This week in my Wednesday Bible study we are going to learn how to read Jesus' teachings with understanding. When I was preparing I was reminded of something my friend Luci Freed said years ago: "Jesus was an effective teacher because he asked great questions and he told great stories." I am a storyteller, and I have always loved Jesus' stories. Here's something I learned about his storytelling:
Every Rabbi taught in parables, and many of the parables Jesus used were being taught by other Rabbi. It was the Rabbi's interpretation of the parable that caused you to follow a particular Rabbi's teachings. It was Jesus' unique interpretation of the parables that were radical.
Parables are meant to be heard, not read. Think of a parable much like a stand-up comedy routine. The speaker draws you into his story, and then he delivers the twist or punch line. It's meant to have an effect on the listener, to draw a reaction. The reaction to the twist reveals the heart of the listener.
That's why you should always pay attention to who's in the crowd as Jesus is teaching. There are different types of listeners – the inner group of disciples, the larger group of followers, Gentiles and other outsiders (women, the sick, tax collectors, prostitutes), and Pharisees/other Rabbi. Watch for the reaction of the different listeners. Consider how Jesus' teaching about the kingdom would fall on their hearts and reveal whether they welcomed the kingdom he was bringing or not.
I was pondering that this afternoon as I finished another sermon research file and emailed it to the preaching team. Preachers do something in sermon study called exegesis - that is, they interpret the text by asking a lot of questions of it. And one question we always ask is, "How would the people of that day hear this?" I need to put myself inside the head of each person in the story and hear the truth through their filter. Will they welcome it? Will it be good news? Or will they be threatened by it? Will they reject it?
A second very important task of sermon study is to exegete your congregation. How will the people you are teaching hear this? Will it be good news? Hard news? Will it break their hearts? Will it set them free? Or will it rock their world, so much so that they take up their comfort zones and walk away?
I have the strangest experience every Sunday. I have studied the day's text weeks or months ago. I know what is coming, what the people are going to hear. It's kind of like knowing a bomb is about to be dropped, or a surprise is about to be sprung. And I know what is going on in some of the people's hearts. Sometimes I want to warn them, "This is going to be hard to hear. But hang in there. It is true, and it is the best thing for you." Sometimes I want to call certain people up and say, "Be there Sunday. You need to hear this. It's good news."
Here's the thing about thinking you know what's coming. Quite often you forget to exegete yourself, but Jesus never does. That word you thought you knew, that text you took apart for days, it falls upon your heart, too. And you are revealed.
Jesus always said at the end of a parable: Be careful how you listen.