Exploring the Mystery and Wonder of the Parables

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by Kate Ristow

See the end of this article for tips on how you can establish a Story Teller Ministry to help foster the religious imaginations of the children in your parish.


We all love a great story, and this year’s University of Dayton Catechist Formation Series in association with CATECHIST magazine gives us new ways to understand Jesus’ use of the stories we call parables. In this article, we’ll revisit the seven articles in the series and offer concrete ideas for using some of the insights with your students or to deepen your own spirituality.

Uncovering the “Why”

The article in the September 2013 issue, “Rediscovering the Parables” by Francǫis Rossier, SM, PhD, examines three of the reasons Jesus used parables in his ministry: to teach a particular lesson, to prompt listeners to act or change their behaviors, and to call people to conversion—a complete transformation of the mind and the heart.

* Explain to older students that many of Jesus’ parables use everyday objects or events to explain something about the Kingdom of God. Read with the class Matthew 13:31-32; Matthew 13:45-46; and Matthew 13:27-28. Have students identify the object Jesus used in each parable (seeds, pearls, a net) and explain what Jesus tried to teach his followers with the example he used (the Kingdom of God will expand throughout the world from small beginnings; the Kingdom of God has great value and is worth more than we can imagine; Jesus will gather many good people into the Kingdom of God).

* Brainstorm with the class to identify common ideas Jesus might use in parables if he were teaching today in our modern world. List responses on the board. You may need to start the kids off by suggesting a few popular items (a smartphone, a social networking site, rubber band jewelry, and so forth). Then divide the class into small groups and have each group choose one of the objects from the list. Ask members of the group to decide what Jesus might say about the Kingdom of God using the object they chose as an example. Instead of having groups write original parables, have them focus on the possibilities that the object presents for talking about the glory of God’s kingdom. Afterward, ask each group to share its ideas with the class.

* Tell the parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37). Have younger children name what Jesus taught in this story (how to be a good neighbor). Help children make the parable their own by acting it out. Choose volunteers to take the parts of the man on the road, the robbers, a priest, a Levite, the Good Samaritan, the innkeeper, and Jesus. If possible, bring props to class that will enhance the story (a roll of gauze to bandage the victim, masks for the robbers, play money to pay the innkeeper, and so forth). Young children will relish dramatizing the parable several times, taking different parts each time. As they act it out, help them remember that the story has a point: Jesus calls us to be good neighbors.

Listening and Applying

In the October 2013 issue, Father Joseph Kozar, SM, PhD, emphasizes that Jesus told parables not to entertain but to confront listeners. In his article titled “Responding Creatively to the Parables,” he explains that confrontation occurs because the reader or listener must take a role “in appropriating and internalizing the message that the parables offer.” In other words, hearing a parable is not enough. We have to put “belief into practice in everyday life.” One of the examples Kozar uses is the Parable of the Sower (see Mark 4:1-9).

* Invite a volunteer to read the parable aloud. As it is being read, list on the board the places in which the seed lands: the path; rocky ground; among thorns; and onto rich soil. Then discuss with the class what happened to the seeds in each case. For example, birds ate the seeds on the path; the seeds sown on the rocky ground died because they could not grow roots.

* Emphasize that Jesus did not tell this parable to his followers to help them become better farmers, but to teach his disciples that we are called to listen and respond to God’s Word. Call attention to the seed sown on rich soil and the fruit it produced. Discuss what it means to be “rich soil” when we hear God’s Word. Have students turn to James 1:22 in their Bibles. Then divide students into small groups and have each group make a list of three ways people can be “doers of the Word” by being like the rich soil, open and receptive to all that Jesus teaches.

Sacred Silence

In the November/December 2013 issue, Father David Fleming, SM, PhD, presents a three-step process for reading and listening to Gospel parables. The first step—listen attentively—often presents a challenge in the classroom. Father Fleming highlights the importance of “inner silence” in order to ponder the meaning of the parables. Yet, kids today are completely unaccustomed to silence. They are constantly “plugged in” to sound of some kind: music on their iPods; the racket of video games; and the constant texting, talking, and tweeting that make reflection impossible. We need to help them learn how to be still.

* Make a commitment to dedicate five minutes of your next five classes to help students discover the wonders of silence. Begin by having them sit or recline in a carpeted area. Invite them to close their eyes and get in touch with their breathing—inhaling slowly and deeply through the nose, holding the breath gently for two or three beats, and slowly exhaling through the mouth. Give these instructions quietly and slowly. As students continue the process, suggest that they relax their bodies and let go of tensions and worries. Suggest that with each breath, they become more and more relaxed. Ask them to picture a peaceful place. After several minutes, call the group back together and invite students to share their experiences.

* As the children progress in their ability to quiet themselves, invite them to add an adaptation of the Jesus Prayer to the process. Once they are relaxed and focused, have them slowly repeat the following words in their hearts as they breathe: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, I love you.” Suggest that they picture Jesus—alone or with them, in any location—as they continue to recite the prayer silently. Conclude by inviting volunteers to share their impressions during this meditation. Although the Jesus Prayer is a prayer in and of itself, the discipline of praying it in time with rhythmic breathing helps kids grow more receptive to silent reflection—a skill they will be able to tap into for the rest of their lives.

We Pray to the Lord

“God builds with rejects,” writes Professor Vincent Branick in his article titled “the Parables of Jesus in Mark and Matthew,” in the January 2014 issue. This is a powerful statement for junior-high students to consider. In their world, possessions, success, looks, popularity, and status are often more important than anything else. These activities may help kids refocus on what is truly important in life.

* Have students follow along in their Bibles as a volunteer reads aloud the Parable of the Tenants (see Mark 12:1-11). Help students understand the meaning of the parable by reminding them that Jesus’ parables usually teach us about the Kingdom of God. Discuss the following questions: Who is Jesus referring to as the owner of the vineyard in this parable? (God) Who is the vineyard owner’s son? (Jesus) To whom did the owner give the vineyard? (the people who will be welcomed into God’s kingdom)

* Help students recognize that Jesus was rejected by many Jewish leaders and that, through his ministry, he reached out to anyone who was ignored or rejected by the people of his time: lepers, the poor, widows, and so forth.

* Have students brainstorm to create a list of persons or groups that are rejected by society today (for example, the homeless, the unemployed, victims of crime, etc.). Then divide the class into small groups and have each group compose General Intercessions, asking God to care for and bless the people listed as persons or groups that are rejected. Conclude your session by praying aloud their Prayers of the Faithful.

Famous and Familiar

In the February 2014 issue, Dr. Kelly S. Johnson highlights the parables found in the Third Gospel. In her article titled “Casting Down and Raising Up in Luke’s Parables,” Kelly tells us that the Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37) is “perhaps the most famous of the parables” cited only by Luke. As catechists, we cannot work with this parable too often! As Kelly states, the Samaritan’s actions define “the spirit of loving obedience” to which Jesus calls each of his disciples.

*Over the course of the Advent or Lenten seasons next year, provide an opportunity for students to celebrate the many different ways they show love for their “neighbors”—at home, at school, and in the community.

* Tell the parable to the class or, with older students, have students tell it to you. Then discuss its meaning. Announce that you are giving them the opportunity to put Jesus’ parable into practice over the next several weeks. Show the class a length of blank shelf paper that can easily be rolled up and stored in your supply box or a tote. Also show the class several packs of brightly colored self-adhesive notepads. Tell the kids that each time they act as good neighbors (even with family members!), they are to write about it on a note and stick it on the shelf paper mural that will be displayed in your learning space each week. Get the project off to a great start by asking students to think of a clever title for the project—for example, The “Good Sam” Club or Sam I Am—and print the title in bold letters across the length of the shelf paper. Each week, allow time for students to record their good deeds. When the project is complete, write a blurb about it for the parish bulletin and display the mural in a public area of the parish.

Who Do You Say I Am?

In his article titled “Does John Use Parables? Introduction to John’s Figures of Speech” in the March 2014 issue, Fr. Bertrand Buby writes about the different figures of speech in John’s “maverick” Gospel. He calls special attention to the “I AM” statements that tell us who Jesus is.

* List the following Scripture references on the board and have students locate them and write out the seven “I AM” statements. Then discuss the meaning of each of these descriptions of Jesus.

—John 6:35 (I am the bread of life)

—John 8:12 (I am the light of the world)

—John 10:9 (I am the gate)

—John 10:11 (I am the good shepherd)

—John 11:25 (I am the resurrection and the life)

—John 14:6 (I am the way and the truth and the life)

—John 15:1 (I am the true vine)

Discuss with students which description of Jesus means the most to them at this stage of their lives. Ask volunteers to give reasons for their choices.

* Challenge students to compose text messages of no more than 140 characters that they might tweet to the world to proclaim who Jesus is for them.

Imagination and Making It Happen

Sister Angela Ann Zukowski’s “The Parables of and in Our Lives” focuses on the importance of imagination in our lives, in the parables, and in bringing the reality of God’s kingdom into our everyday world. This article presents us with several possibilities for working with students.

* Help students quiet themselves as discussed earlier, and ask them to imagine what life will be like when God’s kingdom comes, when all the faithful share in the everlasting happiness of heaven. Remind them that Catholic doctrine and tradition tell us that the kingdom will be a place of perfect peace, love, and justice. What will it be like to see God and Jesus face to face? How will people treat one another? What images come to mind when they meditate on heaven? Allow three to five minutes for silent reflection. Then call the class back together and invite volunteers to share their impressions.

*Remind students that through his parables, Jesus urges us to work for the coming of the kingdom. Divide the class into small groups and distribute several different editions of the parish bulletin to each group. Have students look through the bulletins to identify parish ministries that are working to bring the kingdom into the world today. As they share their responses, ask volunteers to tell what the ministries do and how this work brings or builds up the Kingdom of God.

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.

Establish a Story Teller Ministry

The purpose of this ministry is to involve junior-high or high-school students in the work of Jesus by sharing Bible stories with younger children during their religious education classes, Children’s Liturgy of the Word sessions at Sunday Mass, family Masses, Vacation Bible School, or any other appropriate venue.

* Recruit participants by extending a direct, in-person invitation to the young people during their religious education sessions, an eye-appealing “ad” in the parish bulletin, or colorful posters displayed in the parish narthex. Or contact students via Facebook or another accessible website.

* To build interest in the ministry, consider offering participants the opportunity to “earn” Confirmation service hours by joining the group for a specified length of time.

* Organize a small committee of catechists and parents to assist you with planning, training, and supporting this ministry.

* Begin with several training sessions. At your first session, explain the purpose of the ministry: to make Bible stories come alive for young children. You will want to include presentations on topics such as the difference between reading and telling a story, using props, choosing stories, and so forth. Enlist the aid of lectors and others who can provide tips on public speaking. You might also want to invite a children’s librarian to speak to the group to offer suggestions on effective storytelling.

* At subsequent meetings, work with the kids to develop a core list of Bible stories that the Story Tellers can use to build a repertoire, such as the call of the disciples (see Mark 1:16-20); the Forgiving Father (see Luke 15:11-32); Zacchaeus (see Luke 19:19); the Birth of Jesus and the Visit of the Shepherds (see Luke 2:1-20), the Washing of the Feet (see John 13:1-15), and so forth. While the goal of the ministry is storytelling rather than the dramatization of stories, some scriptural accounts may best be “told” with a team of two or more Story Tellers. This is especially effective if the chosen stories have a several speaking roles.

* Provide ample opportunities for Story Tellers to practice their skills in front of their peers and the team. Once Story Tellers are confident in their ability to tell stories, allow catechists to sign up their class to receive a visit from them.

* Consider having “Story Teller” T-shirts made for each Story Teller. This will give participants visibility in the parish and make them instantly recognizable at parish events.

* Establish Story Tellers as an ongoing ministry. Ask kids to make a one-year commitment. Recruit throughout the year for new participants. Schedule regular meetings to help participants learn new skills and share their experiences of storytelling.

Copyright 2014, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, August 2014.

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