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JESUS: What literary tools did Jesus employ to convey his teachings?

What literary tools did Jesus employ to convey his teachings effectively?

Jesus utilized various literary techniques or figures of speech within his teachings to impart spiritual truths in a manner that resonated with his audience.

  1. Allegory

An allegory is a storytelling method where characters, events, or parts of the story stand for bigger ideas, moral values, or historical events. In these kinds of stories, the actual story is usually meant to share a deeper, symbolic message. Allegory helps to explain complicated ideas or truths in a way that’s easier to understand and more interesting, letting the listeners or readers think about and understand the deeper meanings in the story. For instance, in the Gospel of John, Jesus portrays himself as the shepherd and his disciples as sheep (Jn 10:1-18), symbolizing his role as their guide and protector.

  1. Parables

Parables are simple stories used to illustrate moral or spiritual lessons. They convey deeper spiritual truths and moral lessons to his audience. Jesus frequently utilized parables as a teaching tool throughout the New Testament.

In the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13:1-23; Mk 4:1-20; Lk 8:4-15) Jesus draws a parallel between sowing seeds and sharing the message of the kingdom of God. Each type of soil symbolizes a distinct response to this message: some outright reject it (hard soil), others initially embrace it but later abandon it (rocky soil), some become entangled in worldly distractions (thorny soil), while some accept it and yield a bountiful harvest (good soil). This allegory emphasizes the significance of being open-minded and persistent in embracing and applying Jesus’ teachings.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) Jesus recounts the tale of a father with two sons. One son requests his inheritance prematurely and wastes it in extravagant living before repentantly returning to his father. Meanwhile, the other son stays obedient but grows bitter when his father joyfully welcomes back his wayward sibling. The father, symbolizing God, exhibits unwavering love and forgiveness for both sons. This allegory communicates themes of repentance, forgiveness, and the limitless love of God for all who seek Him.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) Jesus recounts a narrative of a man who is assaulted, robbed, and abandoned on the roadside. Despite the indifference of passing religious figures, a Samaritan, typically scorned by the Jewish community, stops to tend to him. The Samaritan’s compassionate deeds exemplify mercy, neighborly love, and transcendent empathy, defying cultural and religious divides. This allegory urges listeners to extend kindness and empathy to individuals of all backgrounds, irrespective of societal or cultural distinctions.

  1. Metaphor

A metaphor is a linguistic device that establishes a comparison between two unlike entities to clarify abstract concepts. For instance, in John 8:12, Jesus proclaims, “I am the Light of the world,” metaphorically portraying himself as a guiding force and source of salvation. Similarly, in John 15:1-8, Jesus states, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” In this context, Jesus isn’t actually a vine, but rather, the metaphor of a vine signifies his role as the origin of life and sustenance for his disciples.

  1. Similes

Similes are comparisons between two unlike things, often introduced by the words “like” or “as”. In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus compares a wise man who builds his house on the rock to a foolish man who builds his house on the sand. This simile illustrates the importance of building one’s life on the solid foundation of Jesus’ teachings. Another example is Matthew 10:16 where Jesus advised his disciples: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves”

  1. Personification

Personification is a figure of speech where human characteristics are attributed to non-human things, animals, or abstract ideas. It’s often used to make inanimate objects or concepts more relatable or vivid. Here are some examples of personification in Jesus’ teachings:

“I am the gate for the sheep” (Jn 10:7). Here, Jesus is not literally a gate. He personifies Himself as a door, symbolizing that He is the only way to heaven. Jesus personified wealth as mammon (Mt 6:24; Lk 16:9) to show how greed can prevent salvation. “You are the salt of the earth” (Mt 5:13).

  1. Hyperbole (Exaggeration)

Hyperbole creates a heightened effect through deliberate exaggeration, often employing boldly overstated statements to add emphasis without the expectation of literal truth. Examples of this can be found in Jesus’ teachings:

Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Mt 18:9). This statement is not meant to be taken literally as an action to pluck out an eye. Rather, Jesus emphasizes the seriousness of sin and the necessity for drastic measures.

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24). Jesus utilized this hyperbole to underscore the immense difficulty for a wealthy and selfish individual to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their misplaced priorities, stating, “Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel” (Mt 23:24). Here, hyperbole is employed to highlight their tendency to focus on minor issues while neglecting more significant matters.

  1. Idioms

Idioms are phrases or expressions that convey a figurative, non-literal meaning. Jesus employed idiomatic expressions such as “If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:14) to illustrate how those spiritually blind can inadvertently mislead others who are similarly lacking insight. He also advised, “When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Mt 5:39), teaching his followers how to respond to aggression with non-violence. Jesus encouraged going beyond mere obligation with the statement, “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles” (Mt 5:41). Additionally, he cautioned, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Mt 7:1), emphasizing the importance of refraining from passing judgment on others in order to avoid receiving judgment oneself. The intended messages of these phrases transcend their literal meanings.

  1. Sarcasm / Irony

Sarcasm uses irony to mock or convey contempt. Jesus occasionally used irony to emphasize a point or to challenge the thinking of his listeners. Here are some examples of sarcasm Jesus used sometimes in hyperbolic style against his adversaries:

“Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel” (Mt 23:24). Here, Jesus criticizes the Scribes and Pharisees on their tendency to focus on minor issues while neglecting more significant matters.

“Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Lk 6:39). This remark is aimed at the false teachers, who claimed to be spiritual leaders but were leading people astray.

“The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 20:16). Jesus expressed this at the end of his parable on the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-15) to criticize the Jewish leaders who neglected the less fortunate in the community.

When some Pharisees advised Jesus to leave the area because Herod wants to kill Jesus, he replied, “Go and tell that fox …” (Lk 13:32). This is a sarcastic way of stating that Herod is cunning and untrustworthy.

  1. Repetition

Repetition of key phrases or ideas serves to emphasize the presentation. Jesus repeatedly spoke of his passion, death, and resurrection (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34).

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus began each beatitude with “Blessed are …” (Mt 5:3-12) to underscore the blessings bestowed upon those who live in accordance with God’s will.

Following his resurrection, Jesus greeted his disciples with the words, “Peace be with you,” as they were gathered behind closed doors due to fear of the Jews (Jn 20:19-26).

Jesus posed the question “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” to Peter three times (Jn 21:15-17), receiving an affirmative response each time. This exchange allowed Peter to counteract his threefold denial in the courtyard of Annas.


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