by David Fleming, SM, PhD
See the end of this article for an Expanded Study Guide and Additional Reading.
Storytelling has always and everywhere been the main way to teach religious truth. Primal religions communicated their beliefs and outlooks almost exclusively through anecdotes, myths, and fables. Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are famous for their wealth of sacred stories. And Christians who read the Gospels know how many stories and parables Jesus told.
Jesus favored parables—short, snappy tales that invited hearers to re-examine their lives. First-century Jewish audiences could immediately feel at home in hearing the parables because the settings and contexts—places, surroundings, groups of people, and the ways in which people normally interacted—were familiar. The parables allowed listeners to identify with everyday experience. Still, despite all the familiarity, Jesus knew how to surprise his listeners—to move them to think—by twists in the stories that captured their attention and challenged them to a change of mind, heart, and action.
Challenges to Understanding
Today, two thousand years after Jesus, the parables he told (only some of which are recorded in the Gospels) are still challenging and evocative, but they can also give rise to misunderstanding. Living in a world so greatly different from his, we might sometimes miss the point or be distracted by details that clash with what we consider normal. We might try to interpret parables in the wrong categories, as if they were stories of our own place and time, or compilations of facts like those featured in our multi-media news sources. Instead of being challenged or moved to reflection, we might be puzzled, misled, or confused.
Even more, we might suffer a bit from over-familiarity. We have heard these stories so often, from our childhood on. Their phrases and images have entered into everyday speech, often being cheapened in the process. Many images from the parables have become stock-phrases that no longer stimulate minds and hearts. For example, we hear of rather banal “good Samaritans” or everyday “prodigal sons” or “pearls of great price.” The bright newness of the parables of Jesus and their incisive capacity to shock and surprise might be dulled by long familiarity. Overuse might have trivialized them for us.
Reading the Parables Today
How can we understand the parables correctly and listen to them afresh? How can we ourselves experience the impact they had on those who first heard them? And how can we communicate them to others, young and old, in ways that are understandable and life-giving today in our work as religious educators? How can we discover the true meaning of a parable—reread it with fresh eyes—so that it refreshes us, grabs our attention, maybe even shocks us and moves us into action?
I propose a three-step process in reading the Gospel parables.
1. Listen attentively.
The first step is to take meditative time to listen to and to ponder attentively, carefully, and as freshly as possible the story that Jesus tells.
Listening, even to a simple tale, is not easy. We are so busy today. We are absorbed in a multitude of daily detail and assaulted by a civilization that is constantly over-stimulating us, clamoring for our attention, and sending us messages by radio, TV, billboards, internet, and Twitter. We simply are not used to contemplative pondering. When we read, we tend to scan the content and then move on. Such habits of scattered half-attention will not help us understand the meaning of the parables.
The tradition of sacred silence is integral to all religious experience. Sacred silence involves a quieting of body, senses, mind, and imagination in order to appropriate the richness of any religious truth. Today’s explosion of information, technology, media, and constant communication—wonderful as it is—means that we are drenched with information. We are so crammed with our daily dose of news, promotions, messages, and facts that we might let the uniqueness of simple stories like the parables of Jesus pass us by. We might forget them along with the hundreds of trivialities that flit through our minds.
The earliest Christians already felt distracted in their comparatively small and quiet worlds. Some of them fled to deserts or mountain caves in order to be attuned to the voice of God. God was known to speak only to those whose hearts were quiet enough to hear.
A similar conviction about inner silence is taught by Hebrew prophets, Hindu yogis, Buddhist bhikshus, Taoist hermits, and Islamic Sufi contemplatives. Times and places of silence—inner and outer stillness—are an essential starting point for all spiritual life.
The parables will yield their insight only if you ponder them in your own moments of sacred silence. These simple tales invite you to slow and leisurely pondering. Chew over their content and let it penetrate not only your thinking but also your feeling and imagining. Internalize their truths, to go beyond the surface, to contemplate them. Explore ways in which you might somehow be involved in the story despite the chasm of 2,000 years of history and half a world of cultural difference.
You can begin your prayer with attentive reading of the story Jesus tells, word for word. Then ask yourself: Which words jump out at me? Do I know any situations in my world that seem like those Jesus describes? What is still much the same in my world today? What in the story seems different? Is there anything shocking or surprising?
You need to chew over such questions. You should not try to answer them too quickly. Like a miner prospecting for gold, you have to dig deep, beyond the obvious surface, to see if some rich insight lies buried. You should spend time feeling, seeing, and interacting in your imagination with characters in the tale. You should savor each little part of the story, piece by piece. In this way, it is likely that Jesus’ teaching will begin to touch your experience.
2. Make the parable present to your world.
The second step is to search for points of contact in the parables with our human condition today.
We seek to be present to the words of Jesus and to let those words be present to us. “Presence” is the quality of “being with,” of standing fully aware and attentive. It concerns mind and heart more than physical or temporal proximity. To be present to the parables of Jesus means to be aware that they touch our own lives here and now, that they intersect with our experience, that they challenge us to respond.
Here are some seminal questions you might ask yourself at this stage: Can I recognize myself in the story Jesus tells? If so, what character in the story am I like? What aspect of my life does the parable touch? How is my world similar to what Jesus describes in the parable? How is it different? Can I recognize the parable as a story, not only about the lives of Jews 2,000 years ago, but also about me, today? What challenges for my own life do I experience as I mull over this parable?
In fact, Jesus told the parables in order to challenge his listeners. He wanted not to frighten or condemn them, but to invite them to deeper thinking and acting, to what the Gospels call a metanoia—a “conversion”—that is a change of mentality and attitude. Today the English word conversion often evokes an intense emotional experience—a paroxysm of hand-wringing, sobbing, and asking forgiveness. While this may not always be out of place, it is not the core of what Jesus had in mind. He told the parables less to produce emotional earthquakes than to invite a change of mentality and attitude. As you ponder his parables, you are asked to see what challenge they may include for your own life.
For example, am I challenged to be more compassionate to the suffering people I meet? Am I challenged not to judge others by ethnic standards or even religious traditions? (Both of these challenges are embedded in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37). Am I challenged to a generous kind of love that welcomes people without counting past mistakes (a challenge to both the father and the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32)? Am I challenged to cultivate good and rich soil that welcomes and fosters the growth of God’s word (Matthew 13:3-9)? Am I challenged to have greater concern for the poor, as in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? If I took them seriously, would these parables change my life?
Fresh and present-day listening will require an effort on your part. You will have to tune out a lot of distractions. You may have to cut through underbrush coming from your presuppositions and complacencies, from your resistances, and from the high-powered messages of our noisy culture.
3. Let yourself be transformed.
A third step is to let yourself be changed by the message of the parable, to resolve to actualize its core truth in our twenty-first-century circumstances.
The parables invite us to exercise our creative imaginations and then move into action. They call us to decide what we need to do, here and now, in order to draw nearer to God’s kingdom.
For example, I might need to let go of ethnocentric prejudices. For most first-century Jews, a “good Samaritan” seemed like a contradiction in terms. Samaritans followed a false religion and were considered corrupt and unwelcoming (see John chapter 4 or Luke 9:51-56). But Jesus’ parable invites us to look at the heart and the conduct of each person, rather than to dismiss people because of ethnic or sectarian prejudice. What changes does this call for in my life? What will I do about it?
Consider this example: Jesus recognized the Pharisees as fervent and observant people who certainly knew how best to pray, in contrast to faithless Jews like the publicans, who collaborated with oppressive Roman authorities. Yet, Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14) assures us that God is pleased with the humble, repentant prayer of the publican in contrast to the boasting of the Pharisee. The parable invites me to let go of any “pharisaic” smugness and self-satisfaction. How do I let go of my own smugness, concretely, here and now?
In the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13), Jesus surprisingly praised an administrator who cheated his employer in the hope of finding new clients after he was fired. Jesus does not encourage dishonesty; rather, he points to creativity and resourcefulness. Embezzlers and cheats are noted for their cleverness in channeling funds; Jesus urged his hearers to show similar energy in seeking God’s kingdom. What a shock to recognize something that can be learned from the clever cheaters of our world, still so abundant today! Meditating on this parable, I might decide to approach my life with greater energy and clearer focus, to shake off some of my lethargy or hesitation or meaningless conformity.
The implication of the parables for our actions and attitudes here and now will usually be pretty clear.
Praying over the parables can deeply change us. In prayerfully pondering their lessons, we may find our inner lives transformed and our attitudes toward others rendered more compassionate and forgiving. Thus, in fact, our lives may become more like that of Jesus himself. Our contemplation of his parables can lead us toward becoming one with the Teacher.
Father David Fleming is a former Superior General of the Society of Mary (Marianists). His work includes teaching and counseling for 15 years in India and 10 years in Rome. At present, he teaches in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Dayton.
Expanded Study Guide and Additional Reading
Father Fleming helps us learn how to read, reflect on, and pray with the parables. A parable contains an element of surprise, or a hook, to capture the readers’ attention in order to understand the meaning of the parable. We are discovering through this series that parables are meant to involve the hearers who are drawn in by familiarity with the situation described within the parable.
1. Why is storytelling an effective way to communicate faith?
2. What is unique about the way Jesus told stories?
3. Is it possible that you might read and hear the parables so often that they could become trivialized? Why?
4. What is the three-step process Fr. Fleming presents for effectively reading the parables? Explain.
5. Why is silence important for contemplating the parables or reading Scripture?
6. Some people believe we are living in a culture of distraction created by rapidly expanding digital technologies that demand all of our attention all of the time. This culture prevents us from appreciating the value of silence for listening deeply to the Word of God. What do I think?
7. What is the relationship of metanoia (conversion) for understanding the parables?
8. What are the implications of the parables for my own actions and attitudes in life?
9. What is my most significant new learning concerning the parables from reading and reflection on Fr. Fleming’s article?
1. Introduce your students to the three-step process for reading the parables. Practice reading a parable prior to each class session within a prayerful setting.
2. Have students create a Parable Prayer Book to be presented to the children who are preparing for their First Holy Communion. Or have the children who are preparing for either the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Reconciliation to do the same.
3. Invite students to illustrate what a culture of distraction is for them. Have them explain their illustrations and discern how a culture of silence could enhance their ability to listen to God.
The Bible Today Magazine. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press (Saint John’s Abbey)
Getty-Sullivan, Mary Ann. Parables of the Kingdom: Jesus and the Use of Parables in the Synoptic Tradition. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2007
Tilly, Terrence. Story Theology. Michael Glazier, Inc. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press). 1985
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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, March 2013.
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