Ask anyone who their favorite storyteller is, and you might get as many answers as persons asked. From yesterday’s Europe: William Shakespeare? Leo Tolstoy? From Africa and India: Chinua Achebe? Rabindranath Tagore? Or voices from the modern West: Derek Walcott? Toni Morrison? Gabriel Garcia Marquez? The brilliance of these writers and many others is available in their plays, novels, stories, and poems.
But one storyteller transcends them all. His mesmerizing and timeless narratives powerfully instruct His audience, simultaneously supplying them with both healing and inspiration. One biographer labels Him the Word. And in His parable of the prodigal son His masterful use of the word in setting, theme, suspense, moral, and more meets His readers’ deepest need, the need for restoration. No wonder so many regard it as the greatest story ever told.
Great writers use the key element of setting to emphasize and reach their conclusions. Stephen Crane’s setting for Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is the bleak, stifling world of the Bowery that illustrates the impossibility of the heroine’s escape from her environment.Similarly, Jesus’ astute setting, in context of scribes and Pharisees’ vilification for His eating with sinners, is a pair of parables stressing everybody’s need for restoration.
Jesus’ first parable tells of a bewildered sheep rescued only because of its owner’s total effort (Luke 15:3-7). Many people, Jesus teaches, are like sheep: lost, alienated from God, safety, and comfort—and aware of it; but they cannot find the way back to safety without God’s gracious help.
Jesus’ second story, the lost coin, recounts the plight of a young woman who loses a coin from her precious dowry (verses 8-10). Terrified, she turns her house upside down until she joyously finds it. Some people are like the coin, Jesus intimates: lost, but so deceived and degraded by sin that they are unconscious of their true state and value. They need to be sought out perseveringly, enlightened divinely, and restored fully to their God-given condition.
These stories introduce a theme that Jesus will explore more fully in the last story of His triad of parables: God seeks for each sinner with a father’s love, works untiringly to rescue them, and is overwhelmed with joy when they are liberated.
The parable of the prodigal son narrates an all-too-familiar journey: a young son chafes at his father’s rules, asks for his inheritance prematurely, gets it. He immediately sets off for a far country to indulge his fancies without his father’s meddling. He rides the high wave of newfound friends, parties, and riotous living until it crashes onto a shore of hunger and friendlessness in the basest of conditions—feeding pigs for a living.
Finally coming to his senses, the youth resolves to return to the comfort of home and father, but believes he has forfeited sonship and can go back only as a servant. On his arrival, however, his father embraces him and will not countenance accepting his beloved son as a mere servant; instead, he adorns him with all the accoutrements of sonship and throws him a lavish party.
Incensed when he hears of these goings-on, his older brother refuses to party with someone he now considers a stranger. This “individual” has wasted the family’s money with dissolute living but comes home to celebratory acceptance, while he, the dutiful older son, has never been given a pittance to celebrate with his friends.
The father’s heart overflows with love for both sons, one formerly lost outside the home, the other currently lost within its walls. He leaves the party to conciliate the aggrieved son: everything the father has is now his, but celebrating the younger son’s return is still right, for your brother “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (verse 32).
The God of Jesus’ story shows all-encompassing love for wayward people—overtly sinning prodigals and their clandestine colleagues, carping religious teachers. So many of us have shared the faraway journey of rebellious pleasures and forbidden activities whose once-coveted delights ultimately prove as momentary as morning dew with a sting of shame as degrading as dung. But God, the long-suffering Father, dishes His gift of repentance freely (Acts 5:31), treating those who accept with a lavishness that we do not deserve and never envisioned. He unabashedly accepts us as though we had never sinned and invites everyone to join in the merriment.
Some fret at His indiscriminate largesse toward prodigals. But He is as kind and conciliatory to the disgruntled as He is to the restored ones, assuring all of their value and family position, explaining the need to celebrate the return of the lost from ultimate disaster: “This brother of yours was dead and is alive again” (Luke 15:32).
Calvary, scene of Jesus’ sacrificial death for our salvation, is the ultimate speech-act.
There Jesus ends the story—with the Father still outside the party, awaiting some response from His older son.
This ending is no narrative flaw, but a deliberate, suspenseful, masterful stroke, employed elsewhere in His stories. At the end of the parable of the good Samaritan, for instance, His word to the lawyer whose question initiated the story is “Go and do” like the man you say is the true neighbor (Luke 10:37). Go and live kindly and generously with all people, for every needy person is your neighbor.
We do not know if the lawyer took Jesus’ challenge, but it remained for him, and for us today, to end the suspense for ourselves.
Similarly, the challenge to the older brother outside the party is a gauntlet Jesus threw down to the Pharisees and scribes of His day, as well as to readers through successive generations: shall we stand pouting on the outside of God’s parties for reclaimed scumbags, stuck with the arch-accuser (Zech. 3:1; Rev. 12:10), defaming the repentant who are now God’s forgiven children? Or shall we answer the story’s moral challenge by joining the party, embracing the once-dead-but-now-restored-to-God’s-bosom? It’s up to us.
Further examination of Jesus’ storytelling methods reveals more of His literary dexterity. Hebrew understandings of knowledge are much more experiential than theoretical. The words of a story were to be lived if their moral was to bear any worth. This is the basic understanding of the prophetic “speech act.” Witness Old Testament prophet Isaiah warning of impending doom and enslavement at the hands of the Assyrian army by prophesying in the streets “stripped [possibly in his underwear] and barefoot” for three long years (Isa. 20:3). Or consider prophet Agabus warning Paul of impending imprisonment by binding his own hands and feet with Paul’s belt to signify the danger (Acts 21:10, 11).
Jesus employed similar methods in His stories. Salvation was always His agenda: He “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Everything about Him, including His very name, denoted His mission. Before His birth an angel advised both His mother, Mary, and later her fiancé, Joseph, that His name was to be Jesus, meaning “Savior,” because He would save His people from their sins (Matt. 1: 21). Gospel writer John, who labels Him the Word, implies that He would be a walking billboard sent from His Father announcing amnesty, forgiveness, and salvation to all. In Him the Word amounted to a visible manifestation of God’s forgiving thoughts toward all God’s erring children (John 1:1, 11, 12). In Him, John affirms, “was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (verse 3). And “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV).
Jesus merges all these features of Living Word, Light Bearer, and Life Restorer in the parable of the prodigal son. Together with its two antecedents it is immersed in forgiveness: the poignant picture of the Eastern father, dignity set aside, racing down the road arms spread wide, toward the returning prodigal; again, stepping outside from the feast to implore his estranged older son to welcome his repentant brother back into the family.
Other writers have tried to reflect their works’ central themes in their lives with varying degrees of consciousness and success. Tired of the materialistic, hedonistic Russian society of his time, Leo Tolstoy not only distanced himself from it and his earlier works, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina,which glorifiedit, but also deliberately started living the simple, anti-materialistic life of the Russian peasants that he extolled in works such as “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. But when he considered forgoing royalties on his hugely successful earlier fiction and putting them in the public domain, his wife, Sophia, protested, bringing the plan to a halt.
Contrasting somewhat with Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, boy-wonder of American literature in the early twentieth century, lived in the same lavish milieu as the rich characters he created in works such as The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby. Unfortunately, his life also mirrored his characters’ unhappiness, for like them he found wealth to be toxic. Extravagant partying and drinking during the Roaring Twenties ultimately wreaked havoc upon him and his family, but he was forever chasing it. As Matthew J. Bruccoli remarks in A Brief Life of Fitzgerald: “He did spend money faster than he earned it; the author who wrote so eloquently about the effects of money on character was unable to manage his own finances.”1
In James Baldwin’s case authorship was welded with life in the arenas of civil, sexual, and religious rights: works such as Another Country and If Beale Street Could Talk castigate American society for racism and police brutality against African Americans. Baldwin’s life sustained this theme, as evidenced by his continual participation in civil rights marches in the 1950s and 1960s, and his strident criticism of American injustice until his death in 1987. Such works as Giovanni’s Room were part of his campaign for acceptance of those who like him embrace alternate lifestyles. For what he saw as its hypocrisy and marring of people he took the church to task, particularly the African American church, and with some authority, having served as a young minister in the pulpit from 14 to 17. His firsthand criticism of the institution that he knew so well is prominent in his novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Just Above My Head.
However flawed, the efforts of Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin represent the attempt of writers to reflect their works’ themes. But earth’s greatest demonstration of the dramatized narrative is the preaching and living of Jesus Christ. Calvary, scene of Jesus’ sacrificial death for our salvation, is the ultimate speech-act, the ultimate act of bridging the great divide between God and all humanity, as Jesus, lifted up, draws us all to Himself (John 12:32). Where others failed, Jesus succeeded. His stories are still staples on the reading menu in our times, satisfying our needs beyond entertainment.
Perhaps it is their brevity, which Edgar Allan Poe has called an essential tenet of “all works of literary art.”2 But perhaps it is for a far more profound reason, and one reflected in the response of the Temple guards whom enemies once sent to arrest Him. The guards returned emptyhanded to the livid authorities who fumed, “Why did you not arrest Him?” The guards’ explanation in defense was awesomely simple and categorical: “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46).
Yes, Jesus wrote as He did, spoke as He did, and worked as He did, because no person has ever lived as He did. As the one sent from God, His life of flawless integrity gave His words supreme and unassailable authority. His words and life were in complete agreement with each other: each reflected the other, as He walked His talk. His stories, like Him, transcend the human: they are a blessing to us from eternity.
Derek Bowe is a professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Oakwood University, Huntsville, Alabama.