In a previous post on this blog, I asked people for their comments on their favorite book of the Bible. I received thought provoking responses, with readers choosing the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of Mark, the Psalms and even Paul’s short letter to Philemon. If you have not offered your own favorite biblical book, please click on the link above and feel free to add your comments at any time. Today, though, I am proposing a new list and that is of readers’ favorite parables. In the comments section below let us know what your favorite parable of Jesus is and why it is your favorite parable. How has it spoken to you in the past? Why do you think this particular parable has spoken to you? Has your view of the parable changed even as it has remained your favorite? Or have you chosen different parables as your favorites over the years? I would love to hear from you and so I will hold off on offering my own favorite parable at this time, which also gives me a little more time to ruminate on what my choice might be.

I think Jesus’ parables are so powerful because they are in story form and so reach across the divide that is often created by “Scripture,” in which “experts” are needed to interpret the parable “correctly.” Even when some people might find it difficult to offer a coherent explanation of why a parable moves them in such a profound way, the reality of Jesus’ teaching has penetrated through the mode of story. This is why an organization such as the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses Jesus’ parables to teach very young children. They “get” the parables because they “get” story and “narrative.” This must have been the case in Jesus’ day, too, that whether a child or adult, a woman or a man, a slave or a free person, an educated or an uneducated person, people could understand the narrative.

More than that, I think parables do not close off thinking and interpretation, but they open it up. Parables are not concerned so much with doctrine and dogma, but with how we treat other people, how we behave, and how God loves us and cares for us. This bridges false walls that human beings set up between themselves and allows us to reflect on what the parable is teaching me, right now.

Apart from that, I think parables were perfect for memorization. How many times do you need to hear “A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Duck walked into a bar” – and I am uncertain if this exact joke exists, so my apologies in advance if it does and is particularly bawdy -  before you remember the outlines of the joke? Most of us can remember the joke if we remember the basic narrative and the major characters. Jesus’ parables are identical to narrative jokes in these respects: “Disciples, listen up, a Levite and a Priest were going up to Jerusalem when they came upon a man beaten on the side of the road. They walked on by. A Samaritan came by…” Jesus’ parables were easily memorizable because of their basic nature as story, but also because of their vividness, their grounding in day to day life and the way they play off of and controvert normal expectations for human behavior, especially as it relates to ethnicity and social class. “A Samaritan did what??? Jesus, is that right, a Samaritan? Or did you mean a Sadducee?”

Jesus gets to the heart of human experience by placing us in the lives and narratives of his characters. The parables challenge us to look deeply inside of ourselves and ask how we need to transform ourselves or allow ourselves to be transformed. The images of God in the parables are often shocking because God is so powerfully merciful and loving it overwhelms our defenses by which we wish to keep God at arm’s length, to contain and manage God. In the parables Jesus teaches us not by wagging a finger at us, but by allowing us to confront personally and internally the impact of how his characters behave or, in certain cases, how they do not behave.

There are many parables of Jesus – which is your favorite?

John W. Martens

 

Comments

Michelle Russell | 9/19/2010 - 8:41pm
My current favorite parable is the parable of the Prodigal Son.  I left the Church and God for a number of years, and this parable speaks strongly to my experience leading up to and upon returning to God over this past year.  A series of events brought me into a dark time in my life, which effectively brought me to my knees, and in that moment of despair, God came to mind, and I made a decision to return to Church.  I remember the first time I went back to Mass, trying to 'hide' so no one would know who I was - as I was ashamed that I had been away so long, and for why I had been away as well.  Kind of hard to hide from God!  I immediately felt welcomed and have come to realize that our Father's love is perfectly described in the person of the father of the Prodigal Son.  Not only was he ready to welcome me back, he was waiting for me, greeting me with unconditional love - not dismissing my absence, but celebrating my return, and fully embracing me, whether I deserved it or not!  And although not in the parable, I presume after the celebration was over, the son was expected to resume his regular family duties just as if he had never left; which is just what I am being called to do in my own parish-life right now!  So because of my own experience mirroring the parable so closely, it speaks to me in such a personal way and that is why it is my favorite. 
Leo Zanchettin | 9/17/2010 - 9:44pm
My favorite parable isn’t really a parable—at least not in the popular term. I think there’s a way that some of Jesus’ actions and gestures are just as parabolic as the tales he told. They have an added dimension to them in that Jesus doesn’t just tell a story, he enters into the story, just as he entered into our story in the Incarnation. And by his presence within the story, he sets it apart and fills it with a special kind of inspiration.
So my all-time favorite “parable” is John 13:1-17, the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. In a nod to the above discussion about multiple levels of meaning, I find in this simple but moving gesture the whole of the Jesus story acted out. He who was in the form of God emptied himself and became a servant. And as a servant, he cleansed his people, elevated them to a new dignity, and called them to participate in his mission. And he did it all in a very personal, intimate way.
Following Ignatius of Loyola’s way of imaginative prayer, I have often placed myself in this scene, picturing myself as one of the disciples. I find this to be especially helpful when I prepare for confession. There are times, as I examine my conscience, when I can’t bring myself to look at Jesus’ face as he washes me because I know he is seeing right through me. He knows what needs cleansing and how much there is to wash, and I am embarrassed at how dirty I have let my feet become. But at the same time, the love and compassion, the mercy and forgiveness with which he does it are so great that I can’t wrap my head around it. And then, in a voice filled with both respect and pity he says, “You are already clean.” Amazing!
Some commentators have proposed that John used this story in place of the Last Supper story in the Synoptics because it serves a similar purpose. I am inclined to agree. Here, just as in the bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to us and tells us to do likewise in memory of him. In both stories, the cross and resurrection are foreshadowed, and Jesus’ self-sacrificial love are front and center.
Anyway, that’s my favorite “parable.” I hope I haven’t bent your rules too much, John!
David Nickol | 9/16/2010 - 11:59pm
I am guessing that the two parables that come immediately to mind for most people are the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Both are fascinating, but since I was recently involved in a discussion of the Good Samaritan (and maybe because I was born in Good Samaritan Hospital), I'll pick that one. What I find fascinating about the story (and this is true of so much in the New Testament and even some of the Old Testament) is that it at first seems so simple, but the more you look at it (especially if you consult a few good commentaries) the less you feel you can really come up with a single definitive meaning. A note in the NAB says, ''Jesus illustrates the superiority of love over legalism through the story of the good Samaritan,'' but that barely scratches the surface.

I think for a very long time I had the impression that the parable meant we are all neighbors, but it doesn't say that at all. The parable itself doesn't really even say we all should be neighbors. The priest and the Levite are definitely not the neighbors of the robbery victim. One might argue that when Jesus says, ''Go and do likewise'' to the scholar who has questioned him, the lesson is then that we should all be neighbors to one another. But as I said in the discussion I linked to, there is something not quite convincing having  Jesus say, ''Go thou and do likewise.'' (I am, of course, assuming that there is an editor at work here fitting in the parable.) The scholar is, after all, not there to learn from Jesus but to put him on the spot.  And he has not sincerely asked for advice about what he should do. 

One thing that annoys me, and it just happened a few days ago, is that in a news report in which a passerby comes to someone's aid, the newscaster invariably refers to the person who helped as a ''good Samaritan.'' Of course one of the points of the parable is that the Samaritan is from a hated ethnic group and is a person the listener is not pleased to have to admit is the hero of the story. That is never the case in news stories with ''good Samaritans.'' A ''good Samaritan'' in a news story is just a passerby who helps out a stranger. 

Of course rarely do we get anything appropriate from newscasters making religious metaphors. I once heard someone on television news say that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was a ''spiritual Mecca'' for New Yorkers.  
David Nickol | 9/17/2010 - 10:58am
John,

I was having a difficult time putting my thought into words. I did not mean to imply that the more you delved into a parable, the less it meant. I meant the more deeply you delved, the less easy it was to come up with a simple statement beginning, ''The meaning of the story is . . . .''

For example, we can just take as a given that the priest and the Levite are not decent compassionate people and the Samaritan is. But some commentators point out that if the robbery victim in the story is actually dead, the priest and the Levite will become ritually unclean if they touch him. So is there an element of criticizing greater concern with ''technicalities'' of the law than with compassion? It does not strike me as a particularly compelling interpretation, but then it is difficult for me to imagine how a first-century Jew would feel about ritual cleanliness. This kind of thing does remind us that it is very important to know what a first-century listener would have known in order to properly interpret the parable. For example, it is essential to know the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans to fully grasp the impact of the parable. Several commentaries I looked at point out that when Jesus asks the scholar which of the three travelers was the robbery victim's neighbor, the scholar answers, ''The one who treated him with mercy.'' The commentators say, plausibly, that the scholar can't bring himself to say, ''The Samaritan.'' 

We can also ask (and for this I don't have an answer), why was Jesus so specific about the amount of money the Samaritan gives the innkeeper (two danarii), and why the detail of the Samaritan telling the innkeeper that if more is needed to care for the robbery victim, he (the Samaritan) will pay the innkeeper on his return trip. 

We can go on just about forever.