Christs’ use of parables is the singular element of his pedagogical practices that has drawn the most focus and attention over the centuries. 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.” 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 as well. For Christian 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, “the theological meaning of the parables of Jesus should be sought in the synagogue rather than the church… certainly be better understood in the synagogues of the first century than in the churches of today.” 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.
Jesus’ pedagogical methods are exemplars that, when understood in context, model the teaching methods exercised by today’s best teachers. “With hindsight we can see that his pedagogy meets the highest demands of modern educational practice.” We see this most dramatically through His use of parables. Studying Jesus’ parables is essential to understanding His teaching methods. “One-third of the recorded sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are in parables. If we do not understand the parables, we miss what may be known about the historical Jesus. One must understand parables to know 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.
The parables of Jesus are a part of a broader problem. If one has not become acquainted thoroughly with the other thousands of rabbinic parables, one may have the erroneous impression that Jesus invented this literary form. When one has learned from the rabbinic parables, one is compelled to ask how far the parables of Jesus are the expression of his own specific message and how far he has accepted common Jewish theology and incorporated it in his own message… In fact, it is difficult to determine when Jesus is expressing an opinion in his parables that would conflict with other contemporary Jewish teachers. For one example, the content of Jesus’ parables emphasizes, more than other rabbinic parables, his opinion that the sinners are equal with the righteous. In fact, the sinners are more highly valued before God than those who are proud of their own goodness.
What was it about parables that made them such a powerful teaching method, so much so, that hundreds of books have been written reflecting upon their impact? It has been suggested that, “other sections of the Bible give us grand theology. Some move us to grateful response to God. But the parables break through mere words and make us ask whether there has indeed been any real difference in our lives.” Consider the following core values of Christian pedagogy 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 a specific people, place, culture, and time.
An examination of writings shows that instead of considering the contexts in which the parables arise and the background against which they were spoken, many have pressed the parables to present truths that were in their minds as interpreters, but did not originate in the text itself. Some pulpiteers have used an allegorical method of interpretation to impress congregations with their abilities to discover truth in the words of Christ hitherto undiscovered. It is often overlooked that the primary purpose of the parables was to instruct those to whom the parables were originally spoken.
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 is, “What am I to learn about God through this story?” That is the fundamental learning objective of the instruction. “Jesus and the rabbis of old taught about God by using concrete illustrations that reach the heart through the imagination. They challenged the mind on the highest intellectual level by using simple stories that made common sense out of the complexities of religious faith and human experience.” Therefore, His 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. “The stories of God and people that Jesus used to illustrate his message called for a decision from everyone who listened.” 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. Research shows 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. “Jesus asked Peter to feed his lambs (John 21:15), and then he asked Peter to feed his sheep (21:16–17). The scope of the teaching ministry of the local church ranges from feeding lambs to feeding sheep. Our ministry is to teach children, who are the lambs, and to teach teenagers and adults, the sheep.” 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. Each person has supreme value for the parable teacher of the Gospels.” 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 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 regards 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. Trusted Christian school leaders pursue these ideals and beliefs in their leadership, in the school’s model of education, and as core values of their Character.
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, “Teaching is our ministry. Jesus is our model. People are our passion. Transformed lives are our product. And heaven is our goal. This is the essence of Christian education.” Thus, we have a mandate to be intimately familiar with the Master’s teaching styles and methods.
Today, trusted Christian school leaders focus on developing the consistent implementation of research-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.” His methods are the core values of Christian pedagogy, which in turn support trusted Character.
©2017 Toby A. Travis. Ed.D.
 Brad H. Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (Aba, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2008), 158-159, Kindle.
 Ibid., 632-635, Kindle.
 Herman Horne, Jesus the Teacher: Examining His Expertise in Education (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 33-34, Kindle.
 Young, The Parables, 235-237, Kindle.
 Ibid., 74-77; 88-91, Kindle.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Parables of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1983), 10. Kindle.
 Matthew 11:15 (NASB).
 Dwight J. Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Parables of Jesus: Lessons in Life from the Master Teacher (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1982), 39-40, Kindle.
 Jennifer Carolan and Abigail Guinn, “Differentiation: Lessons from Master Teachers,” Educational Leadership 64, no. 5 (2007): 44.
 Ibid., 164-166, Kindle.
 Ibid., 250-251, Kindle.
 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), 219-221, Kindle.
 Young, The Parables, 198-200, Kindle.
 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 behaviour 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.
 Hebrews 12:2 (NASB)
 Tolbert, Teaching Like Jesus, 83-84, Kindle.
 Horne, Jesus the Teacher, 30-31, Kindle.