6 Powerful Features of Parables
“I love it when he uses stories. It makes it so much easier to understand what is right.”
Elaine Ricker Kelly, Forgotten Followers: from Broken to Bold
This quote is from a woman in my novel after she hears the parable of the Good Neighbour. This parable showed how the detested Samaritans could provide models of goodness. Jesus's parables bless those with a hunger for God, such as Salome, with a memorable and effective understanding of Jesus’s message. Lately, I've been thinking of my biblical fiction, Forgotten Followers: from Broken to Bold, as a parable. It doesn't tell you what to believe; it shows how Jesus treated people as equals.
1. Parables are Relatable
Jesus told many parables, which are earthly stories that show heavenly truths. Sometimes the whole story is told in a single descriptive picture. Jesus's stories used everyday situations that were relatable to both men and women. The parable of the lost son, with God pictured as a father, is positioned beside the parable of the lost coin, with God pictured as a woman. The parable of the yeast is a short snapshot: “The Kingdom of heaven is like when a woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour until the whole batch of dough rises.” (Matthew 13:33 GNT). It portrays a woman spreading God's word, and is paired with a parable of a man planting a mustard seed which grows into a tree in which birds can nest (Luke 13:18-21). Forgotten Followers portrays characters with fears and emotions that are similar to today, and themes of abuse and racism which continue to resonate.
2. Parables have Hidden Meaning
A parable has both a plain reading and a hidden meaning. The storylines use everyday imagery, but the deeper meaning of the stories is only clear to those with a heart ready for understanding. The parable may portray multiple complex ideas, but it does not explain, clarify, or define what it is teaching. In the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, Luke 8:4–15), some seed was taken by birds, some fell on hard places, some was scorched by the sun or choked by weeds, but some fell on good soil. That is the heart that is receptive and will understand the message of the parable. Those who were looking to test Jesus or oppose him did not understand the messages of his parables. This fulfilled a prophecy that ‘they may have eyes but not see, hear but not understand (Luke 8:10, Mark 4:12).
3. Parables Involve Everyone in the Discussion
Our culture relies heavily on right-brain logic and rational thinking. When scholars use exegesis to study, interpret and explain a text it can use unique language and "it excludes ordinary people from the process of doing theology" (1). Some people do not have the time, interest or ability to read non-fiction theology texts, watch theology videos or listen to podcast analyses. Parables use imagery and imagination and include ordinary men, women, and children in the discussion.
Jesus taught women as students, listened to the woman at the well and responded to her questions. Jesus accepted women in the traditional role of disciples, providing for their teacher out of their financial means. Jesus told the men and women that Mary of Bethany had made the right choice in sitting at his feet, learning as a disciple. Jesus told all genders to be apostles, to be the salt of the earth and the light to the world. Jesus told the crowds to become like a child in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven; possibly meaning less reliance on our own logic and more on faith. The listeners did not have to be scholars. Parables hide meaning from the learned but reveal the meaning to the little children.
4. Parables Bring us Closer to God
Ignatius of Loyola, a 15th-century priest, developed a way of praying using Scripture and imagination. This method encourages the seeker to use imagination to place themselves fully within a story from the Gospels. "We become onlooker-participants and give full rein to our imagination." (2) Parables allow you to identify with the characters and identify with their emotions and with your own life experiences. You might imagine Jesus's face, body language, or tone of voice, as well as how other people respond to him. Our imaginations can allow us to know Jesus as more than a historical figure, but as a person, with a relationship to us.
5. Parables are Experiential
Fiction can demonstrate what Non-Fiction states. In my historical fiction, Forgotten Followers, the reader is invited to walk in the shoes of the women who were disciples, see what they saw, and imagine how they felt and what they thought. Like a parable, it is a fictional story that shows a spiritual truth. Some concepts can only be understood when we experience their impact. It demonstrates the good news that Jesus engaged, equipped, and empowered women as disciples and apostles.
Parables not only deliver an idea, but they also invite the reader to experience an idea, ponder it, try it on and see how it feels. It is like a car sales representative encouraging you to take a test drive and see how it feels to be surrounded by a product. In my career in sales, we learned in addition to describing the product's features and benefits, it is critical to describe how the product will make you feel, its outcomes and its experiences. "Sell the sizzle, not the steak."
6. Parables Motivate us to Action
Fiction and stories can connect at an emotional level and motivate us to action. Parables and stories have "the power to touch the heart and bring conversion" (1), while theology based on rational thought may remain a concept and not make any difference in how a person lives her life. In my career as a financial advisor, we learned that "Facts tell; stories sell". For example, which connects with you more, and makes you more motivated to take action:
This investment is broadly diversified with exposure to well-established stocks
When I used this investment with other clients, they were relieved to be able to retire in confidence
When buyers analyze product information, it can lead to 'analysis paralysis'. In the end, an emotion or gut feeling is often required to make a decision or to motivate action. Intellects, theologians, and politicians argued about slavery and abolition using logic, judgement, and the ‘letter of the law.’ They argued that some slavery was servile but other slavery was natural.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin dramatically showed the problems of slavery and motivated the public against it. It didn't show the letter of the law but the ‘spirit of the law’.
“Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse!”
- Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Equality and freedom are not in specific proof-texts so much as in the overarching message of God’s redeeming love for all people. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, like a parable, connected with ordinary people on an emotional level and motivated us to action.
Parables bring together our analysis of our beliefs with our emotions and decisions about how we live. In the case of Forgotten Followers, from Broken to Bold, my hope is that people will not only discuss women's roles and the biblical equality of all people but live it as well.
(1) Catechesis Of The Good Shepherd: Essential Realities by Tina Lillig and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: The Religious Potential of the Child by Sofia Cavalletti
Parallel male/female Parables: