Why Does Jesus Tell Stories? - 06/30/2017
A lawyer asked him the seemingly simple question “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus answered with a lengthy story about the Good Samaritan. Some prominent religious leaders noted that for a supposedly holy guy Jesus spent significant amounts of time with people who were living examples of why not to walk alone in a parking lot at night. Jesus retorted with a story about a shepherd who had a screw loose and left his entire flock to fend for itself while he went looking for a sheep he lost.
The older I get the more I cherish stories in general and Jesus’ most of all. Jesus’ stories wait. Some years you just brush past them like weird dreams, in other seasons you walk into them and touch everything. At moments of crisis you might sit down at a table and argue with them over dinner. Even when you forget one of Jesus’ stories, years later you’ll trip on it like a shoe in the dark and it will be different, much like you.
When some Christians call the Bible “the unchanging word of God” it saddens me. When you stick a pin through a butterfly it becomes unchanging too, but is that the same as when they float around in the park- giving you a fleeting glance from far away this time and maybe a closer look on another day?
For instance, here we are in late June in New Jersey when every green thing is either springing up out of nowhere, dropping seeds to feed the birds or broad casting itself on wisps of fuzz. Every city tree with a bad haircut, every tenacious weed and wild petunia growing up through the sidewalk- all the well behaved grass and the ivy that is working on popping the siding off the front of your house- it all comes from seeds. While fighting with a thorny, nasty plant in my vegetable bed yesterday I tugged Jesus’ parable of The Sower out of the ground too. Do you remember it?
A farmer scatters seeds everywhere. Some fall on rocky soil and take shallow root but burn away in the sun. Some seeds get eaten by birds, some fall on unyielding ground and never grow at all and some, just a few, find good soil, grow roots and produce mountains of fruit. (Matthew 13)
The first thing the story does is invite most of us to think about what kind of seeds we are. Do you go to church, tear up when the story of Jesus healing the leper is read and then ignore the guy who asked you for change on your way to brunch? Or were you the seed on cement-like ground: too busy texting to listen to the Gospel at all? Did something terrible steal your early, happy life of faith like a hungry bird? Or are you that one seed that took root in faith, touching the lives of hundreds of people by volunteering at the hospital, visiting the prisons and talking to strangers with the intention of figuring out how to love them?
I’ve wandered through The Sower story in that direction dozens of times thinking it was like the scale at my doctor’s office- waiting to tally up all of my failures to practice what I preach. And then a theologian named Robert Capon turned the whole thing upside down in his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgement saying “No! Silly! The parable is about the Gospel- not you. And it’s not a story about judgement, it’s a story about grace. “
Most days the vast majority of us will flat out fail to be a sterling examples of lived Christianity. Resentment will harden me up like cement and I’ll decline all opportunities Jesus presents me with to forgive. Likewise, you’ll start the day as a generous person and end it cranky and mean because someone cut in front of you on a long line at the supermarket. Never the less, even if God’s love couldn’t find a way to take root in us today it did in someone else. Like the thousands of seeds in a sunflower’s blooming face- that one person’s act of faith and love will spring up in the world and spread the Gospel in ways nobody but God could begin to fathom.
Jesus’ stories don’t lay out rules, they present sand traps as well as new, strange doors into a life with God while inviting us deeply into the disconcerting mystery of love.
Want to take a walk with one of them on this gorgeous, summer day?