When preaching a parable, how does one move from text to sermon? How does a sermon evolve out of a biblical parable without simply reiterating the text itself? How do we listen to the text and preach it so that parishioners receive a fresh hearing of the Gospel?
As we examine the biblical genre of parable, let’s begin with some assumptions. First, preaching is a diagnostic enterprise that involves listening to the message of the text, to one’s personal experience of the text, and to the congregation’s need. Sermons come into existence at the point where the message of the text, the preacher’s experience of the text, and the congregation’s need overlap. Though not easily learned, there is perhaps no greater prerequisite to effective sermon development than the preacher’s capacity to listen deeply to the Word, to self, and to congregation.
A second assumption is that in determining the meaning of any passage of scripture, both content and form (genre) must be taken into consideration. Tremper Longman, drawing from the thoughts of E.D. Hirsh, compares genre to a game: “Just as a sentence is a game, so too is genre. In games there are rules which shape the play of the game.”1 In other words, just like games, genres have specific rules that must be followed. We would not use basketball rules when playing football.
Longman contends that, consciously and unconsciously, various genres trigger reader expectations.2 The interpreter (preacher) must respect these expectations (rules) if preaching is to be biblical. When interpreting apocalyptic texts, for example, we must not use the same literary rules that govern parables. To do so would dishonor the text, not just in its form but also in its content because the two are inseparable. Dr. Fred Craddock reflects the same sentiment: “Let doxologies be shared doxologically, narratives narratively, polemics polemically, poems poetically, and parables parabolically. In other words, biblical preaching ought to be biblical.”3 The question, then, is determining how the form and content of the text can participate in the form and content of the sermon.4
Are we suggesting that sermonic form must always be an exact replica of the textual form? I would not go that far. I agree with Sidney Greidanus who says that our goal is not “to copy slavishly the biblical form.”5 We do want, however, to respect the form and learn from it, even if the subsequent sermon does not duplicate the biblical genre.6 As Thomas Long writes: “The preacher’s task … is not to replicate the text but to regenerate the impact of some portion of that text.”7
The preacher is attempting to “regenerate the impact” that the text had upon its first hearers, to re-create their experience. Sometimes this is best accomplished by using a form different from the text itself. But whatever the form of the sermon, it must not “undercut the message of the text and thus distort it.”8 This means, for example, that a parable or biblical narrative preaches best when presented in a similar manner.
The Biblical Genre of “Parables”
William Barclay calls Jesus’ parables “… lovely improvisations in the dust and heat of conflict.”9 Leland Ryken reminds us that parables “obey the literary principle of verisimilitude (lifelikeness).”10 These colorful stories of Jesus are rooted in real life. In one sense, the parables are simple; in another sense, they are profound. Parables “both revealed truths about the kingdom of God and at the same time shrouded it in mystery.”11
Luke introduces the parable of “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector” (Luke 18:9-14) by explaining: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and who looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.”12 Ryken refers to what he calls the “cracks” in the realism of the parables “there is often an element of exaggeration or improbability in them.”13 In this parable we might ask, “Did anyone really pray like the Pharisee?” The improbability escalates in discovering that the typically perceived good man (a Pharisee14) is a bad man, and the typically perceived bad man (a tax collector) is a good man (or at least, a justified man).
One can imagine the irritation in the religious establishment at hearing Jesus’ words. To suggest that a culturally despised tax collector would be justified and a Pharisee unjustified was heresy of the highest order.
The tax collector leaves the temple justified rather than the Pharisee who has lived a good life, but fails to recognize his need for God’s mercy. This reversal of roles triggers an emotional response in Jesus’ listeners (especially the religious leaders). Understanding these visceral reactions are important if the message of the parable is to burst forth.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart tell us that the parables have certain “points of reference,”15 the understanding of which are necessary if the parable is to have an impact upon hearers. For example, the audience who heard this parable had an immediate reaction to both “Pharisee” and “tax collector;” these words are the “points of reference.” One problem we face in preaching parables is that a contemporary audience does not connect with these first-century points of reference. Therefore, in order to preach parables, the preacher must have a sense of how first century listeners responded to these referrals. Then, the sermon must fashion “contemporary points of reference” that evoke a similar response.
The Question, the Quest, and the Discovery
Let’s think of the parable in terms of “a question,” “a quest,” and a “discovery.” The parable raises what I call a “living question.” I would state that question as follows: “Is there something about the nature of being ‘religious’ which causes Jesus to be our adversary?” Or I might word it: “What is there about the nature of being religious that can close our minds to God’s truth — even when that truth comes from His Son?”
This question refuses to allow the text to remain distant, either from the preacher or from the religious people who hear it. In fact, we might ourselves feel some of the uncomfortableness experienced by the Pharisees. The passage could then develop into a prophetic word to our listeners — to us! After all, the primary opposition Jesus faced during His ministry was from religious leaders.
What is Jesus saying? Is He the enemy of religious leaders? Does a life of religious devotion mean nothing? Does God not credit us for abstaining from evil (thievery, adultery, etc.)? Does He not commend us for the good deeds we do (fasting, tithing, etc.)?
Having spent a lifetime in the pursuit of goodness, are we to find ourselves barred from heaven, while wicked, unjust, and unethical people are welcomed at heaven’s gate? That doesn’t seem fair. This sense of injustice helps to identify the “plot” of the parable — and the sermon. Eugene Lowry reminds us that narrative sermons move “from opening disequilibrium through escalation of conflict to surprising reversal to closing denouement (in which the table of life gets set for us in a new way by the gospel).”16 The preacher might well generate that “disequilibrium” by retelling the parable with some contemporary points of reference.
Contemporary “Points of Reference”
Two people went into a church building to pray; one was a church elder, the other a prostitute. They were shocked when the Lord verbally responded to their prayers.
Elder Edwards: “Lord, I had some free time and wanted to drop by and let You know how my Christian life is going. Actually, I am fairly pleased. The Christian life takes a lot of dedication, but I’m willing to pay the price. I know You hear me when I pray.”
The Lord: “I not only hear; sometimes I talk to people who pray.”
Elder Edwards: “LORD! IS THAT YOU? What a shock! I did not expect to hear Your voice. Why are You speaking to me?”
The Lord: “I would like to ask you some questions.”
Elder Edwards: “Of course, Lord. Anything at all.”
The Lord: “Elder Edwards, you have been a church member all your life?”
Elder Edwards: “Yes, Lord! I have been an elder for forty-two years at First Church in Graysville. I have never received less than 82% of the congregational vote. I don’t think any of the other elders have even come close to that percentage.”
The Lord: “You’re faithful in Church and Sunday School attendance?”
Elder Edwards: “You can say that again! I have so many perfect attendance pins, I quit wearing them; I didn’t want anybody to think I was being prideful. I had them framed and hung in my living room.”
The Lord: “You are a man of prayer?”
Elder Edwards: “Absolutely! My piety is beyond question. When people have prayer needs, they bring them to me. When I lead the congregation in prayer, I spend hours crafting my prayers. When people compliment me, I pass the compliment on to You. I tell them, ‘Just like I do, give your best to The Lord; that’s the only way!'”
The Lord: “You read your Bible on a regular basis?”
Elder Edwards: “I have participated in our church’s ‘Read-Your-Bible-In-A-Year-Program’ eighteen times. No one else has even come close!”
The Lord: “You share your faith with non-Christians and let them know about my Son?”
Elder Edwards: “You bett’ya! I tell it straight: ‘Change your ways or chance the fire!’ You’d better repent because my God don’t brook no sinners!'”
The Lord: “I think that will do it; I have heard enough.”
Elder Edwards: “But Lord, I haven’t told you half of it! I work every year in church camp. I made a mission trip to Haiti. I led an effort to shut down an X-rated bookstore in Graysville. There’s so much to tell. I could fill a book with all the good deeds I’ve done.”
The Lord: “Elder Edwards, your life is a sham and a disgrace. You have only one god, and it’s not me. I grant you no justification!”
Elder Edwards: “Lord, You misunderstand! I collected clothes for an orphanage. I contributed to feed-the-hungry programs …. I … I … I …”
If Jesus were telling the parable today, we might listen in on the prayers of Mary the prostitute as she too visits the church building.
Mary: “Lord, I don’t feel very comfortable inside this church building, but I wanted to talk to You. I’m not even sure You listen to the prayers of a person like me.”
The Lord: “Mary, I am listening to your prayers.”
Mary: ‘WOW! THIS ISN’T POSSIBLE! You are actually talking to me!”
The Lord: “Yes, Mary, I am talking to you. I have some questions to ask you. You have spent most of your life as a prostitute?”
Mary: “Yes, Lord. I am ashamed to admit it, but that’s how I have made my living.”
The Lord: “You seldom have attended church?”
Mary: “Yes, Sir, that is correct. I keep thinkin’ I should, but I just don’t feel worthy because of my lifestyle. I could never take the holy communion.”
The Lord: “You have lived with at least two men without being married to them?”
Mary: “Lord, I can’t deny this charge either. I shouldn’t of done it. The men didn’t love me, even though I wanted them to. I have been searchin’ for someone who really loves me, but I know that don’t make sin right.”
The Lord: “Mary, you have lived an evil life. You have violated the holiness that I desire for my children. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Mary: “Lord, I really can’t defend myself. I have had some bad breaks in life, but that ain’t no excuse, cause I know what’s right and wrong. I am an awful person, and I deserve whatever punishment you give. God … it scares me to say it, but I desire above all else Your mercy and forgiveness.
The Lord: “Mary, I have heard your prayer; you are justified in My sight.”
Jesus And “Religious” People
Have religious people changed since Jesus’ day? Do we still value ceremonial laws over people? Do we still think we have all the answers? Is our religion, like that of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, a means of proving our worthiness? Are we more concerned with self-righteousness than God’s righteousness?
You know what troubles me most about Jesus’ parable? I too am a religious person and leader. I must admit that sometimes I feel comfortable with my answers. Just like the Pharisee, I often feel proud of my spiritual achievements. I have been tempted to “hang my Sunday school pins in the living room.” At times I even catch myself thinking, “Boy, am I glad I am not like that guy.” Does Jesus view me the way He did the Pharisees? Is there something about being religious which causes Jesus to become my adversary?
On the other hand, maybe Jesus wasn’t against religious people, but against “religion.” Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want us to be religious at all, but Christian. Someone wrote, “[Religious people] are trying to reach God, find God, please God through their own efforts. Religions reach up toward God. Christianity is God reaching down to man. Christianity claims that men have not found God, but that God has found them.”17
Maybe the Pharisee’s problem was his religion; he no longer needed God’s grace. He was his own “god” worshiping his own “creator.” Rather than genuine communication with God, his prayer was a “monologue of self praise.”18 Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled (Matt. 5:6).” The Pharisee was not hungry for God’s righteousness; he fed his soul on the empty husks of self-redemption. Consequently, he did not need the Lord in his system of justification. He saw himself as superior to others, his superiority a product of his own achievement.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was starving spiritually; he needed God and recognized that need. In one sense his heart was pure; he made an honest confession and acknowledged his need for God’s mercy. Jesus was not praising or approving the tax collector’s lifestyle any more than that of the prostitute in my parable. Nor was Jesus condemning the good deeds of the Pharisee — or those of Elder Edwards. It was the Pharisee’s attitude, his exaggerated self-confidence and comfortableness that denied him God’s justification.
Likewise, it was the tax collector’s confession, humility, and need that led Jesus to say, “this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
When we are religious rather than Christian, God’s righteousness becomes “my rightness.”
When we are religious rather than Christian, God’s truth becomes my understanding of God’s truth.
When we are religious rather than Christian, dogma makes us dogmatic.
When we are religious rather than Christian, being a good person means being a better person than someone else.
When we are religious rather than Christian, believing becomes less important than that others believe what I believe.
I don’t want to be religious; I want to be Christian for Christians need Christ. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).
1Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1987), p. 78.
2Ibid., p. 81.
3Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon, third edition, 1979; first edition, 1971), p. 163.
4I like the way Ron Allen says it, “Each text has its own design, and we live in it according to the type of space it is.” See Preaching Biblically: Creating Sermons in the Shape of Scripture, edited by Don M. Wardlaw (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), p. 30.
5Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), p. 19.
6Greidanus writes, “The point is that the form of a sermon can undercut the message of a text and thus distort it. Conversely, the form of a sermon, if appropriate, can help the message get across as originally intended …. Thus the form of the text provides clues for shaping the sermon so that it will do justice to the original formed content as it affected the original hearers” (Ibid., pp. 19,20).
7Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 127.
8Greidanus, The Modern Preacher, pp. 19,20
9And Jesus Said: A Handbook on the Parables of Jesus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 15.
10Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible As Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1984), p. 140.
11Tremper Longman, Reading the Bible With Heart & Mind (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NAVPRESS, 1997), p. 195.
12Luke 18:9.
13Bible As Literature, p. 144
14I am aware of the fact that Christians have not always been fair and objective in their critique of first century Judaism, including our assessment of the religious leaders. In Matthew 23:23-24, we have these words of Jesus: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Obviously, there were some religious leaders who were accurately characterized by Jesus’ words. However, the condemnation must not be viewed as universal; Judaism during this period had not deteriorated entirely into a religion of trivia and abuse. See, for example, a study of early Judaistic literature by E. P. Sanders: “The possibility cannot be completely excluded that there were Jews accurately hit by the polemic of Matt. 23, who attended only to trivia and neglected the weightier matters. Human nature being what it is, one supposes that there were some such. One must say, however, that the surviving Jewish literature does not reveal them.” See E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), p. 426ff
15How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), p. 139.
16How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), p.25.
17How To Be A Christian Without Being Religious, edited by Fritz Ridenour (Glendale, California: Regal Books, 1962), “Introduction.”
18Ray Summers. Commentary on Luke (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1972), p. 208.

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