you have learned. Describe how you learnt them. How would you pass on what you have learned to someone else?
How would Jesus frame his parables today?
In an article entitled Teaching the Parables to a Post-Modern Society: Recontextualising the Parables,Samuel Lamerson claims that ‘It is not enough simply to repeat the stories, they must be recast in new and exciting ways. It is through this recasting that the stories will gain the “shock of recognition” that was so typical of the preaching of our Lord.’ He emphasises the need to know the ‘first horizon’ in which Jesus’ parables were heard, but also to understand the ‘second horizon’, the situation in which they are heard today. Lamerson’s article contains an example of a recontextualised parable, the unforgiving debtor: Matthew 18:21-35.
New contexts and situations
Some people have put a lot of effort into re-imagining the parables Jesus told, providing them with present day settings and using the media possibilities available today to present them. One example is Compass Classroom which has taken several of the parables and recontextualised them in present day settings. The site includes an exemplar video, leader’s guide and study book but you would need to purchase the DVD to get access to the full resource.
A Drawback! While these media representations might spark an idea of how the parables might be imagined in present day society, by and large they are less effective than the original story because too much of the interpretative ‘work’ is done by the film producers and actors. It is really preferable if students (perhaps stimulated by the various media presentations) can be helped to unpack the parables in terms of their own contexts and personal stories.
A group of sites from St Mary’s Press discusses the value of imaginative retelling of the biblical stories, parables implicitly included while another page suggests how to get the most out of stories and storytelling and how to draw on the students own stories.
A ”Business Insight”
Finally, Steve Denning is really into business communications but this short article on parables points out four features of parables and how they work. He suggests that the parables are characteristically:
• Minimalist in plot and character
• Not ‘true’ stories but believable ones
• Either positive or negative in tone
• Illustrative of a conflict in values.
These simple features could be good to keep in mind if your students are producing some present day parables.
- Encourage students to use an everyday occurrence or experience of their own to construct a parable which illustrates an aspect of the reign of God as they understand it.
Are we supposed to act the way Jesus’ parables suggest?
The answer to this question lies with each listener. It is part of the genius of the parable that the listener is left thinking:
• What next?
• What was that all about?
• What will I do?
• What kind of person should I be?
• Am I like this one or that one in this story?
• Is that what God is really like?
But while the message needs to be wrestled with, the parables generally speaking do have a point and it is a point that needs to be pondered and allowed to bring us to a different way of responding and a new way of life. Jesus does suggest that ‘all who have ears to listen’ will be responsive to the teaching contained in his parables.
Yet what foolish father would be as indulgent as the prodigal’s father?
What employer as imprudently generous as the employer who paid a full day’s wages for an hour or two of work?
What crazy shepherd abandons the whole flock to go off after one sheep? Just how good was Jesus’ agricultural advice?
But maybe these stories are not just about us and our day to day lives!
Perhaps the point of the parables is not to encourage us to literal imitation but to invites us to clarify our values and deepen our understanding of God?
What do you think?
What other online resources might be useful in the classroom?
The Parables section of this site provides a comprehensive list. It is directed specifically at teachers and provides much good advice about how to go about presenting these particular stories to students and in doing so provides a guide as to how you might work with other parables.
An attractively presented pdf article Yeshua and the Parables which reiterates some of the learning contained on this site could be a useful handout for students
The collection of images of the parables on the Textweek site could be a good jumping off point for an approach to the topic through Art as could Biblical Art on the WWW. Selecting a variety of interpretations shows students how it is possible to interpret a particular story in very different ways.
Commentaries on the parables might help you introduce them confidently while a pdf document of a powerpoint presentation provides a summary of teaching about parables which could help you sum up the whole topic.
A page of resources for primary students includes several activities, work-sheets and retellings of the parables for primary children.
Students might enjoy making and sharing visual parables in comic form on this site.