November 3, 2015

Jesus the Storyteller

In Part 1 of Jesus the Storyteller, academic author Stephen I. Wright gives an overview of respected writings on the parables, which I recommend for biblical scholars and Bible teachers interested in a serious study of the good stories Jesus told. To be honest though, those opening pages provided more information than I wanted!

When the publisher WJK (Westminster John Knox Press) kindly sent me a free copy of the book to review, I didn’t expect such a scholarly approach. As a narrative poet and writer, I mainly wanted to know what made the stories work as a form of entertainment used to reveal spiritual truths. But then, I also saw how the book can help our Christian writing lives.

Although the text continues on an academic level, subsequent sections delve into the aspects of story that narrative poets and writers need to study and employ: theme, purpose, characters, plot, and setting.

For example, chapter 6 “Hearing the stories through Luke” points out that “Luke recounts more stories from the lips of Jesus than either Mark or Matthew. Most of these occur in the ‘travel narrative’ of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem….”

Since I’d never thought of the stories as being set in a larger story on the way, I read with interest:

“We may best outline Luke’s performance of these stories by noting the way he has woven them into his travel narrative as explanations, illustrations, clarifications or expansions of teaching and situations that arise ‘on the way’,” where, “Interaction with others is a constant.” It’s sort of like a travelogue with stories accentuating passage from one place to another.

In chapter 7 “Hearing the stories in Galilee,” the author points out that “Stories have a setting that may be a combination of geographical, cultural, temporal and religious aspects, and more…. This is part of what we mean when we say they invite us into a ‘world’.”

For example, the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:3-9, Mark 4:3-9, Luke 8:5-8, and the apocryphal book, Thomas 9 was set in a world where “the great majority of the population scraped a living together off the land.” And so, the author asks, “what would be the force of the parable’s promise of a harvest?” Although we might typically expect our gardens in the U.S. to do well, farmers in Jesus’ time and locale would have been less certain of a favorable outcome.

Besides this, “For Jewish people, the land had considerable spiritual significance. It was God’s trust to his people, to tend and care for. Israel’s care for her land came to be seen, in the developing tradition, as a mirror of the way humanity had been called to care for the earth….” Therefore, “God’s blessing on the land was a sign of his favour and the fact that the people were acting in obedience to him and justice towards each other, while drought, famine, plague and conquest were a sign of his displeasure and their rebellion.”

Additional chapters consider other parables and places, but sticking with Luke’s presentation of The Sower in chapter 7 might give you a better idea of what you’ll find in this book. For instance, headings include:

Point of View

The character in The Sower is the only person presented and is also anonymous. The plot is brief and “loss of seed is real. But so is the possibility of great fruitfulness.”

Speaking from that single character’s point of view, Jesus “reveals himself as one who knows and understands his hearers’ situation well.” And, “By drawing a specific scene, however mundane, a whole world of truth may be evoked.”

In the “Reflection” on the parable, the author insightfully points out how “It sounds almost like a narrative rendering of a song, Psalm 126.” More importantly, “It invites thought and encourages hope. The identification of seeds with people in the parable’s application draws out the personal challenge that a careful listener might have received from the story itself, but it does not close down the ongoing signifying power of that story,” which unlike a straight telling or listing of events causes listeners to continue to listen, consider, and hear God’s living word.

© 2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and life-long student of the Bible, is also the poet-author of numerous books, including Living in the Nature Poem and the Bible-based poetry book, Outside Eden.

Jesus the Storyteller, paperback

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