Once upon a time. Those four words just might be among the most powerful in the entire world. Some of my earliest memories as a boy contain a variation on that potent phrase. My mother came home one day with a large, hardcover illustrated edition of biblical stories—My Good Shepherd Bible Story Book. Every evening before lights-out, my brother and I would sit expectantly as she read to us of a time long ago filled with interesting people and the God who loved them. Those stories became a lens for how we looked at the great big world.
The undisputed greatest storyteller ever? Jesus of Nazareth. He knew we all carry inside us an innate love for stories, so that was the medium He consistently used to communicate His good news: Once upon a time there was a man who scattered “seed on the ground” (Mark 4:26). Once upon a time there was “a mustard seed” (v. 31), and on and on. Mark’s gospel clearly indicates that Jesus used stories in His interactions with everyday people (v. 34) as a way to help them see the world more clearly and understand more thoroughly the God who loved them.
That’s wise to remember as we desire to share with others God’s good news of mercy and grace. The use of story is almost impossible to resist.
The word parable comes from the Greek words para and bolḗ, which mean “placing side by side.” Parables are illustrations taken from common things, or day-to-day life situations, which compare a known truth with an unknown truth. The four gospels contain more than forty parables.
Jesus often used the sower-seed metaphor to illustrate the kingdom of God. In Mark 4, Jesus taught three parables—the parables of the sower (vv. 3–20), the growing seed (vv. 26–29), and the mustard seed (vv. 30–33). The seed is the Word of God (v. 14; Luke 8:11). When planted on “good soil,” or the receptive heart (Mark 4:20; Matthew 13:23), the life-bearing seed grows steadily and produces grain without any human effort (Mark 4:28–29). This is the unseen work of God—a work of grace. Only God makes the seed grow (1 Corinthians 3:6–7).