Suggestions for Preaching Parables
Every parable has a connection to the gospel. So, when you preach, don’t moralize (e.g., the point of the parable of the talents is that God rewards hard work; so, work hard!).1 Moreover, because the parables describe various parts of the gospel of the kingdom—the rule of Christ inaugurated in the incarnation and consummated in the second coming—set your sermons within the context of the whole gospel story (death and resurrection of Christ) and response (repentance, faith, and obedience). The parables feature what the whole of the New Testament covers: gospel need, gospel proclamation, gospel response, and gospel ethics. In your preaching, follow Jesus’s pattern.
Below are eight suggestions to help your homiletics soar. Or, at least get off the ground.
First, share what is truly important. If you are clearly given the main point of a parable in the text, or you have painstakingly discerned it in your study, share it with God’s people from the start and throughout. For example, Luke tells us in Luke 18:1 that Jesus taught the parable of the persistent widow “to the effect that they [his disciples] ought always to pray and not lose heart.” You need to unpack the symbolic relationship between the unrighteous judge and God and the widow and God’s elect, but not at the expense of sharing the point of those two characters’ actions. The sermon should be dominated by what is truly important, not by all the possible interpretations or twenty minutes of unraveling the symbolic details.
Second, take time to explain. You need to get to the point (see above), but not at the expense of making sure that all the important details in the parable are explicated. In most settings, we are up against two obstacles: (1) people who don’t use or hear parables on a regular basis, or at all, and (2) most biblical parables are “notoriously puzzling” and their “meaning is rarely transparent.”2 Be patient. Explain slowly and clearly. Illustrate.
Third, contemporize. One way to explain and illustrate is to retell a parable, or part of a parable, as a paraphrase and/or with a relevant and accessible story from today. As Blomberg advocates, “it will be both easy and helpful to include some modern equivalent to the biblical story in an introduction, in one or more illustrations interspersed within the body, or in a conclusion to the message. These contemporizations should work to recreate the original dynamic, force, or effect of Jesus’ original story. It is not true that narratives cannot (or should not) be paraphrased propositionally; it is true that good exposition should not do just that.”3
Fourth, feel free to group parables together by themes. For example, when I preached on Matthew 13, I divided the material into three sermons. I covered the purpose of parables (13:10–17, with verses 34–35, 51–52), the parable of the sower (13:1–9, 18–23, with verses 57–58), and the other seven short parables (13:24–33, 36–50). I justified grouping the seven parables together because they all shared three themes (growth, judgment, and gain).
Fifth, don’t harmonize. “Occasionally variants of the same story appear to make different points, for example, the parable of the lost sheep (Matt. 18:10–14 and Luke 15:3–10) or the parable of the great feast (Matt. 22:1–14 and Luke 14:16–24).”4 Let them make those different points. Blomberg states the suggestion this way: “Especially in a series of sermons working their way through large portions of one specific Gospel, messages on parables that are parallel in other Gospels should stress something of what is unique to the specific version of the parable at hand.”5
Sixth, don’t shy away from some shock therapy! Arthurs puts it this way: “Don’t disarm Jesus’ land mines,”6 which are “explosive but concealed.”7 I favor that shock therapy analogy because, while there is a concealed but explosive element to Jesus’s prophetic parabolic punches, shock therapy, as used by psychiatric professionals, can have positive results. We don’t want our people blown to pieces by our preaching! But we do want to let God’s provocative word shock their spiritual sensibilities. Related, and continuing with a medical analogy, seek to shock both the head and heart. Shock therapy aims for the head; a defibrillator aims for the heart. For example, when Nathan told David the parable about the rich man and the lamb, it outraged David. But it wasn’t until the prophet proclaimed, “You are the man!” that David’s head then heart were shocked back to spiritual health. Don’t be afraid to deliver the lifesaving shock found in many of the Bible’s parables.
Don’t be afraid to deliver the lifesaving shock found in many of the Bible’s parables.
Seventh, use Jesus’s calls to listen! In Mark, Jesus begins the parable of the sower with this exhortation: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow” (Mark 4:3). A dozen times, Jesus calls his listeners to “hear” (e.g., “Hear another parable,” Matt. 21:33),8 and twice to “hear and understand” (15:10; Mark 7:14). Repeatedly throughout my sermons, especially those on parables, I use the same or similar terminology. I might say, “Now, listen to this!” or “Do you understand what Jesus is saying?” or “see or observe [behold!] how Jesus contrasts this with that.”
Eighth, have fun! As Ryken suggests, “If we can use the label ‘fun genre’ without irreverence, the parables of Jesus certainly merit that epithet. They are a delight to read, study, and teach.”9
Warren Wiersbe defined a parable as “a picture that becomes a mirror and then a window,” in that “we gaze at the scene [or see the story] in the parable, we see ourselves; then we see truth.”10 We also see Jesus! As Lischer states, “Unlike other stories from antiquity, the parables of Jesus are integrally related to the character and mission of their teller. One can enjoy an Aesopian fable or a rabbinic story without much biographical or contextual background. The parables of Jesus, on the other hand, do not stand alone as individual stories but are woven into a larger narrative.”11 Whatever mistakes we make in reading and preaching the parables, let us not make the mistake of not making much of Jesus. He is the sower of the good seed of the gospel, the heaven-sent Son, the bridegroom of his church, the king upon his glorious throne, the final judge of all people everywhere, and so much more!
- This does not mean that we should shy away from preaching “basic Christian doctrine and morality” from the parables. See Ryken, Words of Delight, 403, emphasis mine.
- Lischer, Reading the Parables, 4.
- Blomberg, Preaching the Parables, 24–25.
- Lischer, Reading the Parables, 11.
- Blomberg, Preaching the Parables, 25.
- Arthurs, Preaching with Variety, 125.
- Arthurs, Preaching with Variety, 108.
- See Matt. 11:15; 13:18, 19, 43; 15:10; 21:33; Mark 4:9; 7:14; Luke 8:8, 18; 14:35; 18:6.
- Ryken, Jesus the Hero, 97.
- Quoted in Arthurs, Preaching with Variety, 104. From Warren Wiersbe, Teaching and Preaching with Imagination: The Quest for Biblical Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1994), 164.
- Lischer, Reading the Parables, 5.
This article is adapted from The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition: Preaching the Literary Artistry and Genres of the Bible by Douglas Sean O'Donnell and Leland Ryken.
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