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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Storytellers -- Jesus and Parables

Evidence of storytelling has been found in every culture and in every land. The earliest forms of storytelling are thought to have been primarily oral combined with gestures and expressions. Drawings scratched onto cave walls may have been primary forms of early storytelling for many of the ancient cultures. For example, the Australian Aboriginal people painted symbols from the stories on cave walls as a means of helping the storyteller remember the story. The story was then told using a combination of oral narrative, music, rock art and dance.

Traditionally, oral stories were committed to memory and then passed from generation to generation. Then, with the advent of writing great and media, stories were "carved, scratched, painted, printed, or inked onto wood or bamboo, ivory and other bones, pottery, clay tablets, stone, palm-leaf books, skins (parchment), bark cloth, paper, silk, canvas and other textiles, recorded on film and stored electronically in digital form." (

Storytelling is an art and a well-suited strategy for teaching all ages and all abilities. Storytellers need no special equipment: they work with imagination and the powers of listening and speaking. Dealing in images, storytellers help others explore their own abilities of unique expressiveness and of communicating thoughts and feelings in articulate ways. Storytelling, though an art, supports daily life skills. (, 2000)

As listeners enjoy the story, they also become aware that being able to express thoughts and feelings is very important. Listeners may learn more about negotiation, discussion, and tact as a result of listening to stories. In short, storytelling is a powerful, non-threatening manner to emphasize the need for precise expression.

Both telling a story and listening to a well-told tale encourages people to use their imaginations. These activities contribute to developing new ideas and boosting self-confidence. As stories pass on their gems of wisdom, people incorporate concepts that empower them to seek wise personal values and making better decisions. Often, the listeners' imaginations birth new stories based upon common themes that amplify meaning.

The Parables of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ was a master storyteller. He often used parables -- brief, succinct stories, in prose or verse, to illustrate a moral or a religious lesson -- to make a single, distinct point. (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volume II, 1994) These parables remain some of the best known stories in the world. Why did Jesus choose to tell stories? His answer to that question may leave you unsettled.

The parables feature a universal truth, and they often involve a character facing a moral dilemma. Jesus may have been following a natural teaching method that fit into the tradition of his time, a mashal, a Hebrew word that can refer to a comparison or to a riddle. ( William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus, 1999 and Pheme Perkins, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels, 2007) In this manner, the method of delivery was certainly contemporary.

In Harmony of the Gospels, Cox and Easley provide a Gospel harmony (merging of the Christian canonical gospels) for the parables based on the following counts: Only in Matthew: 11, only in Mark: 2, only in Luke: 18, Matthew and Luke: 4, Matthew, Mark and Luke: 6. They list no parables for the Gospel of John. (Steven L. Cox, Kendell H Easley, Harmony of the Gospels, 2007) Most readers of the Bible remember these brief, sometimes surprising stories. How many of those same readers understand Jesus Christ's intended implications for life and salvation?

In Matthew (13:10-17) Jesus provides an answer when asked about his use of parables:
The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" He replied,
"The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:
Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand."
Christian author Ashton Axenden suggests that Jesus constructed his parables based on his divine knowledge of how man can best be taught. (Ashton Oxenden, The Parables of our Lord‎, 1864) Calling a parable "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning," William Barclay states that the parables of Jesus use familiar examples to lead people's minds towards heavenly concepts. He suggests that Jesus did not form his parables merely as analogies (comparisons) but based on an "inward affinity between the natural and spiritual orders". (William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus, 1999) In other words, the parables of Jesus are teachable stories grounded in natural, earthly happenings that unlock heavenly blessings -- bridges for understanding.

Or how about this rather harsh and widely held theory about why Jesus spoke in parables? "He spoke to the multitudes in parables so that the multitudes would not understand because of the hardness of their hearts. It was not given to the multitudes to understand, so Jesus did not intend to make his meaning clear to them. He was not begging them to believe in him and to understand his message. In fact, he deliberately hid his meaning from the multitudes so that they would not be converted." (A.D. Campbell, Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?, January 11 2007) This is understood as a message of concealment for those who reject Jesus.

I prefer another interpretation for Jesus' use of parables. James Montgomery Boice said Jesus spoke in parables for this reason: "To those with a genuine hunger for God, the parable is both an effective and memorable vehicle for the conveyance of divine truths. Our Lord’s parables contain great volumes of truth in very few words—and His parables, rich in imagery, are not easily forgotten. So, then, the parable is a blessing to those with willing ears. But to those with dull hearts and ears that are slow to hear, the parable is also an instrument of both judgment and mercy." (James Montgomery Boice, Parables of Jesus, from, 1983)

Some Parting Thoughts

I find myself listening less and less to those who quote tons of scripture like blasts from a heavenly trumpet intended to enrich my listening experience. Not that I do not appreciate their quotations as messages from the Holy Word and not that I deny their good intentions, but I become overwhelmed with the bare-bones delivery. I long for deeper interpretation, or better yet, a good story to illustrate a key understanding for my development as a human being.

I don't think God gives merit badges for the amount of scripture a person can quote or merely push toward his fellow man. Sinners in deepest need of the Word quickly lose interest in Bible thumping. My Christian understanding is that even the best deeds or well-delivered testimony will not guarantee a place in heaven. Shotgunning memorized verse after verse at a captive audience who choruses "Amen" may build a preacher's self esteem, but I prefer a humble man, a preacher with convictions who wades knee deep in the nasty business of bettering the world.

Some preachers don't comprehend the meanings themselves. To them, preaching is keeping within their comfort zones and praying that everything will turn out right. The sinners next door or down the street or across town are too devilish to attract their attention. These ministers elevate themselves and create distance based on personal judgment. How does such a "preacher" save needy souls by avoiding the throw-aways? Shouldn't he really dwell in and work out of the ghettos and slums? No one's salvation is more important than the salvation of a terrible sinner. Paul, himself, admits to "laying waste to the Church" and "arresting the followers of Jesus."

My memories of parables are both deep and full of contemplation and respect. Jesus, the storyteller, presents a comforting, loving image. It is very evident that multitudes have found meaning and developed faith through these narratives. The power of a story resides in its ability to make associations. The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Two Debtors, The Thief and His Servants -- Jesus knew well the real manner in which people learn. In my Good Book, the stories that Jesus told are as important as the deeds that Jesus did.

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