His response would probably be something along the lines of “Well, they did the job, didn’t they?” I’d agree. The truth of the matter is I can remember Christ’s parables much more readily than most anything else in the New Testament. So it’s obvious the Lord knew what He was doing by employing them in His preaching. I googled “parable” and learned that its Greek root word paraballein means to throw one thing down next to another. That’s a good description of what Jesus was doing. By devising stories in order to efficiently convey profound concepts to a wide variety of people He figuratively placed them alongside something based in real life, something they were all familiar with. Therefore they were able to “get it” the first time they heard it and thus able to mull over the lesson taught long after the Messiah had moved on.
Now, if Jesus was merely rehashing some kind of static formula at every stop His message would’ve turned stale in short order. But He was the master of spontaneity in that He wisely noticed and took advantage of situations that arose around Him – even while He was in the midst of sermonizing. For example, in Luke 12 a man in the crowd interrupts Jesus and requests that He coerce his brother to do the decent thing by divvying up the family estate pronto and giving him his fair share. Jesus doesn’t tell the man, “Not now, dude. See me after the lecture.” On the contrary, He seizes the moment. First He puts the fellow in his place by saying, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator between you two?” (Luke 12:14). If the Lord would’ve left it right there the thing the folks would’ve remembered most was how Jesus shut up a local loudmouth. Rather, Jesus turned back to those gathered and said, “Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). He then came up with a parable on the spot that effectively drove His point home. He told them a tale about a fat cat farmer whose harvest was so big one year he decided to tear down his silos and build larger ones to store it all in. By doing so he figured he could retire and live the rest of his life without having to give a flip about anything other than indulging in his self-gratifying desires. But then God Almighty shows up unexpectedly and says to the farmer, “Hey, smart boy! I hate to break it to you but you won’t survive the night so I gotta ask you what that great wealth you’ve hoarded is going to do for you come morning? Here’s a news bulletin. You can’t buy your way into My kingdom.”
And it wasn’t just one story after another. On another occasion while Jesus was giving a talk someone let Him know His mom and brothers were nearby and wanted to have a private chat with Him. Jesus no doubt knew His family members still thought He’d lost His marbles and they were there to try to talk some sense into Him. He also knew it’d be a total waste of time for both parties involved. Therefore He took advantage of the circumstance to impart to His listeners something quite deep. He said to the messenger, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ And pointing toward his disciples he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:48-50). I’m sure most of those in attendance were taken aback by His stark announcement but they also never forgot the lesson He was teaching them – all men and women who strive to obey and love God are henceforth to be considered authentic spiritual kinfolk in the family of the new kingdom He came to introduce. He surmised His words would only further reinforce His mother’s and siblings’ mistaken opinion about His mental state so it became more important He turn the awkward situation into something positive and memorable. Genius.
In His parables Jesus also corrected many general assumptions we humans wrongly make when confronted with certain scenarios. He often presented cases in which our instinctual, animalistic reaction proves to be in opposition with how a Godly man or woman should react. A fine example would be the true life story of the rich young ruler found in Mark 10 as it pertains to the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor.” It was acceptable, especially in those days, to assume that if a person was well off it meant God was particularly happy with them. Since Jehovah was deemed the overseer of all wealth distribution on earth it was only logical to think that way. But when this well-meaning rich young man showed up and openly declared his intent to do whatever it took to gain eternal life Jesus knew in the fellow’s heart of hearts he was more enamored with money than with God. “As Jesus looked at him, he felt love for him and said, ‘You lack one thing. Go, sell whatever you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ But at this statement the man looked sad and went away sorrowful, for he was very rich” (Mark 10:21-22). Truth can hurt.
The man’s reaction brings to mind a #1 hit from 1993, modified appropriately, “I’d do anything for salvation (but I won’t do that).” Jesus then told his disciples how difficult it is for the affluent to completely surrender all they are to God. While that may seem reasonable to us it was nothing less than a wildly outrageous claim to make in that day and time. Jesus went on to elaborate, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24-25). But they were still confused. What He said ran against everything they believed. Scratching their noggins they asked Him, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). Jesus told them only God can save. It’s vital to note what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say it was impossible for the wealthy to get into heaven. Indeed, He said they could – albeit not without God’s help. In addition He never insinuated that the poor have an edge over the rich when it comes to redemption. He merely recognized a golden opportunity to correct His followers’ prevailing attitude toward the well-to-do upper class. He was confirming that the adage “God first and everything else second” applies to everyone regardless of the shape their bank account’s in.
This insightful style of teaching is also found in Luke 14. Jesus goes to a religious leader’s home for dinner. Seeing some of the uppity guests scrambling to nab the best seats in the house, Jesus offers a parable involving a wedding reception. In it He illustrates that those truly worthy of honor will invariably be asked to move up and sit closer to the host while those who have to relocate further down the table will be mortified. Jesus then turns and says to the feast’s host, “When you host a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid. But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14). I’m sure you could’ve heard a pin drop in the room for the initial en masse reaction was probably, “Did he just say what I think He said? That we’re not to have our influential acquaintances over for supper but to invite the dregs of society instead? Is He that ignorant about how things work around here?” But who was to be put on the guest list wasn’t the point Jesus was making. He was shining a glaring light on the selfish motive hidden behind the host’s false generosity. He used what was occurring in real time to expose as morally wrong the prevailing custom of neglecting the needy in favor of feasting with the opulent who’ll then be obliged to reciprocate in kind. It was His way of teaching all in the room that their scope of responsibility was far too limited. It’s doubtful Jesus got invited to brunch again.
The parable of “the Good Samaritan” tops the list, though. When a religious law know-it-all tries to entrap our Savior with a “gotcha” query regarding what’s required to secure eternal life Jesus responds with “What’s the law say?” Now on the defensive, the guy refers to Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 wherein it’s made crystal clear one is to love both God and one’s neighbor. “Jesus said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live’” (Luke 10:28). Realizing the focus is now back on him, the expert blurts out, “Yeah, but tell us this: Who, technically speaking, is my neighbor?” At that juncture in the conversation Jesus saw a massive door swing open that’d allow Him to impart to the crowd a vital lesson and He didn’t hesitate to stroll through it. He tells them a story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who gets robbed, viciously assaulted and left to bleed out in the roadway. A priest happens along but acts like he sees nothing at all. A Levite arrives on the tragic scene but he’s just as unhelpful. (The irony is both were probably in a hurry to get to Jerusalem and do something “religious.”)
Then Jesus introduces the shocker; the surprise element. He tells them a social outcast (of all people a half-breed Samaritan for Pete’s sake!) happens along. Those in the audience most likely thought He’d tell them the evil jerk pried the gold from the hapless victim’s teeth but that’s not how Jesus’ parable went. Turned out the Samaritan had more heart than the priest and the Levite combined. Jesus said he “felt compassion” for the injured man lying in the highway and proceeded to stop and administer life-saving first aid. Afterwards he transported the man to an inn where he monitored him overnight. On top of all that, he paid the innkeeper to let the man stay until he recovered and promised to cover any additional expenses the next time he came through! Those listening knew this was no improbable fairy tale. Folks got mugged out on the roads all the time. They were hanging on every word so when Jesus looked around and asked, “Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” all eyes zeroed in on the law expert who sheepishly mumbled, “The one who showed mercy to him” (His pride prevented him from saying “the Samaritan”). Jesus could’ve rubbed it in but He didn’t. He simply told him, “Go and do the same” (Luke 10:36-37).
Via this timeless story the Lord speaks to each of us. We can look for loopholes till the cows come home but, as Dallas Willard wrote, “…In God’s order nothing can substitute for loving people. And we define who our neighbor is by our love.” We’ve not been granted the right to pick and choose who we’re to love as we love ourselves. Ethnicity, skin color, race and political persuasion are to have no bearing whatsoever on the issue of “Who qualifies as my neighbor?” If Jesus told this tale in Tel Aviv today the merciful protagonist would be called the “Good Palestinian.” In Gaza City he’d be identified as the “Good Israeli.” In America he’d be tagged the “Good Muslim” or the “Good redneck” or the “Good illegal immigrant” and the inference would no doubt raise eyebrows. That’s because Jesus insists His followers discard all imbedded or rationalized biases and see all human beings as God sees them – unique entities that deserve our unrestricted love and respect. The Bible doesn’t mince words. It states, “Human beings look at the outer appearance, but Jehovah looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and “What humanity highly regards can be sickening to God” (Luke 16:15).
Sadly, Jesus’ method of teaching is alien to modern educational methods and therefore for some it’s hard for them to grasp the concrete truths He was imparting. The fundamental problem is that too many have lost (or never acquired) the ability to listen. They’re too busy taking notes or worrying about which part of the lesson they’re likely to be tested on. Willard commented, “The teacher in Jesus’ time – and especially the religious teacher – taught in such a way that he would impact the life flow of the hearer, leaving a lasting impression without benefit of notes, recorders, or even memorization. Whatever did not make a difference in that way just made no difference. Period.” Look at it in this light: If you were conscious on September 11, 2001 you know precisely where you were and what you were doing when you initially heard of the devastating attack in Manhattan. To this day you don’t have to strain to summon those memories because the whole horrible episode is forever tattooed in detail on the surface of your psyche. We automatically remember the things that make a difference in our life. Jesus’ thought-provoking parables had a comparable impact and that’s why the Apostles didn’t have to consult their memoirs to recall verbatim what their Master had taught and commanded them to pass on.
In my younger days (when I liked the idea of being a Christian but not the idea of “total commitment to the cause”) I used to wonder why, since Jesus was literate and educated, He didn’t write down for posterity at least some of what He preached. Didn’t He consider the risk? Wasn’t there a chance Satan would find a way to erase all traces that He was even here? The revered 20th century Scottish theologian James S. Stewart soundly answered that last question with an unequivocal no. He wrote, “For Jesus knew (and in many a parable He came back to this) that once you have planted a seed, you can leave it to look after itself; God and the soil will do the rest. He knew that once He had planted His words in human hearts, He could confidently leave them there; they would haunt men down the years and would live forever. No need for Him to write His teaching down; that teaching, once let loose upon the earth, would make its way by its own inherent power and march deathlessly across the ages.” It’s hard to disagree with what the historical record proves happened. Jesus is, indeed, the living Word.