Today, living amid the sentimental remains of Christian culture, we cherish a benign view of Jesus as a compassionate teacher, conveniently forgetting his "hard" sayings.
In his own time, he managed to offend almost everyone of consequence, warning, for example, that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to gain eternal life. Jesus chastised his own apostles for their envy of one another and for their slowness to understand him.
He correctly predicted that the apostle Peter would deny even knowing him, and said of the traitor Judas that it would be better if he had never been born.
At the same time, Jesus was careful to couch his teaching in the form of stories that did not directly offend his friends and enemies alike. His parables are stories that protected Jesus' identity and full message. Their function was distinct from his overt preaching and teaching, which demanded repentance and a change of heart.
Taken together, the parables illustrate how God means people to behave in his kingdom. As author Paul Yancey acknowledges, "Jesus never offered a clear definition of the kingdom; instead he imparted his vision of it indirectly through a series of stories."
Jesus did not expect mass conversion to his teaching in his brief lifetime. Rather, he reserved the secrets of the kingdom to those who were his constant companions.
Jesus' parables are brief cautionary tales, not unlike the best of fairy tales we read as children. Fairy tales can both excite and frighten the young. They call for courage and persistence, often in situations that are fraught with danger.
Jesus is never a character in his own stories, which are fictional.
Today we enjoy an immense advantage over those who actually heard Jesus speak in person. Excepting the apostles, those who encountered Jesus in his time would have heard only a few of his parables. Because we possess the written accounts of the gospels, we have them all.
Unfortunately, over centuries, the church has treated Jesus' simple stories as fanciful allegories, investing them with meaning that Jesus never intended. Biblical scholar Klyne Snodgrass calls the parables "the most abused and mistreated stories ever told. They have been twisted, shortened, realigned and psychologized for centuries by pastors and scholars alike."
Despite that abuse, Jesus' stories remain vivid.
When we consider the faith of Christians, it is the good shepherd, the prodigal son and the good Samaritan who come to mind, along with the poor cripple Lazarus, the self-satisfied Pharisee and the repentant publican.
They, and countless others, are the cast of God's great drama.
(David Yount's 15th book, "The Greatest Stories Ever Told," will be published in 2012. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22193 and firstname.lastname@example.org.)