Our Lord was a brilliant storyteller.
As the Gospels inform us, He touched the hearts and minds of His listeners with poignant — sometimes ironic — and even humorous stories that we still treasure today as parables. Some of His parables are known simply by their titles — the Prodigal Son, the Fig Tree and the Mustard Seed, for example — and traditionally Christians everywhere needed only to hear a small reference to a parable to appreciate the deeper meaning of Jesus’ teaching.
The parables are a way, par excellence, to appreciate Jesus’ teaching style. Pope Benedict XVI, during an Angelus address in 2011, noted the way that Jesus distinguished between the disciples and the crowd. He spoke openly to the disciples about the kingdom of God, but He spoke of it to others in parables, “to encourage their decision, conversion of the heart,” according to Pope Benedict. “Indeed, by their very nature parables demand the effort of interpretation; they not only challenge the mind but also freedom.”
But he also noted that Jesus’ parables were “autobiographical.” “God’s true ‘Parable,’” Pope Benedict said, “is Jesus himself, his Person who, in the sign of humanity, hides and at the same time reveals his divinity. In this manner God does not force us to believe in him but attracts us to him with the truth and goodness of his incarnate Son: love, in fact, always respects freedom.”
To study the parables, then, is to study both the teachings and the person of Jesus Christ. In this issue, Scripture scholar Dr. Peter Brown looks at the parables and how to appreciate them fully. Brown points out, of course, that while they are perhaps the best-known facets of the Lord’s teaching, He accommodated himself to patterns of teaching already in use.
It is striking that the parables still resonate so well in a technology-drenched culture such as exists today. Pope Francis loves to talk and teach about Jesus’ parables, and also uses his own to get a point across. Think about his vivid even earthy imagery in calling on priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of sheep.” Or his twist on the parable of the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to find the one that is lost. Talking about today’s culture, Pope Francis has said that “we have one in the pen and 99 we need to go looking for.”
Parables may be particular to our time, but they still point us to something deeper. And in the hands of the best teachers, they can even show us eternity.
Matthew Bunson, D.Min., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.