Friday, 8 August 2008

How (not) to preach the parables

I’ve often been struck by the way Jesus’ parables are interpreted in Christian preaching. Several years ago, I heard an extended series of sermons on the parables, and after a while I realised that each sermon had the same basic structure: first, the parable was narrated (with a few observations about historical context and such); then the pastor proceeded, with great warmth and sensitivity, to provide a “balanced” ethical interpretation, carefully guarding against any “extreme” application of the parable. So when Jesus says to sell everything, it’s not about possessions, it’s about the state of your heart – and so on.

I still remember my own psychological response to these sermons. First, the parable would be told in all its starkness and simplicity: and I would feel my heart pounding in dread and anticipation at the challenge of Jesus’ words. Then, by the end of the sermon, all my fears would be alleviated – no need for alarm; God’s command isn’t so uncompromising; Jesus really demands nothing of me after all!

It’s a curious thing that pastors often find it so difficult to preach Jesus’ parables. In truth, the only hard thing about the parables is that they are so simple, so straightforward in what they claim and what they demand. They are so simple that we need to make them difficult in order to escape the piercing gaze of Jesus. Or perhaps some pastors feel they need to soften the parables in order to protect the congregation from God. After all, it is God himself who bursts through these stories, coming on the scene with the unaccountable strangeness of a seed in the ground, with the disruptive suddenness of a thief in the night.

In his great book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer highlights our tendency to “interpret” the teaching of Jesus in a way that leaves us safe, comfortable, unchallenged. Referring to typical interpretations of the story of the rich young ruler, Bonhoeffer remarks (p. 79): “Everywhere it is the same – the deliberate avoidance of simple, literal obedience. How is such a reversal possible? What has happened that the word of Jesus has to endure this game? … Anywhere else in the world where commands are given, the situation is clear. A father says to his child: go to bed! The child knows exactly what to do. But a child drilled in pseudo-theology would have to argue thus: Father says go to bed. He means you are tired; he does not want me to be tired. But I can also overcome my tiredness by going to play. So, although father says go to bed, what he really means is go play.”

In a different context, Karl Barth once told a little parable of his own: “To what shall I liken the basic principles of [liberal] theology? Is it not like a clock which is so cleverly constructed that the hands move from right to left instead of from left to right?” Our preaching about Jesus is often “cleverly constructed” in exactly the same way.

By removing everything offensive from the teaching of Jesus, we might succeed in making it easier to enter the kingdom of heaven – but in this very act, the kingdom is turned into a bland mirror image of the status quo. If we want to preach the words of Jesus faithfully, perhaps we need to lose some of our cleverness, our talent for interpretive evasion, and work instead at making our proclamation simpler – not easier, but simpler.

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