by Michael Zeigler, Pastor, Epiphany Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO
In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story of a prodigious, extravagant, reckless, and—in the eyes of some—wasteful father. Of course, the story itself is fictitious; as Jesus was inclined to do, the Lord just made it up. Nevertheless, this story has the ring of truth. It possesses the power to upset our self-spun stories and draw us into the very heart of God, who is re-storying the world in Jesus.
God is re-storying the world in Jesus.
About four years ago, I wrote “My Prodigal Father,” a contemporary re-telling of the Jesus’ story in Luke 15. I had help from a couple of friends—Ryan Tinetti and Bill Northend. The storied approach we took to theology and preaching might invite other preachers of the Word to consider how they can creatively and contextually use story, parable, and performance to help listeners experience the heart of God in Jesus his Son.
Here is my re-telling of Jesus’ parable, called “My Prodigal Father.” Following the video you will find some of the ways of thinking that led to this kind of preaching in a local congregation’s Sunday morning worship.
Assumptions about Preaching
Preaching for a community of faith demands a variety of approaches, structures, and modes of delivery. One week, the preacher will aim at their heads and address them cognitively to clarify an important doctrinal point; the next week, at their heart, to compel them affectively.
Another week, the pastor will craft the sermon to provide a formative experience—one that addresses both head and heart. All this is done to persuade and form them to be Christians—cross-carrying, neighbor-serving disciples of Jesus, who depend on God with childlike faith.
Preaching for a community of faith demands a variety.
Therefore, I do not assume that a dramatic, first person narrative is the “best” kind of sermon. We need preaching that defines and elaborates the mysteries of God. We also need preaching that does not describe and distinguish divine mysteries, but suffers and celebrates them.
Different Kinds of Story
The notion of “narrative theology” has become somewhat faddish in the last few decades. However, the approach reaches at least as far back as Irenaeus of Lyons, whose critique of the Gnostics, written around 200 A. D., can be summarized as: “What’s wrong with the Gnostics? They’re telling a different story!”
Some basic conceptual categories benefit a storied approach to theology and preaching. Roman Catholic theologian Terrence Tilley suggests some in his book Story Theology. Tilley distinguished between three kinds of stories: (1) those that Set Up worlds; (2) those that Set In worlds; and (3) those that Upset worlds.
These categories help clarify what Jesus may have been doing with his parables. Is he telling an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, as it’s commonly said? Or, is he telling an imaginative story in order to subvert an established story of the world?
At the beginning of Luke chapter 15, we are told that “the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus tells stories that subvert the world his hearers have established for themselves.
So, what does Jesus do? He tells 3 stories that subvert the world his hearers have established for themselves. In Tilley’s terms, Jesus intends these stories to Upset the world.
Stories that Set Up a World
Contemporary theory about story assumes—in a very postmodern way—that stories have the power to create, shape, and tear down worlds. At one end of the spectrum, Tilley puts stories that Set Up the world as we know it. For the participants of that world, this kind of story is unquestionably true.
Back to 200 A.D., the story that Set Up the Christian world was what Irenaeus called the regula fide, or rule of faith, the plotline of which is confessed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Because the Gnostics had a different story to account for the world, they could not be telling the Christian Story.
So what kind of stories Set Up the world(s) of our contemporary culture? William Cavanaugh calls one such story the “Myth of Religious Violence.” As this story goes, “the modern, secularized State arose to keep peace among the warring religious factions.”
The regula fide and the “Myth of Religious Violence” Set Up rival worlds.
Having saved Europe from the Post-Reformation wars of religion, the nation-state created the possibility of a perpetual peace through religious tolerance, free markets, and strong national defense. Next, liberal democracies banded together in an international coalition to spread this hope of peace around the world, fighting wars as a means to this most noble end. In many ways, this is the story—the mythos—that has set up the modern, western world (William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Let’s quickly analyze this Set Up story. Note how the plot begins with conflict and moves toward resolution. The old world, marked by the wars of religion, was in a state of disarray and madness. But the new world promises perpetual peace.
The savior in this story is the secular nation-state. The state solves the problem by ensuring that religion remains a personal and private affair, which must be kept out of politics, thus saving the new world from warring religious factions. The story moves from contradiction to reconciliation; from instability to the creation of a stable world.
The regula fide and the “Myth of Religious Violence” Set Up and explain rival worlds. For those inside either worldview, these stories appear true in a self-apparent and unquestionable way.
Stories that Upset a World
On the opposite end of the story spectrum are stories that Upset an existing world. While the Set Up story begins with contradiction and moves to reconciliation, the Upset story begins with reconciliation and stability and moves toward contradiction and conflict. When a parable is told to subvert the existing equilibrium and clear the way for a new world, that parable is clearly an Upset story.
Many of the parable-stories of Jesus perform this world-subverting function. Take, for example, his story of the farmers in Mark 12:
“A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a vat and built a tower, and leased it to farmers and went away on a journey. At the opportune time he sent a servant to the farmers to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But taking him, they beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent another servant, and that one they struck on the heard and treated shamefully. And he sent another, and that one they killed.
And so with many others, some they beat and some they killed. He had one yet, a beloved son. Finally, he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.”
But those farmers said to one another, “This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those farmers and give the vineyard to others.”
Mark tells us that when the scribes and the elders heard this story, they began seeking to arrest Jesus, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them.
Jesus used this story to subvert the existing world—a world in which God’s faithful people faithfully pursued excellence by cherishing the things of God: the temple and the Torah. The religious leaders kept these things of God safe from external threats like Gentile pagans and from internal threats like Jewish sinners. The religious leaders were the heroes of this world.
But Jesus’ story subverted that world and made them the villains. So they killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. But, alas, the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Jesus models a way for us to confront and persuasively subvert the false stories that are told by our culture and work their way into our communities of faith.
Perhaps not all, but many of Jesus’ parables function as stories that subtly subvert established worlds. These reigning stories of the world must be overthrown to prepare the way for the rule and reign of God. In this way, Jesus models a way for us to confront and persuasively subvert the false stories that are told by our culture and work their way into our communities of faith.
Present-day disciples of Jesus, who stand on this Rock, continue his work of subverting false worlds to clear the way for the new creation in Christ. If preaching for a faith community requires variety in preaching, and Jesus himself told stories to Upset the world of his hearers, perhaps one form of faithful preaching would re-tell these parables for a similar purpose.
The goal of my made-up story, “My Prodigal Father,” above, is to approximate, in a derivative way, the impact of Jesus’ inspired story. This kind of preaching seeks to use story, parable, and performance creatively and contextually to help listeners experience the heart of God, who is re-storying the world in Jesus, his Son.