The Power of Parables

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Jesus was a master teacher. Therefore, it is significant that he relied heavily on parables. What is it about parables that makes them so moving and memorable?

Esteeming the Parable

Parables, both rabbinic and synoptic, have roots running deep in the fertile soil of Hebrew Scripture, whence they draw imagery and ultimately their theology. In a fifth-century A.D. text written in the land of Israel, Rabbi Levi[1] tells the following parable:

To what may the sons of Israel be compared? It is like a man who has a son, whom he places on his shoulders and takes for a stroll through the market. When the son sees something desirable he says to his father, “Buy that for me!” and he buys it for him. This happens not once, but three times. Then the son sees a man and asks him, “Have you seen my father?” His father retorts, “Foolish one! You are riding on my shoulders! Everything you want I am getting for you, and you say to this man, ‘Have you seen my father?’” What did his father do? He tossed the child from his shoulders, and a dog came and snapped at him.[2]

Illustration by Helen Twena

Illustration by Helen Twena

Rabbi Levi told this vivid story in order to explain the relationship between two verses of Scripture. In Exodus 17:7, despite having been escorted by the seven clouds of glory, given water, manna and even quail in the wilderness, the Israelites said, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”[3] The next verse, Exodus 17:8, reads: “Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim.”[4] Amalek is the dog that suddenly appears and snaps at the child.

The rich and humorous imagery of this parable, especially that of the father carrying his son, was inspired by the biblical text. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses recounts to the children of Israel how God carried them in the wilderness “just as a man carries his son.”[5] This image makes a powerful theological statement. Moreover, the prophets, too, speak of God as a loving father rearing his children. Hosea, speaking on behalf of God, laments, “When Israel was a youth I loved him…it is I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them in my arms.”[6]

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  • [1] Rabbi Levi flourished late in the third century A.D. He was appointed by Rabbi Yohanan as a salaried darshan (expositor) at the bet midrash in Tiberias. A master of aggadah, he excelled in telling parables. See the entry “Levi” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), 11:75.
  • [2] Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 3:1 (ed. Mandelbaum, p. 35). See Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables: Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 84-88. See especially Young’s comment on p. 88: “All in all the parable of ‘The Spoiled Son’ emphasizes the intimacy between the people of Israel and their Father in heaven by picturing this relationship in terms of the closeness of family ties. Thus this parable is much more than an illustration of a biblical text and may very well exemplify early rabbinic preaching which by no means should be characterized as dry, legalistic or pedantic.”
  • [3] From the New American Standard Bible (NASB).
  • [4] From the NASB.
  • [5] Deut. 1:31, from the NASB.
  • [6] Hosea 11:1, 3, from the NASB. Cf. Jer. 3:19 and Jer. 31:9.

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