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Preaching the Parables
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.
The parable of the Wicked Tenants as we find it in Matthew's gospel (21:33-44, cf. Mark 12:1-11 and Luke 20:9-18), for example, draws its hearers so completely into the story that they sense the injustice of the vineyard tenants who not only refuse to pay their rent but kill those who have come to collect it. Jesus then skillfully asks his hearers, "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" and they respond enthusiastically, "He will wipe them out and give the vineyard to other tenants who will pay to him his rent at harvest time!"
Here the parable itself ends; but Jesus has brought His audience to the ideal point to begin explaining to them the seriousness of their rejection of Him (21:42-44). They have condemned the injustice of others, and by doing so have begun to understand the implications of their own injustice to Jesus.2
Not only do people enjoy and learn from parables, however, they remember them as well. Most of us find it easier to remember stories than to recall propositional truths. When most of us, for example, try to recall sermons we have heard over the past several years, we find that we remember the illustrations and anecdotes more frequently than we remember the actual point of the sermon. Often, in fact, recalling the illustrations within a sermon helps to jog our memories so that we can remember the sermon's main point. The same is true of parables. The gospels record so much of Jesus' parabolic teaching probably because this was among the easiest type of His teaching to remember.
Most of us have the most familiar parables etched on our memories so firmly that we could retell the stories and explain their meaning on demand. The same is not true, of course, for passages in Paul's letters or the prophets. It is, therefore, important to preach on the parables because they provide those who hear and understand them with a way to remember easily the chief themes of Jesus' teaching.
What Are Parables?
The first step in taking advantage of the enormous homiletical value of parables is to understand something about what they are. Just as knowing how a novel differs from a dictionary guards us from the disastrous effects of interpreting one as if it were the other, to understand the characteristics of a parable is to move a long way toward interpreting all parables correctly.
The most important resource for understanding the parables of Jesus is the only collection of writings which we know for certain that Jesus had ever read: the Hebrew Bible.3 There we discover that the word most often translated "parable" in the ancient Greek edition of the Old Testament (masal) refers to the wide range of speech. It can mean "a proverb" such as we find in the Book of Proverbs (called misle in Hebrew), "a taunt" such as "like mother like daughter" (Ezekiel 16:44), "an allegorical riddle" (Ezekiel 17:2, 20:49, 24:3), a prophetic oracle (Numbers 23:7, 18; 24:3-33), or a true story (Psalm 78:2).
The New Testament uses the word "parable" in the first three of these ways. Jesus quotes a familiar taunt, "Physician, heal thyself," in Luke 4:23 and calls it a parable; Luke 6:39 describes as a parable Jesus' quotation of a familiar proverb about the blind leading the blind;4 and Jesus told several parables, such as the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-30, which he afterward interpreted allegorically (13:36-43).
Jesus also, however, broke the boundaries of the Old Testament's definition of a parable. Many of His parables, for example, are stories told to make a single point about God and His kingdom, a phenomenon which is never designated by the Hebrew term in the Old Testament.5 It will be helpful, then, to classify Jesus' parables using not only the Old Testament categories but others as well which represent the ways in which Jesus and the gospel writers redefined the term "parable."
Jesus' parables fit into four broad categories. First, they can take the form of a metaphor, sometimes considerably elaborated, used to make a point forcefully. The parable of the patch (Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-39), for example, compares the conflict between Jesus' ministry and the traditions of John and the Pharisees to the absurd practice of sewing a patch of new cloth onto an old garment. The point is that the two do not go together and therefore forcing them together will result in disaster.
Second, Jesus on occasion could extend this practice into telling whole stories. In the parable of the Pharisee and publican (Luke 18:9-13) the elements of the parable take on more features and the parable itself almost has a plot; but all of this is still in the service of making a single point, explicitly voiced by Jesus Himself in verse 14 after the parable's conclusion.
The third category is controversial, and a word about the controversy is only fair. Frequently the student of Jesus' parables reads that each parable has only one point and that it is therefore illegitimate to interpret parables in terms that go beyond this simple point. This position represents an understandable reaction against the excesses of allegorical exegesis that have plagued the interpretation of parables from at least Origen's time to the present.
From that day to this some interpreters have viewed the presence of a parable in Jesus' teaching as a license to interpret virtually any detail within a parable as a symbol of some spiritual truth. The example usually cited to illustrate this excess is Augustine, who believed that in the parable of the good Samaritan the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho was Adam, the robber was the devil and his angels, the inn the church, and the innkeeper Paul.6
Such an interpretation comes not from the context but from the fertile imagination of the interpreter, and New Testament scholars have been right to reject it. Too often, however, revulsion toward the elaborate and inappropriate interpretations of the parables in the patristic and medieval periods has led serious students of the parables to deny what in some cases seems obvious: that the parables can, on occasion, not only have more than one point but can contain allegorical elements as well.
The parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man in Luke 16:19-31 provides a good example. Anyone who has carefully read Luke's gospel knows that he was interested in showing that wealth can often interfere with entrance into the Kingdom of God, while poverty and social ostracism, paradoxically, often lead people to take the Kingdom seriously and enter it. It seems inappropriate to deny the presence of that point in this parable as well, which, after all, features a rich man in hell and a poor man in Abraham's bosom.
On the other hand, the denial of the wealthy man's final request to be allowed to appear to his brothers and warn them of their fate on the basis that they "would not be persuaded even if someone should rise from the dead" (16:31) serves as a warning to the Jews who have rejected Moses and the prophets and who will reject the resurrected Jesus. To limit this parable to one simple point, then, seems to deny its complexity and richness.
Finally, standing in the tradition of prophets such as Ezekiel, Jesus at times told allegorical parables. The parables of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8) and the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:24-30) are the best examples of this category since they have numerous allegorical elements, as Jesus Himself explains shortly after telling them (Matthew 13:18-23, 36-43; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15). The best signal of an allegorical parable is Jesus' interpretive comments; but sometimes an awareness of Old Testament symbolism and a knowledge of ancient Jewish history can lead legitimately to the conclusion that a parable is an allegory even if Jesus has not interpreted it in that way. The parable of the barren fig tree in Luke 13:6-9 provides a good example of an allegorical parable of this type. The vineyard is Israel (see Isaiah 5:1-7), the fig tree is Jerusalem (see Luke 13:4) and the cutting down of the fig tree refers to Jerusalem's destruction in A.D. 70 (compare Ezekiel 31, especially 31:12). Even though Jesus gives us no interpretation of this parable, knowledge of the Old Testament and the history of Israel demonstrates that it contains allegorical elements.
How Should I Preach the Parables?
Knowledge of what a parable is constitutes an essential first step toward successfully preaching the parables; but every preacher worth his or her pulpit knows that on Sunday morning the congregation has no desire to hear a lecture on the Hebrew word masal. To complete the task we need to avoid some common pitfalls, remember some key principles, and embrace a preaching strategy appropriate to the character of the parables.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Perhaps the most common pitfall that hinders successful preaching of the parables is placing a parable in the wrong category. Preaching a story with one clearly articulated point as if it were an allegory at best misses the meaning the parable was intended to convey and at worst results in doctrinal error. The parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man could, if misinterpreted in an allegorizing direction, be used to support everything from salvation by works to a line of verbal and visual communication between heaven and hell. For this parable to be properly interpreted, it first must be correctly identified as a story meant to convey two basic points.
A second frequently encountered pitfall is a sub-species of the first. It involves simply missing a parable's point. The parables of the places at a feast (Luke 14:7-11) could be seriously misinterpreted to be a story about social graces, when in fact (as Jesus plainly says in verse 11) it is a story meant to illustrate the importance of not seeking glory for one's self. Similarly, the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) does not advocate a certain economic theory but simply illustrates the loving generosity of a merciful God.
Third, sometimes the richness of a parable is left unexplored because the interpreter misses one or more of its several points and instead reads and preaches it as if it had only one point. Preachers of the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), for example, frequently understand it to have only one point -- to help those who are in need -- when it actually answers both the question "Who is my neighbor?" (10:29, 36) and the question "How should I love my neighbor?" (10:27, 37).
Finally, sometimes interpreters of the parables miss crucial historical references within a particular parable which provide help in interpreting it. Missing the importance of the destruction of Jerusalem to the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9), of Jesus' resurrection to the parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man (Luke 16:19-31), or of Jesus' crucifixion to the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:23-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 9-19) can result in placing the parable in the wrong category or missing its point altogether.
Principles to Remember
How can we avoid these blunders? One of the most important precautions we can take to avoid them is to keep in mind two commonsense rules. First, the interpretation which Jesus Himself gives, or which the writer of the gospel in which the parable is located gives, to a parable should serve as the final authority for interpretation. We should draw out of the parable neither more nor less than Jesus' words or the gospel's context indicate is there. It is, after all, not merely the parable which is canonical and authoritative, but the parable together with the interpretation provided by its literary and theological context.
Sometimes, however, Jesus provides no interpretation of a parable and the context gives only minimal help in clarifying its meaning. In these cases, we can, secondly, look to elements within the parable itself to point us toward the correct interpretation. Frequently a careful reading will reveal a familiar biblical image or an unusual element which serves as a guidepost to the parable's meaning.
In the parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29), for example, we receive almost no help from the context about its correct interpretation, nor does Jesus provide an explanation. If we examine the parable closely, however, we discover both an unusually long description of the process by which the seed becomes a mature plant and an emphatic use of the familar biblical image which depicts the day of judgment as "harvest time."7 These serve as signals that the parable refers to the contrast between the unspectacular way the kingdom is at work before the final day and the sudden and bold appearance of the kingdom in all of its fullness when that day finally arrives.8
A Strategy to Consider
Once the pitfalls have been successfully negotiated using these basic interpretive principles, we must tackle the practical homiletical task of designing a sermon which makes a given parable come alive for our hearers. The following two-step strategy tries to make the parable as effective in our own time as it was in Jesus' day and so is organized around the objectives of encouraging people to listen, prompting them to learn, and helping them to remember the parables.
Step one is to retell the parable in vivid detail. This step can move in one of two directions: retelling the story in ancient terms, much as Jesus told it, or recasting the story in modern terms. The first method requires as much imagination as the second since it will be necessary to fill in details which give the parable color.
Retelling the parable of the workers in the vineyard will enable a congregation to grasp the parable more easily if the preacher comments on the hard labor of tending to a vineyard, the harshness of the climate, and the long hours of the typical working day in first century Palestine. A sermon on the parable of the merchant and the pearl might likewise describe a typical scene at an ancient middle eastern market and elaborate on the negotiating skills of a middle eastern trader. Far from taking liberties with the text, such elaborations follow Jesus' example of frequently including details within a parable which have no significance other than to make the story interesting.
The second method of retelling the parable -- casting it in modern terms -- requires creativity in locating true modern parallels to the parable under consideration; but it has the advantage of helping people to identify almost immediately with the situation the parable portrays.
No one is today offended by Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan in the way Jesus' first hearers were. If the priest and the Levite become a doctor and a minister, and the Samaritan a neo-Nazi "skinhead," the parable might have something close to its original impact.9
Both of these methods of implementing the first step, however, require patient study of the parable itself, of the history and culture which it assumes, and of the congregation who will hear it. Otherwise, they lead to inaccuracy on the preacher's part and boredom on the part of the congregation.
Step two is simply to call for some response to the Kingdom of God. The parables were not meant merely to entertain, but to confront those who heard them with the necessity of repenting, believing the gospel, and realizing that the kingdom of God was at hand. To neglect the call which the parables issue for people to become part of God's kingdom and to adopt the Kingdom's standards, is to invest them with little more importance than a thrilling story or a good joke. If we are to be faithful to Jesus' preaching of the parables then we, like Him, must call people to repentance.
Preaching the parables is a rewarding task if thoughtfully undertaken. If we understand the parable's original intention, retell the story in a way that makes it live for our hearers, and then bring them into a confrontation with the Kingdom and its King, not only will we be faithful to our duty to preach this large portion of Jesus' teaching, but, like Jesus, we will be expanding the boundaries of the Kingdom itself.
1. According to Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), p. 34.
2. Sadly, 21:46 shows that they did not act on what they had learned.
3. For plenty of evidence of this see Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1971), pp. 205-208.
4. The image was a familiar one in Jesus' day, as its use in Plato's Republic V, 554 shows. See I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 269.
5. The Old Testament approaches this usage in Psalm 78:2, where the Psalmist calls his recounting of the mighty acts of God "opening my mouth in parabolic speech," b'masal.
6. Even this is only a partial list of details in the parable which Augustine believed to be spiritually significant. Augustine's Quaestions Euangeliorum, where this interpretation is found (20:19), is unfortunately not available in English. Latin readers can find it in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, XLIV B, pp. 62-63.
7. As in, for example, Isaiah 17:10-11; Jeremiah 12:13, 51:33; and Hosea 8:7.
8. C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel according to Saint Mark: An Introduction and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).
9. Jesus never claimed that what the Samaritan believed was right; He simply claimed that what the Samaritan did in this instance was right, and in the process exposed the hatred and hypocrisy of His hearers.
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