Stories are such a significant part of our culture that we almost take them for granted. The success of the new Avengers: Endgame movie is just the most recent example of how much we care about the stories and characters that we have grown to care about and share our life with.
That sounds odd to some. They are just movies or books aren’t they? Isn’t it foolish to allow characters in fictional stories to have a place in our life? Isn’t this just a sign of an immature culture trying desperately to cling to something other than the painful realities that confront them everyday in the “real world?”
But according to Jesus, whether we are using stories to run from something or to run toward something, there is a unique power in the telling and hearing of stories that actually changes our capacity and ability to hear the truth.
In Matthew 13 we find the famous parable of the sower. A lone gardener who seems to have terrible aim with his sowing hand and no real understanding of where to maximize his seed supply. But, for all of this farmer’s shortcomings, Jesus uses his example to give us one of the most vivid pictures of the challenges the gospel faces in our lives.
However, after hearing this parable, in verse 10 the disciples get antsy. They want cold, hard facts. They just want the action items below the headline. They are looking to Jesus to give them a highly economical, bullet-pointed, tri-fold instruction manual for getting to heaven, but He seems content to meander around the countryside relating His truths to them in obfuscated, country ditties that make Him sound more like a drippy storyteller than a daring revolutionary.
So they ask Him, “why do You speak in parables?” – “why do you tell stories?”
His answer probably surprised His disciples, and if we truly catch what He is saying it will surprise us too.
Eugene Peterson’s Message captures Jesus’ explanation so beautifully:
Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.
Matthew 13.12-13 – The Message
For Jesus, stories were not just a way of explaining truth or dispensing wisdom. The Creator of all things knew, at a deeply formational level, that stories have the ability to not only deliver information, but to change the very way we receive information.
Neuroscience has recognized that fiction, stories, tales of adventure and romance and intrigue, have an incredible impact on brain function.
From a piece called, “Your Brain on Fiction,”
“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
Annie Murphy Paul
Isn’t this what Jesus is saying? When we hear stories, we hear the facts with impact.
His disciples are confused, perhaps wanting a “brass tacks” kind of religious life. Give us the facts, and we will rise or fall based on our ability to maintain a standard. This is still a very popular way among Christians.
But Jesus was not satisfied with a transactional interaction, He was interested in a relational journey. He was first concerned with awakening in the heart of a person. Are we moved by this truth? Are we affected by these words? Do we feel the weight of eternity in the red letters? These were Jesus’ concerns.
And so, He told stories. Stories that brought laughter, knowing grins, and frustrated pushback. Stories that incited tears, swelled hearts, and caused groups to pick up rocks to throw. Of all the things we could say about Jesus, we must admit that He always got a reaction.
And God hasn’t stopped telling stories.
We, the followers of Jesus, the citizens of Heaven, are the parables that Jesus is telling the world even now.
- Our lives are the tales told in the midst of brokenness.
- Our recoveries and overcoming are the yarns He is spinning to revive hope in lives that are spiraling into chaos.
- Our healed hearts, as mirrors reflecting the light of God’s love, are the memoirs of grace that He is using to speak a better word of life into the darkest corners of death in the world.
Why does He do this? Because He knows that, while a select few can sit in a classroom and be taught, everybody loves a good story. And our lives might just be the catalyst God uses to awaken a heartbeat in the soul of someone who has heard all the Bible verses, who has had theology beaten over their head, but who has never actually felt the warmth and peace of the Gospel.