Elaine Storkey looks at the skilful way Jesus told stories that drew people in, but ultimately challenged them
Most entertainers love an audience. It’s so important to them that other people engage with them and like what they do. Whether it’s people buying tickets for a performance, gathering around a street musician or subscribing on YouTube, audiences are the name of the game. And none of this is new. Today, we have more sophisticated ways than ever of amusing ourselves, but wanting to be entertained seems to have run through the whole of history. Every culture has had its means of distraction, whether through laughter and fun, or through horrible and gruesome activities.
When we read the New Testament we should therefore not be surprised to find that many of the people who went to see Jesus were looking for entertainment. Some might well have gathered around him to watch magic, remembering the bread and fish that he multiplied to feed 5000 hungry mouths (Matthew 14:13-21). Others would have wanted to witness spectacular healings: a little girl brought back to life (Luke 8:49-56) or those paralysed suddenly able to walk again (John 5:1-9). Others were bystanders to Jesus’ wit and quick thinking in debates: they loved it when Jesus outplayed the religious leaders at their own game, trumping their trick questions with a clever question of his own (Matthew 21:23-25). Yet others wanted to listen to an inspirational prophetic speaker who could interpret the past and foretell the future, as well as read people’s personal history (John 4:29).
A skilled communicator
Jesus was clearly an entertainer. His enemies recognised that and feared it. As a brilliant communicator, he could easily get the crowds to listen. He was skilled at using imaginative metaphors; he was ingenious in all the literary devices he employed. Take hyperbole for example: exaggeration for effect. Some of the comparisons he made were so embellished and ridiculous they must have made people laugh: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). The image of a huge lumpy camel, with its quizzical face being threaded through a needle, is utterly bizarre. But the humour of this impossibility conveys the meaning of what Jesus was saying – beware of craving after riches as they’ll seriously bar your entrance to heaven. The same exaggeration is there in his send-up of self-delusion: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4). Again, the idiocy of the picture of a massive piece of wood coming out of someone’s eye and obscuring their vision without them realising it, absurdly conveys the extent to which we can be blinded by self-righteousness.
he [Jesus] was ingenious in all the literary devices he employed
Anyone who reads the New Testament recognises that Jesus’ skill at entertainment comes over most of all in his storytelling. The Gospel writers record around 40 stories that Jesus told to different kinds of audiences. In these parables he took his listeners on a journey, often from simple events that would have been familiar to them, to very deep meanings that would have unfolded quietly as he spoke. His language paints pictures – of a farmer in a field scattering his seed and hoping it would grow or of a man on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. But then there is a focus on the details: the ground and its rocks and thorns and well-trodden paths, lying in wait for the hapless seed, the thieves and villains ready to ambush the traveller. The plots are attention-grabbing because the events are so easily identifiable, yet we are not always sure where Jesus will lead us and endings can surprise us.
Helping us to connect
Jesus focused on both women and men in his stories – for example, we see the folly of the rich fool’s thoughts and plans when we realise he is about to die (Luke 12:13-21). We picture the sheer elation of the woman who recovers the coin she’s lost and rushes to tell the good news to her neighbours (Luke 15:8-10). But Jesus also told his stories in such a way that people could – and still can – see themselves in the characters. What kind of person am I when I look into my heart? Am I like the prodigal son who wasted all his wealth and ended up eating pigswill, or like his older brother, full of resentment at their father’s grace and generosity? (Luke 15:11-32). What kind of soil am I when the word of God comes? Am I shallow, rocky, weed-ridden, barren and unreceptive, or am I good soil where it takes root? (Matthew 13:1-23). In so many of these stories Jesus gave space for self-reflection, which leaves us with the challenge. He also pointed to the one in the parable who represents God. We hear God’s voice in the response of the father, the farmer, the vineyard owner, the king, Abraham, the merchant and the landowner. And those with hard hearts are severely rebuked, while the faithful are honoured and the penitent forgiven.
Jesus’ purpose in his storytelling
Though he was a great entertainer, Jesus’ purpose was not to entertain. When he reached out with stories he was tapping into major religious themes, like the roots of sin, the importance of prayer, the meaning of love. His stories provide snapshots of the kingdom of God (Matthew 13) and the huge contrast between the values we find there and in the cultures we live in. They highlight truth against lies, faithful living against hypocrisy, and dispel our shallow illusions of what God requires from us. They also speak about God’s judgement, leaving us in no doubt about the ultimate futility of life spent on serving ourselves. They call us to face who we really are and receive God’s forgiveness and grace. They challenge us to live as responsible citizens in the kingdom of God. These deep messages, and many more, echo through all Jesus’ stories and speak passionately to our hearts.
Jesus strongly cautioned those who followed him only for the amusement or what they could get out of it. The Gospel of John tells us that many followers dropped away when they saw the extent of the challenge (John 6:66). They were happy with entertainment but not into discipleship if it meant letting go of easy ways and contending with spiritual warfare. This is a challenge that has passed down the centuries and is with us today.
How do we view entertainment in our own culture?
The idea that entertainment is simply worldly and intrinsically bad for us has always been common among Christians. But I think Jesus’ example does not entitle us to draw that conclusion. Good communication should be entertaining, for it puts salt and light into our lives and relationships. Where it becomes a problem is when we begin to crave entertainment and spend a whole evening obsessively flicking through hundreds of random film clips on our smart phones to alleviate our boredom! We can also easily drift into entertainment that carries all the wrong messages and images, and draws us away from God.
Entertainment is not an end in itself
We need to recognise that some people are called to be entertainers. Those actors, musicians, storytellers, stand-up comics and mime artists should be who they are destined to be in Jesus, and our churches should honour their calling and pray for them. I have a friend who is hilariously amusing. She tells jokes that always take me by surprise, and in such a way that I never know what’s coming next. For years both her family and her church urged her to use her communication gifts in teaching. She tried but felt frustrated. The children loved her, but they didn’t learn much. Teaching was not her gift. Preparing lessons week after week she found herself writing alternative scripts to keep her spirits up. It was only when she went on a stage for a charity concert and shared these scripts that the penny finally dropped. With hundreds of people rocking with laughter in their seats at her jokes, she knew without a doubt that her real calling was to be an entertainer.
Christians in entertainment need all the encouragement they can get. They can develop their art in a way that reflects who they are and the values they hold. They can use their powers of entertaining to point beyond themselves to truths that God has built into the universe. With strong support groups they can grow spiritually and effectively in the kingdom of God. They can build key bridges with the non-Christian entertainment community. For them, as with Jesus, entertainment is not an end in itself. It is a way of serving both the body of Christ and our needy world: communicating love, joy and peace to others on their journey through life.