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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC


Why Jesus? Part 2: Jesus the Storyteller

Matthew 13:10-17

October 10, 2010

Hey, did you hear the one about the traveling salesman going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who was mugged, beaten, stripped naked, and left to die like a dog in a ditch?

Now, by chance, down the road comes a priest, that is a man who makes his living off of God--and you know how we all despise clergy. He spies the man bleeding, lying helpless in the ditch, and the priest . . . passes by on the other side.

Then comes down the road a pious but not priggish, religious but not showy, ordinary Methodist, like me, who, catching a whiff of the now putrefying mass in the ditch - and being religious and therefore quite a cautious sort of person -- passes by on the other side.

Now, imagine you are the man in the ditch. You've lost a lot of blood. Time is running out. With your last ounce of energy you look down that hot, dusty road and see coming toward you - a nice looking, spiritual but not fanatical, probably Republican, traditional-values person like you? No. You see a despised, good-for-nothing, racially impure, theologically uninformed Samaritan. Your last best hope is a man whom you hate.

"It's only a flesh wound. I'm OK, I'm OK"-but this Samaritan rips up his designer suit, he lays your bleeding carcass on the fine leather seats of his Porsche, he takes you to the hospital, he shells out all of his credit cards, and tells them to spare no expense in your salvation.

"Go and do likewise," says Jesus.

Is this a joke? Parables, these pithy, strange little stories from everyday life, are the most distinctive - and peculiar - aspect of the teaching of Jesus. Mark says that Jesus never said anything in public that wasn't a parable. Now, there are religious teachers who, when asked a theological question, respond with thoughtful, general principles, high-sounding, serious and uplifting. Muhammad and Dr. Phil McGraw leap to mind.

But Jesus explained God with unexplained stories, most of which lack neat endings or immediately apparent points. It's as if Jesus says that God is met amid the stuff of daily life, in the tug and pull of the ordinary. Yet God is rarely self-evident, obvious, or with uncontested meaning. In parables, the joke is on us.

What is God like? A dragnet is thrown into the sea. When the net is hauled in, it bristles with all sorts of creatures, a few good fish but lots of trash as well. The servants ask, "Master, do you want us to sort the good fish from the bad?"

"No, let's worry about the culling on another day. What a huge haul!"

God is like that. There, now. Got any other questions about God?

Don't be troubled if you can't figure out that story; because the disciples who first heard it didn't get it either. Jesus comes across at times as this Zen-like teacher whose greatest desire is not to pass out the right answers but rather to tease and to provoke even more questions.

You and I tell stories in order to figure out what sort of world we've got. Stories are fiction that is meant to uncover the deep, real truth about the world. Nobody can live without a story that makes sense of the world and gives us a beginning, a middle, and an end to what could otherwise be a really random world.

And yet, Jesus' parables tend not to explain. They just begin, as if out of nowhere, without context, often in the middle. They are, at times, exasperatingly devoid of important details. As we have noted, few of the parables have well-wrought conclusions. They seem more intent on confusion than clarification. Surely, Jesus could have found a more effective mode of explaining his message - unless explaining was not his chief goal.

"Why do you talk in parables?" his disciples asked.

Sometimes, Jesus reaches out for us; sometimes, Jesus pushes us away. Jesus is God with us - not God controlled, explained, and tamed by us. Jesus not only spoke in parables. In a way, Jesus is a parable.

There was a time when people thought that Jesus told lots of these stories because he was attempting to put difficult ideas into simple, everyday rural idiom. But that doesn't do justice to the complex, disarming, disorienting quality of most of these parables. Their surprise endings, or lack of endings, their cryptic, enigmatic quality, the way they delight in making heroes out of scalawags and Samaritans suggest that parables are meant to dislodge more than to explain.

Story by story, Jesus is moving us from the safe, secure world we thought we knew to another world where all is strange and things don't turn out as expected, and something's afoot.

The kingdom of God is like a man who calls in his slaves and dumps his entire holdings on his slaves, without a word of instruction or care, he then leaves town. This kingdom begins in a reckless gamble.

"Thy kingdom come," Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Well, how does it come? What are we to do? The kingdom of God is like a man who scattered seed on the earth then went home and went to sleep. While he slept, the seed germinated, a stalk, then the kernels of grain appeared. Miraculous harvest! Sorry, all you conscientious, spiritually high-achieving religious eager beavers. God's realm is something God does. A gift. Grace.

That dark night when Jesus was arrested, the disciples, in an attempt to save their own skins, flee into the darkness. Mark says that a "young man" who was with them is grabbed by one of the soldiers, and he too flees into the darkness, naked, leaving a surprised soldier holding nothing but the youth's robe.

Who is that naked man? What is he up to? And why would Mark mention him here, at this climactic moment in the story of Jesus? Truth is, nobody has any idea of why he was there. I love these unexplained, unusable events in the story that remind us that we may come to know and love Jesus, but we will never, ever control, grasp, or hold on to Jesus anymore than the soldiers capture that young streaker.

I've spent my whole adult life studying the parabolic teachings of Jesus. And yet I confess that, to this day, I really don't know for sure why Jesus told the parable of the dishonest manager who swindled his boss and who, in turn, was goofily praised by his boss. I don't know what to do with such a patently absurd story. Why, Jesus?

Perhaps I'm not to do anything with the story or the rabbi who dared to tell it to a nice, cautious, rational person like me. Maybe, in telling this story, the rabbi is trying to do something with me.

What is God like? Well, a man had two sons. (It is known by us as "The Prodigal Son," although Jesus doesn't give his parables titles.) The younger son says, "Dad, give me my inheritance." In other words, drop dead. (Is there any other way to put the old man's will into effect?) And the father does just that. Here we see an image of maturation which is most congenial to our society. America was built by immigrants, people who left their parents to seek their fortunes in this "far country" -the New World. And they, in turn, taught their children that the only way to get anywhere was to immigrate, to leave home, and to sever parental ties.

Out in the "far country," Jesus says this boy engages in "loose living." Now, I want you to pause just a moment to allow your imagination to work with that phrase, "loose living." Though Jesus doesn't, I want you to feel free to supply whatever forms of "loose living" appeal to you - loose girls, loose boys, a chocolate cake.

With all the money wasted on loose living, the young man is reduced to the level of a pig. Imagine him in rags, swilling the pig slop to his porcine comrades. Eventually, it was hangover, empty pockets, wake-up time, Monday morning. The boy "comes to himself," says Jesus. The boy says, "Wait a minute. I don't have to starve out here. I've got a father, I've got a home."

And so, he turns back toward home. He has written a little speech for the occasion. "Now look, Dad. Before you start yelling, let me explain why she answered the phone when you called my room," or "Dad, er, uh, I mean, Father, I have sinned. I am unworthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants." But the father isn't interested in speeches. "Chill it, Howard," says the father. "Save the flowery speeches for your application to law school. Come on in. I'll show you a real party."

Which is why this story has always been a shocker. Because we thought Jesus came to jack up ethical standards, to put a bit more muscle into our moral fiber. And here is the homecoming of a ne'er-do-well as a party. It isn't what we expect. We want the father to be gracious, but not overly gracious. Homecomings for prodigals are fine, when prodigals are dressed up in sackcloth and ashes, not in patent leather pumps and a tux. Our question is the same as that of the older brother, "Is it fitting to throw a party for a prodigal?"

It's a parable about a party thrown by a father for a prodigal. Jesus, in telling this story, expends more verses describing the party than on any other aspect in the story. Put this parable in context. One day, Jesus' critics cried, "This man eats and drinks (that is, parties) with sinners! What kind of Savior are you?" You expect Jesus to back off, saying, "Well, I'm going to redeem these whores and tax collectors! I'm going to  straighten 'em up to be more responsible and middle class, like you and me."

But, no. Jesus tells them that God loves to party with sinners, tells them parables of a party when a woman found a lost coin, and a bash after a shepherd found one lost sheep, followed by the biggest, most questionable blow-out of all - a party for a prodigal son. So, "they began to make merry." End of Scene One of Jesus' parable.

Scene Two: Now the music shifts from James Brown to Buxtehude, and in comes, in grand procession, the Dean of Students, the Trustee Committee on Student Behavior, and the Chair of the Judicial Board, all escorting their favorite character in the story - the older brother. Nostrils flared, looks of indignation: "Music! Dancing! Levity! And on a Wednesday! What are you doing in that tux?" the older brother asks the servant.

"Well, your kid brother's home. The old man has given everybody the night off, and there is some party." "A party! Doesn't that old fool know that we've got turnips to dig? How does he expect me to keep down overhead when he goes and blows two grand on a party to welcome home this son of his who blew his hard-earned money on whores?"

Uh, wait a second. When Jesus was telling this story earlier, did he say anything about whores? All he said was that the younger son blew his money in the far country on "loose living." Perhaps "loose living" just means that he slept in late and ate high-cholesterol snacks.

But you see, the converse of the older brother's, "See what a good boy am I," is always, "See what this son of yours has done . . .these harlots, these whores!" The older son was angry, he wouldn't go into the party. The father comes out into the darkness and begs him to come in and party.

As it turns out, the most interesting character in the story is not the prodigal son or even the stuffy older brother. It's the father. The father is the real prodigal because his love is extravagant.  It's a story about a parent who is excessive in his persistence to have a family, an old man who meets us when we drag in from the far country after good times go bad and who comes out to the lonely dark of our self-righteousness and begs us, "Come, come in and party."

The Bible never questions: "Is there a God?" No, the Bible's question is: "Who is the God who is there?" John says that nobody has ever seen God. Nobody had ever seen God until we met the one who told this parable.

We, who were lost, have been found.

Let us pray. O Lord Jesus, teller of the stories of our salvation, come out to our lonely dark and bring us to God's great party. Amen.

 


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