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Wholly Bible: Preaching Parables

The parables of Jesus are go-to texts in preaching. They are so familiar, so convicting, so artful that they just beg to be preached. However the familiarity of the text can lull us into exegetical slumber: the state in which we never rethink our approach to understanding them. And what’s worse, the exegetical slumber leads to a homiletical boredom. If we think the text is predictable then we will preach it predictable ways. So, here are features of parables that we need to attend to while preaching parables.

Parables do not give away their meaning at the beginning.

Parables are inductive. You don’t know the point of a story until the story has ended. So our listeners should not know the point of the sermon until somewhere toward the end of the sermon. Parables are inductive, which means that their meaning is derived from the last part of the parable—from the last scene. These are not lectures where Christ is trying to work out several points of a proposition. Rather, they are stories, most with surprise endings, that move the listener from an apparently normal story to a surprise ending.

The Sermon Strategy here is obvious. Don’t give away the point at the beginning. Especially in the long parables, allow the meaning to be teased out over the course of the parable and then present itself strong at the end.

Parables move around scenes not “points.”

Think for a minute about the word “point.” It assumes that there is a single truth to which we are pointing. This is not unlike navigating unfamiliar terrain as a tour guide—we point to things along the way. A preacher who is not committed to preaching a text of Scripture will have truths in his mind to which he wants to point the listener. The preacher who is somewhat dependent on the text will point to truths in the text but may not follow the flow of the text. The preacher who is completely leashed to the Scripture wants only to make the point(s) that the text is making—he will point to nothing else.

The parables can make many “points,” broadly speaking, but I am convinced that there is a single truth that is dominant in a story. Of course, we can point to many truths. They are truths, after all. Why not point to them? However, there are clues in each text that some truths trump others. There is a hierarchy. There may be more than a singular truth in a parable, but there is a truth that seems to dominate. The clue to finding that truth is, you guessed it, in the structure.

Therefore, we need to think like a scriptwriter not a preacher making points. A film develops its story line around scenes. There are multiple scenes in a two-hour movie, but there are a few very significant scenes around which the story turns. Jesus is telling the stories in a very few minutes, so He is just highlighting the major scenes in the story. Much of the detail is left out or is assumed, but that material is not necessary to carry the story along. What is necessary are scenes that move the story in a certain trajectory. So, it is critical to identify the scenes in the parables.

Setting is important but brief.

The setting for the parables is unique. Jesus is telling short stories, so reams of context are self-defeating. He just assumes things. However, this does not mean that the setting, if one is given, is not important. Pay careful attention to the setting.

Parables have a specific audience.

Think of the three parables of Luke 15. They were addressed to the Scribes and Pharisees (v.1, 2). Then Jesus turns to his disciples to tell another parable (16:1), however the Scribes and Pharisees were listening in (16:14), so he addressed a final parable to them (16:19). This inclusion by Luke is very important to the interpretation of the parables. The first three parables are directed to the Pharisees; the fourth parable is directed to the disciples; and the final one back to the Pharisees. In each case, the intended audience shades the meaning.

The sermon strategy is to understand the audience and allow that information to influence how it is told. Also, it is important to point that out when we preach the parable. It will help the listener understand the strategy of Christ.

The telling of parables is telling a story about someone telling a story.

After all this talk of narratives, let me say that these are not just stories. The Gospel writer is actually telling a story of Jesus telling a story. These are stories about Jesus telling stories. So, since God used the Gospel writers to record these stories, we are not surprised that they have actually imbedded clues as to their meaning in the material surrounding the parable. Think of the metaphor of a camera panning out.

Identify Christ’s Strategy

Another way to say this is, look for the strategy of Christ in telling the story. Again, the biblical author is giving us clues. Every detail of the story is important because it was put there for a purpose. This is not an admonition for hyper-allegorizing a parable. Yet, obviously the way Jesus told parables was conditioned by the context in which he was teaching.

In the end this is what we are after—reanimating the parables of Christ so that they have the same effect on the listener that they had on the original listeners. Really this is what text-driven preaching is all about: re-presenting the idea that is imbedded in the text.

This post is one of a series on preaching the genres of Scripture. Dr. Smith’s forthcoming book on Genre Sensitive Preaching will be available from B&H Academic, Fall 2014.

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Steven Smith

Steven Smith

Steven W. Smith serves as vice president for student services and communications and professor of communication at Southwestern Seminary. He is author of "Dying to Preach: Embracing the Cross in the Pulpit."

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