Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sabbath Reflections: Why Did Jesus Tell Stories?

Writers love the fact that Jesus’ public ministry didn’t consist of a lecture tour or sermon series: Jesus told stories, also known as parables.

I’ve heard many people say that the reason Jesus told parables was that he liked to illustrate deep theological truths by using stories that everyone could relate to and understand.

That’s a nice thought. Problem is, it’s not actually biblical.

When the disciples asked Jesus why he told parables, this is what he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given…. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matt. 13:11,13)

That’s right. Jesus told parables to confuse people.

Okay, not really. That’s also an oversimplification. But today, we have a dozen commentaries on the shelf and have heard two-dozen sermons on parables from the pulpit. We know what the parables mean, so we assume that the interpretation was immediately obvious to everyone listening in Jesus’ day.

That just isn’t true. Even Jesus’ disciples asked for explanations (Mark 4:1-20, esp. 10-13). Okay, so they weren’t exactly shining examples of intellectual theologians, but they did represent the average listener in the crowd.

Jesus took the truth and presented it in a memorable way…but also in a mysterious way. People who truly wanted to figure out what this strange rabbi meant must have walked away scratching their heads. “What was all that talk about a son who wasted his father’s money?” “So, the kingdom of heaven is like…a seed? Seriously?” “How could the king let the tenants kill his own son? And, wait a minute…what does that have to do with the victorious, conquering Messiah?”

Eventually, after some thought, they probably got it, and the effort that they had to put into processing the story made it even more memorable and life-changing.

Those who didn’t really want to hear the truth didn’t bother to seek it out, and probably dismissed Jesus as just one more radical kook who had been out in the wilderness too long. And Jesus left that option open.

So, how does this relate to fiction writing?

Truth doesn’t have to smack readers in the face. It doesn’t have to preach at them, screaming a message several times to make sure they get the point. There’s a great temptation in Christian fiction to over-moralize.


“But couldn’t someone misunderstand my message?” “What if a reader interprets the allegory differently than I meant?” “How could anyone be spiritually impacted by my book if the entire plan of salvation isn’t included, along with stilted dialogue and a confessional prayer?”

Calm down. Take a step back. And remember what Jesus said after many parables, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

He essentially walked away, gave his listeners time to think, and waited for God to work in their hearts to help them understand.

If you write truth and trust God to work, no one who needs to hear the message is going to miss it.

Stories are a powerful way to portray God’s truth. Not all have ears to hear…but those who do will walk away changed forever.

To Do List: Check Christian fiction I’m working on for preachy-ness. Ask these questions: Would this turn me off to the gospel if I were an unbeliever? Am I forcing my characters to say or do something that feels unnatural for the sake of the moral? Where can I cut back on explanations to give my readers something to wrestle with on their own?

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