narrative: the ingeniously subversive tool in our scriptures
So the Lord sent Nathan to David. Nathan came to him and said, “’There were two men in a certain city. One was rich, and the other was poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cows, but the poor man had only one little female lamb that he had bought. He raised her, and she grew up in his home with his children. She would eat his food and drink from his cup. She rested in his arms and was like a daughter.”
‘Now David, let me pause and make an observation. First, I want you to notice in my story the disparity between the rich and poor. When I survey our city of Jerusalem, I see a certain disparity between rich and poor that is repulsive to God’s standard of mercy set out in the law. And isn’t it true that some of us in this room are very rich, while others remain derelict? Isn’t it true that the advantages of kingship have swelled your belly, and filled your purse, while others have no such advantages?”
“I suppose so,” said David, gripping the throne with white-speckled knuckles.
“Good,” said Nathan. “Now let’s move on: A visitor came to the rich man. The rich man thought it would be a pity to take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler.”
‘This leads me to my second point, which is: the devious attitude of the wealthy. You’ll notice what selfishness, what ingratitude the rich man displays in his attitude. I can’t help but think, O King, of your recent attitude about the matter with Uriah the Hittite.”
“Excuse me?” said David, his facing flashing hot red.
“Your attitude problem with Uriah the Hittite, O King,” said Nathan. “It seems an obvious application of the story, doesn’t it? You yourself also have plenty of wealth, like the rich man, but you thought it a pity to give up anything because of your pride, selfishness and greed.”
“This is absurd,” said David.
“Okay,” said Nathan. “That leads me to point three: “So he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared her for the traveler.” And so my third point is this: The disastrous disobedience you’ve exercised by taking Uriah’s wife for yourself. You see, just like the rich man, you took Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, which is disastrous, and disobedient, as my alliteration proves from the text.”
“Traitor!” cried King David, and he burned with anger against Nathan the prophet. “I solemnly swear, as the Lords lives, you will die for this treason!”
“But I was only speaking God’s truth!” cried Nathan. “I was being faithful to the scriptures! I was letting God’s word do the work! YOU are clearly the hard-hearted one, not me!”
And so it goes.
We preachers have an ingeniously subversive tool in our scriptures: the narrative. But the narrative loses its subversive effect when we force it into a 3-point outline, as though sprinkling practical and theological nuggets throughout can somehow improve upon the God-ordained format of the text. Pauline outlines are wonderful for Pauline letters, but it is a subtle betrayal of scripture to force everything into a Pauline outline.
Narrative is its own form, meant to trick the normally resistant listener (aka all of us) into seeing herself from God’s point of view. When we reformat narratives into didactic outlines, we’re like magicians showing the mirror in our hat even as we pull out the rabbit, or like actors who break the third wall every 15 minutes to “apply” the film’s script. The whole point of the illusion, whether of stage or film, is the redirect. Stories take us in – they soak us like casserole dishes in the sink, until the grimy self-preserving defenses have loosened and we can be easily plucked up and wiped clean. To sprinkle ‘application’ throughout may give a quasi-satisfying sense of immediate intellectual relief, but it robs us of the narrative’s magic and thus of its rhetorical perry and thrust.
The job of narrative preaching, then, is first to weave the spell of the story. Once the story is finished, the judgment pronounced, the indictment clarified, the catastrophe unveiled, – then, and only then – may we apply it. Then – and only then – may we flip the script ala Nathan: “You are the man!” Then – and only then – will we will hear David’s words ring out: “I have sinned against the Lord!”, to which we may reply: “The Lord Jesus also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”