Why Jesus’ Illustrations Helped People
WHEN Jesus was on earth his objective was to help people. He took pity on people, especially the sick and the oppressed, because he saw that “they were skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36) He performed many cures on these persons. When a leper entreated him on bended knee, saying: “If you just want to, you can make me clean,” Jesus, moved with pity, stretched out his hand and said to him: “I want to. Be made clean.”—Mark 1:40, 41.
But Jesus helped people in a much more beneficial and lasting way than by physical cures. In fact, Jesus’ cures were by no means the major feature of his work. The ones healed were comparatively few, but everyone in the land heard his teaching.
HOW ILLUSTRATIONS HELP
Illustrations or parables occupied a prominent part of Jesus’ teaching to the crowds of people who heard him. The Bible record says: “Indeed, without an illustration he would not speak to them, but privately to his disciples he would explain all things.” (Mark 4:34) How were his illustrations especially helpful to those who really sought the explanation? First, they made the spiritual things, the ways and the thinking of God, understandable to humans. Jesus used the everyday affairs and dealings of life to illustrate abstract and deeper matters. One needs no ‘higher education’ to understand the principles that the parables convey. Jesus’ illustrations are as applicable and fitting today as when he gave them.
For example, who cannot grasp, in the parable of the ungrateful slave, the principle that we must show mercy and forgiveness to one another? In this illustration Jesus told of a king to whom one of his slaves owed sixty million denarii. The king, moved by the pleas of the man, canceled the debt. But this slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him only a hundred denarii (one six-hundred-thousandth as much), and, grabbing him, began to choke him, saying: “Pay back whatever you owe.” The king, hearing of this unmerciful act, was greatly angered, and put the ungrateful slave into jail. Jesus concluded the illustration, saying: “In like manner my heavenly Father will also deal with you if you do not forgive each one his brother from your hearts.”—Matt. 18:23-35.
ILLUSTRATIONS REACH THE CONSCIENCE
But Jesus’ parables are helpful not only because of their simplicity. Illustrations often reach the hearts and consciences of their hearers more effectively than a mere statement of fact, or an outright reproof. This is very clearly demonstrated in Jesus’ training of his apostles and disciples.
Jesus saw in his disciples the many mistakes, faults and wrong leanings they had as imperfect sinners. But we do not find him accusing them of being proud, ambitious, greedy, unmerciful or lazy persons. This would have hurt them and made them feel condemned. They would have felt that he viewed them as that kind of persons. While they manifested some of these bad traits on occasion, they were not basically or characteristically greedy, proud, and so forth. Jesus wanted to help them, not condemn them. Therefore, rather than humiliate them openly, he gave them illustrations that caused them to think—to see the principles involved, and to apply them in their own hearts and consciences. They could see the mistake that they had made or the wrong attitude that they had manifested and then make corrections. This method was far more convincing than an outright rebuke and much more effective.
For instance, when the disciples were arguing among themselves over which one seemed to be the greatest, Jesus did not become angry at them or severely rebuke them. He did not call them haughty, selfish, greedy or ambitious. He pointed to the worldly leaders as an illustration of this bad attitude and its outcome, saying: “The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those having authority over them are called Benefactors. You, though, are not to be that way.” The disciples well knew the bad results of that “superior” attitude. Then, in contrast, Jesus referred to his own example as a servant among them, though he was their leader.—Luke 22:24-27.
On another occasion Jesus set a young child in their midst, saying that each of them, in order to enter into the kingdom of God, would have to be humble as a child is. Furthermore, they must have great consideration for persons who, like a child, were of a guileless, faithful nature. In what other way could he have made his point so plain?—Matt. 18:1-6.
Certainly Christ’s disciples took these things to heart and corrected their own wrong thinking. This is evident in their dealings with their Christian brothers when, after Christ’s death and resurrection, they carried the load of responsibility for the Christian congregations. The letters of Peter, James and John reflect the fine, humble attitude that Christ had instilled in them.
Additionally, illustrations are effective in giving correction because they afford the hearer opportunity to do his own thinking without its being beclouded or blinded by prejudice. In considering an illustration, which usually deals with persons other than the one being spoken to and not directly mentioning him, the individual will see that it fits his own circumstances or actions. Then he can arrive at his own conclusion or judgment. And he has no justifiable ground for anger, since the speaker did not accuse him directly of anything.
Such was the case with the man versed in the law of Moses who asked Jesus what was required to inherit everlasting life. Jesus pointed out that a person must love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and love his neighbor as himself. Wanting to prove himself righteous, the man asked: “Who really is my neighbor?” Jesus was acquainted with the Jews’ unneighborly attitude toward Samaritans, whom they despised. He then spoke the parable of the “good Samaritan.” Had Jesus directly told the man that Samaritans were among those whom one should love as oneself, this prejudiced individual might never have admitted it.—Luke 10:25-37.
ILLUSTRATIONS REVEAL INNER ATTITUDE
Some of Jesus’ illustrations served also to cause people to identify themselves as interested or disinterested or even opposed to him as God’s prophet. On one occasion Jesus said that he spoke to such persons so that, ‘hearing, they would by no means get the sense of it.’ (Matt. 13:10-15) In this way the illustrations ‘weeded out’ those who were not interested in understanding his message, for they did not come to Jesus and ask for the explanation as did the truly interested ones.—Matt. 13:36.
Even more importantly, the illustrations helped the true disciples by keeping out from among them those who would be hypocritical and who would cause factions and divisions. People would tend, when hearing the illustrations, to ‘show their true colors.’ When Jesus said: “He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life,” then “many of his disciples went off to the things behind and would no longer walk with him.” His true disciples, on the other hand, stuck with him and came to understand the life-giving significance of those words.—John 6:54, 60-66.
Jesus’ illustrations or parables are of invaluable help to Christians today, for, besides setting forth guiding principles, they are also prophetic, many of them having a major fulfillment in our time. They help us to realize that the kingdom of the heavens will soon take complete rule of this earth. They guide us in taking the right course in these critical times, so as to be on the right side, with a view to everlasting life.
Furthermore, Jesus’ illustrations enable us to deal with others, particularly our Christian brothers, with kindness. Just as Jesus showed his disciples the badness of some of their acts and attitudes, without labeling them as “bad” persons, so we can help our brothers by pointing out the unwisdom, the badness or the wrongness of their acts, while not judging or condemning them as “haughty,” “proud” or “bad” persons. We are against the badness, but not against our Christian brothers who at times may be overtaken in a fault and do bad things.—Jude 22, 23; Gal. 6:1.
The reason why Jesus’ illustrations are so helpful is that they are wisdom from the Creator, who is thoroughly aware of our makeup. (John 5:19) They are not farfetched or impractical. They really teach. They fit human nature and human needs at all times and under all circumstances. A person who studies Jesus’ illustrations can lay for himself a good foundation for teaching others.