Jesus tells stories in order to shape his disciples’ imaginations according to the realities of the Kingdom of God. He opens up imaginative worlds and calls disciples to inhabit them and learn from them the ways of God with his people. Wise disciples learn the lessons Jesus is teaching.
I find that modern Bible readers have a hard time doing this. Perhaps that’s because we’re more of a scientific culture than a storied one. We hear the stories and focus on the wrong things, asking the wrong questions.
In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a story about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. It takes place in an imagined postmortem world. His point has everything to do with repentance, but modern readers want to talk about the afterlife, the ontology of the underworld, whether there’s really a chasm across regions in Abraham’s bosom, and communication capabilities between those being punished and those in postmortem bliss.
We miss the point.
Wisdom “gets” what’s going on, learning from the storied world without tripping over the details.
I love how this is portrayed in “No Country for Old Men,” in a set of conversations between Sheriff Bell and Carla Jean Moss, Llewelyn Moss’s wife. Llewelyn has taken some drug money and is being hunted by the ultimate killer, Anton Chigurh.
It isn’t going to end well for the Mosses and the sheriff exhorts Carla Jean to turn back from her course.
He tells her a story.
“You know Charlie Walser? Has the place east of Sanderson?” She doesn’t know him. “Well, you know how they used to slaughter beeves, hit ‘em with a maul right here to stun ‘em, and then truss ‘em up and slit their throats? Well here Charlie has one trussed up and all set to drain him and the beef comes to. It starts thrashing around, six hundred pounds of very pissed-off livestock if you’ll pardon my… Charlie grabs his gun there to shoot the damn thing in the head but what with the swingin’ and twistin’ it’s a glance-shot and ricochets around and comes back hits Charlie in the shoulder. You go see Charlie, he still can’t reach up with his right hand for his hat… Point bein’, even in the contest between man and cow the issue is not certain.”
He’s trying to warn her that she and her husband are in way over their heads with some pretty awful people, and there’s no telling what is going to happen.
A few scenes later, when all of this starts to dawn on Carla Jean in a pretty awful way, she calls Sheriff Bell on the phone. The conversation is a short one, but so telling about her lack of wisdom.
Carla Jean asks, “Sheriff, was that a true story about Charlie Walser?”
He replies, “Who’s Charlie Walser?”
Did Sheriff Bell make the story up? Did he embellish some details of another story? We don’t know. But he’s the voice of wisdom in the film and if Carla Jean is wise, she’ll take appropriate action to save herself.
But she’s focused on the wrong things, wondering if his story is factual, if there’s an actual Charlie Walser out there. She completely misses the point.
Wise people observe life and learn lessons. Wise Bible readers don’t treat Jesus’ parables the way Carla Jean treated Sheriff Bell’s wisdom tale.