A Story that Tells the Teller
There’s a type of personality test in which you’re shown a picture of some scene, and then told to tell a story about what you see there. So for instance, it’s a woodland scene with two squirrels running past and a small column of smoke rising up from a chimney in the background. One person’s story is about the peace of the woods at evening, the other about the unseen dog the squirrels were running away from, and the third was a tale of the family gathered around the cozy fireplace under that chimney. Same scene, but different takes on it, different things people notice, different perceptions of what’s important.
And of course, what’s being uncovered is not just the creativity of the writers but their own inner persons, their own way of looking at the world, their own concerns and worries and passions. Why did this stand out and not that? The story told about the scene is a window onto the story teller.
Mark presents a memorable scene in the Jerusalem treasury hall. Different people are coming up to the vault in the middle of the room to drop in their money, contributions for the upkeep of the sanctuary and its daily sacrifices. The custom was for the contributors to announce the amount and purpose of their gift. And so everyone standing nearby could hear what each was giving and why.
A group of those bystanders happened to be Jesus and his band of twelve. What story of the scene would each one of them tell?
What Mark gives us is the story Jesus told. And that is, the things he picked out, what caught his interest, what plot he saw, what contrasts stood out, what was bothering him, what he admired and valued – all in all what was on his mind and uppermost in his heart.
And so, Jesus’ framing of what happened there. Out of all the people contributing, he notices the poor widow. And he zeroes in on what most others wouldn’t even see amidst that shiny rain of silver pieces being dropped in; i.e., her two copper coins. Most revealing of all, he tunes into the fact that these were the entirety of her purse, most likely the price of her next day’s food — this in contrast to the rich folks who would hardly miss their hundred shekel offerings.
Jesus then interprets the incident. This woman is the only one here who has given all, everything she had to give. This woman, the last one you’d expect to be doing something of significance in this holy place, is giving the genuine worship. She is the real Daughter of Israel, the true child of the covenant.
Now this tells us wonderful things about the woman in the story, but what about the story-teller? What does it uncover of his mind and heart?
And the answer to the question is what he had been preaching and living and making happen ever since he arrived on the scene: the Kingdom of God, and the need to give one’s whole self to it. And so in the chapters immediately before:
- “What sums up the Law, Jesus?” asked the scribe. “Love God with all your heart and soul and your neighbor as yourself.”
- “What more do I need to do to enter the Kingdom, Jesus?” said the rich young man. “Give up all your possessions for it and come and follow me.”
The point? What Jesus sees in this woman is a living instance of the Kingdom God, a walking breathing picture of what’s he’s been so concentrated on and so passionate about. Looking out at his everyday world, he spots there any glimmers of His Father’s Reign breaking through. And she is one of them. But something else. The story he lifts out of this scene tells us of the storyteller himself – what matters most to him, what sets him off, what he identifies with, the values he holds most deeply, what he’d live and die for.
Some things to take away from this look at stories.
The obvious one is the insight they give into Jesus’ person. These narratives (the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, Zacchaeus in the tree) have their own message. But they are also self-revelatory of Jesus. In the way that only stories can, they open onto the inner world of the story teller. They reveal the revealer. So for instance, when you hear Jesus’ question to Peter put to you, “who do you say that I am,” the stories Jesus told can give some answers.
Another favor stories do is open us to the quality of our own following.
How do I hear the daily news and read the paper and take in my everyday surroundings? Have I gotten more perceptive as to where the patterns of Jesus’ Kingdom are showing up? Have I come to identify more with the real contributors to the treasury and less with the showier ones who are giving a whole lot less than their own selves to it?
And for sure, Jesus widow’s tale raises its own challenge. Am I tuned into wholeness, this attitude that most appeals to Jesus — and most mirrors him? She throws all of herself into that collection box, holds nothing back. This is the stance that reveals most deeply who Jesus himself is, “not my will but thine be done; into your hands I hand over my whole spirit.”
A final story to make the point in the way only stories can.
A mountain climber is laboriously making his way up the side of a steep cliff to confer with the famous guru who lives alone up there. When he steps over the last ledge, the holy one is sitting there in his lotus position. But the climber is disappointed, put off that the guru is so shriveled up and old and plump.
The guru asks the climber “What do you see?” “I see a wrinkly old hog,” says the man. The climber asks the holy one, “What do you see?” The guru replies, “I see a god.” The man asks “How can that be?” The guru responds, “What I see is what I contemplate all day!”
We see on the outside what we’ve been looking at from the inside. Jesus is always looking at the Kingdom of his dear Father.
Sitting around that collection box in the treasury hall and watching the crowd, what story would I tell?