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Center for Action and Contemplation
The Parables of Jesus
The Parables of Jesus

Wisdom Teachings

Monday, August 29, 2022

Episcopal priest and CAC emerita teacher Cynthia Bourgeault describes how Jesus’ parables are a part of a genre that aims to bring about inner change in the hearer:

Parables are a wisdom genre. They belong to mashal, the Jewish branch of the universal tradition of sacred poetry, stories, proverbs, riddles, and dialogues through which wisdom is conveyed. . . .

We can see the razor edge of [Jesus’] brilliance as he takes the familiar world of mashal far beyond the safety zone of conventional morality into a world of radical reversal and paradox. He is transforming proverbs into parables—and a parable, incidentally, is not the same thing as an aphorism or a moral lesson. Its closest cousin is really the Buddhist koan, a deliberately subversive paradox aimed at turning our usual mind upside down. . . . Their job is not to confirm but to uproot. You can imagine the effect that had on his audience! Throughout the gospels we hear people saying again and again, “What is this he’s teaching? No one has ever said anything like this before. Where did he get this? Where did he come from?” [1]

Theologian Harvey Cox explores how parables invite the hearer to encounter God in an everyday and ever-changing reality:

Stories were Jesus’ stock-in-trade, the main medium by which he conveyed his message. The parables occupy fully 35 percent of the first three Gospels. But one of their most surprising features is that they are not about God. They are about weddings and banquets, family tensions, muggings, farmers sowing and reaping, and shrewd business dealings. God is mentioned in only one or two. . . . Rabbi Jesus obviously wanted us to look closely at this world, not some other one. It is here and now—all around us in the most ordinary things—that we find the divine presence. . . .

But Jesus’ stories, though similar to Zen koans in some ways, were also different in important respects. While the Zen stories aim at changing one’s perception of the world, Jesus wanted people to see that the world itself was changing, and that therefore, they had better change the way they looked at it. He invited them, in effect, to become part of the change. Time after time he said, “They that have eyes to see, let them see, and they that have ears, let them hear.” He simply wanted people to pay attention to what was going on around them and to discern a reality that was just under their noses. To describe this change he used a term that his listeners would have found familiar, though they might have been startled by the way he used it. He called it the coming of the “reign of God.” What he meant was that something was happening, not just in the consciousness of the listener, but also in the world itself. Something new and unprecedented was happening, and they could be a part of it. [2]


[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2008), 23–24, 27.

[2] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 155, 159. Note: minor edits made for inclusive language.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Carrie Grace Littauer, Untitled 12 (detail), 2022, photograph, Colorado, used with permission. Claudia Retter, Bexley Park (detail), used with permission. Claudia Retter, Oak and Moss (detail), photograph, used with permission. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images by Carrie Grace Littauer and Claudia Retter appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Parables require us to take a second look. These images make us pause and wonder, “what is that, really?” Perhaps it’s my own shadow, responding from the subconscious with knee-jerk reactions and judgments.

Story from Our Community:

I’m a Quaker and I love the description of worship as a “listening prayer.” When I stayed with some friends in Belarus, I noticed they answer the telephone not by giving their number or name, but by saying “I am listening” and then wait to hear the speaker. It’s a wonderful metaphor for prayer. —Diana L.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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