The Power of Parables

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This article discusses how parables can be used to engage students' hearts and initiate reflection. Giving examples of questions and parables he has used in his classroom, Roger Hassett makes a powerful case for employing Jesus' most effective teaching strategy in our classrooms.

We all know that a good story will almost always act as an excellent springboard for reflection. Jesus' most effective teaching tool was the parable. He would gather his disciples and tell them a story with a message that moved them to ask, "Where is God in all of this?"

For the past six years, the telling of stories, specifically parables, has been at the core of a course I have taught at the University of San Diego High School. The course, Prayer and Parables, presents themes with titles such as these:

  • Does God Listen?
  • Your Emotions Are Your Most Honest Prayers
  • If Only . . .
  • Who Am I?
  • What's Really Important?
  • Suffering
  • Forgiveness
  • Love

Parables are woven into the consideration of those themes. Students use three questions about a given theme as it is presented in a particular parable:

  1. Where am I with God in all of this?
  2. Where am I with myself in all of this?
  3. Where am I with others in all of this?

The most formidable hurdle to overcome in storytelling with students (these are juniors and seniors) is the teacher's fear that the students won't like being read to. That fear, I can say from experience, is needless. The vast majority of students love being read to.

The next hurdle is to help the students listen to the parables with their hearts and not their heads. I accomplish that by leading the students in a guided-relaxation exercise called a stress inventory. It is a simple exercise in which the students assume a good posture, become aware of their breathing, and slowly relax each part of their bodies from head to toe. They can then focus better on the story. As a side benefit, they learn a positive way to deal with stress, which they really appreciate.

Once the students are relaxed, you can begin reading the parable. Be sure to bring it to life! Give each character a distinctive voice. Read slowly and carefully. Because the students are in a meditative state, they are quite open to the message, so take your time with it.

When the story is completed, give the students a minute or two to come back to full consciousness. Then allow them five or ten minutes to write their reflections on the parable--their gut reactions to the story and where they find God, themselves, and others in it.

Most of the stories I use come from Edward Hays's collections of parables: The Ethiopian Tattoo Shop, Twelve and One-Half Keys, and Saint George and the Dragon and The Quest for the Holy Grail (Easton, KS: Forest of Peace Books). Two of the students' favorite parables are "The Hired Hand" and "Judgment Day," both from The Ethiopian Tattoo Shop.

"The Hired Hand" considers what might happen if Jesus lived among us today. Here is one student's reflection on the parable: How many times have we just denied all the good things in our life? More often than not we can't recognize the great things because they seem so off-the-wall. Too many good people have died since Jesus. They, just like him, were rejected. Are we blind? Do we not see? Or are we just too … stubborn to admit what we do see? If Christ came back today, would you listen and follow, or would you be there to crucify him again? Sure, I'm scared and you're scared, but take the chance; it's worth it. In the end, the love you get back will be the love you gave.

"Judgment Day" is a powerful story about the need for forgiveness. A student reflects on it: We are sometimes so stupid; we harbor grudges and remember insults or hold wrongs against each other. I hate that, yet I am ashamed to admit I do it, as well. I wish this story could be told to the whole world. The world is so caught up in negativity, and materialism is the norm we are judged by. No adult will take me seriously, though. They say I don't understand, but I do. I know what they'll never know, that the key to life is love, and the key to salvation is honest, heartfelt forgiveness.

I never cease to be touched by the powerful ways our young people relate with God. Their deep and real faith is there waiting to be tapped and encouraged. A good story can do just that.


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Published October 1, 1995.