Almost everyone enjoys a good story, especially when the storyteller has a real talent for relating stories. That is one of the reasons the parables of Jesus have attracted the interest of people from all walks of life dating as far back as the beginning of Christianity. Jesus was a master storyteller.
It was the genius of Jesus to use real-life stories -- parables -- to unite our vertical connection to the Almighty with our horizontal connections to all of life. If the parables are properly understood, they make God real and foremost in understanding all of our relationships in our daily lives: personal, social, political, professional, recreational -- yes, through the parables we can be connected to God in all that we think, say, and do, to life itself.
We are in the midst of the Lenten season, and what is the purpose of Lent? It is to prepare us for Easter, when we can experience a new level of life with Jesus -- so to say, share a resurrection with Jesus from one way of life to a new and ever-changing way of life. How do we do that? One way is by looking in-depth at the parables of Jesus, where the mysteries and riddles of life are addressed in very effective and unusual ways by one of the greatest storytellers of all time -- not only because Jesus could tell them so effectively, but because he was able to weave into them the very essence of life.
By using the parables as he did, Jesus was able to communicate with the cross-section of his listeners: the downtrodden, the sick and maimed, the harlots, the intellectuals, the professionals, the believers, the doubters. And by looking in-depth at some of the parables, you will actually hear Jesus talking with you. As miraculous as it may sound, if you want to go to the next level of your relationship with God himself, you can do it during Lent and share with Jesus on Easter a new level of life.
The parable was used long before the time of Jesus, but he refined its use to a degree that the literary parables -- that is, his real-life stories -- have stood the test of time. They are listened to, preached about, and studied more than any other parts of the New Testament. But for you to experience the connection with God that I speak of, it is necessary for you to understand what Jesus had on his mind -- the intent of the original storyteller. Otherwise, you will just be putting your interpretation to the parables -- understanding the meaning of the parables based on what you have come to believe rather than letting the parables take you to the next level of your relationship with Jesus and God.
You may remember that Jesus spoke to his disciples about this. He said, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:25)
It is unimportant what you imagine a parable means. The only thing that matters is the meaning Jesus intended. And to understand this, you must rediscover the Jesus of old -- the times he lived in, the circumstances of his listeners, the situations facing him when he told the various parables. George Buttrick, famed minister of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City in the first half of the twentieth century, in describing the circumstances surrounding the parables puts it well: the "motley array of characters and the vivid scenery are wrought into unforgettable stories." (The Parables of Jesus, Harper & Brothers, 1928, p. xix)
If you are interested in being taken to the next level of your relationship with God Almighty, then there are three things you need to know about the way Jesus constructed and used parables.
1. The parables of Jesus always had one main point, and only one. You will find several secondary and significant points in the longer literary parables, but in every parable, even the one-liners, the reader needs to look for the one main point of the parable.
2. Frequently the main point comes as a surprise at the very end of the parable, like a mousetrap--catching you off guard.
3. Jesus did not use parables as easy stories to understand. With most of his parables it is necessary to think very deeply in order to understand fully the one main point, and in those instances Jesus used the parable more as a tool to make you think rather than an interesting story that is easy to understand. You need to be prepared to spend some time using your mind to its greatest capacity to come up with the real meaning.
Next week I plan to discuss one such parable. It has several important secondary teachings, some of which seem to be contradictory, but there is only one main point, and it will not be easy to find in this somewhat baffling parable. I am referring to the Parable of the Marriage Feast (Mathew 22:1-14). You may find it worthwhile during the week to study the parable, trying to untangle it on your own, before reading my attempt at it next week.