For thousands of years ordinary people communicated almost exclusively by word-of-mouth. There wasn’t really any alternative because most people didn’t read or write. The richest forms of communicating are the story, the fable and the parable. And the best stories are those that are communicated by word-of-mouth. They have been passed from generation to generation. We seem to be hard wired to take in the meaning of a story in a way that simple instructions just don’t convey.
One of the most visited pages of this site is the story about the mayonnaise jar. I’m sure that most of you, if you have already read the story, will be able to tell me the end of the story after just a few short lines at the beginning to remind you of the story. You’ve perhaps ever remembered the story in a busy time, a time when you were focusing on the urgent rather than the important.
I’ve recently been reading the Coyote Workplace Fables by Adrian Savage. They are really well written stories that have a great ability to communicate a message. The one on Coyote Teaches Time Management has a real resonance with the Mayonnaise Jar Story.
Jesus was, of course, the Master story teller. The Parables are so rich in meaning and still connect today even though most of them were related to an agricultural existence that most of us no longer know. Jesus obviously knew that these words would last. Take the parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders:
“Anyone who listens to my teaching and obeys me is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwater rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse, because it is built on rock. But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will fall with a mighty crash.”
How’s that for simplicity, but what a profound message.
And then there are the truly profound ‘lost’ parables; the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son.
The Story of the Lost Sheep
By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.
“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it–there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.”
The Story of the Lost Coin
“Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbours: “Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it–that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”
The Story of the Lost Son
Then he said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’
“So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.
“That brought him to his senses. He said, “All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.
“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’
“But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, “Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here–given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.
“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast–barbecued beef!-because he has him home safe and sound.’ The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’
“His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours– but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”
These stories have a superb timeless quality to them, but if you do understand the historic context they are even richer. In the parable of the lost coin the coin probably wasn’t intended to be just an ordinary copper that she used to buy stuff at Asda. The listeners would have thought of the dowry coins that she would have been given, precious things. In the story of the lost son the son ends up feeding pigs; that sounds like a job I wouldn’t want to do but for a Jew that must have been lower than low. Again, in the parable of the lost son when the father saw the son “His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.” He ran? That was a disgraceful thing for a man of honour to do only servants ran.
I like to think of these stories as road signs that guide our way as we progress along life. They inhabit our consciousness and remind us of truth at the correct time.
Some people have challenged me construct some stories around Jimmy and Grandad – what do you think? I’ve never really written stories, it might be fun to try.