Contact Us

The stories Jesus tells us

30 November, 1999

“Narrative” is a technique used by psychotherapists to encourage people reveal what the central concerns of their lives are. The stories Jesus tells show how he thought of himself, the meaning of his life and his message. James McPolin SJ explains.



A few years ago some friends in Malawi, Africa, mentioned to me that story-telling is an important element in their culture. Certain stories are passed on from one generation to another. These stories are considered special because, though they are simple, they express important values about human life. Often they do not clearly express these values but the listeners conclude for themselves what is the lesson they convey.

As we know, it is easier to listen to a person telling a story than to listen to abstract, general principles. We can teach and learn a lot about life, and God through story-telling. An image, story or comparison is much richer, has more communicative force and conveys more meaning.

This is the way Jesus often taught. This is also the way the prominent Buddhist authors (e.g, Thich Nhat Hanh) write.
The stories of Jesus are called ‘parables’ and we have already reflected on some of them in previous articles (for example, about the poor and the rich and on God’s mercy).

What is a parable?
At its simplest, a parable is a simile or comparison drawn from nature or ordinary life. It attracts us by its vividness or strangeness. It leaves our mind in sufficient doubt about its precise meaning or application in order to tease us into active thought.

It is a form of comparison or simile, which compares one thing with another, using the word ‘as’ or ‘like’. For example, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘I am sending you like sheep into the midst of wolves’ (Mt ch l0). This is a comparison or simile. The simile may be developed into a story and that is what we commonly understand a parable to be.
Thus, a parable is an extended comparison in the form of a story. The story is fictitious, that is, it is not a narrative about events that  have happened. At the same time it is true to life because of the images, situations and characters it presents.
A parable is often introduced by a phrase such as: ‘The kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed’. This means: ‘It is the case with the kingdom of God as with a grain of mustard seed,’ that is, the kingdom of God is like a tall shrub which grows out of the seed (Mt ch 13).

The word ‘parable’ (from the Greek word parabole) in its original meaning covers a variety of forms of speech: it includes riddles, figurative sayings (for example, ‘if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the ditch’). But here we are limiting its meaning to the story form as it has been described.

A way of teaching
The method of using parables was a common teaching method. Other teachers of religion knew about it and used it. In these parables Jesus not only used the language of the people but also used images drawn from their ordinary lives.

In choosing the method of the parables, Jesus did not invent something new. He adopted the existing teaching method and renewed it from within.

If we bring together all the elements of Jesus’ parables, we get a great variety of the most diverse situations and aspects of life: seed, ploughs, light, salt, birds, flowers, pigs, weeds, lilies, grass, doves, serpents, feasts, weddings, bread, wine, yeast, business, war, building, towers, houses, roads, briars, good soil, fisher folk, nets, house-cleaning, children, lost coins, pearls, sheep, shepherd, inheritance, talents, wages, rich and poor.

The world of Jesus
Of course, we must remember that the background of these parables is the world of Jesus, the time of Jesus, that is, Palestinian life. It is important to keep this in mind when we interpret the parables.

Take, for example, the parable of the sower: ‘A sower went out  to sow. And as he sowed some fell on the path. Other seed fell on rocky ground… Other seed fell among thorns. Other seed fell into good soil’ (Mk ch 4). To our eyes the farmer is very careless as he scatters the seed heedlessly in all directions.

We judge his methods very differently when we realise that in Palestine in the time of Jesus, sowing preceded ploughing and therefore in the parable, the sower is presented as striding over the unploughed field. Now we understand why he sows on the path, which the villagers have trodden on; the path is going to be ploughed up and the seed ploughed in at the same time.

He sows intentionally among the withered thorns because these, too, are going to be ploughed up. He just cannot avoid the rocks because much of Palestine is rocky.

What appears to us today as bad farming and incompetence was normal procedure in the time of Jesus. He is speaking in images drawn from life around him in his time.
Country life
In his parables, Jesus put before his hearers the homely sights and activities of the country and country life, to such an extent, that it would be obvious from this alone that he was country-bred and belonged to village life. He drew lessons from the lives of women and men like themselves and the language of his stories was their own everyday speech.

These parables show Jesus’ realism and engagement with the ordinary life of the people. They belong to popular storytelling or folk literature. Some of them paint a very brief, vivid picture of life, for example, the treasure in the field (Mt ch 13); others paint a wider, more detailed picture, for example, the lost son (Lk ch 15).

Real life
These simple stories, then, are taken from real life, from nature or the human scene. They are drawn from the everyday life of the home, the kitchen, from farming and fishing, from the courtroom, from worship in the temple. Thus they catch the hearers’ attention by their vividness and narrative colour.

The life of the ordinary people in the time of Jesus comes alive in his parables. He was familiar with a rural Galilean environment; there are outdoor scenes of farming and shepherding and domestic scenes in a simple, one-room house (Lk 11: 5-8). The farming is hill-country farming, done in small plots or patches with stone fences and briars (Mk chs 4-7).
Rich and poor
Above all, the parables of Jesus tell us something about the socio-economic conditions of the people of the time of Jesus. They tell us about the rich and the poor of his day.

They tell us about the great injustices and poverty that existed in his day, the yawning gap between the rich and the poor, between the rich man ‘who dressed in purple and linen and feasted splendidly every day’ and the poor beggar, Lazarus, who was covered with sores licked by dogs and who hungered for the scraps from the rich man’s table (Lk ch 16).

This is no imaginary picture, but it would have reflected real life in those days. Poor, unemployed people, day labourers wait in line, seeking a few hours work these feature in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Mt ch 20).

The parables describe rich landowners, tenants, slaves, faithful and cruel administrators, remission of and slavery for debts unpaid, unjust judges, uncaring rich and starving beggars.

The rich farmer stores up his grain in barns, probably waiting for the time of shortage, when he will get better prices.

Tax collectors make themselves very rich at the expense of the people.

A poor widow has to waste so much energy and time to get any justice (Lk 12:19).

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.