Thoughts on Reading Jesus’ Parables

By Professor Deirdre Good

Jesus says: “The kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman who is carrying a [jar] filled with flour. While she was walking on [the] way, very distant (from home), the handle of the jar broke (and) the flour leaked out [on] the path. (But) she did not know (it); she had not noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down on the floor (and) found it empty.”

Jesus says: “The kingdom of the Father is like a person who wanted to kill a powerful person. He drew the sword in his house (and) stabbed it into the wall to test whether his hand would be strong (enough). Then he killed the powerful one.”

Have you ever heard these two parables of Jesus? No? Good! The trouble with parables is that we have become too familiar with them. We know (or think we know) all the details of the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. They have become old hat.

If that’s true for you, then I have a few suggestions. Find some of Jesus’ parables (like the ones above from the Gospel of Thomas) that you’ve never heard before. Say them out load, read them in different translations, discuss them with other people and think about what on earth they are trying to say.

Or try to memorize one of Jesus’ more familiar parables so that you can retell it in your own words without reciting a text. Just the act of memorizing and retelling teaches us things about oral delivery. Do you stress particular words or different aspects of the parable? Why are these important to you? You’ll find that every time you tell the parable or listen to someone else telling a parable, it’s a different event. You hear it differently.

Why do we care about engaging Jesus’ parables? Because everyone agrees that Jesus’ parables lie at the heart of his proclamation of God’s kingdom. So if we want to understand Jesus’ message about God, we have to engage with parables he spoke.

Jesus says “Listen! Behold! A sower went out to sow…” as a story of different seeds some of which sprouted and thrived in different kinds of soil. So God’s realm is like a sower sowing seed in soil and it is also like a person who planted good seed in a field, amongst which an enemy came and sowed weeds. And that the kingdom is like a tiny grain of mustard seed growing in the ground, or a net cast into the sea that gathered fish of every kind, or like a seed someone plants in fertile soil that grows automatically by itself in a mysterious way. Jesus also speaks of a younger brother who wanted his father’s inheritance before the father dies and who went off into a far country having squandered the inheritance. And of a merchant in search of a pearl of great worth or someone who found treasure hidden in a field.

God’s kingdom is there in the midst of life: in the smallest seed and the often-overlooked tiny details, in human relationships and human tragedies, in the way people hear and act, or partially hear or simply don’t hear or see God’s actions and presence in the world.

So take an old familiar parable or a new and dangerous one and memorize it. Let it soak into the fiber of your being so that it becomes part of you and your announcement of God’s presence in the world. Then listen to the parables of others as they speak the truths of different parables. Then stand back and see what happens….

–  By Professor Deirdre Good, Professor of New Testament at the General Theological Seminary