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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two Jewish holy men, instead of being good neighbors, passed him by.
Finally, an unlikely man, an outcast Samaritan, acts as a neighbor and shows
him compassion and kindness.
Jesus turns to his questioner and says, “Which of these men was a neighbor?
Go and do likewise.”
of Great Price:
A merchant spends his life looking for rare and exquisite pearls.
When he finds the rarest and most beautiful of pearls, it costs him everything
He makes a business decision to sell all that he has to buy the pearl.
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?
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
the Culture and Context
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.
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.
Penney is Adjunct Professor of Homiletics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada.