People have been telling and retelling the parables of Jesus for nearly 2,000 years. Imagine sharing teachings that hold up in every language and every culture for 2,000 years. Yet sometimes church-going Christians miss the power of the Lord’s teaching because we are over-familiar with the parables of Jesus.
If Jesus simply wanted to “send a message,” he would not have used parables. A few moralisms would have done, things like “follow the rules; live up to the standards you have been given; don’t drink, smoke or chew–and definitely don’t go with girls who do.” But that would have been merely adding to the religious burdens that already weigh us down. Instead, Jesus told stories. Lots of them. Stories he rarely explained, and (if we are honest) we have rarely understood.
Can you imagine explaining the meaning universe by telling a story? For example, someone asks a scientist, “What is gravity, and why is it important” And he answers by saying, “There once was a man who owned a vineyard . . .” Our 21st-century mindset wants facts and data, and Jesus is certainly capable of providing such teaching, but his choice to use parables tells us there’s more than one way to hear his voice.
3 Unexpected Blessings From the Parables of Jesus
1. The parables of Jesus describe a place: the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is not “heaven” as in the location after we die but rather a place characterized by the rule of the King. The kind of place can exist anywhere and anytime. We miss the full extent of the good news if we insist on pushing God’s Kingdom until some later date, all the way back to heaven. When we mistake “the kingdom of heaven” for the destination of heaven, we bottle up God’s rule and reign until some unknown future date. We should resist the powerful urge to “explain” his stories in simple terms that reinforce our ideas of heaven. Such teaching robs us of the possibilities of “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” right now. (Romans 14:17)
2. The parables of Jesus are not rules.
For example, in one of the most famous parables of Jesus, The Good Samaritan, Jesus refuses to use the Scripture as a rule-book. Instead he lets the Word of God fund his imagination. It’s inspired; the Lord is doing more than telling us a story. He is showing us how to interact with the Law.
3. The parables of Jesus invite us to use our imagination.
By teaching through parables, Jesus allows us to supply the details of the story. The parables are an opportunity to add our own life experience and to engage the Lord’s words on an emotional (as well as intellectual) level. It’s what the theologians like to call a “sanctified imagination.” Artists have used this imagination for centuries. Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1667) glows with holiness. Thomas Hart Benton’s The Prodigal (c. 1939) is a Midrash on canvas: What if the family could not survive without the younger son? What if he returned too late?
Because of our familiarity with the parables, we have lost a sense of the unexpected—the mystery of God’s kingdom. The Word of God presents many kinds of teaching, and among these teachings the parables of Jesus are sure to feed the Lord’s flock until he returns (and it’s the parables that tell us the master will return at an hour we do not expect)!