The purpose of this unit is acquaint youth with Luke's parables and a few from Matthew, but more importantly, the goal is to help the parables do what Jesus intended them to do. Jesus told parables to help his audience imagine a reality other than the one that they took to be normative and to respond to it by having a change of heart and seeking a closer relationship with God. That reality is the Kingdom of Heaven. Very often, our youth's early lessons on the parables led them to think of them as little morality stories, the lesson of which is "be good and you will be rewarded." Now it is time for them to hear the good news of the parables, the message of God's extravagant grace. They are invited into the topsy turvy reality of the kingdom in which those who serve and are treated as lowly or shameful or insignificant by the world are blessed and valued by God. They are shown a world in which the categories of neighbor and enemy or family member and outcast become meaningless, a world in which it is possible to imitate God and share abundance rather than hoard what the world deems valuable.
These lessons are designed to draw upon students' rich familiarity with stories that they loved in their childhood in order to find the same joy, but a more spiritual joy, in the parables.
Session One: Introduction to the Study of Parables and to Luke's Parables
Task One: Have students list as many parables as they can remember. It may help to have a chart prepared in advance with each gospel's name at the top of each column. I have provided an example of an incomplete chart of the parables below. If you wish to print out a complete list of all the parables visit Journey with Jesus: Parables of Jesus, a site hosted by Inter varsity Christian Fellowship.
The Hidden Treasure
Secret Growth of the Seed
The Good Samaritan
The Lost Sheep
|The Good Shepherd|
If possible, show them the complete list of parables. Students may observe that while most parables are found in Matthew, we often remember more from Luke. Provide them with a complete list of Luke' parables.
Parable of the Sower 8:4-15
Parable of the Good Samaritan 10:25-37
Parable of the Rich Fool 12:13-21
Parable of the Mustard Seed 13:18-19 (see Ezekiel 17:22-24)
Parable of the Great Dinner 14:15-24
Parable of the Lost Sheep 15:1-7
Parable of the Lost coin 15:8-10
Parable of the Prodigal Son 15:11-32
Parable of the Dishonest Manager 16:1-9
Parable of the Widow and Unjust Judge 18:1-8
Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector 18:9-14
Parable of the Ten Pounds 19:11-27
Parable of the Wicked Tenants 20:9-19
Discussion: In what context do we learn parables? Which ones have you acted out? What sorts of activities in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School did teachers have you do? What have been the most meaningful encounters with parables so far in your life? Which parables have teachers emphasized, and which ones do you enjoy the most? Which of the above have you never heard?
Shifting Gears: Stories we loved to hear.
Instructions to teacher: write down the names of the stories the youth mention for future reference. You may want to draw from this list in subsequent classes.
1. Why do you think Jesus taught in parables? Why do we tell stories to each other? Share the traditional Jewish saying: "God created human beings because he loves stories."
2. Have students share their earliest memories of stories that their parents told them or read to them? Why did your parents choose these stories? Did your parents read stories with "life messages?" Examples: The Little Train that Could; Aesop's Fables; The Little Red Hen; The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Were these your favorite type of story?
3. Have students share the stories that they asked to have read over and over again or the stories that were their favorites. Did these stories always teach you a lesson or were they stories that celebrated mischief in some ways. Examples: Curious George, The Cat in the Hat. Did these stories encourage you to think about people or reality differently? Examples: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Cloudy with Chances of Meatballs. Did you like stories where adults who denied children their childhood got what was coming to them? Examples: Matilda, and most Roald Dahl books.
Tie the two discussions together: Which of Jesus' parables are like Aesop's fables? Which ones are more like Curious George or The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, or Matilda?
Explain that Jesus is not doing just one thing with his parables. We need to look at each one to see what effect he is trying to produce. In the next sessions, we will look at some of the parables that are less like stories with morals as lessons and more like the less predictable stories of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl.
Session Two: Luke and the transvaluation of values (The Upside Down Kingdom)
Begin by finding out what the youth know about Luke's gospel. Have them recall Luke's version of the birth narrative. Get them to begin noticing the pattern of reversal in the Gospel.
Here are some questions to prompt observations:
To whom would you normally expect messages from God to come? In what sort of setting do you expect to see heralds? To whom do the angels deliver the important message of the birth of the messiah? What do you think the social status of shepherds might have been? (Fact: the term shepherd was widely used in the Mediterranean world as a euphemism for thief. Shepherds were very close to the bottom of the social pyramid.)
If you were a pregnant teenager, how would you respond? Look at the way Mary responds in the Magnificat. Do you see any other references to reversal in this song?
What sort of birth would one normally expect for a future king? What features of Jesus' birth does Luke emphasize?
Explain that parables fit into the pattern of the subversion of social norms and the reversal of expectations. They are illustrations about the nature of the what Donald Kraybill called "The Upside Down Kingdom."
Rather than going directly to a parable, select one of the children's stories named in the first session that is about reversal of expectations. I used William Steig's book Shrek. Our public library had a book on tape version. I turned the pages while Steig read the book.
Ask the youth why they like Shrek and how the story turns the traditional hierarchy on its head.
Then look at the parable of the "Dishonest Manager" (16:1-13). Have the youth read along while you read the parable aloud. Be sure to practice reading it ahead of time so that all the elements of story are clear for your audience. [As you proceed through the unit, invite members of the class to read the more familiar parables aloud.]
Have students contrast what they expect to happen with what happens. The story begins, "There was a rich man who had a manager." What do you think about when the rich man is introduced? Reexamine your thinking if you connect the rich man too quickly with God. What do we normally think about characters in stories who are rich? What do we think about rich people who make someone else manage their property? Have you ever had an absentee employer or landlord? What sort of frustrations did you experience? For whom do we feel sympathy when we read that"charges were brought to the rich man that the manager was squandering his property"? Note: the story never indicates whether these allegations are true or not.
Invite the youth to name modern movies that begin with a similar plot line? How do the stories usually end? Some older examples of such movies include Nine to Five (1980), Office Space (1999), Empire Records (1995). In these plot lines, we tend to root for the employee. Invite the youth to name movies in which we tend to cheer for thieves because they are stealing from the rich. Some recent examples are Ocean's Eleven and The Italian Job.
Now look at the parable again. Who are we cheering for when the manager reduces people's debts to the rich man? If he was charged with squandering the rich man's property before, what is he doing now? Readers often assume that he has been over charging people in the past and that he is returning their debt to what it ought to be. Is this the most logical scenario of what has happened? Is he a sort of biblical Robin Hood? What do we expect will happen to the manager when the rich man discovers what he has done?
Here is the twist in the story. What does the rich man do?
With what sort of wealth are we encouraged to act shrewdly? What is dishonest wealth?
Hints for teachers: What is God's wealth with which he can gift us? Answer: Love and Forgiveness.
This story can also be applied to the way our society values profit. What are managers suppose to do? What do we expect to gain from property that we own. What would happen if you were a CEO of a company and, instead of handing over profits of the business to shareholders, you gave them to the people from whom you profited, for example people who paid high prices for necessary goods or underpaid employees. In the United States, we have companies and investors who make money from people's illness. What if these companies gave their profits to the people who had paid for their services. When you stop to think about it, someone who has been ill often has lost income while incurring mounting medical expenses. What sorts of salaries do corporate officers get paid? What sorts of salaries and wages do they try to pay their employees? For what sorts of emission rates or environmental protection do those who own industries lobby?
What would dishonest wealth be in this context?
Possible answers: forgiving debts, paying people more than you have to, sacrificing your own profit for some social or environmental good.
Session Three: Parables as Divine Drama
Begin by reminding students that the parables are illustrations of the nature of God's reign. Individually, in pairs, or as an entire group, draw a pyramid diagram of a typical kingdom focusing upon the status of the king. Who is at the top and who is at the bottom of the social and power pyramid? Who is in the minority and who is in the majority? Who has most of the power and wealth? What are the trappings of power and the symbols of kingship? (Crown of Glory, Sword with which to Punish and Protect, Treasury) Who has access to a king? (The Rich and Powerful) With what does a king concern himself? (The Concerns of State) What are normal metaphors for a king? (Lion, Eagle etc.)? Here are the bare bones of my pyramid and links to a more elaborate ones of the Egyptian social order and Colonial American Society:
(People with Property)
(People who protect
King and Property)
Now have members of the group read aloud the parables of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) and Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) while others follow along in their own Bible.
God is king, but with whom is he being compared in these parables?
Normally we focus upon the figures of the sheep and the coin. We are the lost sheep or the lost coin, sinners whom God finds and redeems. If we look at the parables carefully, the emphasis is upon God's experience. Who is God like? How does he feel about what might seem inconsequential to a king? Would a king be worried about a lost coin? Would a king risk everything for one lost sheep?
In order to capture the divine pathos (suffering or extreme emotion) of these stories, have the youth recall their own stories by asking the following questions:
Have you ever lost something that you really cared about? How did you feel? Do
you still feel a sense of loss about something that you lost and never found?
Have you ever found something that you had lost? How did you feel when you found it?
Were you ever lost as a child? What was the experience like for you and for your parents?
The Parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep suggest that God feels the same sense of loss and joy about us.
Jesus teaches us about the way that God loves us like a parent loves us?
In order to broaden the discussion about parental love, read Max Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.
Ask the following type of questions:
Did your parents tell you other stories to help you know how much they loved
When do we really know how much our parents love us?
Close by reading John 3:16 to illustrate the centrality of God as loving parent in Jesus' teachings.
Session Four and Five: Paying Attention
Read Dr. Suess' Horton Hear's a Who. Our public library has a video version of this story. You may find it necessary to fast forward through parts of the story while providing a summary.
Ask the youth what the lesson of this story is. Explain that a number of Jesus’ parables are about how God pays attention to what we or those in power ignore.
Have a member of the group read "The Parable of the Unjust Judge" (Luke 18:1-7)
aloud while other members follow along in their own Bibles.
Are there times when you think that you are invisible?
Who are the people whose voices are never heard in our society?
Have there been times when following the voice of God sets you at odds with others?
Point out that Jesus’ blessing of the Little Children follows shortly
after in 18:15-17. Have someone read this text aloud.
What are the things to which we give value or meaning in our society?
Think about the things you most valued as a child. Were there things that you valued that you have come to feel embarrassed about because of the world’s values?
Luke 17:22 The Kingdom of Heaven is Among You
When we look at the mess the world is in, we tend to think of the kingdom as something that will come in the future. A number of Jesus’ parables are about how God’s Kingdom is present but we are oblivious to it or we mistake it for the things that we value.
Read the "Parable of the Great Dinner" Luke 14:15-24
Have there been times in your life that you have passed up meaningful experiences because you don’t want to stop what you are doing?
Or times that you have been present physically but not mentally because your mind is somewhere else? Church can be like that for me. I forget to worship because I am thinking about what I have to do later or I start to think about something about the music or sermon that bothered me.
Have you ever failed to notice that a friend or classmate was in emotional pain because you were too caught up in your own affairs?
Instruction to teachers: come with stories from your own experience. I like to tell the story of how my mother at sixteen declined an invitation complete with airfare to visit her grandparents in Sweden -- whom she had never met -- because she did not want to leave her boyfriend. She no longer remembers the name of the boyfriend and she never met her Grandparents.
Kingdom of Heaven: You cannot suppress it
Can you think of times that you had a meaningful experience despite yourself?
“ God moments” – Has one crept up and caught you unawares?
Read the "Parables of the Mustard Seed" (Luke 13:18-19) of the "Yeast" (Luke 13: 20-22). The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into an enormous tree and the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leaven. Point out that in both these parables, the kingdom is being compared to things that we normally try to keep out of our garden or food because it takes over. Mustard had not been domesticated in Jesus' day and no use had been found for it. It was an obnoxious weed. There was no Grey Poupon. The story about the woman adding yeast might have caused Jesus' original audience concern. They would have asked themselves whether she ought to be doing this. Perhaps the flour is for passover.
The message of these parables seems to be the following: whatever we do or care about in this world, we cannot suppress God’s grace and presence or his justice.
Activity: Have the youth come up with very short parables that use things from our own context. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like ____________________. If _________, then ________________."
Examples: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a cold, if you come in contact with it, you catch it." "The Kingdom of Heaven is like mold. If you try to hide it in a dark place, it will spread despite your efforts to hide it."
The Kingdom of Heaven Knows no boundaries
I began this session by playing Peter Gabriel's song Biko .( If you play this song, or any song, it is very helpful if you print out copies of the lyrics for the youth to follow.) Steve Biko (1947-1977) was a leader in the movement opposing apartheid in South Africa and a founding member of the Black Peoples Convention, a group that organized socially uplifting programs to help give black people as sense of pride and entitlement in their society. He was banned by the authorities from giving public addresses. He died after being beaten while in custody. His story is told in the movie Cry Freedom (1987), available on DVD at Goshen Public Library. His story illustrates how the people who benefit from the status quo often try to suppress the truth, in this case, political and social equality for the black citizens of South Africa.
Help the youth explore the assertions of political necessity to protect the status quo that suppress the Kingdom of Heaven within our own society or times.
Do we ignore injustice because we are comfortable and don't want to risk losing what we have? Have you ever been afraid to do the right thing or to help someone for fear of your personal safety or your social position? Do we feel compelled to shut our doors to strangers or to people in need in order to protect ourselves and our interests?
If members of the group are drawing a blank, you might provide prompts about the following:
Kingdom is defined by relationships in which we show
loving kindness to its members. But who are its members? Normally those
not its members are defined as either allies or enemies? In the story
describes how a Jewish man (with whom his audience would
identify) is befriended by a Samaritan ( a person who his audience would
Ask the youth: Who is an enemy? Is it someone of whom we are afraid? Someone whom we fear might take what we have?
Who are the people we fear in our society? I tend to think of people on the street or the poor, but they might also be the new immigrant population, or people who threaten our feelings of having power.
What social practices tend to knock these people out and leave them bleeding alongside the road?
In what ways could you be a neighbor to these people?
Summation: What do the parables teach us about living in the Kingdom of Heaven? What sorts of changes do you personally need to make in order to live in God's reign?
Alternate Activity: Jesus told parables. He didn't write them down to be read. His message spread by word of mouth when his disciples told the stories. When the stories were written down, they were not read in silence by individuals. They were read by dramatic readers who helped communicate their meaning by reading with meaning. One of the reasons we are seeing a decline in biblical literacy is that people are not hearing the word of God as much, and when people read it from the pulpit, they often stumble over words and syntax, so that it is difficult for the congregation to really grasp what is being read. Have students break into small groups of 2. Assign each group a part of the parable of the "Prodigal and His Brother" (Luke 15:11-32) to tell to the rest of the group rather than read to the group. Have them spend five minutes deciding how to tell their verses. Encourage them to find ways to emphasize the actions and emotions of each character in the story. Then, have each group tell their verses in sequence.
Seven Parts: 15:11-13; 14-16; 17-19; 20-24; 25-27; 28-30; 31-32.