By Fred Penney
Thursday, September 01, 2005
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.
What 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?
So 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.
Respecting the Form
To 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.