How Jesus Christ told a story

By | November 21, 2009

Parables were not something new, but the Lord used them in a special way

 “Tell me a story.”

It’s an age-old request. By telling a story or hearing a story, we learn something about ourselves. We, like children, learn from stories because we can see ourselves somewhere in that story.

That’s part of the reason the parables of Jesus are so powerful — we can see ourselves in that story and learn something.

The Gospel for this Saturday (Nov. 14), Lk 18:1-8, the story of the unjust judge, is just one of several parables told by Jesus in the Gospels.

New Testament scholar and Dominican priest, Wilfred Harrington, describes a parable as “a story with a particular religious or ethical purpose; it is always thought-provoking and often is a challenge to decisive action.”

“The Catholic Encyclopedia” lists 33 parables of Jesus. Some of them are the same parable told in a slightly different fashion depending on the particular Gospel writer. However, these are only a list of the “pure parables.” If you add to it the various parable-like stories, similes (“the kingdom of God is like…”), allegories (the Prodigal Son) and wisdom sayings (“No one pours new wine into old wineskins”), Jesus told many more parables.

Jesus did not invent parables. Such story-telling had become increasingly common in the developing tradition of what would become rabbinic teaching. Parables actually started in ancient Greece as the specialized language art called “rhetoric.” Rhetoric was one of the means a speaker used to persuade his audience to his argument, and parables fit into that method. Parabol? in Greek means “to cast alongside of” and meant the use of story comparisons in order to impart moral or religious teachings.

In this fashion, parables are similar to folktales and fables, which also teach morals or ethics. However, fables and folktale contain magical elements such as talking animals or sorcerers, while parables use familiar, everyday objects to impart their message.

The Old Testament also has parables. One of the best known is the story of the poor man’s ewe lamb that the prophet Nathan told to King David (2 Sm 12:1-15). The lesson was God’s displeasure over David taking Uriah’s wife for his own. The story caused the guilt-stricken David to realize that “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sm 13).

This illustrates the teaching method of parables – it takes the familiar everyday events of life — like a shepherd and a lamb in Jesus’ day — tells it in such a way that we become part of the story and then the teller presents an unexpected twist to invite the listener to look at things in a new way.

Using this method, we see the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16) who all get paid the standard day’s wage — even if they only worked one hour. Or the rich farmer who has done well for himself and is looking forward to early retirement (Lk 12:12-16), only to die suddenly so that his hard-earned riches go to someone else.

Today we may not be as familiar as Jesus’ audiences were with tales of fishermen’s nets or mustard seeds, but we can still learn from the stories of the Kingdom that Jesus told. It’s like getting the punch line.

“The response of the reader completes the meaning of the parable,” according to “The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.” “Parable is a form of religious discourse that appeals not only to the imagination or to the joyous perception of paradox or surprise, but also the most basic of human qualities, freedom.”

We are invited into the story, offered a lesson and can choose to learn, or walk away.

This is another aspect of the parables that we see clearly is presented in Mark, the first Gospel that was written down. In Mark 4:10-12, Jesus tells the Twelve that “the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven’!”

Does this mean that Jesus might have been trying to keep something from us when he told the parables? No, only that God offers us the chance to really hear his words, to listen to them and make them our own and thus to learn how to truly become disciples. But Jesus leaves it up to us to say, “Yes.” If we don’t, the parables just become nice stories.

As the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says, “Through his parables, Jesus asks for a radical choice: to gain the kingdom, one must give everything. … One must enter the kingdom, that is, become a disciples of Christ, in order to ‘know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.’ For those who stay, ‘outside, everything remains enigmatic’” (n. 546).

So when we ask Jesus to “tell us a story,” we must be ready to capture that story and then share it with others — illustrating it in everyday terms, even to the point of doing so with the example of our very own lives.

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The New Dictionary of Theology


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