On Parables

Most of the world’s religious traditions rely upon teaching tales to communicate universal truths. Those tales are rarely viewed as factual occurences but rather as stories intended to make people think. Native American traditional stories of Coyote and other Trickster figures use irony and humor to poke fun at human frailties. Judaism is rich with stories of great figures such as the Baal Shem Tov. Buddhism relies upon stories to challenge followers to face their own character flaws. Cultures too rely upon story-telling to keep important traditions alive. Thus, I grew up in an Irish-American family that told stories as a way of maintaining connection across generations. Thus, stories about my Great-aunt Margaret helped me to see that feminism was alive long before the 70s came along.

Christianity too relies upon stories as a way of conveying important truths. We call them parables but I prefer to think of Jesus as a great story-teller. Some of his stories have woven their way into our culture. Most people of other religions or of no religion recognize the Tale of the Good Samaritan or the Tale of the Prodigal Son, in part because they are darn good stories.

Marcus Borg raises an interesting point. The tradition of story-telling wasn’t originated by Jesus. It had its roots in his own Jewish tradition. Why then can we not consider that parables make up a good portion of theĀ Old Testament, not just the New? Such a pondering obviously puts one at odds with those who approach the Bible as factual. Yet no one I know of has argued that the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son was a real person!

Viewing much of the Bible as parable opens up a doorway. I no longer have to struggle with whether creation happened in seven days. Rather, I can reflect on the truth within that story that encourages me to view God as present through all of creation. The parable of Job invites me to embrace my anger as a doorway to meaningful encounter with God. The Tale of the Parting of the Red Sea perhaps invites me to reflect on just how powerful and miracle-creating I think faith can be.

How far can this line of thinking go? I don’t know. Do I view the story of David as a parable? The story of the crucifixion? All that I know at this point is that the idea of parable opens some doors for me that I find enriching.

In this pursuit of truth, then, I’ll leave you with a Tale of Nasrudin from the Sufi tradition: One day Nasrudin was in a position of judging a dispute between two villagers. The first man presented his case and Nasrudin yelled “You’re right!” The other villager immediately argued his position and Nasrudin yelled “You’re right!” A court official immediately intervened, pointing out “Your honor, they can’t both be right” at which Nasrudin cried out “You’re right!”

Reflection: 1.How does this idea of parable or story-telling impact on your own views of Sacred Writings?

2. What role has story-telling played in your own spiritual journey?


About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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3 Responses to On Parables

  1. Story is the absolute essence of human communication. Two decades ago I learned storytelling and specifically, storytelling with a drum. Nothing magnetizes our attention like story, especially our own story. We have a fundamental need to tell our story and have it heard. In a literalizing culture such as our own, people have a great deal of difficulty with parables, stories, and symbols. We want “just the facts.” Some people resist parables and stories because they can’t be proven “true.” But there is a profound difference between whether a story is “true” and whether it actually happened. What matters is not whether or not the story “actually happened” as it is told but the truth that it communicates, and therefore, all stories are “true.” As a child I was raised on the literal interpretation of everything, especially the bible. Today, I read the bible and other sacred writings symbolically, searching for the larger story these writings are attempting to communicate, and in doing so, my spiritual path has profoundly deepened and become much more meaningful to me than any literal interpretation of sacred texts could have wrought.

  2. Mary Muntel says:

    A good source on biblical stories is the work of Margaret Ralph. She has her PH.D. in the Bible as literature. Understanding why the authors chose a particular style of literature is particularly helpful in understanding their intent. For instance the Hebrew creation myth was written while the Hebrew people were in captivity in Babylon. That humans (and all of creation) were purposefully made and created in God’s image is what is poetically revealed for Jews, a radically different belief from that of the Babylonian creation myth. (The seven day work week is a Babylonian construct interestingly).
    Dr. Ralph’s take on the books of Job and Jonah are great! I love this stuff! Books on the prophets for instance dealt with a humble acceptance of God’s call to challenge the fallen to repent. No one is pleased and the messengers are killed. There is some history in these stories. Jonah tells God no. Is swallowed by a whale who spits him onto the shore (of the Ninevites?), and not only the people believe his message so do the animals and all repent! The Hebrews would immediately be aware that this was a story meant to teach. God used the enemies of the chosen people to fight on behalf of the Jews, (the event preceding this story), therefore, God is at work among the Gentiles! What an engaging way to teach this new concept!
    I only know these things somewhat, but I understand parables to be challenging tales calling for the transformation of its hearers. There are often two meanings. Even the evangelists often missed the deeper meanings. If the parable is explained in Scripture it probably has missed the mark. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the hearers would not have identified with the priests or the Samaritan, of course. In fact there is just one they could identify with: the victim! Yes it is very good to care for our neighbors, but this take is very different. Even my worst enemy can minister to me! Teach me. Help me. The mustard seed parable is so interesting! Drs. Bob Miller and Art Dewey and othets wonderfully propose a nuanced take on the parables.
    As interesting as Scripture study is it is not equal to what you so personally shared, Rich. Your insights into how these ancient tales impact you moves all of us also on this journey, because it gives life and immediacy to often read texts and jolts us from a stale complacency in regards to the stories of our faith. Thank you.

    I find story telling along with other art forms to be integral to my own spiritual growth. Our former pastor used words to paint compelling visual images for our minds which so vibrantly took over our hearts! Much like Jesus did.

  3. Susan Bass says:

    I thought the Good Samaratin was a real person. Perhaps this is because I first learned about it as a child and filed it in my memory and never questioned it as an adult. Or perhaps my faith in certain ways is concrete in the way that some of us believe that the 7 day Creation was, in fact, just that.

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