I have been reflecting this week on one of Jesus’ parables – it’s in Luke 16:19-31(you can read it here). It is the parable about the poor man, Lazarus, and a rich man who ignores him in this life and finds himself on the wrong side of the pearly gates in the next while Lazarus is in paradise.
There’s a lot that needs unpacking, explaining and understanding in that parable and you’ll have to come to church on Sunday morning to hear what I make of it (or listen online on our church website from next week). What I want to reflect on for a moment today is the nature of the word ‘story’.
Jesus told a story. It’s fictional. It’s almost cartoon-esque in the way that he tells it. It is based on a popular story of his day. People knew that it was not a true story. When Jesus told it with a twist he turned it into a parable – a story with a hidden meaning. It was still a story but it had more depth. When we use the word ‘story’ we often mean fiction.
But we also use the word ‘story’ to mean a narrative of something true. Sometimes we make that explicit by describing something as a ‘true story’. Yet to me somehow I can’t shake aspects of ‘fiction’ when I hear something described as a story, whether or not it is true and based on real events.
And I sometimes find myself talking about ‘the story of Jesus’, which is when I get worried about the coefficient of friction of the word ‘story’. When I use the word in that phrase does it somehow convey to people (especially those outside ‘church’) that it’s fictional? Does it unintentionally undermined the credibility of his life, death and resurrection – given how incredible it already is we don’t need to make it less credible!
I found myself pondering this over Christmas this year. The baby laid in a manger, with shepherds, wise men, angels, moving stars and virgin births is a wonderful, evocative tale but when we re-tell it year on year does it somehow become more fictional in the ears of the hearer because of the familiarity with it? Does it become more of a story and less of an historical account?
I try to use words and phrases like ‘narrative’ or ‘life-story’ or ‘account of his life’ to describe the gospels but still find myself occasionally telling his story. Of course it may just be my own personal gremlins messing around with the word in my head. But what’s the antidote?
I think it first of all starts with me. We have been working our way through Luke’s gospel over the past year in our morning services and I have been so blessed by reflecting regularly on the record of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. His teaching has such profundity and his stories are so engaging. The way he was with people (especially the fragile ones) is beautiful and yet terrifyingly scary (when he is challenging religious people). It’s not a descriptive biography with lots of details to build up a personal picture of Jesus but his personality still shines through. We can almost see his smile and hear him laugh (as he tells stories with silly endings); we hear him weep at how evil has damaged his world, and we watch empathically as he deals with tiredness and stress. And it’s those aspects of who he is (which are in the text of the gospels if you look hard enough) which I need to be looking out for as well as the big message of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Because those are the things that confirm his story as being a true story. Those things resurrect him in my imagination as well as in a garden 33 years after he was born in Bethlehem.
If you ever feel that it’s not true, if ‘story’ is becoming more fictional as a descriptor of Jesus, re-read a gospel and look for the real man who was God. True story.
Be blessed, be a blessing