I wonder if, like me, you have ever echoed this same question the disciples pose to Jesus: “Why do you speak in parables!?!” I find it fascinating that the mode Jesus chose to communicate about the Kingdom of God was stories! Why wouldn’t he just lay things out in black and white? Give clear instructions or ethics so that everyone could understand. Couldn’t he have just updated the terms and conditions on the ten commandments?
Jesus replies to the question: “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” Although His answer seems to satisfy the disciples’ curiosity, part of me is still left wondering. Later, we also find the disciples still enquiring about the meaning of some of the parables. Why communicate something so vital in a way that seems to leave its listeners wondering ‘what’s the point?’
In my pursuit of understanding Jesus’ use of parables, I have come across the work of John Dominic Crossan and his book The Power of Parable. In it, he defines a parable as “a story that never happened but always does.” I love this definition as it begins to get at the heart of Jesus’ ingenious use of stories.
It reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables which captures something as Jesus did – The Tortoise and the Hare. I have no doubt it will be familiar to you. Although it never happened, it continues to teach us a valuable lesson about the world. The story has an ability to teach beyond its time because it captures something universally true.
We see this in the impact Jesus’ parables still have in our present world. The phrase, ‘Good Samaritan’ is one that has become common lexicon in society. Although the parable is set in the first century, the story still teaches us today. Jesus was able to communicate to the audience before Him – as well as everyone else throughout time – all because He taught through parables!
Author and lecturer Kenneth Bailey notes that parables can challenge their listeners in a way which abstract statements of truth cannot approach. Simply stating facts does not confront the audience in a way that creates change in the same the way stories can. Part of this is because our brains are storytelling machines. Stories have a way of connecting with us like nothing else. Therefore, hearing testimonies can be so powerful, because the stories connect with us in such a deep way.
And so clearly Jesus knew full well what He was doing when He chose to communicate teachings of the Kingdom of God through parables. He knew that through stories, He would be able to speak to audiences way beyond His time. He also knew how much our minds connect with stories. The parable of the Good Samaritan has connected with the world so much that a charity takes its name from the story.
Jesus’ use of parables helps us see how we can connect with each other and the world around us. It is why in Prison Fellowship we are always so keen to hear stories from volunteers about their work in prisons around England and Wales. Stories are able to communicate so much more than simple statements and facts. If you have a story from your work in prison, we would love to hear it!
Ryan Galpin is PF’s Communications Officer.
Download the May Prayer Diary, with a prompt each day for how we can pray for our prisons and our ministries.
Did you know you can receive the monthly devotional and Prayer Diary by email? Use this link to sign up.