If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. (Rudyard Kipling)
Whenever we face a communication challenge, telling a story is a good option, and sometimes it is the very best option. My research suggests that there are five situations in which a ministry story (or parable) may be the very best way to respond. Stories are an effective way to
• explore a range of plausible endings.
• reveal worlds that are otherwise closed.
• clarify or reinforce role expectations.
• provide key insights.
• challenge beliefs or behaviors.
By my count Jesus told at least 46 parables, and sorting them into only five categories cannot help but be a bit arbitrary. Obviously, some of His stories could fit into several categories, and the greatest ones (like the Good Samaritan or the Lost Son) could be seen as fitting into all five categories. Nevertheless, by looking at the parables according to these five categories, we can gain some insight into when Jesus thought a story was the best response and what sort of story He told in that situation. For space reasons, I will simply list the references where these parables are found.
Stories Explore a Range of Plausible Endings
A story can explore a range of plausible endings and expose the likely results of different choices. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explores four different endings, depending on what sort of soil the seed fell into. In the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, Jesus explores two different endings, depending on whether the house was built on sand or rock. Here are the parables Jesus told to explore plausible endings:
The Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9)
The Narrow and Wide Gates (Matthew 7:13-14)
The Sower (Matthew 13:3-23; Mark 4:2-20; Luke 8:4-15)
The Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27)
The Two Debtors (Luke 7:41-43)
The Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-31)
The Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24)
The Wise and Foolish Builders (Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49)
In each of these parables, the main point seems to be to show how different choices lead to different ends.
Here is a story the rabbis told to explain why two enemies might unite:
It is like two dogs that were with a sheep herd and were continually quarreling. Then a wolf came to steal a lamb from the flock, and one of the dogs started to attack him. The other dog said to himself: If I don't go to his assistance now, then the wolf will kill him and later attack and kill me. So the two made peace and together attacked the wolf.1
Technically, this story is a fable (because the central figures are animals acting like people) that explores a range of possible outcomes. Continued quarreling might produce mutual destruction. Peace might produce success. Each ending is plausible, and the story helps expose the consequences of the different choices. Stories are an effective way to explore various plausible endings.
Stories Reveal Worlds That Are Otherwise Closed
Stories are a wonderful way to reveal worlds that are otherwise beyond our natural experience. Jesus often used parables to reveal something about God the Father, the kingdom of heaven, or the final judgment. In each case, the parable helps us understand a truth about a world that would otherwise be closed to us. Here are the parables that Jesus told to reveal hidden things:
The Asking Son (Matthew 7:9-10; Luke 11:11-12)
The Budding Fig Tree (Matthew 24:32; Mark 13:28; Luke 21:29-30)
The Empty House (Matthew 12:43-45; Luke 11:24-26)
The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8)
The Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)
The Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7)
The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19)
The Net (Matthew 13:47-50)
The Pearl (Matthew 13:45-46)
The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)
The Thief (Matthew 24:43-44; Luke 12:39-40)
The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)
The Yeast (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21)
In each of these parables, Jesus reveals in a wonderful, memorable way something hidden about God, the kingdom, or the future.
Here is a story that a judge used to reveal the hidden motives behind his behavior.
A judge with an exemplary record and unquestionable character came up for reelection. Most of his colleagues were confident that he would retain his seat without contest. But then, a challenger stepped forward.
To everyone's surprise, this new opponent launched a vicious mudslinging campaign. Unfounded allegations of wrongdoings began to circulate about the judge. Although most people believed the criticisms were false, eyebrows were raised as seeds of doubt were planted.
As the campaign progressed, the judge refused to comment on the accusations being made against him. Finally, someone asked how he planned to handle the rumors. The judge shared this wisdom:
"My family used to have a dog. On nights when the moon was full, that dog would howl at the moon all night. But despite all the dog's noise, the moon continued to shine. Well, I'm going to continue to shine while my opponent makes all kinds of noise."2
Of course, the story does not tell us whether the judge was re-elected, but it does show us the hidden world of his personal motives and inspires us to behave in a similarly honorable way.
Stories Clarify or Reinforce Role Expectations
A story is a powerful way to clarify or reinforce a role expectation. Jesus often used parables to describe what a disciple is expected to be and do. His expectations that a disciple would be "the light of the world" or "the salt of the earth" are presented in memorable parables. Here are parables Jesus told that help us understand role expectations:
The City on a Hill (Matthew 5:14)
The Defendant (Matthew 5:25-26; Luke 12:57-59)
The Doctor and the Sick (Mark 2:17)
The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)
The Lamp and the Bushel (Matthew 5:15; Mark 4:21; Luke 11:33)
The Master and the Servants (Luke 17:7-10)
The Plowman (Luke 9:62)
The Salt of the Earth (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50;Luke 14:34-35)
The Servant in Authority (Matthew 24:45-51; Luke 12:42-46)
The Storeroom (Matthew 13:52)
The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)
The Tower Builder (Luke 14:28-30)
The Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30)
The Workers and the Harvest (Matthew 9:37-38; Luke 10:2)
These parables clarify or reinforce the role expectations of a disciple.
Here is an example of a parable attributed to Rabbi Akiba, which he told to reinforce the importance of studying Torah.
Once the wicked Government [i.e., the Romans] issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study and practice the Torah. Pappus b. Judah came and found R. Akiba publicly bringing gatherings together and occupying himself with Torah. He said to him: Akiba, are you not afraid of the government?
He said to him: I will parable to thee a parable. Unto what is the matter like? It is like a fox who was walking alongside a river, and he saw fishes going in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: From what are you fleeing? They replied: From the nets cast for us by men. He said to them: Would you like to come onto the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way my ancestors lived with your ancestors? The fish said to him: Art thou the one that they call the cleverest of the animals? Thou art not clever but foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die.
So it is with us. If such is our condition when we sit and study Torah, of which it is written, "For that is thy life and the length of thy days" (Deut. 30:20), if we go and neglect it, how much worse off we shall be.3
R. Akiba clearly expects that devout Jews would continue to study Torah regardless of what the Romans decreed. The parable seems intended to clarify or reinforce a role expectation — devout Jews study Torah.
Modern-day pastors also tell stories to reinforce role expectations. I read Leith Anderson's story about "parish poker" years ago, and it has helped me to make better leadership decisions. Here, Anderson tells the story and helps us apply it.
Becoming a pastor is like joining a poker game. Although I am neither a gambler nor a poker player, I know that at the beginning of a game each player has a limited number of chips to play with and must use them strategically to win.
Churches generally give new pastors 50 to 100 "chips" to get started. After that, they either gain chips or lose what they have, depending on how well they learn the catalog of rewards and penalties their church runs by (which of course, no one bothered to tell the new pastor about). For example:
Preach a good sermon: +2 chips
Preach a bad sermon: -8 chips
Visit a sick person in the hospital: +7 chips
Sick person dies (was expected to recover): -10 chips
Sick person recovers (was expected to die): +40 chips
Bring cookies to monthly board meeting: +2 chips
Lose temper and shout at monthly board meeting: -25 chips
This is just a sampling. The entire catalog is very large.
A friend of mine was called to pastor a conservative Midwestern church. He arrived a few weeks early to get settled before his first Sunday. On the Sunday before his first Sunday, he gave away the pulpit to another congregation (without asking permission). That cost him 2,000 chips, which meant that if he preached 1,000 consecutive good sermons (which would take roughly twenty years) he would be back to zero. He was done. He didn't have enough chips to survive.
In contrast, another pastor friend of mine forgot a funeral. While the family was waiting for him at the local funeral home, he was eating lunch with another parishioner at a local restaurant. The funeral director called the church office, but the secretary couldn't find him. (He had chosen that day to try a new restaurant.) The funeral director started down the church listings in the yellow pages until he found a willing cleric from some alien denomination who didn't know the deceased and didn't do a very good job. When my friend realized what he had done, he immediately drove to the family home to apologize (by then the deceased had already been buried). The family spokesperson said they would never forgive him. This whole story cost him about 30,000 chips. But he had been the pastor of that church for about 40 years and had millions of chips in storage.
As you can see, it takes a lot of work to accumulate enough chips to be trusted and followed.4
The wonderful thing about this extended metaphor is that it continues to provoke beneficial insight into the role of a pastor and provides practical guidance on how to make good choices. A leader begins to evaluate every situation he or she faces in terms of whether chips will be won or lost.
Stories Provide Key Insights
Stories often provide key insights. A story allows the listener to step out of his or her usual frame of reference and see something new. In a sense, all of Jesus' parables provide key insights, but some seem to do it in especially pointed ways. Here are parables Jesus told to provide insight:
The Divided Household (Matthew 12:25-26; Mark 3:23-26; Luke 11:17-18)
The Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32)
The Patched Garment (Matthew 9:16; Mark 2:21; Luke 5:36)
The Strong Man (Matthew 12:29)
Often the insight provided is intended to deepen our understanding of spiritual realities or show us something important about the heavenly Father.
The rabbis also told stories to provide insight into the character of God. This parable from the Hasidic tradition seems to emphasize the gracious mercy of God.
Once, long ago, when one of the great rabbis saw a misfortune threatening Israel, he would go to a certain place in the forest where he would light a fire and say a special prayer. A miracle would then happen, and disaster would be averted. Years later when other misfortunes threatened Israel, the rabbi's disciple went to God to intercede. He re-turned to the same place in the forest and said, "Master of the Universe, I am not able to light the fire, but I can still say the prayer." Again, a miracle would happen.
Many years later, yet another rabbi went to intercede for Israel. He would go to the place in the forest and say, "Master of the Universe, I cannot light a fire, and I do not know the prayer, but I do know the place, and it must be sufficient "And it was. The miracle happened.
Finally many, many years later, misfortune threatened again. Another rabbi sat in his armchair in his study and with his head in his hands prayed. "Master of the Universe, I cannot light the fire, and I do not know the prayer. I cannot even find the place in the forest. But I can tell the story, and it must be sufficient." And it was.5
In its emphasis on the power and mercy of God, this story provides key insights about God.
Stories Challenge Beliefs or Behaviors
Parables are an effective way to challenge beliefs or behaviors in a relatively safe way. The story tends to externalize the difficult issue and provide some emotional distance between the teller and the issue. The emotional distance of "using the third person" allows a person to address emotionally charged issues indirectly.
If we look in the Gospels, we see that Jesus sometimes used parables in this way. His stories often had elements that were culturally provocative (a Samaritan hero or a praying tax collector) or amazingly confrontational (playing children), but because these provocative elements were in story form, they obtained a hearing. Here are parables that Jesus told in which the aspect of confrontation seems particularly evident:
The Blind Leading the Blind (Matthew 15:14; Luke 6:39)
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)
The Playing Children (Matthew 11:16-17; Luke 7:31-32)
The Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21)
In each of these stories, the point is clearly confrontational, but the parable allows the point to be made from a safe distance. This distance allows the teller to confront in a way that gives the listener room to respond.
Stories and parables are most effective in difficult situations. They help us to explore a range of plausible endings, reveal realities that are otherwise closed to us, clarify and reinforce role expectations, provoke insights, and challenge beliefs or behavior. The indirect nature of the communication allows the teller to be very candid while retaining enough emotional distance to feel safe.
D. Bruce Seymour is Senior Pastor of New Monmouth Baptist Church in Middletown, New Jersey.
From Creating Stories That Connect by D. Bruce Seymour. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing, 2007. Copyright © 2007 by D. Bruce Seymour. Used by permission.
1. Harvey K. McArthur and Robert M. Johnston, They Also Taught in Parables (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 66.
2. Cited in Bits and Pieces, August 2003, 16-17.
3. Quoted in McArthur and Johnston, They Also Taught in Parables, 26-27.
4. Leith Anderson, Leadership That Works (Grand Rapids: Bethany, 1999), 187-89.
5. Susan M. Shaw, Storytelling in Religious Education (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1999), 32-33.