Parables sometimes get a bum rap. For too many and for too long Christians have read the parables as illustrations of propositions found more clearly in other texts. So, it is argued, Jesus gives a parable about the pearl of great price — a parable that seemingly tells his followers to give it all up for the value of that pearl. The story, so it is understood, is almost cute and surely it is clever, but if you want the real stuff, go to Luke 9:57-62 where Jesus tells people point-blank to follow him regardless of the cost.
In other word, parables are “just” stories. Just illustrations. The real stuff can be found in more didactic passages.
Not so. Not so. And this approach to parables is a serious blunder. Jesus told parable after parable, and the parables are not just illustrations. Parables are fictional stories depicting an alternative world. The essence of his parables probe into this mindset he wants from his followers: Imagine a world like this. The story, the parable, takes you into its world where you will encounter a short or a little longer sketch of a reality, of a world, of what the world could be — if people were to live like this. The parable invites you into an imagined world.
Parables are like the Pevensie children’s experience of Narnia. It’s a wonderful world, after all, with eyes to see. Then they find themselves in the wardrobe and tumbling back into reality with a new vision of this world, too! Or it’s like entering into the short stories of Flannery O’Connor where her mind-cracking images lead us back into reality with more appreciation for God’s grace.
How have parables been read in your context? What has helped your understand parables the most?
In other words, perhaps the propositional statements of Jesus, like Luke 9:57-62, are the bare bones and the parables put flesh and bones and real world life on that outlined set of statements.
Imagine a world (like this). If we have eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind to imagine, when we get into the world of Jesus’ individual parables, we will be challenged to live in a world that is only beginning to come into existence in this world. That world is called “kingdom of God.”
You know what it’s like to enter into the fictional world of a novel, say To Kill a Mockingbird or The Help. Two things happen: you are engrossed by that world and that world engrosses you. You enter, it changes the one who enters, and you re-enter the world a new person with a new vision of what life can be.
Who’s not had that happen by reading a novel or entering into the fictional world of a move or a song?
That’s what happens in the parables of Jesus. We enter into the storied world of Jesus, we see the world through that story, and we come away with a new vision of what might be … and we begin to live it out.
The secret to Jesus’ “imagine a world” stories are that they are short and they do their work in a just a few lines. So we have to listen carefully and we have to imagine deeply. When we do, we come in touch with God’s kingdom. We come in touch with Jesus. We come away changed.
My recommendation for books about parables? Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus.