Why is it that virtually all of our preaching is expository while the examples of Jesus are parabolic? Certainly the Apostle Paul fashioned a worthy tradition of powerful, straightforward sermons. But why has the tradition of the parabolic preaching of Jesus been so neglected in the pulpit?
What is parabolic preaching? Jesus’ parables are the key to understanding this genre of preaching.
What are Parables?
It is not easy to define parables, much less explain what “worldly stories with heavenly meanings” means. I have identified twenty characteristics that I have found most of Jesus’ parables have:
1) vivid, colorful illustrations, which range from analogy to literature
2) specific concrete images
3) common, everyday examples
4) new or unusual ways of looking at a common issue
5) pithy, glib language
6) metaphors, analogies, similies, stories even children can understand
7) an economy of style with a minimum of embellishment
8) or take advantage of the experiences the audience brings to the subject
9) multiple levels of meaning
10) effective pacing in the telling of the example or story
11) an example from natural life to get at “truth”
12) irony to drive a message home
13) timeliness in responding to a critical need the audience may not yet even be aware it has, or conflict within those in the audience that needs resolution
14) spontaneous adjustments, protractions, alterations in the telling to respond to circumstances and the audience’s reactions to the parable
15) the emotional response of the audience to make its point
16) the image or story line to convey a message implicit to the story without requiring an explicit statement of message
17) the responsibility of the audience to interpret correctly
18) meaningful content, although the content is never as important as the implicit underlying intent and meaning
19) a heuristic, educational frame which signals something more than a simple story is involved
20) the unexpected which “knocks the (audience) flat” with the impact of the message
Some Contemporary Examples
If one reviews the Parable of the Good Samaritan or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, virtually each of these characteristics are met. A good piece of fiction with a definite theme might also meet most of these characteristics, but differs from a parable in that it need not have an explicit spiritual intent.
We do have a few contemporary examples of parabolic teaching, if not preaching per se. The popular television show, the Twilight Zone, was often parabolic. Rod Serling usually began and ended his show with commentaries that hinted the show’s story was in effect a sophisticated morality play. On one show Agnes Moorhead portrayed a poor woman in a rural setting besieged by invaders from another planet. The story was vivid, concrete, common, artful. The audience identified with Moorhead’s plight. At the end, after she had triumphed, the audience discovered the “aliens” were actually men from the Planet Earth. This sudden turn of events had parabolic impact. The parable was a new and unusual way of looking at a common issue–fear of the unknown and our lack of empathy for those who seem “alien.” The program evidenced virtually all the characteristics of parables. Serling’s language was glib, his point of view ironic. The program had an economy of style–it lasted only 22 minutes. The original program date was in the era of our early space ex- ploration, and thus timely to our unexplored attitudes about becoming invaders when previously we had only feared the prospect of our being invaded as in the Orson Welles War of the Worlds phenomena. The story certainly evoked different levels of interpretation. The point of view was ironic—ironic in our natural disposition to identify with the actual character who turned out to be the “alien.” Many propositional statements about the program’s themes could be advanced and defended, but in effect the meaning adheres to the story line. Serling’s introduction and conclusion warns there is more here than meets the eye. The unexpected outcome knocked the audience flat. A message was not drummed home so much as the audience was left with the responsibility for de- termining what the message really was. Understanding required further thought, and, importantly, from a variety of perspectives. This is the stuff of parabolic teaching.
The first example of dramatic parabolic preaching I ever witnessed was done by a Chaplain at Occidental College. It was the Christmas season of 1967. This minister gave wrapped gifts from the pulpit to members of the congregation. One of the “gifts” was an empty napalm canister. Needless to say, not all in attendance appreciated the gift. But the lesson met all the criteria I have identified as those characteristic of parabolic preaching.
The most popular form of parabolic preaching of which I am aware has been the tradition of “object lessons” sometimes preached to children’s groups. A minister, Charles Coulston, used to devote a portion of every Sunday service to an “object lesson.” He dedicated these lessons to the children, but he knew they were equally relevant to the adults despite the lessons’ simplicity. In one such lesson he took a coin from his pocket and asked, “Who do you trust?” On all our coins it says, “In God We Trust.” He queried whether it was God or money we trusted more. This type of preaching tends toward analogy, but is no less important because of its more limited artistic vision.
Finally, I once heard a Church of Christ minister, Marshal Brookey, preach a sermon in which he was “disfellowshipping” some unnamed person. Al-though most everyone suspected from early on the “Devil” was going to be dis-fellow- shipped, he pulled the sermon off very effectively, very parabolically.
However, the shortness of this list reflects that most of my life in churches has been spent listening to valuable, but almost invariably propositional sermons. I do not want to diminish the worth of that very important vehicle of preaching the good news. However, I think parabolic preaching deserves greater attention. Parabolic preaching can leave quite an impression. When I left my first congregation after two years, during which I preached a total of 100 sermons, I gathered a group of eight of the most regular members to review my sermons. I brought my own list to check off the ones someone, anyone, could recall. I kept the list hidden and offered no reminders. The group, together, was able to derive a list which included the theme of every sermon I had preached. I realize that that is not the same as saying any or all sermons were worthwhile. But it does say something about the possible impact of this form of preaching.
A Few Examples of Parabolic Sermons I Have Preached
I have selected several of the parabolic sermons I have delivered to describe. I have at least two purposes: 1) to give a better picture of what parabolic sermons might look like; and 2) to stimulate some ideas for lessons for other preachers.
I. The Testimonial Dinner. This parabolic lesson centers on the communion service in the format of a testimonial dinner. Alternating songs, readings, and comments by the minister honor Jesus as the Son of God. Readings might include such scriptures as
II. A Text Without a Context is a Pretext. In this lesson I begin by asking members to stand when I name a person they know. My list includes people I have known over my lifetime. I start with names one or two people might know and move up the list until everyone has stood. I then have them sit down according to what year they met me. Once a visitor did not sit down. I thought he must have misunderstood the directions. It turns out he had known me the longest. We went to church together when he was in elementary school and I was in junior high, and I did not recognize him.
III. Tales Oft Told. I am concerned we lose the impact of Bible stories be- cause they become smooth to our ears from having heard them the same way for so long. This lesson takes a popular Bible story and reads it in numerous versions and translations. To add some spice to the readings, I include the renditions in The Golden Book of Bible Stories; God is Cool, Man; The Cotton Patch edition of the Bible; and The Good News for Modern Man as well as other more scholarly translations.
IV. The Trial of Paul. I put Paul on trial and call witnesses. Different members to “testify.”
Acts 23:26-34 Acts 24:24-27
- Son of Paul’s Sister:
- A Pharisee:
- Jew I:
Acts 21:31-40, Acts 22:24-29, and Acts 23:10-30
- Asian Jew:
- Jew II:
The minister acts as judge as to any malfeasance by Paul.
V. Lies, Lies. Without telling anyone who the Biblical prototypes are, I ask eight people to stand one at a time. I ask them each a question. The congregation must guess which one is telling the truth.
1) Were you the person I was supposed to give five dollars to? Yes. (But it is a lie, just like Jacob lied about being Esau.)
2) Did you give your whole check today? Yes. (But it is a lie, like Ananias and Sapphire lied.)
3) Did you eat the apple (which I had given a man and his wife)? No—she did. (A half lie–they both had, like Adam and Eve.)
4) Is this your wife? (asked of a husband and wife) She’s my friend. (Misrepresentation of truth, as Abraham misrepresented Sarah to the King.)
5) Has the treasurer been skimming funds? I’ve heard so. Rumor and prejudice, as with the accusations against Zaccheus.)
6) Are you religious? Yes. (Self-righteous, as with the Pharisees.)
7) Is Jesus Lord? No. (As with Peter denying Christ.) (This one got a gasp when one of our most respected members said, “No.”)
8) What must I do to receive eternal live? Keep Jesus’ commandments. (As Jesus told the Rich Young Man.) (This is the one answer that is not one of the forms of lying.)
You may end here with “for those with ears let them hear.” Or, you can explain about “lies.”
VI. Our Setting. So much of what we do is based on our conditioned responses to our environment and is determined by circumstances such that choosing our settings becomes some of our most important choices. Church is one of those settings we have chosen as conducive to improving Christian living. I like to call attention to attributes of the building in which we worship. Scratched pews, colorful song books, stained glass, murals or paintings, a cross, scriptures mounted on the walls, and a baptistry all deserve special attention as elements of our religious setting. But I conclude this attention calling to the building by reading
VII. Quiet. The lesson on quietness is to spend 10-15 minutes in solitude.
Speaking in Parables Works
I know that a main reason these sermons tended to work was that they were organic; i.e., they were created for special situations. But I also know they tended to work because they have sound educational principles behind them.
First, parabolic preaching taps into several common techniques of motivation, and improved motivation consistently produces better learning. Parabolic preaching takes advantage of the following motivational techniques (Gage, 1979, p. 425):
1) capitalizes on the arousal value of suspense, discovery, curiosity, exploration
2) uses the unexpected
3) uses unique and unexpected contexts when applying concepts and principles
4) requires use of what has previously been learned
5) uses simulations and games
Preaching which exhibits these qualities tends to be better listened to, better retained.
Second, parabolic teaching, by working at several levels of meaning, allows hearers of different developmental stages to derive meaning from the same experience. This is a large advantage over propositional discourse which can rarely be appreciated by all age and interest groups. Kids through adults can enjoy and benefit from the same parabolic lesson.
Third, the “realness” of the experience of parabolic preaching becomes part of the background and experience necessary for listeners to formulate concepts. Without sufficient concrete experiences, the development and understanding of abstract concepts is difficult, if not impossible.
Fourth, parabolic preaching builds on, rather than works against, the “abstract structures that represent the knowledge stored in memory brought to an educational situation” (in this case, parabolic preaching) which “is probably as important as the message that makes up instruction” (Gage, 1979, p. 318). In other words, parabolic preaching uses the different experiences different audience members have had of the parable’s subject, rather than of falsely assuming, as propositional preaching tends to do, that everyone has similar backgrounds.
Fifth, parabolic preaching tends to be a more active experience, which enhances learning.
Sixth, parabolic preaching allows for a more democratic response to God’s word. The listener has greater responsibility for what is heard than under the dictates of propositional preaching where the preacher tends to preach the way an issue is to be understood.
Seventh, diversity is a spice of life. Parabolic teaching adds to the preacher’s repertoire of skills in an exciting way.
Eighth, Jesus made copious use of parables, so it must be a worthwhile format.
Ninth, parables create a valuable, very personal atmosphere in the worship service.
Tenth, parabolic preaching cultivates the artist in the speaker. Parabolic preaching is an art in the sense that the speaker’s activity is not dominated by prescriptions or routines, but is influenced by qualities and contingencies that are unpredicted. Parabolic preaching is an art in the sense that the ends it achieves are often created in process. Parabolic preaching is an art in the sense that preachers make judgments based largely on qualities that unfold during the course of action. Parabolic teaching is an art in the sense that preaching can be performed with such skill and gracethat, for the audience as well as the preacher, the experience can be justifiably characterized as aesthetic (Eisner, 1979, p. 153).
In conclusion, my contention is that parabolic teaching is often neglected, but has a worthy place in the Kingdom.
Michael D. Gose is Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Humanities at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA.
Eisner, Elliot. The Educational Imagination. New York: MacMillan, 1979.
Gage, N. L. Educational Psychology. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1979.
Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Preaching. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978.