A couple of years ago I sat through a seminar where a seminary professor lectured on the value of telling stories in the pulpit without necessarily explaining their meaning. He said that we could trust the people to draw the appropriate conclusion and make the necessary application. His lecture mirrors the advice I read somewhere online.
It is fascinating to me that in our Protestant religious culture, such a strong emphasis is placed upon literal interpretation. Interestingly, Jesus so often did not speak literally, but figuratively. He spoke in allegories and images. He painted word pictures. Instead of literally coming out and saying what he meant, he so often would tell a story and let people draw their own conclusion. Indeed, these hidden messages of Jesus frequently frustrated his disciples. They wished that he would speak literally and not be quite so subtle. From Sermon Resources for May 6, 2012.
After the professor’s lecture, I went to my hotel room and read through all the stories of Jesus – parables and otherwise. I found only one story where Jesus didn’t supply the meaning – but the context in which the story was told supplied the meaning. Yes, He did tell stories where He didn’t immediately give the interpretation, but He did so later. Many of the parables went intentionally unexplained, but were later interpreted for His disciples. Why? Precisely because His disciples couldn’t draw their own conclusions.
Jesus told parables and left them uninterpreted and His disciples and the crowds were confused. “Explain it to us”, His disciples asked Him. Well, it turns out that the unadorned parable, the bald story, was not meant to illuminate, but to obfuscate. It falls in line with the prophecy of Isaiah – in seeing they will not see… Why? The uninterpreted parables were judgments against His listeners. Jesus didn’t expect His hearers to draw the appropriate conclusion – He expected them to remain in the dark!
There is a series of stories in Luke 15 – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son. He tells one story after another without any commentary. Yet the historical setting in 15:2 provides the interpretive context: “Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” These stories of sheep and coins and sons are told in response to this Pharisaic concern. Jesus is basically saying, “Here’s why I receive sinners and eat with them.”
I am not decrying story telling or the power of stories to capture the imagination or the aesthetic beauty of stories. I am not disputing the ability of stories to capture and convey spiritual truth. I am not challenging the current emphasis on storying the sermon. I am disputing the unadorned, the uninterpreted story. I am questioning the wisdom of leaving the congregation to draw their own conclusions. Consider the following:
I heard a story about a dancer who danced an incredible program. After she finished, one of the women from the audience approached her. “That was an amazing dance,” she said. “I was moved to tears, but I just have one question—what did it mean?” And the dancer replied, “If I could tell you what it meant, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” Some things cannot be explained, summarized, analyzed, or tied up with a neat little bow. Sometimes explanations aren’t sufficient. Think about the story of The Prodigal Son. What is it about? What’s the theme? How would you explain its message? Is it about love? Yes. Grace? Yes. Repentance? Judging others? Yes, yes. Salvation? Decision making? God’s sovereignty? Man’s free will? Yes to all of the above. And more. http://www.sermoncentral.com/article.asp?article=a-Steven_James_07_16_07&ac=true
The author mentions so many things the Prodigal Son points to except what the context of Luke 15 indicates! Love or grace or repentance or forgiveness? Take your pick – after all, the story is elastic. And indeed the applications are manifold, but it has a beginning point – somewhere – right?
I love the following story and have told it often.
“There is a story from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who asked one of the old men of the desert why it is that so many people came out to the desert to seek God and yet most of them gave up after a short time and returned to their lives in the city. The old monk told him, “Last evening my dog saw a rabbit running for cover among the bushes of the desert and he began to chase the rabbit, barking loudly. Soon other dogs joined in the chase, barking and running. They ran a great distance and alerted many other dogs. Soon the wilderness was echoing the sounds of their pursuit and the chase went on into the night. After a little while, many of the dogs grew tired and dropped out. A few chased the rabbit until the night was nearly spent. By morning, only my dog continued the hunt. “Do you understand,” the old man said, “what I have told you?”
“No,” replied the young monk, “please tell me father.”
“It is simple,” said the desert father, “my dog saw the rabbit.”
Even as the ancient monk needed an interpretation, so do modern audiences. The simple picture of dogs chasing a rabbit didn’t resolve into immediate significance. The ancient monk’s dilemma is the difficulty of our hearers, especially when the demands of time and life undermine our attempts to live a reflective life and work strongly against any effort given to contemplation. And if this is true of the pastor, what of the one in the pew? The uninterpreted story is like dogs chasing rabbits… where is this going?