are a practical bunch. We very quickly make assessments on sermon ideas such
as “that will preach” or — one of my favourites — “that dog will hunt.” I
know, it doesn’t sound too holy or spiritual. Remember, we are a practical breed.
I recently had an opportunity to teach a seminary course on preaching from the
parables. I was not surprised to discover that most of the seasoned preachers
in my class admitted they avoid preaching from the parables. Aside from the
tried and tested parables such as “The Prodigal Son,” the “Parable of the Sower”
and the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” most preachers stay away. That made
me ask: why? Could it be that preachers don’t understand these ancient stories?
Are we more comfortable in the Pauline epistles which — though tough at times
— always offer something to preach. (Remember it was Peter who said Paul writes
some things that are hard to understand!)
I also wonder why Jesus told so many parables? The disciples asked the same
question but Jesus’ answer didn’t completely satisfy. His response, found in
Mark 4:12-13, was a quoting of the enigmatic Isaiah text (Isa. 6:9-10: “they
may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.”). It seemed more like a riddle than
a straightforward answer. Though a parable is not simple discourse, Jesus’ emphasis
on using parables to speak of God and the kingdom, demands that we proclaim
these ancients stories too.
is a Parable?
When it comes to preaching these parables, we enter an entirely new form of
biblical literature. A parable is, by definition, a story given to illuminate
something unknown by use of something that is known. For a contemporary preacher
this immediately presents a barrier. What was known to Jesus’ audience may not
be known to our audience. Do we really know how a widow was regarded in Roman
occupied Jewish society — in particular, in the legal system?
our definition needs to be nuanced — a parable, while endeavouring to bring
clarity, still presents some opaque features for the modern world. I like to
think of a parable as a seed. All of its immense power and potential is not
immediately obvious; it will require some time to germinate.
further understand how to preach from a parable let me make another analogy.
A sermon based on a parable will be similar to a movie, whereas a sermon from
a Pauline passage would more likely resemble a documentary. A movie has character
development and suspense, often a surprising twist near the end, enough resolution
to satisfy the casual observer, but not too much to settle all the issues entirely.
At the end of the film, the producer does not appear on screen to explain his
intended idea just in case we didn’t get it: “here’s what I was trying to say.”
No, the producer has said enough and is now silent. He trusts the audience to
engage the film.