This is precisely the medium of artistic expression that Jesus chose to use. The word parable is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mashal, and parables were true works of art. Using figurative speech and stories with characters, plots and twists, they captured the imagination of the hearers: involving, intriguing, and provoking.
Although parables were not Jesus’ invention, He was a master of them - arguably the best there has ever been! Not only did He choose this popular art form to communicate his message, He was also involved in its scene - repeating, interacting and dialoguing with the parables already well known among his Jewish audience. Jesus knew the mashal, and He respected its rules and common formulas. The rabbinic tradition tended to start a parable with the introductory question and answer, “Unto what is the matter like? It is like…”, a pattern Jesus very often followed. Similarly, a parable would conclude with the expression “even so” or “likewise”, and Jesus adopted these terms, as well.
Some of Jesus’ parables are practically “covers” of stories other rabbis had already told. But even in the ones He repeated from the existing oral tradition, Jesus often threw a twist or challenge that brought across his bold message of the Kingdom to come and that revealed his true nature. Check out this rabbinic parable:
"A person in whom there are good deeds and who has studied the Torah extensively, what is he like? A man who builds first [of] stones and then afterwards [of] mud bricks. Even if a large quantity of water were to collect beside the stones, it would not destroy them. But a person in whom there are no good deeds, though he has studied Torah, what is he like? A man who builds first [of] mud bricks and then afterwards [of] stones. Even if only a little water collects, it immediately undermines them."
This is very similar to one of Jesus’ well-known parables - the man who builds his house on the sand, as compared to the one who builds on the rock - yet with one small yet drastic difference. All the other rabbis spoke of knowing and doing the words of Torah, but Jesus introduced his account with the words, "A person who hears these words of mine and does them..." No rabbi, being a mere man, would ever have referred to his own words in such a way when addressing a Jewish audience. Only God himself spoke in this way. So we see that through his artistic form of storytelling, Jesus revealed himself as the promised Messiah, as God himself.
Rabbinic parables tended to reinforce conventional wisdom or societal norms, whereas Jesus constantly challenged the status quo. When telling the story of the good Samaritan, his listeners would certainly have identified with the Jerusalem-Jericho road and its dangers, and most would also have smiled at the cynical portrayal of the religious elite passing by. The Samaritan coming in as the hero of the story, however, would have been a powerful and provocative challenge to all.
In this storytelling culture, Jesus’ parables were extremely relevant. He identified with the poor, the farmers, the fishermen, and many others in society, through his use of illustrations. He related to the religious class, using an art form they knew well, respecting its patterns and structures, yet molding it to his own style and purpose. He also spoke to the political scene and the powers of the time through provocative affirmations. Jesus connected intimately to the scene on various levels, through an art form known and practised in his day. There’s so much we can learn from him, and apply to our own art today.
Seeing Jesus as our example, here are several points I’d like to leave with you:
- He clearly knew and followed the scene; He referred to and connected with other expressions of the same art form He used. He did not, however, submit to the scene, willingly changing stories for his own purposes, being intentionally provocative.
- Jesus was very purposeful in his use of art, always seeking to make a point or communicate truth. He never conformed to simply repeating or imitating what other rabbis were saying or doing.
- He adapted his art form to each audience: making personal connections; allowing it to give way to discussions and provoke thought; playing off the audience's reactions.
- Jesus was willing to discuss his parables after telling them, expounding upon them when necessary.
- His art was a part of his ministry, but not its sum total; his purpose was much greater. Jesus cared about people: healing them, spending time with them, and preaching the truth to them. His medium of artistic expression came into play at different times, but it was merely a tool - one of many tools. His art had a clear message and purpose, adding to the larger picture of his life and ministry.