There is a very, very, old story of a man who had two lovers; one younger than himself and one older. When they are cuddling the younger pulls the white hairs out of his head, the older pulls the dark hairs out of his head. This continues until he is bald!
This parable is over 2,000 years old. It is one that Jesus would have heard when he was just a boy. Parables were a part of what is referred to in Jewish literature as “Haggadah.” What’s “Haggadah?” Well, technically anything that is not “Halakhah.” What’s “Halakhah?” Halakhah is the legal language or what we might call Bible exposition (often referred to in Hebrew as the “Midrash”).
Haggadah was a teaching style for the common people and actually created a bridge between them and the highly educated, focusing on emotions and imagination. The parable of the man with two lovers was actually a parable taught as a response to those in the synagogue who only wanted to hear Haggadah and to those who only wanted to hear Halakhah. The lesson of the parable is that we need both. We need the Haggadah, of which parables are a part, to capture our hearts, but we also need the Halakhah behind the parable to understand its deeper meaning.
The use of parables by Jesus as a teaching practice has drawn focus and attention over the centuries by theologians and educators alike. To know and understand the parables of Jesus is to know and understand His theology and person. “The parables merit our careful attention and very best efforts of interpretation. We will never even begin to understand Jesus of the Gospels apart from His parables” (Young, 2008). Yet, this is no easy task, as we are separated from the original context and setting in which Jesus delivered His parables: not only separated by time but culture, language, and geography. For educators to benefit from the study and application of His pedagogy, they must commit to studying the context in which His teaching took place.
It has been said that if we want to gain a clear understanding of the theological meaning of the parables of Jesus, it must be found in the context of the first-century synagogue, not the twenty-first-century church. The same is true when we approach the understanding and application of His teaching methods – they are also rooted in the culture of His time.
The teaching methods of Jesus are exemplars that, when understood in context, model the teaching methods exercised by today’s best teachers. We see this most dramatically through His use of parables. Studying Jesus’ parables is essential to understanding His teaching methods. The parables make up for one-third of the recorded sayings of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels. If we do not understand the parables, we really do not understand Jesus.
One of the common misconceptions regarding Jesus’ teaching methods is that He introduced the use of parables, or that it was a unique teaching method for that time. Not true. Jesus was not the first person to use this powerful method of teaching, but He was most certainly the ultimate master of its use. The rabbinic schools of Jesus’ time developed and honed teaching through crafting and delivering parables. Jesus grew up listening to parables not only in the synagogues, but also on street corners, and in private and public settings. Parables were an indelible part of His culture. His masterful use of the parable method, however, rocked His world – and still, today creates challenges for those studying His use of this amazing teaching methodology.
What was it about parables that made them such a powerful teaching method, so much so, that hundreds of books have been written reflecting on their impact? Consider the following core values of Christian education sourced in Jesus’ use of the parabolic method.
Teaching to Specific Students (The Value of Differentiation)
Who were these students of the Master Teacher? In the most general sense, anyone “who had ears to hear.” Yet, when studying Jesus’ teaching practices, readers must recognize the significance of His teaching to specific people, places, cultures, and times.
In other words, Jesus utilized a specific teaching method to reach a specific audience in a specific way. That sounds like a great definition of instructional differentiation, which we know today is a “best practice” in teaching.
Focus upon God (The Value of Theo-centric Teaching)
The focus of all of Jesus’ teachings, not just His parables, was on God. One of the fundamental tools for interpreting the parables is first recognizing they are all about God. When reading and studying a parable, the first question to ask is, “What am I to learn about God through this story?” That is the fundamental learning objective of the instruction. Parables use simple imagery to communicate complex theological ideas about God. Therefore, Jesus’ central purpose was revealing the truth about God in a fresh and understandable way. This core value holds true today, as Christian educators confess that all truth is God’s truth. A Theo-centric approach teaches learners, that no matter the discipline or subject, there is always something to discover about God.
Guiding Toward a Response (The Value of Student Self-Discovery)
Another purpose in Jesus’ teaching methods was bringing His listeners to a point of decision. Every parable begged a response from the listener. Jesus demonstrated that great teaching leads to student response. Students internalize the teaching and then wrestle with their own choices and actions in response to it. Educational research over the past decades has consistently shown that guided self-discovery is the most effective form of student learning.
Meeting the Needs of All Learners (The Value of All Students)
The Master Teacher calls others to teach and instruct all people; certainly, the primary group appears to be within the flock, yet, Jesus was the exemplar of inclusive teaching. We can recognize from the study of His teaching ministry that Jesus used the parable to drive home his message about God and God’s relationship to every human being. Every person has value to God and the authentic Christian educator recognizes the value of every student, regardless of who they are or what their learning challenges may be. Instructional best practice involves curriculum and lesson planning to meet all learners’ needs. Every learner has value!
Instructional Settings (The Value of Supportive Learning Environments)
The use of the parable is perhaps the primary teaching method in which we recognize the mastery of Jesus’ teaching. Yet, this is certainly not the only method in which His mastery is recognized. For example, additional volumes could be written on how Jesus employed effective learning environments. Consider the settings where He delivered His teaching (e.g. a shepherd’s field, a riverbank, a temple wall, etc.) – each setting was chosen to enhance the delivery of His message. Also, consider how He used visual aids and illustrations within those supportive learning environments. Again, the teaching practices of Jesus are in alignment with best practices employed by educators today, both in regard to the significance of supportive learning environments and the integration of visual learning objectives.
Jesus remains the very definition of a Master Teacher and is the exemplar of Christian teaching, education, and leadership. As the “author and finisher of our faith,” many have recognized Jesus as the greatest teacher of all time whose methods and practices are to be studied and emulated. For the Christian school educator, we have a mandate to be intimately familiar with and to emulate, the Master’s teaching styles and methods.
Today, trusted Christian school leaders focus on developing the consistent implementation of evidence-based best practices within their schools – and rightly so. Yet, two thousand years ago, “Jesus demonstrated styles of teaching… that were as well suited to the multi-ethnic world of his time as they are to ours. It would be hard to find an equally good model since that time… They remain the indispensable foundation for good education today” (Horne, 2008).
©Toby A. Travis. Ed.D. All Rights Reserved
- Brad H. Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (Aba, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2008)
- Herman Horne, Jesus the Teacher: Examining His Expertise in Education (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998)
- James Montgomery Boice, The Parables of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1983)
- Dwight J. Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Parables of Jesus: Lessons in Life from the Master Teacher (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1982)
- Jennifer Carolan and Abigail Guinn, “Differentiation: Lessons from Master Teachers,” Educational Leadership 64, no. 5 (2007): 44.
- Louis Alfieri, Patricia Brooks, Naomi J. Aldrich, and Harriet R. Tenenbaum, “Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning? A meta-analysis,” Journal of Educational Psychology 103, no. 1 (2011): 1-18.
- La Verne Tolbert, Teaching Like Jesus: A Practical Guide to Christian Education in Your Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)
- Grace Meo, “Curriculum Planning for All Learners: Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to a High School Reading Comprehension Program,” Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth 52, no. 2 (2008): 21-30. Sharon Lynch and Laverne Warner, “Creating Lesson Plans for all Learners,” Kappa Delta Pi Record 45, (2008): 10-15.
- Noel J. Entwistle and Elizabeth R. Peterson, “Conceptions of learning and knowledge in higher education: Relationships with study behavior and influences of learning environments,” International Journal of Educational Research 41, no. 6 (2004): 407-428. Lorin W. Anderson and David R. Krathwohl, “A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives,” Theory Into Practice (2001): xxix, 352.