As a seminary student and newly-ordained pastor, I was disdainful of preachers who used stories in their Sunday messages. I thought that stories were only employed by preachers trying to compensate for having weak theologies.
But then I received one of those "gifts" that magazines will sometimes send to new subscribers. The gift was a book, Inductive Preaching by the father and son writing team of Ralph and Greg Lewis. It revolutionized my entire approach to preaching and communicating the truths in the Bible.
It pointed out that the prevailing approach to preaching in western Christianity was taken from Paul, the author of the letters that make up much of the New Testament. Paul, though himself a Jew and raised to be a teacher of Jewish law, was also steeped in Greek culture, a cosmopolitan and learned person. His primary mission as a Christian evangelists was not to his fellow Jews, but to Gentiles, non-Jews, throughout the Mediterranean basin. This target audience was composed largely of people steeped in Greek culture and Greek ways of thinking and communicating. This culture, reflected in the Greek language itself, was more cerebral and propositional than the Hebrew language of God's people, a language which was earthier and more pictorial. This Greek culture, which was fairly engorged by and incorporated into the life of the conquering Roman Empire which then prevailed in the known world, naturally produced great philosophers and succeeding generations of those philosophers only reinforced this penchant for the cerebral and propositional.
In order to communicate with people steeped in this culture, which was strongly rooted in Europe and Asia Minor, Paul was necessarily propositional and intellectual. Although there is much passion in Paul's writings, he seldom if ever uses stories to communicate with his main audience. He felt it important to be able to speak the cultural language of his audience. This explains why he talks about being all things to all people.
Maybe because we in American Christianity have developed from the milieu in which Paul first communicated the Good News of Jesus, our preaching has always been a lot like Paul's. This is why in days gone by, preachers were taught in seminaries that their sermons should be composed of an opening thesis, three points, and an exiting paragraph.
But, Lewis and Lewis pointed out that Jesus seldom preached like Paul. Jesus used stories. Sometimes He explained them. Sometimes He didn't. But stories became a port of entry through which Jesus' listeners could enter a place of understanding even the most complicated or daunting truths. In Jesus' pre-literate era, this mode of communication made all sorts of sense. (It may also make sense in our post-literate era.)
I have a theory: We always learn by analogy and metaphor. Every incremental bit of learning we do is rooted in something we already know, from which our minds and imaginations can extrapolate or expand.
Jesus knows this. When, in this chapter, His disciples ask Him why He uses stories, Jesus says that anyone can understand a story and once we allow ourselves to "get" His stories--by opening ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit, as mentioned in the previous chapter of Matthew--it's possible to grow in the application of their teachings in more mature ways.
In a sense, I suppose, Jesus' stories are examples of God's baby talk to us. But we never quite outgrow them either. We can return to them repeatedly in our lives and still learn more about God, the need to follow Christ, what His reign is like, and God's will for our lives.
The story's told that Vince Lombardi, legendary head coach of the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins, always met with his players on the first day of training camp for a short talk. It began with Lombardi holding up an object in his hand and saying, "Gentlemen, this is a football. The goal of the game of football is to take this object across a line down there."
Great teachers always start and continuously point us back to the basics. Jesus is the greatest Teacher of all.
In chapter 13, Jesus tells stories about His kingdom and how it grows.
Matthew 13:1-9. The chapter opens with Jesus, surrounded by crowds anxious to hear Him and be near to Him, being forced to climb into a boat while His hearers sit on the beach.
What does Jesus do? He tells them stories.
He first tells His famous story of a farmer who plants seeds, using the "agricultural method" favored in first-century Judea, where He lived: The farmer scatters the seed indiscriminately.
This is hardly an efficient system. The results are probably typical. Some seed fell beside the road and was quickly eaten by birds. More seeds fell in the gravel. But because they were warmed by the sun, yet unable to put down roots, they sprouted and quickly died out. More seeds fell in with the weeds, which choked them out before the seeds could really take off. A final group fell in good soil and produced, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message, "beyond [the farmer's] wildest dreams."
An interlude will come to Matthew's narration before Jesus explains this story. (The formal term for these stories, by the way, is parable. The word parable is a compound word in the Greek of the New Testament and it means to roll or throw alongside. The idea is that alongside the story being told is a deeper story.)
Matthew 13:10-17. Sounding a lot like a certain seminarian and young pastor I knew very well, the disciples ask Jesus why on earth He speaks in stories? Even to them, Jesus must sound like something of a rube or, maddeningly, obscure, when He resorts to this mode of communication.
Jesus explains that if one is open to Him and His reign in their life, His stories will make more and more sense. But when one is closed to Him and His reign, the stories will remain mysteries, even if one is able to give an intellectually astute explanation of them.
Interestingly, as Jesus goes on to explain the parable He tells in Matthew 13:1-9, it turns out that it's really about being open to the "seed" of the message about Jesus. (For more on what that message is, see here, here, and here). We'll see that momentarily.
Jesus then cites the words of the ancient prophet, Isaiah, to say that some people will be so self-willed and self-worshiping that even when they hear the saving good news of God's love and grace, they'll stop their ears and close their eyes to its power for their lives. This passage from Isaiah was often used by the early Jewish Christians to explain why their fellow Jews rejected Christ as the long-expected Savior/Messiah.
Matthew 13:18-23. Here, Jesus explains the parable and shows that our acceptance of the Good News about Him is rooted in our receptivity. How vulnerable are we? How willing to admit that we aren't the masters of the universe, even our own private universes? How willing to admit our need of God to lead us away from our own selfish impulses and away from death, toward new life?
The seeds that fall along the pathway and fall in the gravel, Jesus says, are like people who hear the Good News about His kingdom, but the evil one makes steals their capacity to understand it or to stand under His reign.
The seeds that fall in the rocky soil, Jesus says, are analogous to what happens when His Good News enters the lives of people who initially receive it with enthusiasm, but don't allow it to fill their lives. Then, when adversity or persecution comes, their embryonic faith dies out.
The seeds that fall among thorns are like that same Good News coming to people who allow the cares of life to choke off faith.
But the seeds that fall in good soil are those who hear it and understand it (the meaning of which is literally to stand under it, by the way). The fruits of faith in Him are apparent in the lives of these people.
Matthew 13:24-30. Jesus now tells another story. This time, the point is that for as long as history unfolds on this planet, the world and the Church will have within them both genuine believers and psuedo-believers, counterfeit followers of Christ. But He won't destroy the hypocrites, lest He do harm to genuine followers in the process. A day of reckoning will come to the hypocrites at the end of history, He says.
It's appropriate to point out that all of us are hypocrites, to some extent. No one is perfect. But here, Jesus seems to have in mind those who use faith for their own selfish purposes.
Matthew 13:31-32. Jesus is on a story-telling roll! In the rush of events and all sorts of evil, it's easy to understimate the presence and power of His kingdom in the world, He tells us. But, He says, even tiny seeds grow to be imposing trees in which birds make their nests. Jesus is a strong refuge even when the world has gone crazy!
Matthew 13:33. This illustration has the same point as the preceding one. A small amount of dough rises to become a big loaf of bread. Never doubt that God is working in even the smallest people and places devoted to Him.
Matthew 13:36-43. Here, Jesus explains the parable in Matthew 13:24-30 and again, it's in response to the disciples' request for an interpretation.
Matthew 13:44. In just a few words, these mini-parables explain that turning from sin and following Jesus is worth the investment of our entire lives! An old song says of Jesus, "He died for me, I'll live for Him."
Matthew 13:47-50. This parable about His kingdom really reiterates the point of the parable told in Matthew 13:24-30. The fish will all be scooped into the same net, but only some will want to be there. The others will be hypocrites there on pretense. There will be a reckoning at the end of history. In the meantime, we're to keep scattering the seed of the Word about Jesus and not be judgmental!
Matthew 13:51-52. The disciples, probably expressing incredible arrogance, assure Jesus that they understand Him. But they don't. And neither do any of us ever fully understand Him. How could we fully understand God, even when He lived among us as a human being?
Matthew 13:53-58. Jesus goes to His hometown and while momentarily impressed, His neighbors prove to be unreceptive soil. They can't get past the fact that something so good had come from Nazareth and from from a household they knew.
[Check out the previous installments of this series:
Scholars from the East
The Freedom to Be Weird
This is a Test
Trusting What You Can't See
The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression
Explicating the Beatitudes...and More
Authenticity and Trust
Jesus' Radical Ethics
Friend of the Outcasts...
The Conflict Deepens
Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ
No More Religion!
The Subversive God]