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What were parables?

John Steinbeck on Story telling...
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jill Clardy

Psalm 78:2 I will open my mouth in mashall, I will utter hidden things, things from of old

A ‘parable’ is one of those words that we instantly associate with Jesus. We don’t really use it to talk about teachers today, today we might use words like allegory or metaphor, or we would say “he used an image” or a symbol or “she taught us a great illustration.”

Parables were not new, both Plato and Aristotle taught in parables so it should be no surprise that ‘parable’ is a Greek word. Much of Greek thought focused on philosophy. Greek teachers taught concepts, ideas and proposition. Geek thought is linear. But we all know Jesus was Jewish; and by in large, so was his audience.

In fact to say that Jesus taught in parable is actually wrong. A Greek parable was a simple method of teaching that could easily be interpreted.

However, Jesus didn’t teach like a Greek teacher. Jesus was a metaphorical teacher, he taught in image and dramatic action. We don’t see him teach through concepts like logic or reason. Jesus doesn’t use a white board, or use handouts or draw bar graphs – Jesus was a poet. Jesus spoke in story and he taught more like a traditional rabbi.

The rabbi’s taught in what was called “Mashall” To teach in Mashall was almost to say that you taught in riddles. It was called mysterious speech. A mashall was not easily interpreted, a mashall was a puzzle. A parable had one interpretation and one point. It was more like a simile.  But a mashall was intentionally confusing and deliberately obscure. A Greek teacher wants the student to quickly see the answer, but a Rabbi who uses mashall, wants his students to go home and think, and puzzle and pray.

The earliest forms of mashall we see are in some of the psalms and in an old testament story that Samuel teaches King David about a little lamb. Historians have uncovered some 2 thousand Jewish mashalls.

But even though mashalls predate Jesus – nobody taught them better. Depending on who is counting Jesus taught anywhere between 31 and 65 parables (I’m going to use the word parable going forward, since that’s the word we all recognize)

The Gospel of Luke contains both the largest total number of parables (27)  18 of which are unique. And unlike our American folk tales or even fairy tales – parables are not stories about champions on horses, damsels in distress, dragons or other tales of fancy. Parables are relatable, they are relevant, they are stories that the common person can quickly relate to.

Jesus told stories of fisherman and farmers. I mean, who could not identify with loving fathers, rebellious sons and self righteous older brothers? Everyone has searched their house for something they lost, everyone at one time or another gets invited to a wedding and sooner or later, we all end up owing money to someone.

Jesus’ parables were just like Jesus – they were accessible, and they hit close to home.

Much of Jesus’ parables can also be grouped into similar themes, Jesus taught parables of love and forgiveness, parables of losing and finding, parables about prayer and parables about the end times; and of course, what I think were some of Jesus’ more popular parables, the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Luke there are 3 such parables, the parable of the Mustard Seed, the Parable of Leaven and the Parable of the Sower.


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