Fact, Fiction, or Neither: exploring ancient and modern parables with youth

Photo Feb 10, 1 33 57 PMA few months ago I asked our teenagers what things they wanted to explore at youth group. One of those topics was parables. I had never really used parables before in teaching. I had taught the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Mustard Seed before, but never got into what makes a parable so significant – especially when it comes to Jesus’s parables.

I used The Power of Parable by John Dominic Crossan and the Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins to prepare and learn myself. Honestly, I had never given second thought to how powerful (or provocative) parables could be.

But why teach youth about parables? Why should it matter to their Christian journey? Here’s what I think…

1. They’re stories. I’d say most teenagers like a good story. Narrative tends to sink it more long term and definitions, terms, abstract ideas. Jesus seemed to understand that. “The Kingdom of God is like…”

Photo Nov 25, 11 41 14 AM2. They’re subversive. Last year one of our youth was doodling during Confirmation class. I leaned over and asked her what she was drawing. It was her own version of Jesus she titled “Punk Rock Jesus”. What an image to speak to subversion! Parables attempt to break open the imagination of its listeners. It asks “What if another world is possible?” What better time of life to be asking this question than when the teenage brain is still developing, having a much higher capability of imagination than a more concretely developed adult brain.

3. They lead to better conversation. Parables make room for conversation, disagreement, and debate. I’ve found that often with a smaller youth group, me talking less at teens leads to better conversation and questions among the group. Parables naturally do that since the characters, objects, and story line tend to provoke it’s audience.

4. The Kingdom of God is important. If we’re going to walk with teenagers through the journey of discipleship, then we must give due attention to the new reality, to which Jesus dedicated his entire ministry to. And how did he talk about the Kingdom of God? You guessed it: parables.

So I started off by having the youth list everything they knew or thought about parables already: specific parables from the Bible, what they were used for, what they taught, how long they were, etc.

I then talked briefly about how Jesus’s parabling (story-telling) was often a challenge to the people and systems who were listening. To really get into this, I used the parable of the good Samaritan. After reading through the parable once, I asked…

“So who is the ‘good guy’ and who is the ‘bad guy’ in this story?”

Most answers said the Samaritan was the “good guy” and the priest and levite were the “bad guys”. (surprisingly no one said the robbers who beat the guy) I told them that with an ancient ear and mind, the Samaritan was the “bad guy” and the priest and levite were the “good guys” and how swapping them in the story would probably have gotten at least a few people talking. I also pointed out that the parable was left open ended. Did the inn keeper help the guy? Did he skim a little of the top from the Samaritans donation? Did he pocket the money and kick the guy to the curb? In the spirit of the future, the listener is left with an open ended story.

Then to bring it home, I used a parable from the Orthodox Heretic to bring a modern spin to this subversive form of story-telling. I read the parable slowly, and only once, so it would be more like someone telling the story off the top of their head. More like when Jesus used a new parable to talk about the Kingdom of God. Each youth received a popsicle stick with 5 paper clips attached to it. The rules were…

1. You can interrupt me at anytime during or after the parable to ask a question or voice a disagreement.

2. You have to turn in a paper clip any time you would like to speak up.

3. Once you re out of paper clips, you can’t interrupt anymore. (the idea was to make sure that everyone in the room received a fair chance at voicing their questions or opinions during the parable)

I found that it was a great way to move past simply listening and getting comfortable with a subversive story, like a parable. The youth really had to listen, not just to the story, but what their peers were saying about the story. That is, after all, a big part of how we grow in our faith, isn’t it? We won’t grow in a vacuum of thought or belief. We need each other, other perspectives, as a way to understand what we believe, what we don’t believe, what we didn’t realize before. Far too often that’s not the case for Christians.

The only regret I had on Sunday night was that we only made it through one parable (I had planned for 5). But now that I think about it, one parable was enough to fuel a 30 minute conversation. It has me thinking that telling parables should be done on a regular basis with teenagers. And truthfully, not just teenagers, but people of ALL ages.

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