Who are You?
The vision statement of 5twelve City Church is to see "people telling stories of Jesus changing lives through them." When you think about it, people's personal stories of Jesus are absolutely critical to our faith. Matthew told his own story in his Gospel, John told his own experience of Jesus in his Gospel, and Luke told the story of the early church (and his part in it) in the book of Acts. Paul told his story in his epistles. They all told how Jesus had changed their own lives, but they didn't leave out how Jesus also changed others' lives through them.
Jesus' ministry was filled with stories too, but His stories were intended to convict His listeners of some truth about His Kingdom. Consider the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. This parable has three characters - the father, the older son who stayed home, and the younger son who left and came back. A few Sundays ago, Jurie asked the question, "Can I call God 'Dad'?" In that message, he pointed out that the father greeting the younger son after his return is not the end of the story. Jesus went on to talk about the elder son, who believed he was entitled to more than the younger son because of his loyalty. The elder son needed to do no more than ask, and he would have received anything from his father, but because he didn't ask, he resented his younger brother, who came in humility to ask for no more than forgiveness.
Many of Jesus' stories are like the story of the Prodigal Son. He sets up a contrast between the characters, lifting up the humble and firmly but gently rebuking the proud. On Sunday morning, we saw a video clip of Jesus calling Matthew out of his tax collector's booth. In the video, Jesus told the parable from Luke 18, in which a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. The Pharisee proudly thanks God that he's not a lowly sinner like the tax collector. The tax collector humbly begs forgiveness for his sins. Jesus ended the story with the statement, "I tell you that [the tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14, NIV).
Who are you?
When we read stories, we have a tendency to choose a character with whom we can identify. Sometimes, though, I think it's really hard to be honest with ourselves about which character is truly most like us.
I have a confession... Since I was very small, I've had a tendency to think I was the smartest person in the room. I was good at school, and I worked hard to be successful. I remember once having an argument with my 8th grade science teacher because I disagreed with her way of teaching the scientific method. When I was in my 20's, I had an argument with one of my sisters, who said, "You always think you know more than everybody else in the room. It's offensive and hurtful." I once had a knock-down-drag-out with a colleague because I'd corrected her not-so-kindly in front of a room full of clients.
The thing about all of these instances (and others I'm sure) is that in my mind, I was in the right. The teacher was teaching an old-fashioned version of the scientific method. My sister had less experience of the world than I, and I was on the right side of the dispute we were having, even if my delivery was off. My colleague's reaction to being corrected was so beyond-the-pale that whether it was a mistake to correct her in that context became immaterial to me.
And then one day, in the last couple of years, it all hit me. I had a "replay" of all of those arguments - all the times people just didn't like me - and I figured out that I wasn't necessarily the "good guy" in those stories. I was so focused on being right that I'd lost sight of being kind or humble. Although I'd become pretty good at approaching the Lord humbly, that humility didn't extend to my fellow man.
Just as we often cast ourselves as the hero of our own stories, I think we run the risk of casting ourselves as the hero of Jesus' stories too. We are grateful for His saving us, or we want Him to like us, so we cast ourselves as the prodigal son or the tax collector in the stories above. What I found out, far too late, was that I'd been the Pharisee in any intellectual context.
Some of us tend to look down on others in political contexts, others of us feel superior in moral contexts. It is human nature to want to look down on somebody else because it makes us feel better about ourselves. But it's worthwhile to get introspective about the times we've been in conflict, asking, "What part did I play here? Where might I have gone wrong?"
Jesus' parables are not static words on a page. They are alive because each person comes to them out of their own experience. Even if you don't identify with anyone in a story right away, or even if you identify yourself with the person you're least like, the Holy Spirit uses these stories to chip away at the hard exterior of your heart. You're never too young or too old to learn what He's trying to teach you.
Think about the stories Jesus told. He turned people's opinion of themselves upside down. How would Jesus tell your story? Where would He say, "Well done my good and faithful servant," and where would He cast you as the prodigal son's older brother? Allow Him to soften your heart to be a powerful instrument for His Kingdom. Then, you'll tell stories of Jesus changing lives through you.