Matthew 13:1-9, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
With the help of brain imaging, neurologists can actually hook us up to a machine and see parts of our brain light up as they get activated by stimulus—like a picture of a loved one, a whiff of cologne, a song. What neuroscientists find fascinating is when someone is told a story, more lights switch on in the brain, and not only in one part but in different parts. Whereas when the stimulus is a piece of information or data, only one part of the brain lights up, and with fewer lights. In other words, more mental activity happens when we listen to a story than when we’re fed information and data. And because a story activates many parts of the brain that control other parts of our body, we not only listen more, neurologists say, we also want to do more. I guess that’s why we love those McDonalds and Jollibee commercials. They have hugot. They tell a story. Unbeknownst to us, though, they actually make us want to eat more, too!
Stories have a particular power on us that information or data doesn’t. I myself have seen it happen. Whether in church or in classroom, when I start telling a story, people sit up and light up, precisely what happens to the brain when a story dawns. It’s fascinating. It doesn’t matter who the listeners are: senior citizens or teenagers, wealthy professionals or manangs of a church, graduate students or kids, regardless. We sit up and light up for a story. More than information or data, stories have a way of entering into more rooms within us…and staying there. We remember stories longer because they teach us better.
You barely find Jesus offloading information or data or laws onto his listeners. Rabbis did that to apprentices, called talmidim, pupils. Talmidim studied the Talmud, the whole body of civil & ritual laws, & they memorized the lot of them. Jesus was known as a rabbi, but he wasn’t typical. He didn’t offload laws. He told stories, parables. And we know how a parable goes, don’t we? Jesus starts off with very ordinary things, everyday scenes to everyday people, things outside of us. Then, he makes his way inwards, and we find him along a hallway of rooms within us, rooms where own stories rest. But Jesus’ storytelling isn’t for its own sake. A parable arrives at a spiritual lesson. And I’ve noticed it’s really the same lesson told in different ways: the Father and his irrepressible love for us. Now, see, a lesson like that, it really takes a story. It takes many stories, in fact, like it took Jesus that many parables to bring home the lesson about the Father and his love. God’s love story is often pinned under a rubble of information, data, and laws offloaded onto us by today’s rabbis. So the divine love story with us must be told and retold. Otherwise, our many, deep rooms remain half-lit, so we only half-believe in that love.
Jesus did not screen pupils like rabbis did. Anyone could come over and listen to his stories. And just when bystanders expected a street rabbi to rattle off on the law, the law, the law…they instead caught words like mustard seed, vineyard, birds of the air, lilies of the field. So, they drew closer to Jesus, and then they were even surer that they heard what they heard. The man really wasn’t talking about the law. “Suppose you had a hundred sheep & lost one of them…,” interesting. “The kingdom is like ten virgins.” Virgins?! “A sower went out to sow one day. Some seeds fell on thorns, others on sand, some on dry earth, & the rest, on good soil.” In other words, Jesus was the random sower. From a full bag of stories, he took precious handfuls and flung them everywhere, to everyone who cared to listen. Some remembered. Some forgot. Some went right back to their lives after being entertained on a “same-old, same-old” day. But others, their lives would never be the same again.
For these people, Jesus’ stories made their way deeper into the many deeper rooms in their hearts, rooms that until then, remained in the shadows for quite some time, rooms they never even thought existed. With an oil lamp of a parable, a flickering flame of a story, the Lord walked gently into a person’s life, filling the rooms with warm, comforting light! “I come to tell the story of my Father. And he wants you to know how important it is that you have faith in his love for you, even when you think you aren’t lovable, even when you’ve been told by the rabbis you’re not. You are my Father’s mustard seed, the little that you think of yourself. You are the lost coin, yes, but you’re also the treasure his field. You are dough in his loving hands, friends at his table, wheat among weeds.” Oh, we are his foolish virgins, too, and the unforgiving steward, the wicked tenants, yes. And then there’s that story? The one about that son who returned home, and his father ran halfway up to meet him? “You’re that, too,” Jesus seems to say. If we listen often enough, we realize how God flings himself almost thoughtlessly and broadcast, like a random sower…hoping that Godself might land on good soil.
So, people back then must have really sat up and lit up as Jesus told them his parables. Because as Jesus walked the people Godwards, I bet they eventually realized, “Hey, he’s telling my story, the story of my life!”—a familiar place, now a well-lit room. God was actually waiting there already, all this time. See, that’s the most precious thing about Jesus’ story-telling about God’s love, sisters and brothers. It always has us in it. We always play a part in God’s story.
And something like that really takes a story, dear sisters and brothers. Because otherwise, we forget.
Photo by Dan Flavin, from the Internet