This is the first is a series of posts exploring why Jesus used stories to convey his message.
I have a friend who gets frustrated when discussing various interpretations or perspectives on a passage from scripture. “Just tell me what it means,” she said once, exasperated after a discussion about one of Jesus’ parables.
Such frustration is understandable, given that the one person who arguably has all the answers chose to tell stories rather than provide us with a black-and-white explanation. But why did he choose the medium of story to convey his message?
The power of story offers something beyond the straightforward rules, laws and commandments found elsewhere in the Bible. Stories offer us more meaning and more nuance as we delve into them. Their truths are often layered and surrounded by context bulging with significance. Stories invite us into their world by asking us to relate and find meaning using experiences from our own lives. This, I believe is why Jesus used parables so often to teach and why those stories continue to provide relevant lessons for us today.
Stories offer connections to characters, situations or actions that bridge our own experiences and help us understand ourselves and others better. They helps us unpack meaning from our own stories so that we might understand their meaning and significance. And once we have wrestled the truth from our stories, they become sacred experiences that help us better understand ourselves, our relationship to God and the divine.
Now back to the question: why did Jesus use stories? This deserves a deeper dive. So let’s explore some of the reasons in a little more detail. Today, we look at Concrete vs. Abstract language.
Concrete vs. Abstract
Don’t get me wrong, etching rules into stone tables has its place. But that is not how Jesus chose to convey his message. He could have just as easily written the stoneback sequel to the 10 Commandments to provide further instruction to how best to live a Godly life. But he didn’t. He came as the Word made flesh, and by doing so, he made the abstract real. And his teaching followed the same course.
Most often, Jesus turned to parables in response to a specific question like, “But who is my neighbor?” Now, to be honest, this approach would probably frustrate the Gehenna out of me if my children constantly responded to me asking, “Have you brushed your teeth?” with a story that required hermeneutical analysis and introspection. I’m sure some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day felt likewise, and I guess that was his point.
So, rather than saying offering some abstract principle defining who your neighbor should be, Jesus turned to the rhetorical tool of the parable to draw a picture with words, describe a scene, introduce characters and put the play in action. These concrete details provide tangible aspects of life that we recognize and understand through our experience of the world.
We are forced to deal with the universal truths through the messy specificity of our messy world: robbers, beggars, lost coins, weeds, sons, fathers, servants and employers. People and things we know yet require us to look at them differently. They speak to the here and now, the situations and people we confront every day. And like the fruit of the tree, we must break the husk to find the seeds of truth so they might be planted in the experience of our own backyard to grow and reveal their wisdom to us.
Who would have remembered the point if Jesus had responded with an abstraction like, “Your neighbor is everyone,” or “Your neighbor is the person you despise, your enemy, the other”? He embodied the truth in the concrete details of a story, making the truth sticky so that it stays with you even after the specific words have faded.