There’s a story circulating on the internets about a pastor named Jeremiah Steepek. In this tale, Steepek has just been appointed to a new church and his first Sunday isn’t like that of most pastors. He shows up to his new 10,000 member charge dressed as a man who is homeless (see picture at left) and is not well-received. At one point, after he sits down at the front of the church, some ushers escort him to the back row to the stares and glares of the congregation. When the new pastor is introduced, he strides to the pulpit, quotes Matthew 25:34-39 and dismisses service till the following week, saying “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?” It ends with “Being a Christian is more than something you claim. It’s something you live by and share with others.” Great story, huh? There’s only one problem with it: it may not be true.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen so many lies masquerading as truth on the web that anything sounding to good to be true is automatically suspect. And, this story certainly fit that profile, so I started digging. According to the website Hoax-slayer, the picture isn’t Pastor Steepek, it’s homeless man from Richmond, Surrey (England). And, the only references anyone can find about this mysterious preacher are in the story itself. To top things off, the meat of the story itself suspiciously reflects the experience of Willie Lyle, a Clarksville Tn. pastor who spent a week as someone who lives outside. The more you look into it, the more doubt is cast on the truth of the story.
All of that brings up two questions: 1) how important is factual accuracy and 2) do the facts that there may not be an actual Jeremiah Steepek and things likely didn’t occur the way the story tells mean it isn’t true? Or could this be a parable like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son?
My opinion is that, yes, it is a parable. That may not have been the intent of whoever started the story’s rounds on the internet, but that’s how it functions. Since it’s a parable, misrepresentation of facts don’t really matter much here because stories don’t have to befactually accurate to be true.
Are there problems with how the story was presented? I suppose some of the wording is a bit heavy-handed (that whole “disciple” thing). And, you could say the storyteller should have let people know this was a parable. But, if they had, it wouldn’t have had nearly as much impact. Jesus never started one of his stories by saying, “Look, it didn’t really happen this way, but…” That would’ve ruined the whole thing.
The real problem here isn’t the veracity of the Steepek story, it’s that we have a hard time identifying new parables. Maybe that’s because there’s enough mileage between the ones Jesus told and the present day that we’re able to say “Well, I don’t do that”. The new parables, however, don’t let us slide that easilyand they sting a lot more. So, instead of learning from the story, we look for ways to negate it.
Stories are so incredibly effective because we become immersed in them and relate to the characters as actual human beings in a way that’s not possible with a dry retelling of facts. I’ve linked to an article that contains the Steepek story and a news article about Willie Lyle. They’re both good, but they serve different purposes. The news article relays facts about Lyle and what he did. The Steepek story takes those facts and uses them to teach us something. That’s a parable if I’ve ever seen one.