After hearing a Bad Sermon today on one of the parables from the Gospel of St Matthew, I tweeted ten rules for preaching on the parables – I've listed them below.
Personally I believe the parables are probably the hardest parts of scripture to preach on. It's like trying to explain a joke: no matter how well you do it, you still end up feeling that you've missed the point. Some of the better sermons I've heard on the parables are sermons that take a cluster of parables instead of just one: Luke 15 is an obvious example, with the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son; even if it's not always as clear-cut as that, there are plenty of other cases where the evangelists' arrangement of multiple parables can provide a larger theme that helps to guide the preacher away from over-explaining the individual features of a particular parable. At times a sort of reader-response approach to the parables can be a good idea too: elaborating on the way the parable affects the hearers can again steer the preacher away from the deadening evils of allegorical and moralistic interpretations.
I also reckon preachers on the parables would benefit from a healthy immersion in the great tradition of Jewish humour – from the Talmud, with its quirky rabbinic anecdotes and preposterous legal examples, right down to modern Jewish comic geniuses like Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny, and Woody Allen. I'm not an expert nor the son of an expert, but my feeling is that Jesus' teaching makes just as much sense when you see it within this tradition of Jewish humour as it does when viewed within traditions of the travelling sage, apocalyptic prophet, messianic revolutionary, or whatever else is in vogue at the moment.
Anyway, here are ten rules for preaching on Jesus' parables (intended more for use by preachers than by parishioners!).
Rule #1: Don't assume that God is necessarily one of the characters in the parable.
Rule #2: Don't assume that the parable is trying to tell you how to improve your life.
Rule #3: Don't assume that you're the goodie in the story (and that other people are the baddies).
Rule #4: If you can explain the whole parable without mentioning the words "kingdom of God," you're probably doing it wrong.
Rule #5: If it ends up having anything to do with going to heaven when we die, you're probably doing it wrong
Rule #6: If Jesus seems more like a headmaster giving orders than like a comedian cracking jokes, you're probably doing it wrong.
Rule #7: If you feel perfectly confident and untroubled while expounding the parable, you're probably doing it wrong.
Rule #8: If your sermon on the parable leaves people with nothing to look forward to and nothing to hope for, you're probably doing it wrong.
Rule #9: Now go back and repeat Rule 3 (because every preacher forgets this at least once in every sermon).
Rule #10: Finally, if you've preached a lousy sermon, just remember: as long as the parable was read aloud before you started, it won't be a total loss.
I'm serious about that last point too. It's often struck me how even after the most soul-crushing exposition of a parable (my own included), people go away afterwards thinking about what was read before the sermon. It's a testament to the extraordinary power of Jesus' teaching that it cannot be defeated even by its most dedicated expositors.