Reflections on parables and communication
Reading the christian scriptures, especially, the New Testament, one comes across the parables and the generous use of parables to instruct and edify. In the coming days and weeks, we are going to keep coming across parables from the New Testament commencing with today’s gospel readings from Mark 4.
We are going into a season of a “feast of parables”. Each one of us can remember at least one parable that has left a lasting impression on him or her. Here is just a quick pick from some of the parables that have left almost permanent footprints on the tissues of my mind – The good Samaritan, the parable of the sower, the parable of the wedding feast, the parable of the foolish virgins, the prodigal son, etc. From these rich array of parables, two stand out for me and their central messages are permanently etched in my soul. yes, you are correct – they are the parables of the Prodigal son and the parable of the good Samaritan.
The former conveys the immensity of a father’s love, the contrition of someone who has done wrong and the reconciliation that follows, whilst the latter narrates genuine love expressed in genuine acts of love and sacrifice and stands in sharp contradistinction to the hollow religiosity and sham piety of uncaring persons of whatever persuasion and calling in life.
Even after several years of reading a favorite parable, echoes of it and snippets of its key messages still keep on streaming through our minds and our subconscious and influencing our comments and our actions even without our knowing this. And so the question is this – why is that parables have the power? what is it in parable that makes them so endearing and their messages so perduring?
what follows below are some of my guesses why!
Parables reflect simplified and effective communication and usually involve using the concrete to convey to abstract. They simplify but they also create the “aha” effect
Parables use comparisons to instruct ….notice that some parables start with the construction “to what shall we compare”
They then use comparisons drawn from the world view of the listeners, and exploit comparisons/events based on the known to arouse curiosity, to encourage enquiry and incite reflection.
Notice also their use of a simple and unique story line to illustrate a complex point. Notice also that in doing so, they deepen understanding, increase receptivity and open the minds to faith and to God. In doing all of this, the parables also invite the listener to reflect.
Parables involve dramatic use of symbols and imagery to convey, to call attention, to evoke either pity and compassion or strong distaste – wasting his money on riotous living and women, birds coming to pick up seeds, seeds falling on rocky soil , brigands setting on a traveller and dispossessing Him (sounds familiar?)
They also appeal to the experiences of the listeners……at that time of the writing of the scriptures, kingdoms, farming, wine growing and sheep rearing were key features of the society. The examples in parables thus exploit these realities as the stories are woven around kings, feast, vine, shepherd, sowing. In doing this, parables are exploiting points of interest, finding a good grip point to engage with the audience and using centres of interest as effective communication and interest arresting hooks/grips.
Notice one other special feature of parables – they are non threatening directly by their reference to events/peoples that are some distance removed (temporally and spatially) from the immediate listeners. This has the effect of engaging and retaining attention of the listeners till the killer punch is delivered! It is this ability of parables to use a specific to send a message that has both a specific audience and universal timeless application that represents their greatest beauty for me. It is indeed amazing – a specific story told to educate a specific audience but which still retains its potential for universal reference and use.
Most parables tend to have a central message and key theme – and it is this key message and the obviousness of meaning which provide the thread that bind all the events in the parable. By being simple and focusing on a key message and only the necessary and essential details, parables avoid information clutter and distractions which have potentials to impede the effective delivery of any message.
The other appeal of the parables is that though they convey a simple story, a close reading of some of the stories reveals their potential to communicate on multiple and hierarchical levels. Prima facie, they convey a direct message as I have said earlier, instructing us on a desirable virtue, in contradistinction to a related vice. They then rest their case, or so we think but we soon discover that the story does not end there because at the subconscious level, some aspects of the story continue to challenge us to reflect on their ramifications and invite us to ask to certain questions! And some of these questions can be very troubling, indeed agonizing as we reflect on the right and wrong of some aspects of the stories. As these questions arise, and they sure do arise. we begin to find that all is not so clear after all. And soon, we find ourselves being drawn outside our comfort zones as we begin a reflection which can be agonizing and lonely at times! We begin to ask questions. Suddenly we are worried because we begin to think that such questionings amount to doubts that betray a lack of faith. But this should not really be so. For to ask questions in search of deeper understanding is not synonymous with a loss of faith or incipient irreverence. Indeed such questions can lead to deepening of faith, for they ultimately and ever so often bring us face to face to situations where logic confronts faith and cedes gracefully to faith as a result of the acceptance of the limitations of logic. We also grow in religiosity and faith each time we are able to use a blend of rational and faith to understand the scriptures and are thus able to reconcile what appears to conflicts and contradictions in our spiritual journey on this earth.
Let me illustrate with a few examples of parables where the story line suddenly thrusts questions at us. Take the parable of the Good Samaritan, The Levite was headed to the Temple to officiate. If he were to stop and attend to the unfortunate wayfarer, he would be defiled and so not able to perform his Temple duties. Take the case of the son who stayed back and toiled with his father in the parable of the prodigal son. How fair is the denouement of the story to him? He and his friends do not get as much as a kid goat or small calf to party with but his rascal of a brother comes home to a grand reception, to what in igbo we call oriri na nkwari! So what is the point here here? Should we then all go live it up first, sow our wild oats, paint the town red and blue and then repent? And the Wedding Feast. Ordinary townsfolk were just going about their business and, all of a sudden, got invited to a banquet – obviously as an afterthought since the guests Mr. Rich had in mind failed to attend. They show up anyway, only for one of them to be cited for dress code violation and thrown into the dungeon. All parables reveal an uneasy dimension upon close scrutiny. Our challenge, is to reflect on them in an effort to arrive at a deeper truth. I have tried to resolve these conflicts and apparent contradictions by appeal to a message strategy which I will call over-riding dominant principle and core message focusing approach. This approach has the dramatic effect of either heightening the pathos in the event being narrated or increasing the salience and worth of the virtue in question or both! What then is the over riding dominanrt principle and core message focusing approach in each of these parables I have just mentioned? For the Good samaritan, it is the superiority of concrete and instant manifestation of love over a narrow focus on religious observances. For the prodigal son, it would appear to be a demonstration of the profundity and prodigality of a father’s love, in this case, God’s love for our world. The wedding feast – very troubling but less troubling when seen as an invitation to be ever ready to respond at any moment that God will choose to invite us to His royal banquet.
Seen in this way, these troubling instances in these parables become appreciated as narrative techniques that are employed to improve the efficacy of message flow and communication, among many other possible interpretations.
Experts on Effective Communication advise us to do the following when engaging in verbal communication
use variety, be credible, use a hook, attract attention, hold attention, keep attention, gauge response, and to start with the most exciting part. A close look at the parables shows that they contain all these aspects. The same experts on effective communication also point out to us the barriers to communication. These include
a) Language – speech and accent, dialect, non-specific meaning of words, double meaning jargon, technical language, woolly use of language, rambling, insufficient information given
b) psychological – emotive words, personality clashes, lack of interest; audience hostility
c) bias, prejudice and assumptions
d) content not suited to education, status and intelligence levels of your listeners
e) physical environment – noise and distraction from the environment
Again you will notice that the parables anticipate and avoid most if not all these barriers and succeed in delivering winning presentations
Our age is obsessed by the power point presentations, where illustrations and fly-in effects and the jazzing up the presentation often mask inadequacies in content, logic and flow, we would do well to read the parables and learn from them. In an age where verbose usage is often used to mask cognitive deficiencies, platitudes, the social irrelevance of the message or the lack of preparation of the speaker, we would do well to go to the parables and learn how to communicate…and to communicate with interest, focus and effect…and with economy, things which I know I will need to learn!
Hope I was at least able to communicate something to you in this lengthy and rambling scribble. Have a great day.
Noel Ihebuzor – Onye Nkuzi
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Thanks a great deal Doc. for this series on the parables used by Jesus in His teachings.
These parables are not always easy to understand as you have tried to illustrate. They are the communication tool of the wise. That explains why the Igbos claim that parables are the oil with which words are eaten. So they are expected to smoothen communication and yet not discernable to the unlearned.
Hence Jesus had to explain the parables to his disciplines after the target audience had left him.
We look forward to reading the series weekly.
Thank you and may God guide you in wisdom as you enlighten His people.