I have been sensing that it is time for me to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” And since my answer is not short, I am going to give it in serialized form. To begin, then…
What I say:
I say that he is the master of the short-short story form and of the memorable phrase.
What I mean:
A short story is usually at least several printed pages in length, and is often even longer. But a short-short story is one that can be printed on a single page.
The parables of Jesus are the most influential short-short stories in history. Yes, other religious and cultural leaders have told great short-short stories (Aesop, for example, and Chuang-tze), but the parables of Jesus have become so much a part of the fabric of our being, at least here in the Western world, that we still remember them even in this highly-secular age. People who would never set foot inside a church are nonetheless familiar with the Prodigal Son, and they even remember the evocative image of his father running out into the field to welcome him home. We still talk about Good Samaritans, and we still vaguely remember the story Jesus told about one of them. The parable of the Unforgiving Debtor might not be so well-remembered, but anyone who hears it is struck by the emotional power of the eponymous Debtor grabbing the other guy by the throat. Still to this day, people think they’re being clever when they say, “So I said to myself, ‘Self…'” but they don’t seem to realize that Jesus told that joke first, in the parable of the Man and His Barn.
Jesus’ parables are so extremely short that, if we had to do so, most of us would be unable to retell them as succinctly and yet as powerfully as he did. But as short as they are, they are so full of meaning that lengthy sermons – and even sermon series – are needed in order to explain their significance. As both a writer and a speaker (and an occasional preacher), I know how hard it is to be brief. It is amazing to me that Jesus could take the most important message in the world and encapsulate it in such tiny little narrative packages.
But he didn’t just specialize in storytelling; he was also a master of the memorable phrase. We still quote him often, although most of the time we don’t remember that he’s the one who said the line we’re quoting. Whenever we speak of the blind leading the blind (or joke about the blonde leading the blonde), or a house divided against itself, or the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, or we talk about having ears to hear or eyes to see or casting our pearls before swine, or we say we must separate the sheep from the goats – whenever we say any of these things, we’re quoting or paraphrasing him. When we say, “O ye of little faith,” we’re repeating what he said. Long before there were bumper stickers or tweets, Jesus was the master of both.
Why does this matter? Because I am in awe of anyone who can say something important and put it in such small packages. We humans (or at least we human speakers, writers, and preachers) are verbose by nature; to be concise takes amazing talent. But to be both concise and revelatory… THAT is divine. Those of us who follow Jesus may have many things we admire about him, and each of us can only speak for ourselves. When Jesus asks me to declare, publicly, who I say he is, this is the first thing that comes to mind. As a writer, speaker, and occasional preacher, I can give no greater praise: The way he preached… the way he told stories… the way he got his points across… I know of no one else in all of history who does these things like he did. He is the Master of short-form communication.”
I don’t suppose that was the kind of answer he was looking for that day when he asked his original disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” But I think he knows me well enough to realize how heartfelt my answer is.
Of course, I’m not concise like he is, so I also have several other answers to his question. I’ll share the second one in my next post.