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Synod School class helps nearly 60 participants hear Jesus’ parables the way his original hearers did


Susan Stabile, a spiritual director and retreat leader, leads a fruitful weeklong discussion

October 11, 2023

Susan Stabile, a distinguished senior fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis and a spiritual director and retreat leader, taught a fascinating and helpful week-long class at Synod School, “Jesus the Storyteller: Learning from the Parables.”

Stabile said the Indian priest Anthony DeMello suggests six steps when reading parables:

  • Read the parable.
  • Reflect on it.
  • Apply it to your life.
  • Read it again.
  • Create an interior silence that lets the parable reveal its inner depth.
  • Carry it around with you all day, letting it speak to your heart.

Stabile recommends looking at four characteristics of parables as they’re being read and prayed over: Where is it located in Scripture? Who was present for this teaching? Why was it given? What is the key verse?

Jesus didn’t invent storytelling in parable form, but he did use parables to account for about one-third of his teaching. Many biblical scholars call the Book of Job an extended parable, and Nathan telling David, “You are the man!” in 2 Samuel 12 comes after Nathan has told David a story. “How might David have reacted if Nathan had just walked in and criticized him?” Stabile asked one of the largest classes at Synod School. “He allows David to condemn himself.”

“Strong research” has demonstrated that “stories are the most powerful tool you can use to engage and connect with your audience,” Stabile said. “They emotionalize your information and allow people to connect with the message in a deeper and more meaningful way. … We remember stories. We may forget the intricacies of a lesson, but stories give us something to grasp onto. You just have to remember the punchline of a story.”

While they’re not factual, parables “point to important insights or meanings,” Stabile said. “Parables are more like poetry than prose, more like dancing than walking.”

Susan Stabile

“We have to keep in mind Jesus’ parables are meant to challenge us, to make us feel uncomfortable,” Stabile said. “Parables are meant to be pondered and meditated on, not simply explained. The gospel writer’s spin is one way to interpret the parable. The invitation is to look at a number of Jesus’ parables with fresh eyes to see what they might have to teach us.”

It’s also vital to figure out who we are in Jesus’ parable: the sheep or the shepherd? The father, the prodigal son or his brother? The Pharisee or the tax collector?

“We have a tendency to think negatively today of Pharisees, but they were respected religious leaders of their day,” Stabile said. “Tax collectors were seen as sinful and corrupt.” Author and theologian Amy-Jill Levine says those who heard Jesus’ parable “would have been surprised by the two. The Pharisee goes above what the law requires,” Stabile said. “We see no reason to doubt the tax collector’s sincerity. If we’re honest, we find a little in both of us.”

When Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan, “hearers knew they had to love strangers” from the many admonitions in the Hebrew Bible. “Jesus is not telling his audience something they did not know,” Stabile said. It’s also one of the few parables that mention a specific location. “That route to Jericho was notoriously unsafe,” Stabile said, a fact Jesus’ hearers would have thought of immediately.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the first question the priest and the Levite ask themselves is, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Or, as Father James Martin, SJ, put it: “Jesus thus forced his listeners — gently, through stories and images — to confront their prejudices about others and their preconceptions about God.”

As the class was drawing to a close, Stabile asked the nearly 60 participants to identify their most important takeaways and to determine what difference it will make in their own prayer and/or ministry, in both reading parables and reading other parts of the Bible.

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Susan Stabile taught a Synod School class on “Jesus the Storyteller: Learning from the Parables”

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Clorinda Moore, Development Associate, Presbyterian Historical Society
Joseph Moore, Ministry Relations Officer, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray

Gracious God, we remember that Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain calls us to be and to do the gospel in the simple and ordinary places of this world where we live, as well as in the great centers of power and places of sophistication where many of our brothers and sisters dwell. No matter where we are, you have called us to be faithful and joyful witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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