When Jesus taught, he didn’t speak in outlines. He didn’t say, “There are four kinds of humility.” Or, “Prayer has three parts.” Or, “Here are ten keys to success.” No, he taught by saying, “Once upon a time.” He said, “Once upon a time there was a man who had two sons…” And “Once upon a time a sower went out to sow his seed.” And “Once upon a time a man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” In other words, Jesus often taught by telling stories.
Why did Jesus use so many stories in his teaching? Probably for some of the same reasons I often used them when I taught high school religion. For I knew that as soon as my students would come into religion class, their defenses would go up. After all, this was religion class—a class (in their minds) that was trying to tell them what they should do and what they should not do. So I would say to them something like this: “Before we begin class today, I would like to read you this article from last week’s paper.” Notice, I said before we begin class today. I was implying that this newspaper story had nothing to do with religion. But (of course) it did! But stories have a way of disarming us. They lower our defenses, thus opening us up to possible learning or even change.
Here’s another reason Jesus probably used stories. And here’s a story to illustrate that reason. A king wanted to leave his kingdom to his cleverest son. He took the oldest one on a long journey, saying, “Son, shorten the journey for me.” The oldest son failed to do so. Next the king took his second son, but he too was unable to shorten the journey. Then the king took his youngest son. But as they started out on the journey, the youngest son began to tell a story—a long and engrossing one. And before the king knew it, they had completed their journey. So Jesus used stories because good stories are just plain interesting. They spark our curiosity. They hold our attention. We listen to them or read them or watch them because we want to know what happens next.
Anthony de Mello, the Indian Jesuit, used countless stories in his teaching and writing. He used to say, “The shortest distance
between truth and the hearts of hearers is a story.” As Christians, then, we witness to one another not by preaching at each other, but by sharing our joys and struggles. In other words, by sharing our stories. My favorite definition of evangelization is this: “One beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
Stories are also effective because they are more open-ended than treatises. This means they can be interpreted in various ways. They can mean different things to different hearers—or different things to us at different times in our lives. When I taught English literature, sometimes my students would ask, “But what does the story mean?”—as if Moby Dick could be reduced to a single sentence: “Don’t chase white whales.” But good stories (like life itself) defy such reductionism. When Jesus used stories, he was refusing to give pat answers to questions like, “Who is my neighbor?” or “What constitutes forgiveness?” Instead he told stories of the good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. He was saying to people, “Here’s a story. Reflect on it. Walk around in it. Place your own experience beside it or inside of it. Only then can you begin to draw some measure of meaning for your life.”
Let me finish this little “treatise” on stories with another story. This one is from Father de Mello. A man began to give cod-liver oil to his large dog because he heard it was good for dogs. Each day he would hold the head of the squirming dog between his knees, force open the jaws, and pour a spoonful of the stuff down the dog’s throat. One day the dog broke loose and spilled the oil all over the kitchen floor. Then the dog began to lick the oil off the floor and even returned to the man to lick the spoon. That’s when the man realized: the dog was not objecting to the cod-liver oil, but to the man’s method of administering it!
Jesus not only told stories. His life is a story—and, as many believe, his life is the greatest story ever told. Here is a song by Francesca Battistelli in which she prays to Jesus: “Write your story on my heart.”
What role do stories play in your life or in your spiritual life?
Do you have any stories that greatly influenced your life?
Which stories of Jesus stand out for you?
PS: Some of you seemed impressed
with the altar server I interviewed last week,
my grandnephew, Alex.
So I decided to post this photo of him,
all dressed up and ready to serve Mass.