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Wholly Bible: Preaching Gospel Narratives

The sermon wasn’t going well, and I could feel it. If I could feel it, I think the audience could feel it as well. The reason? I did not have a firm grip on the main idea of the text.

My text was Luke 16:19-31, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Originally I was drawn to this text because it was so difficult. I thought the challenge of the exegesis would be a tough hill to climb, and I was not disappointed. However, after hours of study, I still did not have a firm grip on the text and still didn’t when I mounted the pulpit.

There is so much in this parable. There is the question of whether this is even a parable or not. There is the question of the immediate state in the afterlife; there is the question of why Jesus described hell the way he did. There are so many exegetical nuts to crack that the commentators are often divided over the details. And so in my study, I focused on these details trying to overcome any inner conflict and preach with a measure of certainty. And this was exactly my problem. The closer I looked at the text, the more deeply I examined the grammatical structure of the sentences and the tense of the verbs, the further I moved away from the meaning of the text. Why? How could intense study keep me away from the text. The reason is because the meaning of this text is not in the micro view; it is in the macro view.

The closer I looked at the text, the more deeply I examined the grammatical structure of the sentences and the tense of the verbs, the further I moved away from the meaning of the text.

Think about a cinematographer who pans out from a tight shot. As he pans out, more of the surrounding context comes into view, and thus more of the meaning. This is how this text is to be handled.

As you pan out from the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, you see that the meaning is in the parables that surround it. This is not an isolated story. This is the fifth story Jesus tells in a tight-fitting group, beginning in chapter 15. The first three parables—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and the Lost Son—describe how Jesus feels about what is lost. (15:1-31). The fourth parable, the Shrewd Steward, describes how we should act in this age—treat possessions as a means to get as many people into the kingdom as possible (16:1-13).

The Pharisees balk at this because they love money more than people and they therefore scorn the word of God (16:14-18). So then Jesus tells us the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man loved money more than lost people, and he had a very low view of Scripture. He was the personification of what the Pharisees were, and he was the opposite of Jesus. The five parables represent four models of what we should be, and one we should never be.

The preacher who wants to understand the nuances of hell better will be disappointed by this parable. While Jesus tells us some things, almost everything he tells us about hell in this parable is affirmed other places. Why? Because his point is not to describe hell but rather to describe a kind of person who goes there—a person who has a low view of Scripture and loves possessions more than people.

So when preaching a Gospel narrative, remember this key: the meaning of a text may have more to do with the Author of the text than the words of the text. By this we mean that the meaning of a narrative is influenced by how the Gospel writer placed this narrative in its immediate context, and within the flow of the book.

The meaning of a text may have more to do with the Author of the text than the words of the text.

This principle can be liberating as we go through the Gospels. If we do not tend to the author’s purposes, we are not tending to the Author’s purposes, since the human author is inspired with his purpose by the divine Author.

So, while our natural tendency in preaching is to zoom in as tightly as we can in a text, we must also remember to pan out. This is always true but especially true when preaching the Gospels. The meaning of a text may be around it as much as within it. So while tending the micro structure of the narrative we are preaching, we must also tend the macro structure in which it fits.

Read other articles from this series on preaching the genres of Scripture.

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Steven Smith

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