Why does Jesus tell stories?
Everyone loves a good story, but as a way of conveying eternal truths, stories are tricky — it’s not always clear what they mean. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to give a list of “do this”, “don’t do that”?
This passage is almost the end of the Sermon on the Mount — the closest thing to a manifesto that Jesus gave. But the Sermon is not really a manifesto. A manifesto is a clear, coherent statement of the aims and purposes of the authors. The Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, even the Ten Commandments are all manifestos — they contain clear propositions for what the authors want or don’t want. The Sermon on the Mount, in contrast, is a collection of stories or word paintings. Unlike propositions, these word paintings aren’t always precise in their meaning.
For example, the gates:
13 ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
What did Jesus mean with this story? What facts was he trying to communicate? In different times and places, this passage has been used to teach that:
- Only a small number of people will be saved (pauci autem electi)
- Salvation is a human choice.
- Sinners are annihilated after death.
Did Jesus mean all (or any) of those things when he first told this story on the side of the mountain? I don’t think so.
So what did he mean?
Maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. Maybe it doesn’t have a single meaning. Maybe what’s important is the impact that the story has on us. A story involves the reader. Our immediate, almost instinctive, reaction is to place ourselves in the narrative. Where am I in this story? Which road am I on? Which gate have I used?
Maybe Jesus told stories because they will say something different to each of us, to encourage or challenge us. God’s Spirit speaks to us through the story — stories engage us personally, in a way that propositions cannot.
When reading the Bible, it is good to look for what a passage means, what is true. But it is also good to see where we fit into the stories, to engage ourselves personally to take comfort or be challenged to change.