The Master Storyteller

Good storytellers are people of few words. Ample space is left for the imagination of the listener or reader to make connections with the story. If the storyteller talks too much, there is no room for the listener or reader to enter into the story. They must have the space to relate to the story. If not, they ‘turn off’.

Jesus Christ was the master storyteller. The people connected with his parables because they related to issues of immense personal importance, such as unjust judges, rowdy neighbours, bullying employers, disastrously dry weather. But he always left plenty of room for the imagination of his listeners to make connections. That is why, two thousand years later, his parables can still spark immense interest. People still feel Jesus is talking about them and their problems.

Take the following parable about greed and the misuse of power. It is about a rich man, Dives, and a poverty-stricken Lazarus (Luke 16: 1-31).  There is the opening scene. Dives was extravagantly clothed in purple and linen garments. He daily ate excessively on the very best foods. The purple dye of his clothes was reserved only to those who were especially wealthy and powerful, a social class distinguished by its oppression of the poor.

Lazarus, however, was not only an impoverished beggar but he was also covered in weeping sores.   Lazarus’ sores place him well below even the status of a beggar. Lazarus was socially a non-person. Exhausted and starving, Lazarus had no energy to defend himself against the equally ravenous street dogs. They awaited his death in the hope of relieving their hunger. The storyteller notes that Lazarus lay at the gate of the rich man (v.19). He was so hungry that he had no energy to sit upright which would have given him some chance to chase the dogs away.

In scene two the roles were reversed. The rich man was in hell, “where he is being tormented…[and ] in agony in [its] flames” (vv. 23-24). Lazarus, by contrast, was at peace beside the prophet Abraham (v. 23). The rich man struggled to get things back to his past position of wealth and power by bullying. As someone used to commanding social inferiors, the rich man addressed Abraham in a lordly manner. Lazarus must intercede for him.  Abraham refused.  The rich man must change his entire life and become committed to justice and solidarity with the oppressed.

Dives still did not get the message. He was so accustomed to having his commands obeyed, because of his wealth and power, that he tried once more to manipulate Abraham into doing what he wanted. Wealth had blinded him to the realities of poverty and his own role in the oppression of the poor. So he pleaded for special treatment for his family: “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent”(v.30). Abraham sharply refused. He again reminded Dives of the principle of solidarity, that is, all peoples are equal before God. His family had been warned enough. No new sign will bring them to their senses, spiritually blinded by their own self-importance.

As in the time of Jesus, we can make connections with our present world. We know that the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer. On the global scene capitalism is ruling with less and less controls and concern for the common good. Economic rationalism, as it emerged in the 1980s, takes for granted that profit is the sole measure of value and the economics profession serves as its priesthood. Think of the often staggering amounts of payouts to executives of large corporations, especially in times of economic turbulence. Little wonder that people complain that greed, not concern for the equitable distribution of wealth, is outrageously out of control in the senior levels of the business world! The moral of the story of Dives and Lazarus remains relevant. That is the sign of a master storyteller.


Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm, is the author of Laughing with God: Humor, Culture, and Transformation (2008).


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