You know what a parable is, right? It’s the name we give to the stories told by Jesus, usually employing familiar subjects to explain a spiritual truth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are full of them; you can’t throw a rock while reading those guys without hitting a parable.*

*Yeah, just don’t think to hard about that analogy.

Of course, there’s an issue any bible student encounters, not just with parables but with any part of the text: what was a familiar subject 2,000 years ago is not so familiar any more. Take for example, the parable of the wineskins, found in all three synoptic gospels. Here is Luke’s version, as translated by the New American Standard Version:

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” Luke 5:37-38.

Ye olde wineskin.

It’s impossible for a modern reader to fully understand a parable like this. Show of hands: how many of you drank wine out of a wineskin today? Last week? How many have seen a wineskin? How many have any idea what a wineskin even is?

I can “explain” the parable to you: Ancient people stored wine inside an animal skin. When the skins were new, they were flexible, and would expand as new wine continued to ferment, but older skins would become rigid and would burst if new wine was placed in them. The spiritual application, generally, is that you cannot place the message of Jesus within a rigid pre-existing worldview, for Jesus’ message will not be so contained.

But, you can see how the parable would have a great deal more punch to someone who handled wineskins every day, had felt the difference between a supple new skin and an old, cracking one, and had, perhaps, made the mistake of losing both wine and wineskin after placing the new wine in the old skin. It’s easy to imagine such a person listening to Jesus tell this story, nodding along, and perhaps smiling ruefully to him or herself over spilled wine.

I got to thinking about this, and I wondered to myself what sort of parables a modern Jesus would tell to people of my generation and background. What common language do we share that could be used to powerfully communicate and symbolize deeper truths?

The (somewhat startling) conclusion I came to was that pop culture makes up a large part of our generation’s shared language and would likely be a substantial part of Jesus’ storytelling were he roaming the earth today. This may not be the most flattering truth about our generation, and it’s hard to picture Jesus saying “Look, guys, the kingdom of God is like that Seinfeld episode with the soup nazi . . .,” but I think it’s true. When we hear something like “May the force be with you,” or “To infinity and beyond,” a world of context and powerful emotions is tapped into for many of us.

And I shall say to them on my right hand, “no soup for you!”

Jesus is acknowledged as a genius (and more), in part, because of the incredible insight and profundity that is revealed in the parables. They are at once simple, memorable, and inexhaustible. They are also deeply engaged in the life, culture, and worldview of Jesus’ audience. And they lie at the center, rather than the margins, of his spiritual teachings. What sort of stories should his modern-day followers tell? What is the shared language of our audience that will have the most impact and clarity? Are we putting the gospel in the proper wineskins?