Blog - Supporting Believers

Using Workplace Parables

Friday, April 24, 2015

Picture this imaginary scene: Jesus leading a workshop for his disciples on creating sermon illustrations. Now suppose Peter raises his hand and asks, "Where can we find good ones?” How do you think Jesus would answer? I strongly suspect he would say something like, "Do what you’ve seen and heard me do—look for illustrations in the workplaces of those you’re teaching.”

Is that far-fetched? Not when we consider Jesus’ own parables. Time after time, in explaining the unseen realities of the Kingdom of God, he tapped into an area that people understood from repeated experience—their daily work.

Some of Jesus’ workshop participants had grown up in the fishing trade. When Jesus wanted to explain what would happen to the righteous and the wicked in the final days, how did he picture the situation for his listeners? He compared what the angels will do with what those in the fish business do. The good fish go into baskets; the bad get tossed (Mt. 13:47-50).

Thanks to an occupation created by the Romans, Jesus found the perfect example for religious snobs who saw themselves as so superior to everyone else. The word-picture he painted contrasted the prayer of a Pharisee with that of a man who worked for the empire’s version of the IRS. The religious leader’s prayer (the "selfie” of those days) left him just as spiritually bankrupt as he was before. But the plea for mercy from the despised tax collector left him right with God (Lk. 18:9-14).

These workplace illustrations are not exceptions. Jesus punctuated his teaching with stories from law (Lk. 18:2-8), construction (Lk. 14:28-29), banking (Lk. 7:41-42), and farming (Matt. 13:3-8). Examples from agricultural work included planting (Matt. 13:31), harvesting (Matt. 13:24-30), fertilizing (Lk. 13:8), and shepherding (Lk. 15:4-7). His parables also touch the work of homemaking (Mat. 13:33), clothing repair (Matt. 9:16), military service (Lk. 14:31-33)—and even the unemployed (Lk. 7:47-50).

To find workplace illustrations, sometimes all we need to do is to ask for them. When I asked for workplace stories to illustrate the biblical command, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21), here is one response I received:

"When I was a server/waiter at a restaurant during college, there was a family that would often come into our restaurant that obviously didn’t like me for some reason. I hated when they sat in my section. I guess there was just something about me that ‘rubbed them the wrong way.’

One day after I served them and they had left, I noticed that I had given them the wrong ticket—which was actually for a higher price than their actual ticket. They had paid without noticing, and I now had extra money from the mistake. I knew I needed to pay them back the next time they came in, but I was not looking forward to it because they already didn’t like me. That would give them yet another confirmation of their feelings toward me.

A few weeks later, they came into the restaurant again. I told them what had happened, apologized, and gave them the money they had overpaid the previous time. Instead of being mad at me, they offered understanding and even left me a tip that equaled the entire amount that I had given back in addition to their normal tip. Furthermore, from that time on, they always asked for my section when they came in and we actually became friends over the next two to three years.”

Since Jesus walked the earth, occupations have multiplied greatly. That simply makes the supply of potential illustrations even greater. If you’re a pastor, teacher, or small group leader, why not begin asking working believers for on-the-job examples? And if you work as an employer, employee, volunteer, or are unemployed, be on the lookout for good stories you can provide to those who teach. The practice of using workplace stories has a great history!

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