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Preaching the Parables

By Frank Thielman
Most pastors know that the parables provide rich preaching material. They are entertaining, edifying, and come to the point quickly -- all qualities which busy pastors preaching to a television generation have grown to appreciate. Yet many pastors who examine their preaching patterns with a critical eye will discover that when they preach on the parables they tend to concentrate on those whose stories are clear and whose principals are plain.

Few ministers do not have a sermon on the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son; but equally few have taken the bold step of preaching on the Shrewd Steward, commended by his master for embezzlement (Luke 16:1-8), or on the Seed Growing Secretly, a story whose complex symbolic elements Jesus never explains (Mark 4:26-29). Tempting as it may be to limit one's preaching on the parables to the familiar few, there are good reasons for preaching on all of them and there exist some basic guidelines which will help in interpreting even the most difficult.

Why Preach Parables

If you open the New Testament somewhere toward the front and begin reading, chances are good that you will find yourself reading a parable. Something like thirty-five percent of Jesus' teaching as it is preserved in the gospels takes the form of parables.1 This would be reason enough for grappling with the parables on Sunday morning but there are other reasons as well.

One of the most important reasons for preaching the parables is simply that people enjoy hearing them. Whether they are made up of a phrase or an entire story, parables are colorful, imaginative, and, like a puzzle, intriguing.

Who can resist the attraction of a story which features a comptroller reducing the bills of his boss's clients after being fired so that when he is out on the street he will have a few friends (Luke 16:1-8)? Who could fail to take interest in a landowner who pays those who worked one hour as much as those who have worked all day (Matthew 20:1-16)? Or a jewel collector who is such a pearl fanatic that he sells everything he owns to buy a single pearl which he particularly likes (Matthew 13:45-46)?

Jesus certainly did not tell the parables primarily to entertain; but the rich textures of the characters and the shocking twists in the plots of many parables show He knew that entertaining His audience was often the most effective way of helping them to understand the theological truths toward which the parables point.

A second incentive for preaching the parables is that people learn easily from them. The reason for this is that the parables draw their hearers inevitably into the stories they tell and the descriptions they give. The nuts and bolts of each parable are taken from everyday life so that those who hear them immediately understand what is happening. Bosses and laborers, fathers and sons, money and crops, fair play and dirty-dealing are the raw material of the parables. This means that those who hear them begin to identify with the story being told or the description being given, and so learn the point or points of the parable almost from hands-on experience.

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