Why so many stories?
Luke 19:47–48 The chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.
Suffering strikes like an earthquake, without warning, causing sudden devastation. Twenty-nine teenagers die when a school bus plunges off a bridge. A hurricane smashes into Mexico. An epidemic of cholera breaks out in South America.
Psychological tremors follow, often in the form of questions. “Why did God let this happen? Did we do something wrong? Why does God permit such suffering?”
In Jesus’ day, rumors buzzed about two catastrophes: Pontius Pilate’s slaughter of Galileans and the collapse of a tower (see Luke 13:1–4). Naturally, people around Jesus questioned him about these events, but his answers puzzled them. He refused to be drawn into a discussion of the age-old problem of pain. He merely dismissed the common opinion that tragedies happen to people who deserve them and deflected the issue back to the questioners as a general warning (see Luke 13:4–5).
The Heart of the Question
Jesus’ response to the questions on suffering illustrate how he dealt with difficult issues. Religious leaders and philosophical types were constantly trying to stop him with an arsenal of tough questions. Usually their tactics backfired as Jesus expertly turned their questions back on them.
Conscious of the listening crowds, Jesus avoided long arguments, instead emphasizing the need for people to change behavior. His answers cut to the heart of the question, and to the hearts of his listeners.
When teaching, Jesus often relied on a parable—a compact short story with a moral. Speaking in parables allowed him to continue training his disciples “privately,” despite the throngs of onlookers (see Luke 8:10). He could explain the meaning to the disciples later on when they were alone together. Parables also helped preserve his message: Years later, as people reflected on what Jesus taught, his parables came to mind in vivid detail.
Simple Stories With a Profound Point
Luke, a master storyteller, collected 18 parables that appear nowhere else, and he also retold some of the most familiar. While Matthew emphasizes parables of the kingdom, Luke adds those that focus on people: the good Samaritan, a persistent widow, the lost son. His parables speak to heavy subjects, but in an unexpectedly disarming way.
Jesus’ style of handling tough questions contrasts sharply with Paul’s. The apostle Paul wrapped concepts in theological words and gave formal explanations. In careful prose he patiently probed such complex words as forgiveness and justification.
Jesus, speaking to a restless crowd of thousands, communicated the same message in three progressive stories—the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son (see Luke 15:1–32). Scottish Christians like to call that last story “The Wonderful Father.” It expresses the heart of Jesus’ message about as well as any ten-volume theological work.
What one question would you most like to ask Jesus in person? Given how he handled tough questions in Luke, can you imagine how he might respond to yours?