Tell Me a Story

The parable that I read to you from the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37) is certainly the most widely known of all the stories Jesus told. Even the least churched among us recognize it. The language of the "Good Samaritan" is a part of our culture's working vocabulary. For example, both the United States and Canada have an entire section of legal code known as Good Samaritan Laws. The laws protect from liability anyone who chooses to help another person in some kind of distress. Their intent is to encourage bystanders to offer assistance to strangers in need, to be Good Samaritans. It is an important and noble objective. But it also represents a simplistic interpretation that misses most of the complexity and richness of the story that gave the laws their name. The story says much more than the laws. Remember that.

When I was a senior in college, as part of a fascinating and very practical course on Death and Dying, I served as a chaplain intern at a local hospital. My only responsibility was to shadow the chaplain during the late-night hours each Thursday. One Thursday, I arrived to find the chaplain standing in the office doorway, coat on and bag in her hand--a family emergency, she would be back as soon as she could. In the meantime, here's the pager. You'll know what to do. Thirty relatively quiet minutes later, the pager lit up. I made the call. A man had just died and the family was asking for a chaplain. I gathered my strength and walked toward the elevator. I remember the feelings of inadequacy and fear that overwhelmed me. What would I say to comfort a family that had just lost a father, a husband, a grandfather? What were the magic words that they needed to hear from me? Which textbook example best fit this real-world situation? I arrived outside the intensive care unit and found six family members gathered. After introducing myself, I froze. What to say next? The man standing next to me said, "He was a good man and a great father. He worked so hard but always had time for us. Another family member chimed in with a story about a family vacation. Everyone laughed over the time they had convinced this strait-laced grandfather to ride a rollercoaster with his granddaughter. "Do you remember when?" and the stories kept coming. Two hours later, the family graciously thanked me for coming, though all I'd done was listen. As I walked out of the waiting room, I promised to myself that I would never forget the power of stories to recreate, comfort, and give hope--even in the most difficult of times.

When we encounter Jesus in the tenth chapter of Luke, he is on his way to the cross. The writer of the Gospel has made that perfectly clear in chapter nine with this ominous line: he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus is headed for the Holy City. This journey, and the people Jesus meets along the way, provides the backdrop for many of his most memorable stories.

Ours begins when a lawyer, an expert in the Law of Moses stands up to test Jesus. Like the Pharisees, who were his colleagues, the lawyer wants to know if Jesus will properly use the Torah to answer this weighty question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Chapter and verse, please.

But this is Jesus. This is the gospel of Luke. Anyone expecting or demanding a direct answer is bound to be disappointed.

Instead, Jesus makes use of the Socratic method, answering a question with another question. What is written in the law? What do you read there that might address your question? Now perhaps Jesus wants to respond to the test offered by the lawyer with a test of his own, to see if the lawyer really knows what is in the law, a kind of bar exam pop quiz. Perhaps this is his goal, but it seems to me that the question serves a much deeper purpose. It invites the lawyer a little closer, forcing him to put his cards on the table. The invitation to dialogue recognizes relationships and mutuality. What do you think is the answer?

Of all the intimidating and anxiety-producing settings in which I've ever spoken, there is none that matches the standing appointment I have on the second Wednesday of each month at 9:15 in the morning. Preschool chapel. Several months ago, I began our time together by asking the children a question--what do you want to be when you grow up? The answers were wonderful--lots of teachers and firefighters, even a pirate and a princess in the crowd. But then one of the four-year-olds raised her hand. "Chris, what do you want to be when you grow up?" There was something so wonderful, and terrifying, about having my question returned to me. Invited to join the conversation. Compelled to take a stand.

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" the lawyer asks. "You tell me," Jesus responds. Since we are dealing with a legal professional, we can expect a thoughtful answer. As if he'd been waiting for the opportunity all along, the lawyer quickly combines two different verses of Hebrew scripture and ends up with a comprehensive statement of proper ethical conduct: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus applauds the answer, but he is not finished with the answerer, and so he pulls his conversation partner just a little closer, to the place where proper words and proper actions meet, and offers a surprisingly simple summary statement. "Do this and you will live."

At this point in the encounter, we've come to a crossroads for the lawyer. Either he will roll his eyes, thank Jesus for this apparently fruitless conversation, and move on, or he will take the bait.

Well, the lawyer is hooked. We know this because Luke takes time to share the intentions behind his questions. The purpose of the initial question, what must I do to inherit eternal life, was to test Jesus. But this time around the question has a different purpose. He wants to justify himself. Though the word justify is most often read with a tone of self-righteousness, it doesn't have to be that way. The lawyer no longer wants to test Jesus. He wants to test himself. How can I be justified? Who is my neighbor? The question has an air of urgency, and Jesus responds with a story.

 "And he told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing." The gospel writer Matthew got it right. When Jesus confronts a heavy question, he does so not with propositional assertions or creedal statements, but through the telling of stories. Let me tell you a story: A sower went out to sow. Someone gave a great dinner and invited many guests. It is as if there are some truths so profound that only a story can describe them, so personal and transformational that only a story will convey the message. A story has the capacity to create community and to reshape the alert and invested hearer.

Just before bedtime, the young child turns to her grandfather, "Tell me a story." "What kind of story would you like to hear?" he asks. "One with me in it."

Jesus tells this lawyer a story. One with his new friend in it. Two experts in the Torah walk by a beaten and nearly dead man on the side of the road. They know the commandments, to love God and neighbor, even have them memorized. But they don't stop to help a stranger at the point of death. The twist comes with the third traveler. A Samaritan, an outsider, one whose interpretation of Leviticus and Deuteronomy make the lawyer's blood boil. This Samaritan shows the man in need--hospitality and kindness and mercy and generosity in the extreme. Two perfect stand-ins for our inquisitive lawyer walk right by, and his sworn theological enemy does the right thing.

The lawyer had requested a definition of neighbor; he receives a description of mercy. The story hits very close to home, exposing the distance between answers and actions. The lawyer is left with the most soul-searching question of all. Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

On the surface, it's an easy answer. The Samaritan. But that is not what the lawyer says. His answer is now broader because his understanding of the question is deeper. The one who showed him mercy. This general description of a very specific character leaves the door open for the lawyer. Perhaps he too could be the Samaritan. What was unthinkable only moments ago is now a possibility. Because of the story, everything can be different. The lawyer can change roles. He can go and do likewise.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), along with most mainline Protestant denominations, is in the midst of a decades-long struggle over whether or not to ordain those whom God calls regardless of sexual orientation. At its meeting last February, the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta discussed and debated this question. Two of us were asked to offer our reflections before the Presbytery. I spent several sleepless nights frantically searching for the magic words that would win the debate once and for all. I called a dozen friends and asked for their advice. In almost every case, I did not receive an answer. What I heard instead were my friends' stories of transformation and encounter. The stories were so powerful and heartbreaking they took my breath away. Stories of grace and mercy, changed minds and hearts. These personal narratives may not win debates, but they do testify to a God who is revealed to us in stories and experiences that make us who we are.

We are followers of Jesus Christ. Our art is storytelling. Our deepest truths begin with phrases like, "There was a man who had two sons..." or "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor..." or "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho...." We are called to tell the story of Jesus Christ and how his story has changed ours. These ancient stories of scripture are so powerful because we are in them. They encounter us where we are and they transform us.

We are not told how the dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer ended. I like to imagine a new disciple following Jesus down the road to Jerusalem, sharing the story that changed his life with every person he meets.

At the church in which I was raised, we used to sing that simple beautiful 19th-century hymn "I Love To Tell the Story." Maybe you remember the chorus. "I love to tell the story, 'twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story, of Jesus and his love."

So clear your throats, sisters and brothers. The time has come. It is our turn, to tell the old, old stories that still have the power to transform our lives and remake our broken world.