Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Parables: Teaching Like Jesus

Jesus was a master Teacher. One of the most common strategies He used as recorded in the Gospels was teaching with parables. A parable is a short story with a universal message that teaches an eternal truth. All of the parables that Jesus taught center around something the audience can connect to- like a universal character or a common object. Following Jesus' model, we can teach like Him by creating short "parables" to use in our lessons to help the kids connect to more abstract content. 

Often called 'Object Lessons" in education, adding in a short practical mini lesson as part of an overall class or session can be a great way to help kids (or any audience) connect with a topic. If we can relate to a concrete example, our brains have an easier time synthesizing new knowledge about more abstract content. So much of our faith is something that cannot be seen, so providing a parable/object lesson is a meaningful way to engage kids, most especially young children, students with special needs, and kids who thrive as visual and tangible learners.

In this BIG blog post, I'm going to attempt to give you three things all in one place. I considered breaking it all up in several blog posts, but it just seemed to make sense to give you all of the resources at once so you can pull what makes sense in your home and classroom. Read on if any of these areas are of interest:
1. Learning about the elements of parables and how Jesus used them
2. Ideas for incorporating mini parable lessons into your regular teaching, including a blank lesson plan template
3. Lots of printables for diving into studying the parables of Jesus yourself or with your middle school/high school classroom, youth group, or Bible study


Jesus tells the parables to teach His audience by first connecting to what they already know. For example, He often used:
  • Typical, unnamed characters
  • Everyday situations
  • Common objects
  • Black/White and Right/Wrong examples
  • Always points to the Kingdom of Heaven

Sometimes Jesus also breaks down the symbols and meaning after telling the story. This is an important step, especially when using the parable model as a strategy with kids. We never want to leave them questioning what a symbol means or confused about the application. 

The parables always turn our gaze to something more important- The Kingdom of Heaven. The reality surpasses the symbol! A shepherd who protects his herd of sheep from danger is powerful, but not as important Jesus’ self-sacrificial death on the Cross to save His people. The forgiveness of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son is wonderful, but only a glimpse of God the Father’s mercy for us when we return to Him. Whenever we use an object, model, or demonstration as a way to introduce or deepen understanding of a concept, we must include within that same lesson the explanation of what the symbol points to. Otherwise the parable is empty and has the potential to be confusing or misleading.

To get you brainstorming, here are some of the common everyday objects Jesus used in His parables. Many of these are still applicable to kids today, but often rely heavily on an agrarian lifestyle not as familiar to them. 

Here are just a few ideas of objects that would be common to most kids that you might connect to the topic you are presenting:

To be more specific, here are a few ideas for teaching about the Sacraments. (Note that these are obviously not the formal signs and symbols of the Sacraments, but are merely objects that can help kids connect to the important real effects of the Sacraments). I've used examples like tools packed in a suitcase for a long journey to teach about the Gifts of the Holy Spirit given through Confirmation. Family photos remind us of becoming part of the family of God in Baptism. Connecting first aid cream to the use of oil as ancient medicine helps Anointing of the Sick make more sense. Erasers and soap can be used as analogies for Confession. The possibilities are endless, and if you think about any topic you'd like to share you likely can come up with a connecting object lesson.

Switching gears, one of the best ways to apply Jesus' parable teaching method is to study the parables themselves. The next set of resources is to help you read and pray with the parables yourself both for personal study as well as inspiration for this teaching method. These resources were also created with middle and high schoolers in mind- I've used all of them in my classroom and with my youth group for lessons and Bible Studies.

When I studied parables with my students, we started with a general study of how Jesus taught with the parables and the patterns they followed. We looked at the commonalities, use of literary elements, and overall themes. Click here for the notes I used to introduce our Parables Study, including a checklist of "all" of the parables and their Bible references (depending on how your organize them). I challenged my students to try to read as many of the parables as they could during our unit, and I had a few make it through the whole list! This is a great little handout to keep tucked in their Bible for further study as well.

Click here for my key for the notes:

After studying the elements that make a parable, you might want to encourage your students (or yourself!) to study the individual parables, looking for those universal elements and timeless lessons. This printable was designed to be used with any of the parables in the Bible. You can find it in this post or by clicking the image below.

We also did a short study connecting a few of the parables to our weekly school virtue, which are available in this post:

As a concluding project, my students created a story book with their own original parable following the pattern of the way Jesus taught. This checklist is how my students were graded for the final project. If you click here or on the image, it will open as an editable Google Doc that you could adapt for a project of your own. You'll have to download or make a copy in Google Docs to be able to edit:

If you want to continue your own study of the Parables, this post includes a set of printables to use as a guide for an adult or teen Bible Study:

Now with parables on the brain, you can be thinking of way to make connections and use visuals in all your lessons, no matter the topic. You might be interested in these Catechesis Lesson Plan Templates (including a year long outline) which incorporate a place for that "Hook" to help students engage with the content. Click on the image below to go to the post with these printables:

Once you've decided on your connection, you can work in a story or demonstration with a the object during your religion lesson

  • Provide a great “hook” at the beginning to grab their attention
  • Perfect for drawing comparisons between everyday objects and complex concepts
  • Always follow with the truth behind the symbol, just like when Jesus explained a parable.
  • Kids need things in bite sized chunks they can relate to, but they also deserve more than a watered-down version of our faith. Share the fullness of the truth with them.

Remember, the reality always surpasses the symbol. Move from the natural to the supernatural.

Your “parable” doesn’t have to be a craft! Here are are few ideas for how to work it in:
  • Tell a story
  • Do a demonstration
  • Set out a visual
  • Show a picture
  • Create an “experiment”
  • Model with an exaggerated example
  • Show two extremes
  • Chalk Talk- Tell a story with illustrations
  • Guessing game- How is it connected?
  • Have students bring their own object

I hope you enjoy studying the parables yourself and sharing with your students, and also feel inspired to model your lessons after this teaching style used by Jesus!

Click here for the pdf of the presentation file with a few more details and ideas, as well as all of the above links all in one place:

“Jesus' invitation to enter his kingdom comes in the form of parables, a characteristic feature of his teaching. Through his parables he invites people to the feast of the kingdom, but he also asks for a radical choice: to gain the kingdom, one must give everything. Words are not enough, deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for man: will he be hard soil or good earth for the word? What use has he made of the talents he has received? Jesus and the presence of the kingdom in this world are secretly at the heart of the parables.” ~CCC 546