I love a good story, don’t you?
Storytelling is a distinctly human trait. No matter how proficiently animals like dolphins, apes and some birds can communicate with us, they don’t care about stories. People, on the other hand, almost seem to be born craving stories. Think about the child at bedtime – “One more story, mommy! Just one more.”
As we move through our lives, we find stories almost everywhere: books, movies, TV shows, music, even commercials tell us tiny little 30 second stories. The Bible is filled with stories. Who doesn’t enjoy retelling or listening again to the stories of Joseph, his beautiful coat, and his treacherous brothers; Samson’s feats of strength; and King David’s battle with Goliath.
A well-told story can transcend time and place, social status, education level, and political or religious affiliation. That explains why Jesus used stories and parables so often in His teaching. The people who came to hear Jesus speak varied widely in their intellect, occupation and education. There were theologians, farmers, beggars. If He had directed His lessons to any one group, He would have lost the interest of the others. By telling parables, each person was engaged and able to understand the story within the framework of his own education and experience.
As I thought about the effectiveness of storytelling as a teaching tool, I remembered a study I’d read about that found that when people are shown a normal (realistic) drawing of a person along with a caricature of the same person, they will recognize the caricature more readily than the realistic drawing.
Why? Well according to the study, it’s because the caricature minimizes the “average” parts of a person’s face and emphasizes the distinctive features.
“OK,” I hear you saying, “but we’re talking about stories and parables, not caricatures.”
True, but I believe that the best stories do the same thing as caricatures do – they condense ideas into their most important points so that they’re easier for us to imagine and remember.
Think of the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus could have told His audience about all the disagreements the younger son had had with His father; the step-by-step progression that brought him to ask for his inheritance. He could have gone into specifics about the relationship between the two brothers, too. He could have mentioned the boys’ mother and how she felt about the whole situation. But all of that would have diluted the story until it sounded just like everyday life. People would have gotten bored; they might have decided that since they weren’t a man, or a younger brother, or whatever that the story didn’t apply to them. By telling just enough, Jesus made it possible for every one of us to share the experience each of the characters in the story.
Another great advantage of storytelling is that we can say things in the context of the story that we probably wouldn’t get away with saying directly.
An example of this is the story of David and the prophet Nathan. Think about it – David has just pulled off what he figures is the perfect cover-up of his affair with Bathsheba when Nathan shows up and tells him a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s only, much loved, sheep. Once David is properly worked up about the injustice of the story, Nathan points out that David had done just that.
Chances are, if Nathan had marched into David’s throne room and spelled out all the things David had done wrong, Nathan wouldn’t have lived through the afternoon. As it was, David was convicted by his own reaction to the story and was brought to repentance instead of defiance.
Jesus could have gone from person to person spelling out exactly where each one was wrong and needed to change immediately, but as we all know, that only puts people on the defensive and really makes it much less likely that they will listen to anything anyone has to say after that.
Using parables allowed Jesus to put the needed information out there in a way that didn’t back anybody into a corner … it allowed (and still allows) each hearer to face their own need for forgiveness and redemption and take steps to receive those things.
This story from Kevin Harney’s book, Seismic Shifts, illustrates this point.
“It was a battle. A wrestling match. A test of wills. Every day, at exactly the same time, Margaret would go to the bathroom cabinet, open it, and take out a huge bottle of castor oil. Then she would head to the kitchen to get a tablespoon. At the sound of the drawer opening and the silverware rattling, Patches, her Yorkshire terrier, would run and hide—sometimes under the bed, at other times in the bathtub or behind Margaret's recliner. Patches knew what was coming.
“Someone had convinced Margaret that her beloved dog would have strong teeth, a beautiful coat, and a long life if she gave him a spoonful of castor oil every day. So, as an act of love every 24 hours, she cornered Patches, pinned him down, pried open his mouth, and—as he whimpered, squirmed, and fought her with all his strength—poured a tablespoon of castor oil down his little doggie throat. Neither Patches nor Margaret enjoyed their daily wrestling match.
“Then one day, in the middle of their battle royal, with one sideways kick, Patches sent the dreaded bottle of castor oil flying across the kitchen floor. It was a momentary victory for the canine, as Margaret let him go so she could run to the pantry and grab a towel to clean up the mess.
“When Margaret got back, she was utterly shocked. There was Patches licking up the spilled castor oil with a look of satisfaction only a dog can make. Margaret began to laugh uncontrollably. In one moment, it all made sense. Patches liked castor oil. He just hated being pinned down and having it poured down his throat.”
Jesus’ use of parables and stories is just one more evidence that He loves us enough to let us choose our own destiny. He never tries to shove anything down our throats. He puts it out there and it’s up to us to make our choice.
How will we share His love with the people we meet – by pointing out all they’ve done wrong or by showing them all that Jesus has done to make us right for His Kingdom?