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 the 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?