Becoming parabolic: Exploring how to tell stories like Jesus

Here is the cartoon that accompanies this post.

The greatest storyteller of all time

Few would dispute the claim that Jesus tells better, deeper, and more memorable stories than anyone. The canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) yield about 60 of them. It seems Jesus was able to find spiritual lessons in everyday objects like lamps, coins, eggs, houses being built and newly empty, barns, stones, salt, wineskins, yeast, bread, needles, wheat, weeds, mustard seeds, water, the sun, gates, roads, newly dug-up treasure, scorpions, thunderstorms, expensive pearls, sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, wolves, and more.

Jesus’ characters include beggars and widows, kings and crooked judges, millionaires and paupers, entrepreneurs and managers, thieves and robbers, tax collectors and Pharisees, fathers and children, Jews and Samaritans, wealthy land owners and day laborers, to name a few. Events in parables include weddings, funerals, births, temple worship, banquets, coronations, hiring, firing, borrowing, catching birds, building towers, and going to war.

The stories of Jesus capture you in the first sentence and take you to places you never expected to go. More to the point, they reveal truths about God and humanity that run against the flow of common assumptions. Plus, they challenge you to make choices—no-turning-back, uncomfortable, life-transforming choices.

Possible sources of Jesus’ parables

We are fascinated as we wonder where Jesus got these stories. Did He hear them as a student in the Nazareth synagogue-school or as a young adult from street-corner preachers? Did He collect them on His hikes around Galilee, Judea, Perea, Decapolis, and Samaria?

It doesn’t seem likely. The few rabbinic parables that have come down to us from that time seem different from those of Jesus. Their focus tends to rest on God’s justice rather than His grace. For example, in a rabbinic parable of hired laborers, the owner-manager explains why he has given a man a day’s pay for one hour of work: “He worked harder in that one hour than you did all day.” The point then is about fairness, not mercy and grace. Rabbinic stories tend to make the devoted believer the hero of the story, not the person standing among the fringe of the community. The point of their stories is often an academic one, not one that is immediately and urgently practical.

If Jesus didn’t “borrow” these stories from the religious teachers of his time, where did He get them? Certainly not from the Gentiles. Their philosophers sometimes told stories to illustrate a point, but once more, their attention was on philosophical questions of ontology or of epistemology, not theology or human relations.

We must conclude, then, that Jesus Himself is the source of His parables. He was saturated with an ongoing sense of God’s character, God’s presence, and God’s mission for Him in the world. He looked for analogies between what He knew to be true regarding God’s willingness to receive sinners, expose hypocrisy, and empower heart-changes. He listened to people talk about history and about current events and found ways of relating what they were saying to the kingdom of God. The principle of “Seek and you shall find” certainly applied to Jesus as an observer and careful listener.

Adapting the parables to His audience

When we find what at first looks like repetition in the storytelling of Jesus, we should investigate more carefully and thoroughly. Like any teacher, Jesus sometimes taught the same lesson to different audiences, or he used the same illustration to make a different point, according to the needs of the moment.

For example, consider his similitude of the lamp: “No one lights a lamp, only to hide it under a bowl, do they? Instead they put it on a lampstand so that it can give light to the whole house.” It occurs with almost the same wording in Luke 8:16 and Luke 11:33.

In the chapter 8, however, the context is whether Jesus uses parables to reveal or conceal the truths of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ answer is that He intends to reveal them, but people have to prepare their hearts to receive His teaching, or it will never reach that result. The context of chapter 11 concerns who Jesus is, and Jesus uses the lamp illustration as a way of saying that He is not hiding His identity from anyone.

On one occasion, Jesus tells a parable of a king’s sending out his servants to invite people to a feast in honor of his son’s wedding. On another, the royal is now a commoner with only one servant. Jesus apparently adapted the story to fit the social class of his audience. The result is that it penetrated their peasant hearts in a way the upper-class story could not.

Where do we start?

If you want to become a master storyteller like Jesus, you must trust Him as Savior and submit to His authority as Lord. This means you can no longer be your own master (you never were anyway). You must learn of your desperate need for His sacrifice on the cross and for the new life with power He alone can confer on you. As you freely declare to others your willingness for Him to be your new (and permanent) boss, He invites you to join Him in a re-enactment of the saving event: with Him you die to sin, bury the old man, and arise from your baptism to a new life in Christ. None of this you can do for yourself; you must trust Christ to do it for you.

Then, with this new, God-centered orientation, you can start to look at all of life from Christ’s point of view. Is an escalator lifting you to the third floor of a department store? Think about this spiritual transformation you have just experienced, propelled by the Spirit of God. Or think about getting on the down escalator and furiously trying to climb, when everything is against you. Watch the passing commuter train and think about how you can see through its windows to another train on the next tracks. Can we see eternity through the blur of events happening to us? Buy the deep-fried pickle and think about the futility of trying to be something you are not. The analogies and their lessons are endless.

How to evaluate our own attempts

The more common the actions, the better your hearers will be able to relate. If it has happened to them or they have witnessed it, so much the better for them to get the point when they hear your story and to remember it always. With far-fetched stories or magical ones, your hearers must suspend their disbelief, which can be a distraction from the point you are trying to make.

Try out your illustration on your spouse or close friend. Does it provoke the reaction you expected? If not, perhaps you can reword, add or take away details, or re-sculpt the characters into more believable heroes and villains.

You will quickly discover that it will take you a lot of thinking and hard work to create parables whose punch comes close to those that Jesus seems to tell so naturally and effortlessly. Don’t be satisfied with the mediocre. Take time making your arrows strong and straight, then aim for the heart, and keep shooting!

Want to go deeper?

Calvin Miller, ed. The Book of Jesus: A Treasury of the Greatest Stories and Writings About Christ. Revised edition. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998.

This is an anthology of short essays, poems, and stories by famous authors, poets, theologians, including C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, Max Lucado, Thomas Merton, Michael Card, William Shakespeare, Charles Wesley, and many more, all related to the Jesus of history and Scripture. Included are a number of Cal’s own stories, such as “A Gathering of Angels” (pp. 55-58) and “The Singer” (123-124). The stories in the collection will give you an idea of the kind you can write and the potential good it can do.

Bob George. Classic Christianity Illustrated. Eugene, Oreg.: Harvest House, 1993.

For 31 chapters, Bob George offers us story after story illuminating the gospel and what it means to be a Christian. Though I disagree with some of his theology, I appreciate the stories and hope someday to have a collection of my own that would rival the quality of George’s.

Kenneth Bailey. Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Combined edition. Originally published separately in 1976 and 1980. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983. Jesus Through Middle-eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2007.

We Westerners, who try to understand the gospels across great distances of space and time and over formidable cultural barriers, need all the help we can get. Bailey’s work is an important resource. He helps us to see Jesus and to hear His stories as if we stood among those original hearers of His preaching. Highly recommended.

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

Posted in bible interpretation, bible study, christianity, exegesis, hermeneutics, interpreting the parables, parables of jesus, teachings of jesus, the gospels Tagged with:

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