Thursday 7 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.


One of Freedom said...

In a Christology class, I took under John van den Hengel, we spent a bit of time talking about parables as aphorisms. The premise was that the parables are meant to shock us so that we could see something about the Kingdom that otherwise could not be conveyed. But that we like to resolve the tension of an aphorism and in so doing we lose the insight. So when we try to figure out if there is really a mustard seed that is the smallest and forms something other than an unwanted shrub, then we have missed the point. Or when we try to rationalize a good shepherd leaving the flock, we miss the point.

That class revolutionized how I preach the parables.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

The most annoying thing to me about some interpretations of the parables is the way they get flipped around and the emphasis is taken off what they are revealing about Christ. Take, for example, the parable of the treasure hidden in the field. All through childhood I heard this parable told like this: "Jesus is a priceless treasure, and we should give up everything we have in order to obtain it." Blah. I have since learned to see in parables like this a revelation of Christ's person and work. Who is the treasure? The Church! Christians! Who is the man who finds it? Christ himself! This is a parable about election and atonement. Christ "sells everything" in order to "purchase the field." Why the field? Because the atonement is universal. The field in Matthew's Gospel refers to the world, and the Church is a precious treasure hidden within. Christ buys the whole world by his blood, so that he can have His precious treasure.

The parable goes from being one of the Law (you must find Christ) to one of the Gospel (Christ has found you).

Thanks for the good post.

Bill Heroman said...

Nice post and comments. I like very much, and it's interesting to see someone so theological have such a "fingers in the earth" kind of perspective on something. :)

Of course, I've yet to meet many people who've literally followed Jesus' words to the rich young ruler. But I believe it's significant that Jesus said that to him when Easter and Pentecost were scant months away - weeks, possibly!

My thing is time. Anyway, I wonder how this might affect your views, to consider whether certain parables were told during certain stages of his ministry. What do you/y'all think about that?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Ben. Although it should be noted that the story of Jesus and the rich young man is not a parable but an historical pericope... which makes it that much more difficult to avoid.

Ben Myers said...

Dan, thanks for pointing that out! I'm blushing with embarrassment at the blooper (as though Jesus could appear as a character in his own parable...) — but anyway, I'll blame it on my head-cold, and I've now corrected the post.

chris s said...

One good resource along these lines is the Robert Capon book "Kingdom Grace and Judgment", which is a collection of his previous works on the parables.

Anonymous said...

my pet hate is the poor reading of the story. So the Good Samaritan finishes when the GS gets to the inn. Thus missing the eschatological dimension of the story in the responsibility of the inn keeper to behave in the interim period between the first going of the GS and the second coming. The same is true in the parable of the talents. The focus of the story is on what happens in the interim...and Jesus gives us no detail of the story in that time.

These interim periods and unfinished storylines of the parables often seem to be to contain the kernal. We too often treat them as simply some colour.

Thanks for this post Ben

Anonymous said...

Of course, part of the problem is that the parables are presented (apparently by Jesus and certainly by the Gospel writers) in place of sermons. He only unpacks the parable of the sower, and even then without specific application. I think preaching about parables often works against Jesus' intent in telling them in the first place.

So maybe the pounding of your heart "in dread and anticipation at the challenge of Jesus’ words" is the point of the whole exercise, and we should just leave it there! Or maybe the parables speak so specifically to a person's particular situation that they should only be discussed one-on-one. I know I often worry (and sometimes feel guilty) after preaching on the parables because I've softened them to apply to a very broad range of people.



Anonymous said...

Wow, whomever that preacher was, Ben, s/he should be sued for homiletical malpractice! If an "interpretation" of any of Jesus' parables is not as shocking, disquieting, disturbing as Jesus' original (or as close as possible), then it is a bad interpretation. OF course, Jesus is using hyperbole when he says to pluck out one's eye or cut off one's hand--but there is no justifications for watering down the subversive challenge of Jesus' parables. NONE. Zilch.

These attempts to tame Jesus are more dangerous than more formal heresies because we usually WANT to be "reassured" as you point out, Ben.

Dan Turis said...

Anything that creates distance between His followers and His words must remain suspect. Great post Ben, I just started reading a couple days ago.

Anonymous said...

The point about a parable is that it is as purely subjective in form and one can get, so every authentic interpretation is a subjective interpretation, a revelation of the one who hears not of what is heard. Ideally, there are as many true interpretations as there are hearers. "From which each according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusions." - Auden

Anonymous said...

Where are some examples of "good" sermons on such topics?

I know I'd be interested.

Reading some of the comments, it sounds like the conception of a good sermon is one that tells the congregation they are a bunch of louts for not following Jesus better.

Anonymous said...

Two words: Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Aren't we tempted to (mis)read the parables in this way because we (mistakenly, in my view) assume that their point is to provide a sensible and livable ethics for all human beings, perhaps even a politics, too, rather than to proclaim the gospel?

Anonymous said...

The rich young ruler may have learned right away if he had obeyed Jesus that, first, the poor do not need luxury goods. They need cash. Second, anything you buy at one price and try to sell later tends to depreciate, esp. if you need to sell quick. Closeout, fire sale prices.

How much cash might this rich man have raised? Probably a fraction of what it cost him to buy what he had.

After he left, Peter said, "Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee" (Mark 10:28 KJV). The verse actually says "Peter began to say," so he surely had more to say on the subject. Then Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life" (Mark 10:29-30 KJV).

The rich man might have looked at selling his possessions as an investment, as many prosperity preachers preach it, if he heard the part of about receiving one hundredfold of houses and lands. But who wants to take responsibility for a hundredfold brothers, sisters, mothers, and children? Not most rich people. Not most poor people, either.

I think Peter may have been excited and patting himself and the disciples on the backs, as if to say, "Hey, Jesus, we obeyed! We left everything!" Then Jesus dropped the bomb: they would get even more responsiblity because they obeyed. Theirs was not a responsibility-free, bohemian discipleship.

Virtual Methodist said...

At least we have got beyond the "What is THE point of the parable?" which was so prevalent in teaching about parables even when I was in theological college. The problem is tho' that as attempt to extract meaning FROM a story or saying of Jesus, we tend to map it onto established theological constructs or eschatological understandings, thus missing the more radical elements to what Jesus is saying. Rather we find meaning by entering INTO the story (Ricoeur's hermeneutical circle/spiral) with all the questions that it raises. Thus trying to pin down where Jesus is in the story, or what it says about atonement etc is rarely the primary issue. Rather, we should be asking ourselves, personally and corporately where am I/are we in this story? How does it make me/us feel? What next? But then, we're happier with systematic propositions than questions.

Jeff said...

>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.

It seems to me that the above comments give the lie to this assertion.

Rev. Paul Beisel confidently asserts that in Matt 13:44, Jesus must be the man who "sells all to buy the field" or else it is a parable about Law... despite the fact that Jesus told the rich young ruler precisely to "sell all" for the sake of the kingdom.

crookedshore confidently describes an allegorical reading of Luke 10:29-37 (following Augustine, I believe... except that to Augustine "the innkeeper" was the Apostle Paul?), despite the fact that Jesus told the man whose question led to the parable to "go and do likewise" in showing mercy.

And ablem suggests that parables are "purely subjective" and open to any interpretation, despite the fact that when asked, Jesus provided a detailed one-for-one account of what the parables of the Sower (Matt 13:18-23, Mark 4:13-20) and the Wheat and the Tares (Matt 13:37-43) meant.

Having critiqued several fellow commenters, I don't know how humbly I can suggest my own view, but I will try anyway:

I think the parables were intended to remain mysterious (Matt 13:11-17). We are unwise if we think that we are so much smarter than Jesus' contemporaries that we should be able to interpret parables whose meaning He intentionally hid. He has always been a God who hides Himself (Isa 45:15).

I don't know that this means that it's a waste of time to attempt to teach the parables, but we should probably be willing to laugh at ourselves as we do so. I suspect He is chuckling at us as He hears the things we come up with.

Finally, I note that the Apostolic hermeneutic for parable interpretation was indeed extremely simple and direct:

...His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.” (Matt 13:36)

Maybe we should try the same thing...

Anonymous said...


I’m very sympathetic to your critique of the tendency of preachers to engage in a certain kind of cleverness that evades or domesticates the radical demands which the gospel confronts us with. But while I share your concerns, I also have some difficulties with your approach to the parables. Perhaps the most obvious problem (from a certain perspective) with your approach is that it seems to trade on the idea that certain narratives (in this case, the parables) have fixed and easily identifiable meanings. When you write that “the only hard thing about the parables is that they are so simple, so straightforward in what they claim and what they demand”, it seems that you are saying that in these particular narratives (whatever we might say about narratives in general), there is really no interpretative problem: their meaning is simply ‘x’ or ‘y’ or whatever. Students of hermeneutics would, I think, find this a difficult claim to accept. You may not be wrong, but I think you would need to make some case as to why the process of discerning what it is that these narratives claim and demand – that is, the process of reading these narratives – is a straightforward business in contrast to what students of hermeneutics tell us what it is like to read other narratives. Perhaps a theological case could be made here. Certainly, I think that any hermeneutic of scripture ought to be a properly theological hermeneutic which starts not with an account of the way that texts, in general, work, or of the relationship between ‘text’ and ‘reader’ in general, but with an exposition of the doctrine of God (e.g., God as self-communicative etc.), which understands Scripture as what John Webster calls ‘an instrument of divine action’. But this is precisely where, I think, the more serious objection to your approach to the parables arises. For if in our exegesis of the doctrine of God, we find that we must say that God’s self-communication, his self-exegesis, is supremely elegant, we must also recognize that the place where God is most eloquent is the one place where our perception of ourselves, of the world, of God, are thoroughly unsettled. It was not the least achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar to show that the revelation of the glory of the lord and Christ’s ‘plumbing of the abyss’ where not two separate events, but one and the same. This may seem remote from the question of how we ought to interpret the parables, but I would suggest that if we are to have an adequate hermeneutic of scripture, then it is precisely these ideas we need to develop. In the course of their development we would, I think, learn to become suspicious of readings of scripture which, while accepting that the command of the gospel is difficult to live out, nevertheless presume that our cognitive purchase upon that command is, as it were, a piece of cake. Such readings seem to construe the clarity and eloquence of the gospel in ways that are abstracted from the supreme moment of divine self-exegesis at the cross; or, in other words, they are not governed by a properly theological doctrine of God.
All of this would need to be worked out much more fully, and with particular reference to the parables. But here I would just like to suggest that R. H. Lightfoot’s reading of the synoptic gospels is not entirely irrelevant to the discussion. For Lightfoot, the gospels were exercises in Christology: at their heart was a figure who invited, even compelled, us to come to terms with him, while at the same time, shattered our attempts to do so. It is as if Christology were an intellectual activity demanded by the revelation of God in Christ, but one that was continually coming to grief. So, in the gospels what we see are attempts to grasp something that can’t be grasped, something that evades our intellectual efforts even as it compels them and makes them possible. The point here is not just that the command of the gospel is difficult, but that the process of mortification (and indeed vivification!) occurs at an intellectual level as well.
To come back to the parables, then. I agree, Ben, that there is a certain kind of intellectual sophistication that is really an attempt to do away with the scandalous claims that the gospel makes upon us. Furthermore, such intellectual sophistication can even appear as a kind of humility, even one that is genuinely felt, but which is no less a form of evasion for this reason. And yet, to counter this with the claim that the demands made upon us by the parables are really simple runs the risk (if we are not careful to show otherwise), of suggesting that the simplicity of the gospel means that we have some kind of straightforward cognitive purchase upon it, and this is itself an evasion of the scandal of the gospel at the intellectual level. Alternatively, to express intellectual bewilderment in the process of exegeting the parables, to ask awkward questions about them, to suppose that things may not be as morally clear-cut at they first seem, may not necessarily be a way of avoiding the command of the gospel, but rather of making clear to ourselves where the gospel really does impinge upon the beliefs and values that we have. Sometimes, to too quickly assume that we have got the point – that we understand what the command of the gospel is – is to refuse to allow the gospel to penetrate or impinge upon certain areas of our live. Perhaps, to finish on what I hope does not appear to be a facetious note, there is an obscure connection between Harnack’s talk of the simplicity of the gospel and his readiness to support the Kaiser’s war effort.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff. Matthew 13: 36 and on for example. The disciples ask for “explanation,” but they hardly receive that. Who are the sons of the kingdom over against the sons of the evil one? Individuals or thoughts or habits? Is he saying that the “evil one” is “father” of individuals? Is he saying that evildoers will be tossed into the furnace at the end of the age because they are evildoers? That one will be saved on the basis of what one does?

Anonymous said...

"The Kingdom of God is like a five-line parable which a preacher took and mixed in a twenty-six paragraph sermon until it was completely diluted?"

Um? What?

I think I tend to agree with Jeff (above) who said that the point of a parable is that it should remain mysterious. The gospel does, after all, say why Jesus taught in parables (Mt 13:13f): but the explanation is itself parabolic. Perhaps the truth is something like:

"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a parable which the wise and learned were unable to expound in their sermons, but which bore fruit of self-examination and change of heart in those who thought about it."

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

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