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                       The Grand Narrative:

           The Storied World of Jesus and HisMessage

 

                                           BenWitherington  III

 

            Sometimesin the study of the message of Jesus, we have all been guilty of missing theforest due to the over-analysis of interesting individual trees.  I am reminded of the famous saying of JohnMuir the naturalist who once suggested that we look at life from the back sideof a beautiful tapestry. Normally what we see are individual loose ends, knots,threads here and there.  Butoccasionally, when the light shines through the tapestry it dawns on us thatthere is a larger design, a weaving together of darks and lights with purpose,pattern, rich color. My presentation here will focus not so much on individualsayings of Jesus but rather on the storied world, the narrative thought worldwhich generated all of his teachings.

It was G. B. Caird who said that Jesus was thestarting point and goal of New Testament theology.    He meantthis in several ways. For one thing, in the thought world of the earliestChristians there is continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ offaith, and between Jesus and the risen Lord. Caird put it this way: “Withoutthe Jesus of history the Christ of faith becomes a Docetic figure, a figment ofpious imagination who, like Alice‘sCheshire cat, ultimately disappears from view.”1  Unfortunately,that happens all too regularly in Christian discussions of Jesus, which is whyI am focusing this presentation on an examination of Jesus’ narrative thoughtworld, which most

certainly influenced that of his earliest followers, who,like him, were Torah-loving Jews.

It was Caird’s view (and I think he is right) that humanexperience is the point at which

theology is grounded in history.  It was the experiencing of the risen Lord orthe

experiencing of conversion to Christ that led to theCopernican revolution in the thinking

of those Jews who became Christians after Easter. Later, asLarry Hurtado has shown, it was the worshiping of Christ that led to rethinkinghis significance and how to tell his story.2  These sortsof things caused the earliest Christians to go back and reevaluate what thehistorical Jesus had said and done.  Whatsort of worldview had undergirded andbeen articulated in Jesus’ teaching?

1 G. B. Caird, New TestamentTheology, compl. and ed. L. D. Hurst (Oxford:Oxford University Press,

1994), p.347.

 

2On which, see Larry Hurtado, LordJesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand

Rapids:Eerdmans, 2003)

 

Without question, Jesus was one of the great sages ofall time, and that included being a great storyteller. Whether we consider hisoriginal parables or his creative handling of Old Testament stories, he wasquite the improviser, to say the least. He lived out of and spoke into a richstoried world, and he told his own and others’ tales in light of the dawningeschatological realities. Not surprisingly, his storied world is populatedchiefly by Old Testament figures and stories, alluded to, retold, and recycledin various ways, but  also his storiedworld involves the spinning out of new tales, often in the form of parables orvisionary remarks (e.g., “I saw Satan fall like lightning from the sky” [Lk10:18]).

The function of Jesus’ discourse was not merely to informbut also to transform, and that transformation was to involve not merely theaudience’s symbolic universe but also its behavior, in relationship to God aswell as in relationship to each other. In other words, there was both atheological and an ethical thrust to Jesus’ teaching. The stories were meant totransform not only the religious imagination of the audience but also their

praxis, giving them samples and examples of how to believeand behave in the light of

the inbreaking dominion of God.

           If there is a difference in thrust in theway Jesus articulated his eschatological worldview from that of his predecessorJohn the Baptizer, it is that Jesus, even in his more apocalyptic sayings,tended to emphasize the good news about the coming of the

dominion on earth. “The object of winnowing is not tocollect enough chaff to have a

glorious bonfire; it is to gather the wheat into thegranary; the bonfire is purely

incidental.”3 Thus, Jesus set about to rescuethe perishing and to free Israelfrom its

various forms of bondage. In this, Jesus is not trying tobe Israel,any more than the

Twelve were set up initially to be Israel. All ofthem were trying to free Israelthrough a

mission of preaching, teaching, and healing.

 

11Caird, New Testament Theology,p. 360.

 

There was, however, urgency and corporate focus towhat they did. “The disciples were not evangelistic preachers sent out to save individualsouls for some unearthly paradise. They were couriers proclaiming a national emergencyand conducting a referendum on a question of national survival.”4  The storm of judgment was looming onthe horizon for the Jewish faith centered on temple, territory, and Torah. Godwas intervening in Jesus and his followers before this disaster happened, justas he had already intervened through John the Baptizer. It is this context ofsocial unrest and sense of impending doom that we must keep in view when consideringthe way Jesus articulates his thought world and the urgency with which he stressescertain things.

          This lineof discussion raises the issue of the relationship of Jesus to Israel. Isuggest that Jesus presents himself not as Israel but rather as the Son ofMan, and as the Son of Man, he is Adam gone right.  That is, the scope of his messianic ministryis much broader than fulfilling the promise of being the ultimate Son of Davidrestoring Israel and itsreign in the Holy Land.  That is a part of what Jesus is about, butonly a part. The temptation scenes make clear that something more wide-rangingand more cosmic is at stake, for Jesus is tempted as Son of God, not as Israelor Son of David.  The issue is what sortof Son of God was Jesus to be.  Was itone that comported with his being the true Son of Man of Danielic prophecy ornot?

Of course, Jesus spoke to a different audience thandid his later Christian followers.  Everysingle one of the New Testament documents is written for Christians, even if insome cases written for Christians to use in some form with outsiders.  Jesus, on the other hand, was addressing Jews,even when he was addressing his disciples, and so he was able to presuppose thestoried world of the Old Testament as something that he and his audienceshared. This perhaps explains why Jesus is able to simply allude to figuressuch as the queen of the South (Mt 12:41-42 par.), or Noah (Mt 24:36-41), or awidow in Zarephath (Lk 4:26) and expect the audience to know who he meant.

It is no surprise that many of the figures from the pastthat Jesus speaks of are associated

with judgments past and future, including both the queenof the South and Noah.

 

4  Ibid., p. 361.

 

 

According to Matthew 12:38-40 (cf. Mt 16:1-4; Lk11:29-32), the only “sign” that a wicked generation would get out of Jesus wasthe sign of Jonah, that reluctant crisis intervention specialist called upon towarn the people Nineveh of impending disaster if

they did not repent. Jonah 3:4 says that the Nineviteswere warned that if they did not

repent, destruction would fall upon them within fortydays. Jesus offers a similar warning

in Mark 13, except that the clock is set to forty years.Luke, in his relating of this sort of teaching, makes it all the more explicitthat Jesus means the destruction of Jerusalem by human armies, namely, Romanarmies (Lk 19:41-44; 21:20-24; 23:27-31).

          It isinteresting, however, that most of the stories that Jesus told were of his ownmaking, stories about contemporaries and contemporary things, such as thecoming of God’s eschatological saving activity. As we read through even justthe narrative parables, we find anonymous human figures providing examples ofvarious sorts. Only the parable of the rich man and Lazarus presents a storyabout a named individual human being (Lk

16:19-31). Even more interesting is the fact that God isportrayed as an actor in various of

these parables; he is the owner of the vineyard in theparable of the wicked tenants (Mk

12:1-11), and the forgiving Father in the parable of theprodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). Most

importantly, we discover that Jesus provides an example ofhow to do theology and ethics

in story form, for these stories are about both divineactivity and human responses of

various sorts.

          There isalso a dark edge to the stories that Jesus tells when it comes to theevaluation of his own people.  By this Imean that they are portrayed as lost (see Lk 15), and their leaders as thosewho reject God’s emissaries the prophets and even his Son (Mt 23:29-39). Theeschatological situation is portrayed as drastic, with all sorts of unexpected personstrying to race through the narrow gate into the kingdom, while the invitedguests have snubbed the host and either refused to come or have come late andwithout the appropriate attire. Pious Jews are going away from temple prayerunjustified while tax collectors are being accepted. There is some sort ofdrastic reversal of normal

expectations happening as the dominion breaks into humanhistory, and it does not bode

well for the faithful elder brothers of the family, itwould appear.  God is busy vindicating

the oppressed, liberating the lost, enfranchising theleast and last, and changing the guest

list at the messianic banquet. These are stories about theupsetting of a highly stratified

world, about the changing of the guard, about new occasionsteaching new duties, about

both judgment and redemption catching Jews by surprise,and perhaps most of all about

the need for repentance by one and all as God’s divinesaving activity is happening in

their midst, and yet many are blind to it.

          Thestoried world that Jesus tells of has not only a dark edge but also astrangeness to it. Good shepherds do not normally leave ninety-nine sheep torescue one straggler. People do not plant a weed such as a mustard bush, as itonly attracts the wrong sort of birds and attention.  God is not like an unjust judge who has to beforced into vindicating a persistent widow.  We could go on. Jesus is offering newperspectives on old images and ideas, and in some cases new perspectives on newvistas and horizons that are coming into view.

          N. T.Wright rightly senses what is going on in Jesus’ ministry when he says,

Thecrucial element in his prophetic activity was the story, both implicit

andexplicit, that he was telling and acting out. It was Israel‘s story

reachingits climax: the long-awaiting moment has arrived! . . . To say

“the kingdom of God is at hand” makes sense only whenthe hearers know

“thestory thus far” and are waiting for it to be completed.5

 

          Andprecisely because Jesus is operating in the Jewish ethos of eretz Israel (“land of Israel“), he can presuppose a storiedworld context that most of the writers of the New Testament cannot presuppose.  This may well explain why indeed we find noparables outside the Gospels.  It is becausewe are no longer speaking into Jesus’ specific world, a world where sapientialJewish thinking with an eschatological twist made sense.

In its own context, then, how would Jesus’ articulation ofhis vision in stories have been

heard? Again Wright helps us:

Itwould clearly both challenge some prevailing assumptions within that

Jewishcontext and retain a special focus which would be characteristic

onlyof Jesus’ career, not the work of his post-Easter followers. It must be

setwithin Judaism, but as a challenge; it must be the presupposition for

thechurch, but not the blueprint.6

 

5N. T. Wright, Jesus and theVictory of God, vol. 2 of Christians Origins and the Question of God

(Minneapolis:Fortress, 1996), p. 226.

6Ibid.

 

Just so, and this means that it is crucial to get thebalance right between continuity and discontinuity when it comes to assessingthe storied world of Jesus and of his post-Easter followers. And again, thepoint of the parables is to reorder the thinking of Jews: “The parables offer notonly information, but challenge; they are stories designed to evoke freshpraxis, to reorder the symbolic world, to break open current understandings andinculcate fresh ones.”7

          A goodexample to examine closely is the parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-9. Here, as Wrightobserves, we have the revolutionary notion that Jesus is the person who is bringingthe story of Israelto a climax in his own ministry. “If we fail to see how

profoundly subversive, how almost suicidally dangerous,such a claim was,” it is because

we have tended to turn Jesus’ counter-order wisdom speechinto innocuous sermon

illustrations.8   It is right to say that when we aredealing with the narrative parables, we

need to follow the narrative logic of the story, notassume that these are thinly veiled

allegories of history in detail. At the same time, thereare allegorical elements in Jesus’

parables, and especially perhaps this one. Moderndistinctions between parable and

allegory are not all that helpful when it comes to ancientJewish storytelling.9 Who,then,

is the sower in this parable? Along with mostcommentators, I agree that it is Jesus,

assuming a divine role here of planting God’s Word aboutthe dominion in surprising as

well as familiar places.

          There aresome surprising results of following this narrative logic. For one thing, Jesusis not sanguine that most of those who hear him will respond positively in thelong term. He is unlike the naïve and overly optimistic preacher of today. Butwhat is perhaps most telling about this parable is that Jesus expects rejectionand ephemeral positive responses. He expects too much competition to allow hismessage to grow in the hearts of many. He expects absolute, hard-heartedrejection. And yes, in the good soil he expects good, long-lasting results.

 

7 Ibid., p. 229.

 8Ibid., p. 235.

9On which, see Ben Witherington III, Jesusthe Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom (Minneapolis:Fortess,

1994); Jesusthe Seer: The Progress of Prophecy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999).

 

          This is an odd message for a personwho saw himself in a messianic light, as one who had come to rescue Israel fromdisaster. In a sense, it is a message about the end of one thought world andthe unexpected beginnings of another out of the ashes of the first one. InJesus’ view, his world is hell-bent, not heaven bound, and he, like John theBaptizer, is here to try to rescue a few of the perishing before the dark nightof judgment falls. This parable differs considerably from the one in Mark 12:1-11about the wicked tenants, as that is a commentary on Jewish leadership in thevineyard, not about the state of the Jewish vineyard in general. But bothparables presuppose that things are coming to a climax, and that God’slast-ditch efforts to rescue his people are culminating in the

ministry of Jesus, who seeks to reclaim God’s land, hisvineyard, before it produces

nothing but the grapes of wrath.

          Along withWright, I think that the aforementioned parables in Mark 4 and Mark 12 wouldhave been seen as echoing or alluding to Isaiah 5-6. In this light, there canbe no question but that the vineyard is Israel, and Jesus sees himself asfulfilling a prophetic

role like that of Isaiah, dealing with hard-of-hearing Israel.But what is most telling when

we closely read Isaiah 5-6 and then think of these twoparables of Jesus is that already in

Isaiah the theme of impending judgment and the exile ofGod’s Jewish people is clear. In

this context, the use of parables reflects and indeedpresupposes the hard-heartedness of

the audience and their refusal to listen. They will nothear and understand unless they turn

or repent. Listen to some of Isaiah’s Song of theVineyard: “What more could have been

done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I lookedfor good grapes, why did it

yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to doto my vineyard: I will take

away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will breakdown its wall and it will be

trampled” (Is 5:4-5). The song is a lament that goes on tobemoan the injustice and

bloodshed in Israel.

          Here iswhere I say that this all comports nicely with Jesus’ prediction of the demiseof the temple and Jerusalemin Mark 13.  In Jesus’ view, as hisprophetic sign-act in the temple showed, this temple was the temple of doom,one that God would judge within a generation.  And indeed, exactly one biblical generationafter Jesus died in A.D. 30 the temple fell in Jerusalem to the Romans.Jesus was no false prophet any more than Isaiah was in regard to the demise of Jerusalem and exile inhis own era. In light of all this, it is interesting that the later Christianfollowers of Jesus not only continued to evangelize Jews and see God aspromising them much, but also, as a text such as Romans 11 shows, continued tobelieve that God, though he might temporarily break off Jews from his peoplewho did not accept Jesus as their messiah, would not replace an unresponsive Jewish people with a more responsiveGentile one. This is surprising only to those who do not know the regularpattern in the Old Testament prophetic oracles of redemption of Israel afterand indeed as a result of judgment on Israel (see, e.g., Hosea, Amos, and, of course,Isaiah). Perhaps most radically and paradoxically, Jesus was suggesting in Mark4 that God’s radical rescue of his people would come not by means of militaryaction or a warrior-messiah but rather through the call and response of Jesus’preaching of the good news.

          Thisbrings us to the other seed parables in Mark 4.  Jesus seems to think that there will be some”seedy” characters, indeed some characters that Jews would consider “for the birds”(cf. Dan 4:20-22) in the dominion, to the surprise of the long-time dwellersthere. Hence, Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed–a seed that no Jewishfarmer would ever plant in a garden. The parable of the mustard seed is aparable of contrast between small beginnings and large, if noxious andsurprising, outcomes, but it is also a parable that tells us what sort of personswere going to end up in the vineyard: the wild birds from afar, which shouldprobably be seen as an allusion to Gentiles.

The parable of the seed growing secretly tells ussomething about the method by which the dominion is coming: secretly, under theradar, without a lot of human effort and certainly without violence.  This parable can be fruitfully comparedto the parable of the leaven in the dough (Mt 13:33 // Lk 13:20-21) in thatboth suggest a sort of automatic

process, one without human aid that produces the result.The hiddenness theme is also

evident in parables of the pearl of great price and thetreasure in the field (Mt 13:44-46).

There are apocalyptic overtones to all these parables asthey emerge from a world of

opacity, of secrets that require teasing the brain intoactive thought to figure out, of God

producing a crop and a harvest or a treasure as if bysleight of hand. The harvest theme is

a dead giveaway that Jesus believed that theeschatological scenario was already in play.

And here precisely is where I differ strongly with Wright.These are not parables about

return from exile.  Ifanything, they are parables about the surprising presence of God’s

saving activity in the midst of occupation and oppressionin the Holy Land, a very

different message indeed. Jesus did not come to meet theaudience’s messianic

expectations; he came to meet their needs. But ultimately,that task could be

consummated only through a sacrifice on a cross and itssequel.  Redemption would not

come on the cheap or even just by a spiritual revival ofgood preaching accompanied by

some miracles.  Thesin problem would not be dealt with or overcome by those means

alone.  And thisbrings us to another crucial point.

          Did Jesustell stories about himself? One could argue that Jesus appears in some of the parables.For example, in Mark 4 he seems to be the sower and in Mark 12 it seems clear enoughthat he is the Son who is rejected, killed, and thrown out of the vineyard. We couldperhaps also suggest that in the parables of the lost sheep he is the shepherd,or in the parable of the lost coin he is the woman seeking the coin (see Lk15:3-10). But these parables in the main are not about the king Jesus; they areabout the coming of the

kingdom of God.

          When Jesus referred to himself, he chose aphrase that we do not find in any of the

parables: the “Son of Man.” A close examination of his useof this term shows that at

least a good bit of the time he is alluding to the storyof that enigmatic “one like a son of

man” in Daniel 7:13-14, the one who would be given akingdom by God and would rule

and judge the earth forever.  This is especially clear in a saying such asthat in Mark

14:62, but it is also in evidence in other Son of Mansayings, even in the Johannine

tradition (see Jn 1:51; 3:13; 8:28).

Jesus, it appears, exegeted his own career, purpose, existence,and importance out of various Old Testament stories, and I suggest that this influencedthe various christological hymns that his earliest followers created after Easter. The link between the proclaimer andbecoming the one proclaimed becomes clearer when we realize that Jesus alsoexegeted himself out of the story of Wisdom. This is especially clear invarious places in Matthew 11, especially Matthew 11:19, where Jesus callshimself Wisdom directly. Then too we must point to a text such as Mark 12:35-37,where Jesus cleverly intimates in his interpretation of Psalm 110 that the messiahis in fact not just David’s son, but even greater than that, he is David’slord; and in either case he is alluding to himself here. Jesus himself, then,provided the catalyst for interpreting and exegeting his significance out ofthe prophetic and wisdom literature of early Judaism.

          Jesus isnot merely telling a story or carrying a story already in play forward to itslogical climax. This becomes quite clear in, for example, his “yoke” saying (Mt11:28-30), where it is Jesus’ yoke that his disciples are to take uponthemselves with rigor and vigor, notthe yoke of the Mosaic law.  The Mosaiclaw, having been fulfilled in the Christ event, would not provide the ethicalscript for all Christian conduct going forward; rather, the law of Christ woulddo so. Of course, this would be confusing because some elements of the Mosaiclaw would be renewed or reaffirmed or intensified by Christ–for example, theGreat Commandment–and thus would be part of the binding contract known as the newcovenant.  But Christ’s followers woulddo these things because they were part of Christ’s yoke, which he commanded hisdisciples to take up, called, paradoxically, a light burden. They would notmerely continue the story of obedience (and disobedience) of Israel toMoses’ law.

           Howeversubversive or paradoxical the later Christian message may have seemed or have been,and however much they may have relied on Jesus’ message, even his message abouthimself, Christian preachers did not by and large follow Jesus’ methodology of preaching.They told the story straight. Partly, this had to do with ethos and social context,since most audiences outside Israelwere not well schooled in Jewish sapiential literature.  Partly also, however, this had to do with thechange in symbolic universe from before to after the death and resurrection ofJesus. The proclaimer had become the universally proclaimed, and this becauseof the way his life turned out.      Apparently,it was felt that the message about a crucified and risen messiah wasparadoxical enough in itself, and required enough explaining in itself, that anevangelistic religion needed to tell the story in a clear and straightforwardway. While some of the themes of the “good news” song and part of the tuneremained the same, the lyrics needed to be less enigmatic and more singularlyfocused on Jesus himself and his redemptive work.

            It wasthe Frenchman Alfred Loisy who famously once said, Jesus preached the Kingdom,but it was the church that showed up. What Loisy did not really grasp, it would appear, is that what Jesus waspreaching was the divine saving intervention of God through his own ministryand that of his disciples, and in this sense, it certainly did show up bothduring and after the life of the historical Jesus. Without the coming of theSon of Man there would have been no Good News of the Kingdom, and without hisdeath, resurrection and return, there would be no completion to the arc of thestory Jesus believed he was living out of— the story in Daniel 7 of the onelike a Son of Man who came down from heaven to rule forever on earth, and to beworshipped by every tribe and tongue and people and nation.  In Daniel 7 we see the harmonic converge inthe key elements in Jesus’ message— kingdom of Godand Son of Man, and it was, and is, and ever shall be only the latter thatbrings the former on earth, as it is in heaven. 

            I wouldlike to close with a story.  ShellyJackson , a gifted contemporary writer, has set out on a remarkable project toin-flesh a story of hers, quite literally. The story has 2,095 words and is entitled ‘Skin’. She has asked forvolunteers from all over the world to have exactly one word of the storytattooed on some readily visible part of their skin.  Clearly Shelly is unfamiliar with some of theexhortation in the Torah. She has not only had some takers, she has had moretakers than she needs to tell this story in the flesh, to incarnate this storyon living human beings.  

What if the message of Jesus can only be truly andfully understood, not only when it is set in the larger context of Jesus’ ownnarrative thought world, but when it is incarnated in us, and only together as a living group can we make sense of it, with eachone of us having but one piece of the puzzle to contribute to thatunderstanding of the story?   What ifthe message of Jesus can only be understood and believed when it is experiencedand lived out in koinonia, incommunity, in love, in self-sacrifice, in service to others? 

I suspect that since Hurricane Katrina, those of youwho live in New Orleansand have participated in the recovery efforts may well have gotten a glimpse ofhow true that is.   We are not, or atleast ought not to be, merely witnesses as the saints go marching in.  Rather we have or should become part of ‘thatnumber’ part of the Grand Narrative, a story in which we become what we admire,we become like the one we emulate, and so when the story is lived out throughus we come to understand and believe in the Son of Man and his Kingdom, and soreflect his indelible image, renewed in us.

This is a consummation devoutly to be wished–and it’sabout as probable as the Saints winning the Super Bowl so that the Mardi Grasparade could transpire twice in two weeks.  Oh wait— that just happened!   In sum, “Who dat saying Jesus’ story can’t betrue and can’t be replicated in his saints?   Not me for sure, as I believe the message that the least, last and lostcan become the first, most and found because of Jesus.          

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