Both reveal the nature of God’s love. Both describe the extraordinary, counter-intuitive lengths to which true love will go in pursuit of the beloved. Both very different in the way this message is delivered.
The first, the famous “love chapter,” has endured as one of the most known passages of the bible. Most weddings I’ve attended use it as part of the celebration, either read aloud by someone or at least printed in the program. There is poetry – meaning a ‘special intensity of feeling’ – in this group of verses. Part of this comes from the arresting imagery. A loveless, tongues-speaker pictured as a “clanging cymbal.” The power to literally “move mountains” through faith recognized as “nothing” when compared with the power to love.
Perhaps, part of the long-abiding nature of this passage is its sheer density. It is not a lengthy treatise on love. It is a chapter on love – and a short chapter at that. In most of the New Testament epistles, one is hard-pressed to find such a focussed and essential group of verses on a singular theme.
The second scripture passage, the parable of the “prodigal” or “lost” son has also endured. In fact, it may be the most “famous” of Jesus’ parables, inside and outside the Church. As with most of Jesus’ parables, it is simply told. He does not elaborate on the meaning (at least not in the biblical document as it stands). Jesus just tells the story.
And, this one is full of connection points with the human experience. Each one of us desires success. At some point, we each feel compelled to strike out on our own, becoming separate from the ones who brought us into the world, attempting to find our own fortune. We also each experience failure, which is often accompanied by that feeling of the need for forgiveness. But there is one thing this story illustrates that many of us have no experience with, whatsoever. That is, unconditional forgiveness from the one whom we’ve offended.
These twenty verses in Luke’s gospel are similar in length and theme to the Corinthian love poem. However, there is a fundamental difference between them that makes one a better communicator of godly love than the other. That difference? One passage is abstract. The other is concrete.
It turns out, that when it comes to communication, “concrete” is not the impenetrable barrier it is in the world of construction. On the contrary, it is like an open door. In the realm of communication, “concrete” refers to a noun that embodies a particular quality, instead of referring to the quality itself. The quality itself is considered “abstract.”
To put it another way, the quality or idea of “love,” by itself, is abstract. On the other hand, an actual example of one who loves – such as we find in the character of the prodigal’s father – is concrete. Through the concrete actions of the lover, we learn infinitely more about love than we do through love’s definition. We can discuss what love is using abstract terms, even poetic ones. Love is patient. Love is kind, etc. This is truth. It is powerful truth, if one can get at it. Not all of us have the patience (or, frankly, the intellect) to get at it.
The other approach – the one taken by Jesus time and time again – is to embody the abstract using story. In the story at hand, Jesus chose not to philosophize about love’s nature, but to illustrate it. Love is not merely discussed or described, it is embodied in character and plot. Love is not rationalized and quantified in any sort of scientific way, by Jesus. And yet, the hearer of the story Jesus tells comes away having deeply internalized the reality of love, even as it cannot be articulated in rational terms or measured with accepted standards.
What we’re arguing here is simple. Story is a better method for communicating truth. Story is better than philosophical argument. Story is better than an abstract treatise. Story is, we could argue, even better than the poetic approach. By “better,” I mean that story provides easier access to the wisdom of God as it successfully provides flesh and bone to ideas that are otherwise wispy ghosts, flitting in and out of our field of vision and range of grasp. Story has the power to still those ghosts before us, allowing us the chance to observe the idea in action.
Now, we should probably stop for a moment. I realize that it is very possible you consider the abstract point of this post a little hard to grasp. Allow me, if you will, to try explaining it another way:
Once upon a time, in a land, far, far away, there once was…
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