Jesus had incredible structure to his sermons … but only sometimes.
Think of the Sermon on the Mount. Its introduction (eight beatitudes) is followed with six antitheses: Jesus fights the thesis that keeping a warped standard of righteousness was enough. It ends in chapter 7 with four warnings. It has a clear logical structure.
However, Jesus also preached some “pointless” sermons.
There are sermons that were all story and no “points.” Or more precisely, he preached sermons with one major point. In other words, His one point was made without multiple “points” leading up to it. Compare the Sermon on the Mount to the eight parables of Matthew 13—eight stories told right in a row. The chapter has structure, but of course the stories themselves are not woven with a formal outline structure. They are amazing stories, including the famous Parable of the Soils followed by the Wheat and the Tares. Consider also the five parables of Luke 15–16. These chapters contain the famous parables of the Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The scenes of the story were Jesus’ structure, so they become our structure.
Jesus intentionally told some masterful stories to teach a major idea using the story form as a structure. Though there is little in the way of an outline to these talks, these massive stories are wonderful to preach for the reason that they have a clear narrative structure. Forget the alliterated outlines; simply walk through the scenes of the story. The scenes of the story were Jesus’ structure, so they become our structure. The fill-in-the-blank people and the I-have-to-make-slides-from-your-points guy will have to go into therapy for lack of points. Gladly offer to pay for it. Narratives never work that well when treated like a lecture. (It is interesting that for some, the innovation of notes on the screens is now unbreakable tradition.)
So, we preach the parables with the scenes of the story as our structure. This is the best approach when preaching the larger parables: The Parable of the Soils has four clear responses to the seed; the Prodigal Son has three major scenes; the Good Samaritan has three responses and a final commentary. But that’s only the larger parables.
What do you do with the smaller stories of Christ? What if a parable of Christ not only has one point, what if it has only one scene?! There are quite a few of them. Consider this representative list:
Parables with Shorter Narrative Structure
- The Children in the Marketplace (Matt. 11:16–19; Luke 7:31–35)
- The Two Sons (Matt. 21:28–32)
- The Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5–8)
- Faithful and Unfaithful Servants (Luke 12:42–48; Matt. 24:45–51)
- The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9–14)
- The Two Builders (Matt. 7:24–27; Luke 6:47–49)
- The Unprofitable Servant (Luke 17:7–10)
- The Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4:26–29)
- The Rich Fool (Luke 12:16–21)
- The Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6–9)
- The Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1–8)
- The Householder and the Thief (Matt. 24:43–44; Luke 12:39–40)
- The Two Debtors (Luke 7:41–43)
- The Dragnet (Matt. 13:47–50)
- The Trained Scribe (Matt. 13:51–52)
- The Growing Seed (Mark 4:26–29)
Some of these are longish and could be preached as scenes (e.g., Faithful and Unfaithful servants; Pharisee and Tax Collector). However, some are just one or two verses! This list does not include double parables, which will be dealt with in another post.
Clearly, it would be difficult to develop a fully orbed narrative from one verse. So, what do you do with these? The more specific question is, “Do we preach them as stand alone stories, or do we preach them as a part of the larger text around it?” This is the question. The short answer is either option is fine. In fact, there is a sense in which it does not matter. This is because the meaning of a shorter parable is not in the parable but around it. This is true of all parables, but it is accentuated in the shorter parables. The shorter parables take all their meaning from the context. Therefore whether you preach a passage with a parable in it or simply take the parable for the whole sermon, you will end up preaching the context around it.
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
The Wise and Foolish Builder
The first parable in the Gospels is the parable of the two builders (Matt. 7:24-27). The parable describes those who do or do not build their lives on the rock of Christ’s teaching. This parable is the conclusion/invitation to the Sermon on the Mount. This is not simply about making good life choices or building for eternity. No generalities here. This is an explicit call to act on what they have heard—what they have just heard. Therefore to teach the parable is to say something of the sermon around it that gives it meaning. So at some point in the sermon, you will have to show how building on a rock or sand is reflected in the previous teaching.
The Trained Scribe
The same is true with the parable of the trained scribe (Matt. 13:51–52). This parable is a call to understand everything in the seven parables that precede it. Therefore to understand this parable is to apply the whole chapter.
The point is this: when preaching a short parable, look to the surrounding chapter to find its meaning. Then decide how much of the surrounding passage to preach.
Perhaps the best strategy is to launch into the parable. Preach the one verse parable as if it is a fully orbed story, but unveil the details of the meaning through the lens of the context.
So in the parable of the Trained Scribe (Matt. 13:51–52) you would first ask what Jesus meant by his question about understanding. The answer is found earlier in 13:10–17. Then you have to tell them what a “trained scribe for the kingdom” is. That will need some explanation from Matt. 5:17–20. You would need to then deal with the householder who brings out things old and new. This is the application/conclusion/invitation to those who have followed with him through the parables of Matthew 13. So in dealing with the text in front of you, you are forced to deal with at least the whole chapter and sometimes the whole book. The smaller the parable, the larger the need for context.
So the strategy is preach the little parable and unpack the small text from the larger context. The little parables are deceptively short and provocatively packed with meaning, so preach from small to big.