Summertime is just around the corner, and that means vacations and family trips. One kind of trip that a lot of families enjoy is camping, getting out of the suburbs and out into nature, more or less. Quite often they are accompanied by a travel trailer or an RV that provides many of the conveniences of life, but one thing that seems to stay as a standard is a campfire. Many of us have memories of sitting around fires in the gathering dark, listening to stories, often scary ones, but we also heard family stories and reminiscences, stories that taught us where we came from, who our ancestors were, and how they lived. That particular kind of adventure has been going on since time began.
When a baby is born, they grow up hearing stories and having books read to them. The books are full of pictures because pictures convey ideas that they haven’t the words for yet. It teaches them the words and the concepts of the story, and their love of images in books can help determine how able they are to learn school work. I never could get the hang of math because there weren’t any pictures, plus I’m a dud when it comes to figures. I lapped up the stories in history, English, and literature, though. Those made a great deal of sense to me. Even when I couldn’t see the words or had only the words in front of me, my mind could make them turn into pictures as I read. Now, almost three-quarters of a century later, they still do.
Jesus frequently taught using stories. We call them parables, stories that represent concepts and practices that marked the difference between good and evil, hopefully allowing the listeners to understand the abstract concepts in a more concrete fashion. In today’s reading of the gospel, Jesus told three stories, each one was illustrating something that he wanted his listeners to learn and to understand.
At the end of the passage, Jesus told his disciples that he taught in parables. Those who understood would be like wheat in a field while those who didn’t would be like weeds. Workers couldn’t pull up the weeds while the crop was growing because they would pull up stalks of good grain with them. So the weeds had to remain until it was time to harvest the wheat and then they would be separated.
The storyteller has been an essential figure in communities and rural areas. The storytellers not only brought news from outside the village where he was visiting but had often had a long apprenticeship under older storytellers, learning the epic stories and tales word by word so they could pass them along to the next generation. That is still found in several cultures around the world, for instance, the Navajo. Their stories and chants must be learned without any deviation before the young man can become a shaman or a medicine man. For the Jews, stories are essential, especially those about the patriarchs and the Exodus. The Passover story is their prime lesson repeated every year without change. For Christians, the stories of Jesus are foundational; the most important of these is that of his resurrection. We still listen to the parables Jesus taught and see them as valuable aids in learning and models for the teaching of younger members in ways that they can comprehend long before they’re able to understand abstract concepts.
Today, we use the Sunday school class curricula and programs like Godly Play, which are ways of presenting Bible stories geared to the individual levels of children’s understanding. I think any person exposed to Christianity in their early years will recall stories like Adam and Eve and Noah’s ark. As they grew older, they learned about Abraham and Isaac, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, and the stories of Saul and David. While many of those stories are not parables, they are tools for learning our religious history. We still look at mythological stories like the Star Wars films and the Harry Potter books. Both of those series are stories of made-up people and places, but incorporate realms somewhat different than we are accustomed to but where many of the lessons that young Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter had to learn to gain in wisdom and ability. I don’t know how many older folks can enjoy such stories, but I know I do. Good stories are ones that can be appreciated by all ages.
When we read the parables of Jesus, we look to see what he is using to make his teaching applicable. We remember the good Samaritan, which is probably one of his best-known parables. While there was never a Samaritan who stopped by the roadside to help an injured Jew, Jesus used that story to point out that we are all neighbors no matter what our differences are and we need to care for those neighbors no matter what. Just because something never really happened doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false; often the best lessons are taught through myths which show truths without being factual.
This week will look I think I will look at the parables again under a microscope, looking to see exactly how Jesus structured his parables, what they pointed out, and how he made them understandable to the people. I know there will be many things that are strange and foreign to me in this modern world, but if I look through the eyes of first-century followers, I will look for the things that just don’t fit or that seem to go against logic and investigate life at that time that the listeners would see and think of. It’s going to be an exciting journey. I hope you’ll join me.
Image: Sermon on the Mountain (1862). Painted by Károly Ferenczy 1862-1917). From the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest. Found on Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also estate manager and administrative assistant for Dominic, Phoebe, and Gandhi.