Jesus Stories—Parables and Aphorisms
The words of Jesus, though simple in nature, had dramatic impact on the hearts of the listeners.
His manner of delivery as much as the words themselves made the people receptive to His message.
He spoke to them as an equal, not a superior speaking to inferiors. His stories were compelling and convicting, yet full of humor and compassion. His words seemed almost to compose some heavenly hymn that only those who had ears to hear could discern.
His actions were in perfect harmony with his words. No contradiction existed to create confusion or disappointment in those who followed Him. His life was a living symbol of the very words He spoke. He was a book read of all men. The love of the Father was fleshed out in His daily associations with the very lowest in the caste system of society and religion. He ate meals with the untouchables, defended the prostitutes, healed the afflicted and pursued the oppressed. And He didn’t do this to make a statement. He preferred these people. He truly enjoyed their company. And they all in turn were at ease in the Jesus’ presence; all, that is, but the religious leaders who despised this reversal of established order in their precious community.
Personally, I think they would have liked to be at some of those parties with Jesus, but they couldn’t bear not being the guests of honor. It was unthinkable for them to have to take the lower seats with the riff raff.
Jesus’ language was sprinkled with the poetic, the imaginative, the metaphorical. It disarmed and stirred curiosity in the hearers, opening their hearts without their even being aware. His powers of persuasion were honed by His ability to see beyond the ordinary. He loved the story method of getting His point across. Everyone loves a good story, and Jesus could tell a good story. He liked to end His stories with a twist that left the hearers walking away scratching their heads and thinking about them for many hours to come. His stories always had the goal, though not obvious to the hearer, of opening them up to the love of Father, who was always waiting in the wings
The aphorisms and parables of Jesus function in a particular way: they are invitational forms of speech. Jesus used them to invite his hearers to see something they might not otherwise see. As evocative forms of speech, they tease the imagination into activity, suggest more than they say, and invite a transformation in perception.
Drawing pictures from their own familiar world, He arrested their minds, captured their imaginations, and opened them ever so gently to the stirrings of the ancient language deep within them. Jesus liked to put His listeners in almost every story He told, and by the way, you and I were there as well—the least, the last, the little and the lost. These were the objects of His loving attention in those stories He told.
“But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.”
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven.”
And said to them, “Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great.”
Parables—Stories That Reveal the Heart Parables were not a new form of communication. For many years they had been an accepted form of communicating spiritual reality. So what made Jesus’ stories so different? In them He attacked the conventional wisdom of His day—the accepted psyche of the Jewish community. He reversed religious order, violated accepted social practices, and challenged the motivations of men’s actions. In His stories He made the “bad guys” the “good guys” and the good guys were made the bad guys. The less honorable were made heroes in the stories of Jesus. The religious and the rich were always the villains.
The only judgment to be found in His stories was against the righteous and the rich. What was that judgment? They were judged by the Father’s love. The compassion of their heavenly Father exposed the hypocrisy of their lives. Be careful what you wish for—the recognition of others, the riches of success, and the rewards of religion. In your attempts to move up the ladder you are actually descending. Pursuit of the first place will put you in the last place.
For most of my life I yearned for recognition. I threw myself into sports in high school because everyone knew that jocks were the BMOC (big men on campus). I decided after high school that I was going to go off to be trained for the ministry. Everyone knew the ministry was the place to be if you were looking to make points with God and man. Then came years of working for God, but I still didn’t feel like I had found what I needed. I was afraid of anonymity.
Comparing myself to ministry people around me, I always felt like I came up short. (You do know that comparing is a stupid thing to do!)
I was in parachurch ministry in the early days, so when I returned to the United States from Mozambique, I decided the Church was where I’d find what I was looking for. And I did find it, well somewhat, but it didn’t do it for me. What I didn’t realize was that seeking the public place, rather than the private place, was leading me ever downward on the spiritual ladder. Only when I finally hit the bottom rung did I began to truly understand the truth of the Jesus stories. At the bottom, I was finally content because He was down there with me! What I was searching for was there all the time.
Well, Jesus challenged the established precepts upon which Jewish society was built. Hard work brings its rewards. Everyone gets what he deserves. The righteous will prosper. No rest for the wicked. Life is about rewards, requirements, judgments, and success. These precepts never prevailed in the stories of Jesus. They always ended up taking the brunt of the story. They were relics of the old ways of religion and just did not fit in the coming kingdom.
With His stories, Jesus created paradoxes and reversed religious rules: the broad way, enemies, rules, synagogue, religious ceremony, and the way less traveled; the internal over the external, relationships over knowledge, mercy over judgment, last before the first.
Their main object is not to present the gospel, but to defend and vindicate it; they are controversial weapons against its critics and foes who are indignant that Jesus should declare that God cares about sinners, and who are particularly offended by Jesus’ practice of eating with the despised. (Joachim Jeremias)
Forgiveness, compassion and mercy are the golden threads of the gospel that Jesus wove through His every story as proclamations of the Good News. To sinners He extended gentle invitations. Come to Him and receive water, come and eat to never hunger again, come receive forgiveness, come receive life, come follow Me. His critics, those who rejected Him, did not understand the gospel parables because Jesus gathered the despised around Him. Because they were expecting a day of wrath, the religious elite closed their hearts to the Good News Jesus was proclaiming in His stories. It was cheap grace. Sloppy agape. No one pleased God by simply being needy and willing. Otherwise, why had they spent their whole lives training for and toiling in the ministry. What was the use of unfaltering piety? The religious authorities had too good an opinion of themselves. To these men the gospel was an offense because it exposed them—their religiosity, hypocrisy and pride—and that was intolerable.
Drawing back the metaphoric curtain, Jesus revealed to the world the hidden language of God—the secret messages that unlock the gate of Heaven. “ ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world’ ” (see Matthew 13:34-35). Understanding the secret meaning behind these words is at the very core of hearing God. This is why Jesus was so insistent that His apostles decipher His words and not just listen to the literal stories, encapsulating what He had to say. “And He said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?’ ” (see Mark 4:13-14). Interpreting Scripture requires an understanding of spiritual language, the hidden truth that lies just beneath its surface.
The Penetrating Questions of Jesus Jesus manifested a profound ability to ask the right question at the right time. He knew what lay in the dark corners of men’s hearts. Through the use of questions He exposed the motivations of the hearers—not to shame but to heal them. Through the use of the poignant question, Jesus gently uncovered the realties of our inward life, the life seen by no one. But Jesus sees it. He knows what is in the heart of man because He has traveled the corridors of every man’s heart. In fact, as many of us have discovered, sometimes to our chagrin, He sees our hearts better than we do. By the power of the query He turns the light on our inward parts.
The questions of Jesus were much different from the interrogations of the religious leaders:
The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax- collectors and sinners?”
But some of the Pharisees said, “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Luke 6:2
“Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Luke 20:22
The questions of religious men are crafted that they might expose for the purpose of judging and condemning. In contrast, the questions of Jesus were specifically designed to reveal for the purpose of healing.
Most of us live in the external world rarely examining the inward way of the soul. We are more comfortable with the light turned off in our inner life because we know there are things buried we’d rather not have to confront.
Questions force us to look inward, examining our motivations, fears, desires, and aspirations. Jesus had mastered the art of asking questions, and through the effective use of a question He opened a door to the inward world of man and led him to places rarely visited. Many are the questions Jesus posed to His enemies and followers. Lifted out of their ancient setting, these questions can still challenge us to look into our hearts.
“But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces!” Matthew 11:8
But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” Matthew 12:48
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Matthew 16:15
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:26
And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith? Mark 4:40
“How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” John 5:44
“But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” John 5:47
Questions such as these test our ability to look deeply at spiritual reality as they also force us to peer beneath the surface of life. They will also unlock the door to the ancient language.
Our attempts to look for the answers to the questions and the struggle to express those answers open new pathways of personal and spiritual reality.
We will either answer with a quick knee jerk religious reaction, or we will wait and let the question probe deeper into our inner self, shedding light on the things we have shoved down because we could not face them. If we allow the question to do its job, it will search us and reveal the hidden, broken places in our hearts that it may accomplish what Father intended.
I have meditated on the questions above and allowed them to work on me. I have been overwhelmed by the chord they struck within me. I thought I knew myself pretty well after the breaking experiences I have been through. But I discovered, to my dismay, that I still have hurtful, prideful ways that hinder me in my search for the ancient way. At times I wanted to give the right, religious answer but knew that there were other forces within me that contradicted the very answer I wanted to give.
But in the struggle, Jesus has gently wooed me, embraced me and told me He is pleased with my progress. I have discovered my heart—the good, the bad and the ugly—and been lifted up in the arms of Father where I am continuing to find cleansing and healing.
There are three sets of questions that have had the greatest impact on me:
And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “what do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi (which translated means Teacher), where are You staying?” (John 1:38).
What do you seek? What a piercing, poignant question! The answer to that question unlocks the door of discovery to all that you desperately desire in your life. How will you answer it and how will that response be reflected in your life?
This question was posed to the two disciples of John the Baptist when they turned to follow Jesus after His baptism. Now why would He ask that question at that time? Remember, the questions of Jesus are asked to illumine our hearts, to make us really think. On tiptoe with anticipation, Jesus waits hoping, longing for the desired response. It wasn’t a trick question. He wanted them to verbalize what they were seeking.
How would you answer that question? Don’t think of a religious answer. Don’t answer what you think He might want to hear. How does your heart answer? Are you seeking a spiritual favor, a gift? Are you looking for a powerful ministry bringing recognition? Are you pursuing a spiritual experience? What are you seeking?
It appears they didn’t even have to think. Their answer was quick and decisive, for it had been in their hearts a long time, just waiting for the question to be asked. Formed out of a spiritual hunger that had been growing in their hearts for years, their answer was ready for the long-awaited One.
So as He stood waiting, in unison they sang out their response.
“Where are you staying?” They weren’t inviting Jesus into their world; they were looking to enter Jesus’ world. They weren’t seeking a revolution or a revival. They were not looking for a restoration or a new word from God. They were looking for an abiding place, and if they found it, that place would resolve all the issues of their heart.
Their response shines a searchlight on the Church in our days. Too often we are more interested in getting Jesus to come where we are than in finding out where He is. Oh, we’re willing to travel halfway around the world if we hear there is a great move of God happening. But have we asked Him where He is staying? That could very well be different for each one of us. So it is critical that we ask Him where is He staying. Where can we find Him?
Smiling at their alacrity, Jesus also had His answer ready. He had looked into their hearts and was not surprised by their answer. His response was in the form of an invitation. Come and see. Jesus was inviting them home. They would find a home in the presence of Jesus—the home they had been looking for all of their lives.
Phillip then runs to get Nathaniel, urging him to ‘come and see.’ The woman at the well goes into her city and encourages the town folk to ‘come and see.’ This is an ancient invitation that still sounds from an ancient garden, calling us home. And it is the sound that needs to be resounded in our times. It is the call of the true evangelist!
2. And Jesus stopped and called them, and said, “What do you want Me to do for you?” (Matthew 20:32).
Another penetrating question sounds forth from the heart of the Son of man. It is a question looking for its answer. How do we answer that question? Probing our heart, the question asks if we know what we really want. Is it healing? Is it friendship? Do we want forgiveness for our wretchedness? Someone to care for us? Do we want a severed relationship restored? Whatever the answer given, Jesus has a loving response.
At the same time it is a question seeking to open a door. The heart of Jesus is ready to respond to whatever the answer. This is not just a curious question needing to understand man’s desires or expose his selfish requests; it is a question seeking to respond to man’s most intimate wants and needs. The question is birthed in the pool of heavenly love, longing to draw into its healing waters the sick, hopeless, helpless, broken, and lost.
The Lord cares deeply about the hidden desires of man. Pushing their way up through the disappointments and failures of life, these longings of our hearts are like a signal light searching the heavens for an answer—for someone to calm our troubled waters, heal our pain, and save our families. There is One who saw our S.O.S., and before it was ever signaled He and the Son of His love planned the rescue mission. That Son now asks you the question, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
3. So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” (John 13:12). This last question may be the key to the whole ministry of Jesus as well as the true ministry of the Church. The answer to this question can unlock the secret codes of the ancient language of Eden. Here again we are confronted with a challenge—the challenge of familiarity. Having read these verses so many times we believe we understand them.
We know the beginnings of Jesus’ stories, and we know the ends, but have we caught the hidden meanings? We skim over the words in familiarity, and again and again chance missing the power of their true spiritual meaning. Do we really know what He did that night when He washed the disciples’ feet? We are proud of ourselves when we make this a sacrament in our churches, but may have missed its true significance. It is easier to celebrate a sacrament than it is to walk in a truth.
The events of that evening became a sign for all future generations. Have you been taught the power of the towel? Jesus was leaving no room for doubt as He knelt at the feet of each disciple that servant hood was the calling He entrusted to us. As Jesus had served them, so He calls us to serve one another.
This call seems to have become lost in duty rosters of the Church. We have reversed the order. Far too often the focus of ministry and leadership is on being served rather than serving. Many are the sermons and the conferences teaching the people how to support their pastor or their elders. Rather than the shepherds caring for the sheep, we find sheep being fleeced for the sake of the ministry. The people sitting in the pews (or chairs) are being told by the pastor, the bishop, and every traveling minister who passes through to support the vision of the pastor and the church. We expect people to listen to our sermons but schedule an appointment here and there to hear what is on their hearts. Let’s be honest; we are more concerned with our needs as ministers of the gospel than with the needs of those to whom we are to minister that gospel.
So what is this washing of the feet? Where is the value? Is it just a symbolic ritual?
By washing His friends’ feet, Jesus was demonstrating that He came to cleanse and cover, not judge and condemn. This was to be the Kingdom way. Religion will always be the moral conscience for mankind—more concerned with exposing sin than with providing a covering for man’s nakedness as Father did in the garden.
We live in a “dirty” world. There is much pollution soiling our souls—rejection, unforgiveness, betrayal, emotional trauma, and countless other diseases of the soul. Man strives, ineffectively, every way he can think of to remove the oily film of sin and shame that is smothering him. He has already discovered that the waters of religion do not remove the filth, but only spreads it.
The Son of man comes with a towel in one hand and a bowl in the other, tenderly offering to wash the muck from the feet of man. He stoops down at your feet, and caressing them in His hands, He lovingly looks at the caked grime encasing your feet. Religious men looking on want to condemn you for that filth. Jesus looks up to them, holds up His hand as if to shut their mouths, and then quietly returns to the job of cleaning and then covering your feet. With tears streaming down His cheeks, He washes until all is clean.
To its great loss, the Church has exchanged the towel for the sword. We seem more comfortable with the sword of judgment than with the towel of healing. The world is more aware of the judgmentalism of the Church than they are of the cleansing power of the Church. Men have heard our judging, condemning words but rarely have they heard words that offer to clean their dirty souls. It has always been easier to judge others from our ivory towers than to step down into the mire with them with the cleansing towel. We need to rediscover the cleansing towel and rediscover the example and call left to us by our Master.
Thus, Jesus asked them if they understood what He was doing. He loved these men and was prepared to serve them, even knowing that each one of them would deny Him in some way in the hours ahead. The memories of that night were etched on the hearts of the disciples as long as they lived. They went forth into the world as an army of servants. The weapon of choice for these soldiers: the cleansing towel.
The One who lived His life in service of others will return in that same spirit. He is certainly coming back as King, but it will be as a serving King. The Son of man has not lost His towel. When He returns He will come with the towel, girding Himself as He prepares to reign as a servant King. The invitation is clear. We are all called to sit at the table of the Father, where the Son will once again serve the children of His love. He is the “waiter” at the supper of the Lamb.
“Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them.”