Part 3: Why Jesus Taught Using Stories

This is the third is a series of posts exploring why Jesus used stories to convey his message and the implications for us. If you missed the previous installments, you can read them here.

Dichotomy of Right & Wrong

Jesus was a rhetorical ninja.  Don’t be fooled by the simple robe and sandals.

In the graphic novel version of the Bible, it would go something like this: a pharisee leaves a group of men talking in hushed tones and approaches Jesus. The tension mounts as the crowd falls silent awaiting the ominous confrontation.

WordfromSponsor_2The religious leader strikes a commanding pose in front of Jesus and reveals his carefully crafted question like pulling a sword from its scabbard in a grand show of strength and intimidation.

Like a scene from the Matrix where the fabric of time is stretched in slow motion sequence, Jesus carefully takes the question turns it inside out and delivers it to the backside of the pharisee in the form of a parable that knocks him to his figurative knees as the thought bubble, “WTF?” appears above his head.

Invariably, the religious leaders of the day attempted to present Jesus with a simple yes/no question designed to corner him into betraying the laws of Moses. Jesus most often turned to story in the form of parables to answer/not answer their questions.

This is the genius of Jesus’ teachings. Unlike the 613 laws of Moses that preceded Jesus, the parables offer a richer, layered, and situational understanding of “the kingdom of God.”

We need laws and structure and moral direction regarding what is right and wrong, but too often we seek to oversimplify truth into narrowly constructed parameters. Sometimes you can break a law and still be found not guilty based on extenuating circumstances. Life is just a bunch of extenuating circumstances explaining how we got to where we are and made the decisions we made. That’s why I relate so well to Mister Rogers, who said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love if you heard their story.”

This, from the guy whose claim to fame was the question, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” which so perfectly captures the essence of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

But we’ve never quite gotten over the influence of the Greeks who came along after Jesus and shaped the way we think about ideas both old and new. Ever since Plato and Aristotle introduced the dualistic paradigm of idea/matter, body/soul, divine/demonic, right/wrong, heaven/hell, we find ourselves constantly falling back into the well worn ruts of those hard and well-formed parameters.

My friend may want to look at parables as simple stories with a moral, but that is not how they were presented. Jesus used parables as rhetorical tools to invite us to bring our perspectives and experiences into the story, to consider the context, the characters and the actions for a richer and more meaningful understanding.

Those stories, as well as our own, deserve to be plumed for their insight, wisdom and truth — the kind that won’t fit on a fortune cookie.


Part 2: Why Jesus Taught Using Stories

Embedded in Memory vs. Etched in Stone

This is the second is a series of posts exploring why Jesus used stories to convey his message and the implications for us. If you missed the first installment, you can read it here.

We are ancient creatures. We carry in our DNA the histories of our ancestors. We carry their stories as archetypes buried deep in our psyches.

WordfromSponsor_2Back in the day — and I mean way back when papyrus was hard to come by — the best sellers were packaged and sold in something called the Oral Tradition. People told stories and sang songs to convey significant histories and truths from one generation to the other. While we have moved on from parchment to paper and now iPads, the story still serves as an effective vessel for carrying the truths found in our hopes, dreams, disappointments, triumphs and failures.

If you ask me to recite the 10 Commandments, I will still struggle to name them all … there’s always that one or two that seem to evade me when put on the spot. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait.

Now, tell me a story about a son who takes his father’s inheritance and blows it on living the good life only to find himself returning in shame and humiliation to ask for help, and I will remember and recall it forever because it is a story that resonates with my experiences, a story that calls me to connect with the characters. I put myself in their place to understand what they must be feeling: the prodigal son, the father, and the older son. I am invited into their shame, joy, and jealousy through my own experiences. I see myself and my humanity through them.

These stories and their truths tap into something both individual and universal — they share a communal experience with us while inviting us to bring our unique experiences to the story for a richer, more meaningful understanding. Something so perfectly one thing and another, so uniquely me and universally all, so ancient and yet so contemporary sounds like the work of the divine to me.

The story and the truth it conveys are inextricably bound. You cannot separate one without both becoming pale impostors. Spin the story in a centrifuge to extract a simple moral and you have reduce the story and its truth to a one-dimensional perspective that cannot survive without its symbiotic relationship with the other.

Begin with “Once upon a time” or “Verily, I say to you” and you’ve unlocked some psychological code into the psyche where we keep the good stuff that’s meant to last. Sounds sort of sacramental, doesn’t it?

Part 1: Why Jesus Taught Using Stories

WordfromSponsor_2This 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.