The Power of Parables

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

“It shouldn’t be that difficult to eat healthy food.”

That’s the assertion of Nell McShane Wulfhart in her book Off Menu, a sweeping study of what Americans choose to eat.

Anyone who can read a package label has immediate access to more nutritional data than any previous generation. 

But information has not led to dietary transformation.  That’s because our choices are “undermined at every turn by food marketers, tempting aromas, slick packaging, and yes, by our very own brains.” 

Americans are lousy at reading the messages our bodies are sending to us – whether we’ve already had enough to eat, for instance, and what we’re actually hungry for.  We’re routinely fooled by pictures.  If a half-pound cheeseburger is garnished with a slice of tomato and a piece of lettuce, that must mean it is healthy.  It isn’t.  According to a recent study, a large percentage of consumers believe that organic Oreos have fewer calories than regular Oreos.  They don’t. 

The most dispiriting discovery is that expressions like “healthy,” “light,” and “good for you” actually turn people off. 

According to Dr. Traci Mann, who oversees the Eating Lab at the University of Minnesota, the word “healthy” has come to mean “tastes bad.”  It’s understandable that most people would rather have a chocolate milkshake than a kale smoothie.  But even when presented with colorful, delicious, low-calorie, high-energy options, American diners tend to be skeptical. 

The prospect of “comfort food” makes us salivate.  “Health food” triggers a surge of disappointment. 

We know that we know better.  But just because we have potentially life-changing information at our fingertips doesn’t mean we’ll joyfully adjust our diets. 

The same thing is true when it comes to walking with God.  We have all the information we need – insights that have the potential to enrich our lives in this world and the next.  Do you want to be spiritually healthy?  Then don’t lie.  Don’t cheat on your taxes.  Don’t sleep with someone who’s not your spouse.  Don’t hold grudges.  Don’t ruin your life by trying to control everything.   

Don’t, don’t, don’t.  The word on the street is that religion is nothing but a set of spirit-crushing restrictions. 

If that’s true, who wants to be healthy?  If Christians were honest, they would admit there are times they think that sinners are having all the fun.  No wonder people gravitate to lifestyles that feel more like spiritual comfort food than the drudgery of eating veggies for Jesus. 

It would seem that Christianity has a major public relations problem.

The truth, however, is that God so loved the world that he didn’t send his Son to deliver a new list of rules.     

Instead, Jesus primarily told stories. 

“Parables are to Jesus what jokes are to a comedian,” says author Brian McLaren.  Matthew 13:34 makes this remarkable statement: “He did not say anything to them without using a parable.”  We know that when speaking to specific groups (like his inner circle of disciples), Jesus did not always tell stories.  But parables were his chief means of declaring to a general audience, “This is what it means to have a Father in heaven.” 

Why tell stories?

Parables are sneaky.  Most of Jesus’ stories are deceptively simple.  Some even seem childish.  But they are full of surprises and unexpected twists.  Jesus is able to communicate “spiritual nutritional information” in delightful, memorable ways. 

Ways that may actually make us want us to know God better.  

In that sense, his parables are subversive.  Just when we think we’ve figured out everything about Us vs. Them, and feel absolutely certain that Jesus loves Us and will be sending Them straight to hell, he comes up with a story that forces us to see things in a different light. 

Maybe we’ve been a bit off the mark.  OK, maybe we’ve been way off the mark.  That’s the power of parables. 

The astounding thing about these stories is that they don’t seem to age.  Perhaps you first heard about the Good Samaritan back in third grade Sunday School.  And after just one reading of the Gospels, you could rattle off the essential message of the parable of the Four Soils.  But the meanings of these stories aren’t static.  They become deeper, richer, and increasingly surprising as we grow older.  The more we experience life, the more we will find ourselves thinking, “I never saw that before.” 

McLaren observes, “Human kingdoms advance by force and violence with falling bombs and flying bullets, but God’s kingdom advances by stories, fictions, tales that are easily ignored and easily misunderstood.  Perhaps that’s the only way it can be.” 

Parables make us think.  They invite us to listen to God in new ways. 

Which, when you think about it, is a wonderful foundation for a healthy spiritual diet.