May 7, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Mark 4:2 (NRSV)
He began to teach them many things in parables.
As we wonder about the goodness of the imagination, we come to the case of Jesus. He often taught in parables that were the fruit of his fruitful imagination. Through the characters and stories he made up, Jesus revealed profound truth. His example encourages us to offer our imaginations to God so that we might add to the goodness of this world.
This devotion is part of the series, Imagination: Redeemed and Redemptive.
In last Thursday’s Life for Leaders devotion, I responded to the question: But isn’t the imagination evil? I explained that many Christians have answered that question affirmatively, in part based on an antiquated use of “imagination” in the King James Version of the Bible (Genesis 6:5, for example). In reality, Scripture does not regard the imagination as a uniquely evil part of the mind. But the Bible does teach that our minds – including our imaginations – are tainted by sin and in need of redemption and renewal.
But, we might wonder, can our imaginations truly be renewed? Can the human imagination really be good? Is this something Scripture teaches?
I am not aware of any portion of Scripture that says explicitly, “Yes, your imagination is good.” But as I have reflected on this matter, I have come to the conclusion that we have in the Bible a profoundly persuasive case for the goodness of the imagination. That case focuses on Jesus.
Jesus taught in a variety of ways, of course. Sometimes he spoke with brief, evocative aphorisms, such as “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17). At other times Jesus gave longer lectures, like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). But one of the most distinctive features of Jesus’s communication style was his use of parables.
Mark 4:2 says that Jesus taught “many things” in parables. Indeed, he did teach many things through many different parables. Scholars don’t agree on the exact number of parables in the biblical gospels, but the range is somewhere between 30 and 50 depending on what you consider to be a parable. Given the fact that the gospels give us only a small part of what Jesus taught (John 20:30), it’s likely that he actually used far more than 50 parables in his preaching ministry.
According to Merriam-Webster, a parable is “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” Though a parable can be a story based on something that actually happened, for the most part parables are “fictitious.” So, when it comes to the teachings of Jesus, though he might have known a real Good Samaritan or Prodigal Son, it’s highly likely that he made up these characters and the stories in which they are featured. Jesus’s parables are the fruit of his fertile imagination.
The fact that Jesus frequently exercised his imagination seals the deal for the potential goodness of the imagination. Given his unique status as a sinless human being, Jesus reveals that the imagination is part of God’s good creation. Unlike in our case, Jesus’s imagination was not in need of redemption, though it certainly functioned redemptively.
The parables of Jesus show us more than just the potential goodness of the imagination. They also underscore the way in which imaginative works can be profoundly true even if they’re not historically true. The parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, conveys the truth of God’s forgiving love and grace in a uniquely accurate and powerful way. The characters in the story may have come from Jesus’s imagination, but the truth they embody is transcendent, eternal, and utterly trustworthy.
The fact that Jesus used his imagination so freely and frequently encourages us to do the same. While being aware that we can imagine things that are evil as well as good, we seek to imitate Jesus by using all that God has entrusted to us – including our imaginations – for God’s good purposes. We can ask the Lord to redeem and inspire our imaginations, to help us see goodness that does not yet exist. We can use our imaginations to create works of art, science, commerce, and architecture that serve others and honor God. We can imagine a world in which justice thrives and righteousness prevails, allowing that vision to motivate us each day in our work and our relationships.
Why do you think Jesus relied so much on imaginative stories?
Are you especially drawn to one parable of Jesus? If so, why?
As you think about your daily life, including your work, when do you use your imagination?
Ask the Lord to inspire your imagination in reference to a particular challenge, opportunity, or problem you’re facing today. Then, set aside a few minutes of quiet to let your imagination work.
Gracious God, thank you for all the ways Jesus teaches us. Today we thank you in particular for his use of imagination in his teaching. What he communicated through his parables is both wonderful and transformational truth.
Lord, I ask you to inspire my imagination for good. Help me to see with creative eyes what you want to do in my life and through me in the world. May I use all that you have given me – including my imagination – for your redemptive purposes. Amen.
Banner image by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Parables at Work (Mark 4:26-29 and 13:32-37).
Subscribe to Life for Leaders
Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.