On the surface discussing how to preach the parables of Jesus is like discussing how to preach an epistle or a gospel. First appearances, however, can be deceptive. There is no unified body of material like the unity inherent in an epistle or a gospel. Mining the riches hidden below the surface of these “simple stories” is more like the dilemma of a kid in a candy store: Where does one start? Where does one end?
Contrary to how they have often been treated, the parables of Jesus do not all look alike. They come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are skinny; some are fat. Some are short; some are long. Some are negative; some are positive. Some are brimming with grace, and some are burning with judgment. Theirs is a rich variety of form and content. (Remember the kid in the candy store?)
How does one preach the parables of Jesus with power? It will sharpen our response to the question if we contrast how to rob the parables of their power with how to release their latent power.
If I Were Screwtape
If I were Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters — consciously working for the other side — the following are strategies I would use to rob Jesus’ parables of their power.
First, I would denigrate Jesus. I would claim that His parables add nothing to those of the other rabbis in His day. I would add that not only is there nothing new in them, it is impossible to determine what He really said after the gospel writers edited them. I would ignore any evidence pointing to the fact that the rabbis told parables to illustrate the Law of Moses (not as Jesus did to open up the kingdom of God in dramatic new ways), and I would conceal the fact that nearly all the extant first century rabbinic parables are dated after 70 A.D.1 Undercut Jesus and you minimize His message. This strategy never fails.
Second, I would throw the meaning of the parables into confusion. I would turn the parables into another Tower of Babel by confusing their tongues into conflicting schools of thought on how to interpret them.
I would insist that each parable has only one point. Most scholars in the twentieth century have bought that interpretation even though Jesus drew several points of analogy when He explained the parables of the wheat and the tares or the sower and the soils.
This approach provides me a chance to catch liberals and conservatives in the same trap. What an effective strategy!
Then, I would go to the other extreme. I would allegorize every part of every parable. The church throughout the centuries has often used this method. Only the scholars and mystics are able to decipher their many layers, allowing them to interpret a parable any way they want no matter how fanciful. How unlike Jesus whom the common people heard gladly.
Then, I would insist that they are merely simple illustrations meant to clarify Jesus’ theoretical ideas even though He often had to explain His parables to His closest followers. He claimed that he told parables to conceal truth as well as reveal it, fulfilling the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Be ever hearing but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving”(Isaiah 6:9).
I would also borrow from the negative side of the new hermeneutic to insist that parables are ambiguous metaphors instead of apt and penetrating analogies. I would contend that as metaphors they mean whatever you say they mean and that they are always open‑ended and defy interpretation.
I would misuse the new homiletic to convince preachers and teachers to aim for emotional impact over key ideas in the parables. I would seek to convince them that movement, form and mood are much more important than content and meaning.
I would encourage others to boil down the parables until only principles and propositions are left. Their sermons might be biblically accurate, but they would bore their hearers to death with their lack of imagination.
But since I am not Screwtape
But since I am not Screwtape working for the other side, I would use the following strategies to release the raw latent power in the parables of Jesus.
Honor the context.
Extract the parable for a moment. Closing the gap, read what goes before it and what comes after it, then read the parable again in its biblical setting. Read it also in light of the theological intent of the gospel writer.2 Context is always important in interpreting the Bible; it is essential when one interprets Jesus’ parables.
Respect the literary form.
Parables are stories — usually short stories (or short, short stories) — and as good stories, they often embed the point at the end.3 When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” for example, He replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan. By answering with a parable and delaying His answer until the end, Jesus led the lawyer to the only verdict possible.
Parables are almost always analogies. I prefer to call them analogies rather than allegories because, technically, in an allegory every element stands for something else. Normally the parables contain three main ideas built around three central characters, though some have two characters and teach two ideas, and a few have one central character and teach only one point.4 Respect the multiple characters and ideas, but don’t rule out providing an umbrella target and theme to give unity to the sermon.
Some parables are more open ended than others. They send us away scratching our heads and pondering their meaning for a reason. Let the degree of closure in the parable guide how tightly to tie up the application.
Look for the hook.
Some call it the barb or the shock effect in the parable. The story hits us at two levels, and it teases and tantalizes us well past the benediction and the parking lot. For instance, in Jesus’ story of the laborers, some went to work in early morning, some at noon and some late in the day. That all got the same wage may shock our sense of justice because it doesn’t seem fair, but it also opens us up to another dimension of God’s grace. And remember the parable he told about the two men who prayed in the temple. Jesus shocked His hearers when He said that the repentant publican went down to his house justified rather than the pious Pharisee. Jesus knew how to get their attention, shake them up and drive home His message.
Concretize the Kingdom with the parables as Jesus did.
Matthew 13, for example, records eight of His parabolic stories that help us clarify what He means by His Kingdom.5 The Kingdom of God is difficult for Americans to understand and embrace. Our nation was born when we broke with King George of England. We threw his tea overboard into Boston harbor and barely whipped his troops, but we won our independence and have a cracked liberty bell on display to remind us. We have always had trouble with kings; we fought a revolution to rid ourselves of one, so the kind of kingdom Jesus has in mind must be made clear to us to win our allegiance.
Keep in mind that the central theme of the parables is the present and future Kingdom of God. The Bible is clear: the Kingdom is in our midst if we trust and obey the King, and one day all the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our God and His Christ.
The parables give us pictures of what that Kingdom is like. They paint vivid theological colors and patterns on the canvas of our lives. They develop three corallory themes: God’s graciousness, the demands of discipleship and the dangers of disobedience.
They dramatize the eternal consequences of how we choose to live. The parables divide their hearers, then and now, into two camps: Jesus’ disciples and His opponents. Examples are many: wheat and tares, sheep and goats, wise and foolish virgins, the rich man and Lazarus, the prodigal son and elder brother, the wide and narrow gates, and the high and low roads.
The parables have the power to focus our theology. Helmut Thielicke, one of the finest German preachers and theologians in the days following W.W. II, was drawn again and again, like the North Star, to the parable of the two sons and the waiting father in Luke 15. Think how impoverished we would be if this priceless parable had been omitted from the New Testament.
Use both sides of your brain to preach the parables.
Craig Blomberg is right to warn us against a pervasive interpretation of the parables that describes what a parable does instead of what it means, while denying that there is anything propositional in it.
He argues that performative language presupposes propositional truths.6 I agree wholeheartedly. But I must confess, as helpful as his exegesis is to open up the meaning of the parables with their three, two and one point lessons, if left there, the left side of my brain would be satisfied and the right side would be starved — intellectually stimulated and empathically depleted — which defeats the reason Jesus told parables in the first place.
I conclude by describing three sermons on the parables that illustrate the power of imagination applied to the parables. The fact that they have lodged in my memory across the years since the day I first heard or read them attests to their imaging power. In his sermon, “The Pearl of Great Price,” Charles Templeton described the sights, sounds and smells of an oriental marketplace where the merchant haggled and bartered for days until he finally gave everything he had to buy the one pearl of great price. He counted himself the most fortunate person on earth to have found it. That is what its like, said Jesus, to pursue God all your life and one day find Him.
James S. Stewart’s sermon, “Love’s Last Appeal,” is about the parable of the servants who beat and murdered those whom their master sent to collect what belonged to him. Finally, he sent his son saying, “Surely they will reverence him.” But scheming to get the land for themselves, the greedy servants brutally murdered him. When he told this parable, Jesus laid bare the treachery of the Scribes and Pharisees who thought their plan to kill him in a few hours was utterly secret. Stewart doesn’t end on that negative note, however. He concludes by urging us to throw open the gates, receive the Son, welcome Him with open arms and then serve Him gladly.
Clovis Chappell put an imaginary ending to his sermon on the Good Samaritan. It is seven years after the Jericho Road experience. The Good Samaritan is sitting in a pew at his church in Samaria when a stranger slides into the seat beside him. “Are you so‑and-so?” he asks. “Yes,” the Samaritan replies, “but I’m sorry, I don’t know you.” “Oh yes you do,” he said. “I am the man you picked up rather than passed up on the road to Jericho.” (There was a scar running the full side of his cheek.) “I felt you lift me up and place me on your beast of burden; I saw you through half glazed eyes, and in my semiconsciousness, I heard you tell the inn keeper that you would pay any extra charges on my bill when you returned. I would not have done the same for you because I am a Jew and you are a Samaritan. I have decided to become a member of your church today because if your religion could cause you to do what you did for me, I want your God to be my God and your church to be my church.” The Kingdom of God is like that.
Wayne E. Shaw is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Preaching at Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, IL
1 Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1990, pp. 58‑69. Though seldom cited in articles on the parables, his book based on his Ph. D. dissertation at Aberdeen, is one of the most balanced and informative on the subject.
2 Some parables appear in one gospel and not in another because of their theological contexts. Matthew emphasizes the royal parables. Mark emphasizes the parables of mystery and amazement; Luke emphasizes the parables of wide embrace. The writer’s theology determines his emphasis.
3 Sometimes the parable is introduced by a lead line instead of concluded with a tag line.
4 Blomberg categorizes the parables in the following way: Nineteen contain three main ideas built around three central characters. Eleven are three pointed and simple. Eight are three pointed and complex. Nine are two pointed. Six have only one central character and teach only one point (pp. 171‑288).
5 The count is eight instead of seven if one includes the short, short wrap up of Matthew 13 as a parable. It leaves the disciples with their heads spinning as Jesus concludes.
6 Blomberg, pp.140‑141.