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.
The documentary film is a different form altogether. An idea is clearly stated at the outset and then usually proven or explained. Information is presented; evidence and eyewitness accounts are offered to support the aforementioned thesis. Paul’s letter to the Romans has much in common with this style. When we come to Romans 5, for example, we see Paul presenting the benefits of justification by faith.
But wait. The purpose of a movie is to entertain, while a documentary informs. Movies are mostly fiction and deal with imagination; documentaries deal with facts and real life problems. The struggle for the preacher is this: do I want to merely entertain or do I want to relay information that can affect peoples’ lives? As a preacher I want to effect positive change. Here’s the paradox: in the short term, a documentary may communicate more clearly, but in the long term, a movie may have greater impact! Witness Hollywood‘s contribution to Western values, for good or ill.
Other biblical genres suggest particular preaching styles too. For example, prophetic literature is confrontational and “in your face.” Preaching from this genre is wholly different from preaching the parables. Proverbs is wisdom literature — it helps us in a whole spectrum of practical areas — but proverbs are not promises. When we preach the proverbs we respect that genre in our preaching.
Ultimately, a variety of genres are included in the canon of scripture; each has value and purpose in communicating God’s truth and self-revelation. A biblical form, such as parable, suggests a unique homiletic. When we try to homogenize biblical literature — and by implication our preaching methodology — and superimpose it onto a form like parables, both preacher and the listeners are intuitively disappointed and frustrated. A failure to respect the form has resulted in many frustrated preachers, with frustration producing avoidance.
Respecting the Audience
Jesus’ audience was largely sceptical and even hostile to His message. Even though His message was good news, it met with great resistance. Jesus knew the best way to overcome this resistance was to tell stories that were subtly loaded with divine power and revelation. When an expert in the law asked Jesus in Luke 10, “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him quite directly by referencing the Old Testament scripture: love God and love your neighbour. That should have been sufficient. But Jesus was met with resistance. “Who is my neighbour?” the man asks. So Jesus launches into a parable: there was a certain man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Our audience is similar. We face sceptical listeners inside the church as well as outside. And even the converted wrestle with human depravity. Furthermore, in a post-modern world, propositional truth is often resisted. Those who come to church as seekers or sceptics bring a different worldview to church and present a great challenge for preachers. The parables are a great resource for preaching in a post-modern world.
In addition to their theological merit, parables offer a creative and effective evangelistic opportunity. Parable preaching, like the parable itself, is understated, indirect and subtle. Think of a sermon from a parable as a seed, not a full-grown plant. Don’t always expect it to produce fruit instantaneously. Trust the seed to germinate. That’s what Jesus did. He left it up to His listeners to ask Him for further insight. The disciples did. This is what Jesus was getting at in His quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10. So the parables are fertile ground for evangelistic preaching, but in a way beautifully suited to the post-modern audience. I suspect many preachers would be pleasantly surprised by that fact.
Respecting the Plot
Eugene Lowry in his helpful book, How to Preach a Parable, suggests looking for the elements of plot in the parables. I agree. I tend to look for the following elements: situation; complication, resolution and application. In a longer parable like “The Good Samaritan” these elements are relatively easy to identify with a trained eye. In a shorter parable like “The Pearl of Great Price,” more effort and imagination is required.
The Good Samaritan:
Situation: In response to a question on eternal life, Jesus tells a story of a man on a journey who is mugged and left for dead.
Complication: Two Jewish holy men, instead of being good neighbors, passed him by.
Resolution: Finally, an unlikely man, an outcast Samaritan, acts as a neighbor and shows him compassion and kindness.
Application: Jesus turns to his questioner and says, “Which of these men was a neighbor? Go and do likewise.”
Pearl of Great Price:
Situation: A merchant spends his life looking for rare and exquisite pearls.
Complication: When he finds the rarest and most beautiful of pearls, it costs him everything he owns.
Resolution: He makes a business decision to sell all that he has to buy the pearl.
Application: Will you sell all that you own to buy this pearl? Will you recognise the value of God’s kingdom and give everything to enter it?
Though these parables are often very spare, always look for color and character in the parable: describe the merchant. How did he travel? Did he neglect his family? Was he obsessive? We can’t answer these questions from the text, but it will help our listeners relate to him. Even a repulsive character (The Unjust Judge of Luke 18) can be portrayed as reasonable according to his cultural norms; in this way he becomes likable and then our listeners can understand him more readily.
Respect the Culture and Context
Since the parables are from Jesus’ era, they contain cultural assumptions that do not prevail today. Looking for these cultural factors and making comparison or contrast to our cultural norms will give parable preaching more vigor and staying power. When we connect parables to our culture, for example, the parable of workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), we can contrast the modern workplace with its labour laws, unions and how compensation contracts are negotiated.
I consider the parables to be literary masterpieces full of rich preaching opportunities. Preaching them is both an honour and a rewarding journey. When we preach these parables well, both preacher and listener will spontaneously smile at God’s good news conveyed so creatively.
Fred Penney is Adjunct Professor of Homiletics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada.