We find ourselves living into parables these days Our Sunday morning readings from Matthew’s gospel retell Jesus’s stories for five consecutive weeks–and eight weeks out of ten. Parables are stories that tell the truth—by an indirect path. The storyteller helps the reader/listener break down complex principles like economic theories, legal arrangements, moral absolutes, or spiritual truths. The Greek word Greek παραβολή (parabolē), means “a setting aside” or “a comparison which has passed into common use.” A more clinical definition from Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines parables in the secular Greek tradition as “a more-or-less developed comparison in which two things or processes from different fields are set side by side so that in virtue of the similarity the unknown may be elucidated from the known.” Thus, Jesus taught, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”
My favorite definition of a parable is that it’s a curveball—delivered in words and story.
Think of a parable’s Greek cousin, the parabola. A parabola is the curve or arc of a ball that is influenced by wind and gravity. Shoot an arrow and it travels upward but curves back toward earth as the forces of nature take command of the arrow’s trajectory. That upward and downward curve is a parabola. In this way, parables, parabolas, and curveballs have much in common. The pitcher grips the baseball differently than a fastball when throwing a curveball. The grip is disguised behind the pitcher’s glove so that the batter doesn’t see what’s coming. With a snap of the wrist, the curving path of the parabola fools the batter’s expectations. The arc of a good parable is found in how the storyteller snaps a “head-scratching” curveball past the hearer.
A modern parable by an unknown source that’s been going around these days involves a doctor and his terminally ill patient. It goes like this:
As he was preparing to leave the examination room the dying man said, “Doctor, I am afraid to die. Tell me what lies on the other side.”
Very quietly, the doctor said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You, a Christian man, do not know what is on the other side?”
The doctor was holding the handle of the door; on the other side of which came a sound of scratching and whining. As he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped on him with an eager show of gladness.
Turning to the patient, the doctor said, “Did you notice my dog? He’s never been in this room before. He didn’t know what was inside. He knew nothing except that his master was here, and when the door opened, he sprang in without fear.”
“I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing…I know my Master is there and that is enough. And when the door opens, I shall pass through with no fear, but with gladness.”
The parable draws meaning from an experience we know—a visit to a doctor, a conversation about life and death, and the loyalty and devotion of an animal to its master. Like the terminally ill man in the story, we know little of death, except the promises of scripture, creed, and a church that has cradled us in the faith. This is not to say that we are dogs, or that heaven will look like a doctor’s office—no. The point of the story is about faith and trust in an eternity that lies beyond the limits of our imagination. The story honors doubt, and curves a parabola of meaning that unexpectedly strikes the middle of the target. Or like a good curveball, a parable appears to be a fastball “down the middle of the (dinner) plate” only to “drop off the table” at the last moment.
Parables are not unique to Judeo-Christian culture. When the snow falls in northern Minnesota, it is time for elder Ojibwe storytellers to speak of Naniboozoo (variously spelled), a trickster of sorts, who tosses parabolic curveballs like other tricksters of ethnic lore. Br’er Rabbit emerged from African-American storytelling, in the Uncle Remus tradition. The rabbit was a “creative way that the slave community responded to the oppressor’s failure to address them as human beings created in the image of God.” Wiry and quick while seemingly weak and cuddly, Br’er Rabbit’s model of civil disobedience against the slaveholders became an archetype in Negro mythology. The Irish have their Leprechauns, Arabian genies trick us with their three wishes, and the Crow crops up in Australian Aboriginal mythology. Heck, Norwegian-Americans have Ole & Sven! Circling back to Judeo-Christian myth, Jacob “tricks” his brother Esau out of his birthright, and his father Isaac’s blessing. In many cultures and contexts, parables tell the truth with wry humor, self-deprecating charm, and razor-sharp insights that dismantle power schemes and profit motives.
Unlike a riddle, the purpose or meaning of a parable is meant to be plain and clear, yet baffling us enough to keep us thinking all the way back to the dugout—or on our journey home long after leaving church. Parables need not be religious, or found in the Bible, yet the best-known parables are often the stories attributed to Jesus. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to hear Jesus teach us through the masterful delivery of these profound curveballs aimed at our understanding of God’s will for us, and our neighbors. Enjoy the stories.
Matthew’s Parables of Jesus
9/17 The Unforgiving Servant (18:21-35)
9/24 Workers in the Vineyard (20:1-16)
10/1 The Two Sons (21:23-32)
10/8 The Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
10/15 The Great Banquet (22:1-14)
11/9 The Ten Bridesmaids (25:1-13)
11/16 The Talents (25:14-30)
11/26 Sheep and the Goats (25:31-46)
 Johnston, Basil (1995). The Manitous, The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. St. Paul, MN: MN Historical Society Press.
 Earl, Riggins R., Jr. (1993). Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, And Community In The Slave Mind. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
 Kittel, Gerhard (1967). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 5. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.