I was reading through the passages in Matthews Gospel that tell us a little about the goings on during Holy Week in Jerusalem all those 2000 odd years ago. What I was hoping to was write a piece on something to do with Holy Week. What I noticed instead, was that in the midst of the week, there seemed to be good deal of story telling going on that Jesus was still doing with the disciples and others around him.
Theres the Story of the two sons (no not the prodigal one)
Theres the story of the evil farmers
Theres the story of the bridesmaids
Theres the story of the great feast
Theres the story of the 10 bridesmaids and also the Three servants
All of these occur, notably in Matthews account between the Palm Sunday narrative and then the lead up to the arrest and betrayal of Jesus in chapter 26. On one hand we might deduce, accurately that Jesus was a great story teller, and these stories have sacred value (as well as make pertinent points). But the question I ask – is where did all the story telling go?
From a missional perspective – Jesus doesn’t tell the 12 or 72 to ‘tell stories about the kingdom’ when they are given instructions to go into the villages. Neither is story telling part of the deal for the great commission. But at the same time, after three years of watching Jesus – you would think that there may be records of the disciples developing story telling as part of the emergence of the early church. But it seems to be almost completely absent.
A clue might be found in Luke 24 – When Jesus meets the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, his revelation to them, and their great surprise is that he told them how Jesus’ own story was now fulfilment and part of the whole of Gods bigger story ( Luke 24:34) – The story they needed to tell was that Jesus was the Messiah, and this was the one they were guided to. And then throughout the description of the early church, there is the chronological retelling of this one story, at least this is what we hear from the lengthy public discourse by Stephen (acts 7) and then Paul (acts 17) they preach theology- the story of the knowledge of God.
It is almost as if priority is given to this one story (and probably rightly so) and then the functions of the early churches as a community of many small organisations across the middle east of the time. But it still seems strange that one of the principle teaching methods of Jesus is barely mentioned again. Its not as if Paul or Silas are documented telling stories, neither Peter or John.
But I am intrigued, as to why it seems to have gone out of view all together.
Other practices that occurred in the early church seem to be also at odds (with current moral view of faith) – but so soon after Jesus the disciples drew lots to see who would replace Judas as one of the 12 – was this seen as acceptable practice, endorsed by Jesus for decision making? If this was implicit from Jesus – why did story telling seem to not be in vogue?
What might be some of the reasons why parable telling seems to be absent post Jesus’ ascension?
- Jesus story telling was so unique – before Jesus and after – the story telling of the chronology of history is what seems to have been the norm. See for example the references to the story of Israel – or at least these are what is written down and recorded. It may be that the narrator was keen to record the facts in line with the theological chronology and not the incidental fictional stories – but in a way that doesn’t seem to fit with the story of Jonah which has more evidence that it is fictional than historic. So this may be a fable of novel like proportions that is told to reveal something of God – and referred to by Jesus as such. However, the story telling and sharing capacity of Moses, David, Elisha or Esther is barely mentioned- they are the story. With this in mind it might be as reasonable to suggest that this method of narrative story telling is so part of the Jewish culture that it continues post Jesus- so that it then includes Jesus within the chronology. Just as Jesus gives the permission to do for the two disciples walking along the Emmaus road Luke 24. But then is Jesus story telling so unique that it shouldn’t be copied? Only Jesus could tell such stories inn that culture – and so the task of the disciple was not to replicate Jesus, but fulfil the tasks that he set out for them, none it seemed to revolve around story telling.
- The context shifted. This response is from Roger Mitchell on Twitter. The fall of the church , because story I harder to control or contradict that historical accounts and so the church of the empire depended on control and conformity, rather than the expansive story telling that is implied in Jesus own stories. Jesus had to talk in parables – argues Mitchell, in this piece, because the entire church was under threat politically. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Church-Roger-Haydon-mitchell/dp/162032928X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522261353&sr=8-1&keywords=roger+mitchell
3.So maybe it was less that the disciples didn’t continue telling parables, than just that they didn’t need to. What about the possibility that the stories Jesus told, were the ones that were continued to be told by the disciples and so these were the ones remembered when it came to compile the 4 gospels? It may account for some of the variations – as some were more remembered than others. Also as Ricouer discusses, there may be some narrative building between the different accounts as each was written and then recollected, but essentially its at least 2-3 people remembering the stories, and some may have heard them again and again and others not so.
- What if the message and not the context changed? Post Jesus resurrection – talk of kingdom seems to disappear almost completely, from what is talked about in Acts, and then Pauls letters to the churches. There are 155 references to Kingdom in the New testament, but only 30 of these occur after the four gospels, and 8 of these in Acts, which isn’t surprising on one hand as there are 43 mentions in Luke itself (second only to Matthew ), in Johns gospel there are less than 3. The message has shifted. The elaborate explanatory stories of kingdom seem to have changed. OR alternatively, they have continued with the writers of 3 of the gospels and inserted into their narratives as they were commonly told and then needed to be attributed to Jesus as to give them their original authority – if it was indeed Jesus who told them originally. The explanations of the kingdom through pictures and stories needed to continue and was being continued through story telling, and it was the gospel writers who were the key narrators of this. This seems in contrast to Pauls more explanatory practical epistles, which barely have any mention of Kingdom at all. Did the objectives change; the early disciples had the job of proving to people who Jesus was in connection with the religious history of the culture – Jesus himself was merely proving himself to be God through how he had authority, through wisdom and pictures.
- Can we assume much about ‘how the early disciples evangelised?’ – This is the question posed by John Drane on the facebook conversation that I opened up on this subject. And of course to a point we cant. We can deduce that the early disciples met frequently, they shared belongings, miracles were performed and councils were had. Conversations with people seemed to be more confrontational (and leading people to be imprisoned) than how Jesus communicated. We can only deduce so far, or more to the point, only have the information to hand that include the epistles and written information. The tradition of oral story telling was part of the culture, and telling the dramatic story, both of Jesus within the Jewish tradition to the town squares, councils and in front of the judge, and also Pauls own story as part of the epistles is indicative of this. There is undoubtedly Dramatic retelling and embodiment of the story through its retelling. We cant I guess prove that the early disciples didn’t tell stories – maybe they told stories about Jesus to each other, and shared their collective wisdom about him – what he did, said and amazed – and so parabolic stories about the Kingdom faded from view at least they faded from importance in the task of evangelisation. Maybe stories were so embedded in the culture in the tradition, that it was taken for granted that this was how to do it, and it was uniquely rare to have the longer public discourse of the town square or market place (so these were written down as exceptions) – the story telling over food, fires and walking might have been so regular and repeated than it was barely mentioned. But its not as if at any point- there is a plea to any of the churches, or within the group to ‘carry on telling the stories Jesus told’ or to use stories in this way. Maybe because it just wasn’t needed to be said.Wells suggests that the role of the disciple is to be a witness to the story (2005) and acknowledge the place of the saint verses the hero in the story. Jesus as Christ is the centre of the story, and he creates the narrative – is the role of the disciple just to tell Jesus story? That may be the case.What if story telling was so apparent in the early church as the norm, that it wasn’t worth mentioning? It was taken as red that it was occurring? So it wasn’t needed to be mentioned. What if the reasons that these stories of Jesus have stayed the test of time is because the gospel writers themselves were hearers and retellers of them, and therefore they had been retained through theie ongoing audible use.
- What if the disciples were no good at it, and to preserve the dignity and sacredness of Jesus, only retold the same stories Jesus did. They didn’t get the metaphorical stories as Jesus told them, so it might have been easier for them not to maintain trying to use this method for the future. Maybe Jesus let them off the hook and didn’t make this expectation on them. The Wisdom of Jesus gave him story telling nous for the everyday stage – it wasn’t what the disciples could do. Words they did write down that were in any way poetic or metaphorical are attributed as prophetic ( Revelation) and so derived from God – rather than as a gift of eloquent methaphorical speech that the disciples have themselves.
Thank you to the social media communities of Facebook and Twitter for some of these recommendations from the original question.
It leaves us with potentially a further question, how are we expected to be witnesses of Jesus?
We learn so much from Jesus communication methods – from parabolic stories, that inspire, educate and confound their hearers, and create a expansive space for understanding the kingdom of God- but is it in our humanity to try and emulate, replicate or re-appropriate in the contexts we are in. It is said by Vanhoozer that Character (ours) is plot. We tell the story through our lives, but we also need to tell the story through our actions, provocative, prophetic and practical. (not just that we don’t swear) .
The sacred myth, story, narrative of Jesus within chronology has faded from popular view- and replaced by other myths that have a detrimental impact upon people – commercialism, materialism, capatalism and others- the stories of self indulgence that are never satisfied. The place we might have in the story is to know, just like the disciples did how the story all fits together with an ending that draws ever closer, that requires even more love, charity and hope more story. And not just a story to believe – but a story to participate in, as it participates in us ever prompting, ever guiding. The Jesus story is not just a story to live by, it is a story to perform – and that is something, there is no doubt, that the disciples did. To their own personal sacrifice and as they quite literally were martyred for the faith.
Wells, Sam, Improvisation, 2005
Ricoeur, P Figuring the Sacred, 1991
Kevin Vanhoozer, 2005, The Drama of Doctrine