Preaching Lukan Parables: A Socio-Rhetorical Approach

Mike Graves  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 40 - Fall 1997

The parables of Jesus are among the favorite Bible passages of many church goers and preachers alike. To borrow Thomas Long’s phrase, the parables seem more “preacher friendly” than other kinds of texts.[1]Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 87.

This is especially true with the parables in Luke’s gospel. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son stories, for instance, are among the most familiar tales in all of Western literature and lore.

Unfortunately, familiarity frequently breeds contempt, even when it comes to reading Scripture. The interpreter might be tempted to think because of the narrative quality and the everyday imagery employed that parables are, as some have described them, “earthly stories with heavenly meanings” and nothing more. C.H. Dodd asks, “Was all this wealth of loving observation and imaginative rendering of nature and common life used merely to adorn moral generalities?”[2]C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, rev. ed. (New York: Scribner’s, 1961), 12-13. Or see C. W. F. Smith, The Jesus of the Parables (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1948), 17, who declares: “No one would crucify a teacher who told pleasant stories to enforce prudential morality.” Obviously not! It is true that the parables are stories in some general sense of the word, but they are not simple. To avoid confusion, let us consider some introductory matters related to the narrative nature of the parables.[3]This section, as well as the entire article is adapted from my work, The Sermon as Symphony: Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament (Valley Forge: Judson, 1997), chapter 4. Used with permission of Judson press, 1-800-458-3766. Of course, whereas the book considers parables in general, this article focuses on the Lukan parables in his travel section.


The Parables as Literary Form

When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God and what it is like,[4]Noticeably absent from Luke’s parable is the phrase “kingdom of God.” he more often than not spoke in parables. He did so for a very good reason: stories may be the single best mode of talking about God.  Some have suggested that stories might be the only mode “complex enough and engaging enough to make comprehensible what it means to be with God.”[5]Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 54-55. Jesus’ parabolic stories, however, must not be understood as illustrations the way most preachers use them. The ancient Near Eastern mindset conceived of life in narrative frameworks, unlike our North American culture in which stories often serve to highlight concepts. Kenneth Bailey imagines that if Jesus had been a Westerner, his style of communication would have been radically different. Instead of pronouncing, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9 58),[6]All Scripture citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.   Jesus might have said something like this:

Bold statements are easy to make but you have to consider seriously what it will cost you to follow me. It seems evident that so far you have yet to do so. I must say to you plainly that I can offer you no salary or security. If my point is not yet clear, perhaps an illustration will help. For example, I do not even have a bed of my own to sleep on.[7]Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), xi.

Jesus does not speak in parables to illustrate what he could have said by means of concepts. Rather, the parables are the way he speaks, and concepts are a way for us modern Westerners to wrestle with Jesus’ parables.[8]Robert E. C. Browne, The Ministry of the Word (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958), 39, cited in Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Know, 1989), 167. See also J. Ramsey Michaels, Servant and Son: Jesus in Parable and Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 98-99.

What, then, is a parable? C.H. Dodd’s classic definition has stood the test of time: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[9]Dodd, 5. Two components of his definition merit special attention.[10]I am grateful to my colleague David May for this idea. In a forthcoming article on the cultural aspects of para­bles, he highlights Dodd’s definition similar to how I am doing so here. See David M. May, “‘Drawn from Nature or Common Life’: Social and Cultural Reading Strategies for the Parables,” Review and Expositor 94 (Spring 1997), forthcoming.

The phrase “drawn from nature or common life” highlights a crucial aspect of contemporary parable studies, social-scientific criticism (that is, the role of culture).[11]For an introductory treatment of social-scientific criticism, see Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights.from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville: John Knox, 1981). Other sources include: Richard L. Rohrbaugh, The Biblical Interpreter: An Agrarian Bible in an Industrial Age (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978); John J. Rousseau and Rami Avar, eds. Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); and Douglas Oalanan, Jesus and the Economic Questions of His Day (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1986). What was “common life” like for the first century hearers/readers of Jesus’ parables? How did they view their world?

Similarly, the phrase “arresting the hearer …, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt…to tease it into active thought” highlights the role of rhetoric criticism (that is, how literary forms function).[12]See the seminal address by James Muilenburg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969): 1-18, especially where he discusses the “whys” behind the use of certain forms (5). The term rhetorical criticism is used herein to encompass some of the positive features also gleaned from form and literary criticism. See Burton L. Mack Rhetoric and the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 9-17; and George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina 1984), especially chapter 1. How did parables work on readers/hearers? What does it mean for a story to “tease” listeners?

This present article seeks to combine the insights of both critical methodologies regarding how to preach the parables in Luke’s Gospel (thus, a socio-rhetorical approach). As a result, we will address three questions that every preacher ought to wrestle with in the preparation of sermons: What is the text saying? What is the text doing? How can the sermon say and do the same?

The latter section will discuss strategies for preaching Luke’s parables. The rhetorical function of parables relates to the question, What is the text doing? The first question (What is the text saying?) relates to the role of culture. This is where we begin.


What Is the Text Saying?

The interpretation of any text, parable or otherwise, requires sensitivity to a host of hermeneutical issues. The h1stoncal context and grammatical study of a text are two of the more commonly accepted aspects of interpretation, though many newer methodologies might also be added to the interpreter’s repertoire.[13]See Ronald J. Allen, Contemporary Biblical Interpretation for Preaching (Valley Forge: Judson, 1984), who dis­cusses a wide range of interpretive approaches and how to apply them to sermon preparation.

The role of culture is one area especially worthy of attention when preaching Jesus’ parables. To illustrate, Kenneth Bailey imagines an Englishman telling a story about the days of King Arthur and his court. Listeners subconsciously throw, what Bailey calls, an “invisible mental switch.” He adds, “Everyone knows how the characters are expected to act in the world of the knights of the roundtable.” Sir Lancelot will respect the ladies, obey the Icing, and so forth. “Imagine then an Englishman telling the same story about Sir Lancelot to Alaskan Eskimos.” What different world­ views! “In the case of the parables of Jesus,” writes Bailey, “we are the Eskimos.[14]Bailey, Eyes, xiv.

As such, the “invisible mental switch” needed for understanding the   social world of the first century must be raised to consciousness in our twentieth century minds. Bailey formulates four crucial areas to assist in that process: attitude, relationship, response, and value judgment. He writes:

What is the attitude of a sleeping neighbor to a call for help in the night? What is the relationship between a landowner and his renters? What is the expected response from a father when his son requests his inheritance? What value judgment do the readers make regarding the steward when he suggests the reduction of rents?[15]Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 35. Emphases his.

For centuries fanciful allegory skewed the interpretation of parables claiming to find hidden meaning in the details of a parable. Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan is a classic example of allegory-the Samaritan is Christ, the inn is the church and so forth.[16]Dodd, 1-2. Beginning with Adolf Julicher, allegory was no longer the accepted norm, considered by most as too subjective. Who determines what the inn stands for? By what authority can the interpreter declare the spiritual meaning of the robe, ring, and sandals in the Prodigal Son parable?

Bailey notes there is another faulty approach which has continued to dominate not only parabolic interpretation, but the understanding of all ancient texts-indigenizing. If allegorizing involves finding hidden meanings, indigenizing entails imposing our worldview onto that of the ancients. “What does it mean for a man to knock on his neighbor’s door at midnight in the first century? It is only reasonable to assume, runs the argument, that it would mean roughly the same thing as knocking on a neighbor’s door today.[17]Bailey, Poet, 28. What is reasonable, however, to twentieth century persons in the United States may not have been so to Jesus’ audience.

In fact, these two worldviews are radically different. In the first century world of Jesus the two dominant values were shame and honor. My colleague David May compares honor to a contemporary society’s credit rating. “From the simple act of bartering fish to the involved practice of arranging marriages, honor was at the core of every social interaction.” He adds, “Any of the parables in which the designation fool (aphron) occurs is a sign of shame in contrast to honor.”[18]May, ‘”Drawn from Nature or Common Life,”‘ forthcoming.

When the prodigal son utters his rehearsed line before the father, it is a matter of acknowledging the shame he has brought on the family: “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:19). One of the parable’s emphases is that despite the unworthiness of wayward ones, God chooses to receive them and honor them with blessings.

When the friend wants to borrow bread at midnight (Luke 11:5-8), the crucial question becomes, What is the honorable thing to do? Cultural norms dictated that everyone in the village would be expected to provide for the stranger. Not to do so would be shameful. In contrast, the parable reveals the honor of God, the One who is always willing to hear our prayers.[19]Bailey, Poet, 119-33.

In this shame and honor society there were two primary social institutions: kinship and power. As for the first, ancients existed in the social world only in relationship to the family structure. To be a widow, for example, defined one’ place by lack of kinship. When Luke tells of Jesus’ parable of the hard-hearted judge and the helpless widow, cultural insights remind us just how helpless she was (Luke 18:1-8).

Power related to one’s place in the social structure of the ancient world and how the elites sought to maintain the status quo. This helps explain in part Jesus’ words in Luke 14:12-14 about not inviting only those who can offer invitations to their own parties in return. Jesus seeks to break down such power structures, parabolically revealing that the kingdom of God is open to all persons.

The parables invite us into a familiar world (dinner parties and wayward children, for instance), only to shake up our familiarity (outcasts invited, prodigals honored). Jesus implicitly invites us to try on his worldview for size, in hopes that it will change us permanently.[20]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 77. In the parabolic world of Jesus, Samaritans are heroes and Pharisees are villains. What was truly life shattering in its time still is today, once we identify the Samaritans and Pharisees of our day. This brings us to the next question of sermon preparation.


What Is the Text Doing?

As Dodd puts it, parables leave the mind in “sufficient doubt” and “tease” listeners into “active thought.” That is what they do. The question is, How do they do that? What techniques and devices do parables employ? To answer these questions, let us consider a more recent definition of parables. Bernard Brandon Scott defines a parable as “a mashal that employs a short narrative fiction to reference a transcendent symbol.”[21]Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable:A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 8. Scott elaborates at length on the various components of this definition (8-62). As is obvious from the definitions of Scott and Dodd, Jesus’ parables are highly complex literary forms. To understand them better, let us consider Scott’s definition in detail.

1. Jesus’ parables are only one type of “mashal” (the Hebrew term for “parable,” “proverb”, “warning,” or “riddle”), one specific structure in which Old Testament wisdom was expressed. Thus, the parables of Jesus are part of a larger literary family. The fact that they tease listeners should not be surprising given their riddle-like nature. N.T. Wright notes that if Jesus had openly declared what he frequently told in cryptic story, a “riot” or “lynching” would have been in order.[22]N. T. Wright,Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 179.

Fred Craddock, a well-known preacher and New Testament scholar, describes the parables as a kind of poetry, “lying between the opaque and the obvious, evoking meanings and feelings.” As such, Craddock observes that reducing a parable’s teaching to a theme sentence is as ludicrous as reducing a poem to prose.[23]Fred B. Craddock, Luke in Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), 109-110. See also John Dominic Crossan, “Parable and Example in Jesus’ Teaching,” New Testament Studies 18 (April 1972): 286-87, who con­ tends that Jesus’ parables must be seen as “the metaphors of a poet rather than the examples of a teacher.”

2. Scott’s phrase “short, narrative fiction” distinguishes parables from other meshalim, such as proverbs and riddles. The phrase reminds us that Jesus’ parables are largely storylike materials. The ancients were oral and narrative in their thinking. Jesus’ stories worked (and continue to work) the way all good stories do, “by inviting hearers into the world of the story.”[24]Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 181.

These stories are rooted in concrete life experiences, and yet those experiences get turned upside down. Sometimes the shock of the parable comes in a paradox-a tax collector commended (Luke 18:9-14) or a Samaritan as hero (Luke 10:25-37). Properly understood, most if not all of Jesus’ parables should cause listeners to exclaim, “Oh, I never imagined!”[25]Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 97. Long notes at least three types of parables and possible responses (95-98).

3. Parables “refer” to more than their surface meaning. Referring is what parables do. Jesus’ parable about two boys and their dealings with their father was not about the rewards and trials of parenting but about something else completely. The story “refers” to something else.

The way they do that is by means of open-ended experiences that force listeners to apply the story to themselves. Parables have the capacity both to reveal truth and to obscure it.[26]Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1979), 29-47. Kermode tackles that delicate question of why Jesus spoke in parables-Mark and Luke’s “in order that” (Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10) versus Matthew’s “because” (Matt. 13:13). The parabolic experience entails “an inductive and open-ended form of communication.”[27]David M. Granskou, Preaching on the Parables (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 2. See also Funk, 155-56. Readers are not told whether the elder brother ever joined the party in honor of the prodigal. As the story ends, the father is pleading with his eldest on the porch.

4. The “transcendent symbol” is that to which the parables refer. Later rabbinic parables referenced the keeping of the Torah.[28]See Clemens Thoma and Michael Wyschogrod, eds. Parable and Story in Judaism and Christianity (New York: Paulist, 1989). Rabbis, like many traditional preachers today, told parables as illustrations of concepts, only rabbinic usage related to the interpretation of the Law of Moses.

Jesus’ parables, however, referenced what Bailey calls “theological motifs.”[29]Bailey, Poet, 37-38. Traditionally, Jesus’ parables have been understood to relate to the kingdom of God. In Matthew and Mark, for instance, the kingdom is clearly the intended parallel (“For the kingdom of God is like …”) Luke’s parables, however, do not employ that term. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 175-77, argues that the parables of Jesus are a subversive new telling of Israel’s story. William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 7, employs a hermeneutic of suspicion proposing that the parables were intended as political and economic tales about the “reigning systems of oppression that dominated Palestine in the time of Jesus.” As such, the parables are not allegories but what William Herzog has called “theologories,” although he employs the term negatively.[30]Herzog, 11-12. Used positively “theologory” reminds us that although not every detail has some spiritual significance (allegory), there are meanings other than the surface meanings in some of the parables’ details. In Jesus’ parables everyday situations are placed in juxtaposition with theological motifs about what it means to live for God It is this juxtaposing of seemingly discreet items in the parables that makes the parables “tease” listeners into “active thought” as suggested.

5. Before considering specific strategies and suggestions for preaching the parables of Luke, we need to explore a few of the unique traits of Lukan parables. His usage differs markedly from Mark and Matthew. As Scott notes, “only Luke employs a range of usage that begins to correspond to that of mashal.[31]Scott, 27. Besides what one might normally think of as parable, Luke uses the term to embrace proverbial statements (Luke 5:36-ff about new and old wineskins) and warnings (Luke 12:39-41 about thieves breaking in to steal).[32]Ibid.

Another unique feature is Luke’s omission of a lengthy parable chapter.[33]Ibid. Contrast Mark 4 with Luke 8. Rather, Luke interweaves most of his parables throughout his travel section (Luke 9:51-19:48). It is as Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem that he speaks in parables. This section points readers toward the “divinely deter­ mined destiny which Jesus must fulfill in Jerusalem.”[34]Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 230. This section is not so much geographical in its focus as theological. Jesus does not speak of going to Jerusalem the way someone might speak of going to the store. He goes to die. As he goes, he will speak primarily in parables.[35]Jack Dean Kingsbury, Conflict in Luke: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 56.

In this travel section Jesus relates to three primary groups in his parables: he instructs his disciples (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8, parables on prayer); he welcomes outcasts, (Luke 15, parables on lostness); and he contends with the Jewish religious authorities (Luke 14:7-24; 18:9-14, parables of reversal).[36]Kingsbury employs a literary critical approach to analyze the principal characters in Luke’s Gospel. Michaels, 97- 98, argues that Jesus comes to terms with his own messianic identity in the sharing of his parables.

Luke’s most important idiosyncrasy regarding parables is the  “introductory phrases by which he creates interpretive contexts for his readers.”[37]Scott, 27-28. Seven different times Luke introduces the parables of Jesus by means of interpretive clues.[38]Luke 12:15-21; 13:6-9, 14:7-24; 15:1-32; 18:1-9; 18:9-14; and 19:11-27.

For instance, in 18:9, before the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee,

the writer notes: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in them­ selves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Similarly, Luke prefaces the parable of the Rich Fool with the statement: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15-ff).

For Scott, these introductions anticipate readers by “providing an explicit reading before they read the parables, thus robbing mashal of one of its chief characteristics, the need for interpretation.”[39]Scott, 27-28. In other words, Luke gives away the riddle before allowing Jesus to tell it. Citing the work of Rudolf Bultmann and Joachim Jeremias, Scott believes that Luke’s interpretive introductions are not original with Jesus.[40]Ibid, 176. See also Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 2nd ed., trans. John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968), 199; and Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, trans. S. H. Hooke (New York: Scribner’s, 1972), 156. So whereas Jesus spun riddle-like narratives, Luke has reshaped them into example stories.[41]Scott, 28. An entire school of thought regarding parables as examples sprung up following Julicher. See my arti­cle, “The Moral of the ‘Good Samaritan’ Story?” Review and Expositor 94 (Spring 1997), forthcoming. The interpreter must, therefore, make a decision of whether to treat the parable in its present form or seek to recover its original more open-ended condition.[42]Obviously, this latter option is fraught with obstacles and has been a controversial matter over the years. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 182, maintains that although there is no consensus about reconstructing the original setting until there is some agreement, no further progress will be made in parable studies. Both options present the preacher with possibilities. These possibilities are the focus of the next section.


How Can the Sermon Say and Do the Same?

For centuries preachers have understood sermons as vehicles for proclaiming what the text says. Recent homiletical theory, however, has acknowledged that texts not only say something, they do something. In the same way that movies like Schindler’s List not only inform us about the holocaust but touch us as well, so do texts, and so should sermons.

Responsible preaching from the parables entails expressing what the text is saying, and doing what the text is doing. The latter implies the need to learn from the rhetorical strategies used in the text. The former implies, among other things, the need to understand the social dynamics of the ancient world.

Think of the preaching task like this: a parable lies before us, a riddle-like story with many possible meanings. (The parable is not a psychological ink blot, which can mean anything we want it to, but neither is there only one correct interpretation.) The interpreter must isolate one of these possible meanings, allowing for the cultural milieu of the first century world of Jesus and his listeners. This will be the sermon’s focus.

The preacher must then look for some dynamic equivalent in our cultural milieu. How do Pharisees look and act in our day? Who are our Samaritans? Tax collectors? This relates to the sermon’s content, what it will say.

Next, the preacher must analyze the text’s rhetorical strategies for possible preaching strategies. How could a sermon on a text in which the Pharisee comes off looking worse than the tax collector be composed so that the same shock originally achieved might be achieved again? This relates to the sermon’s form, what it will do. Let us consider some practical suggestions for preaching the parables of Luke in light of content and form, including excerpts from sample sermons.


1.  Determine the Focus of the Sermon

Given the riddle-like nature of parables, many legitimate readings might serve as the focus of a sermon. Not surprisingly, a recent study of Protestant preaching in America shows that not everyone preaches the Prodigal Son the same way.[43]Marsha G. Witten, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton: Princeton University, 1993). Some choose to set it in the context of the two parables that precede it (the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin); others treat it in isolation. Some preachers focus on the wayward younger brother, others on the elder brother, still others on the father. A friend recently said he preached on the “prodigal father,” since the word prodigal actually means extravagant, not rebellious. His emphasis was on the extravagant forgiveness of God.

Frequently, a new reading of a well-known parable can create an interest in the sermon’s focus despite the text’s familiarity. For instance, some have suggested that the Good Samaritan parable may not be an example story about the need to be neighborly like the foreigner who helped the man in the ditch. Rather, it is the gospel in drama-Jesus falling among thieves, being beaten, stripped, and left for dead. The Jewish religious authorities pass him by, but not the Samaritans. Such a reading portrays Jesus welcomed by outcasts, a familiar theme in Luke’s Gospel.[44]See Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 58-67, as well as my article, The Moral of the ‘Good Samaritan’ Story?”

Still, the polyvalent nature of parables does not mean the sermon must be scattered. A sermon based on a parable must concentrate on one of many legitimate foci to assure a cohesive flow to the message.[45]See David M. Greenhaw, “As One with Authority,” in Intersections: Post Critical Studies in Preaching, ed. Richard L. Eslinger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 118-22.


2. Focus on the Parable’s Characters and Identify the Listeners

The characters in Jesus’ parables are detailed enough to make them realistic but open-ended enough to allow all listeners to identify with them.[46]Long, 100-101. Typically, listeners identify with “sympathetic” characters with whom they can relate.[47]See John W. Sider, Interpreting the Parables (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 157-60; and Scott, 198-200. Not many readers picture themselves in the person of the harsh judge in Luke 18.

Some parables, however, offer multiple valid options for identification. The Prodigal Son is a classic example, but so is the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). Most modern readers and church goers no doubt see themselves in the tax collector. Many believers today have testimonies similar They recognize their unworthiness and the hypocrisy of the Pharisee. What many do not recognize, however, is the genuine piety expressed in the Pharisee’s prayer, a type of piety found in many Christians today.[48]Herzog, 182-85. See also John Donahue, “Tax Collectors and Sinners: An Attempt at Identification,  Catholic Biblical Quarterly 33 (1971): 39-61. The Pharisees frequently mirror fine, upstanding church folk in our day.

Unfortunately, many readers think of the characters in the Bible as life­ less, unreal beings who exist only on paper to teach lessons. Obviously, most scholars regard parabolic characters as fictional, but to hear a parable rightly, listeners must be able to identify with the characters. Wayne Stacy, in a sermon on the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8), enlivens both characters in vivid ways:

“Get up! Get up!” The judge’s wife carped at her erstwhile
sleeping husband. “She’s back again!”
“Who?” the judge mumbled, barely moving his mouth.
“That widow; I don’t know her name; just some dead man’s wife.”
“Her again? What’s she want now? That woman will raise the
dead with all that racket! Ah, I guess I’d better see what she wants,
as if I didn’t know. If I don’t, none of us will get any sleep around
here tonight, that’s for sure!”
She was a widow-we don’t know her name; you usually didn’t
in that culture . . .
It never ceases to amaze me. You ask a widow when she
bought her home.
“Oh, I don’t know, I guess it was in ’57.
Yeah, yeah, it was in’57. Or was it ’58?”

But you ask her how long it’s been since her husband died: “It’ll be exactly 8 years and 7 months tomorrow.”[49]R. Wayne Stacy, “Living with the Limits,” Pulpit Digest (July-August, 1993): 35-36. Emphases his. Notice that Stacy not only brings the text’s characters to life, but enlivens the scene via contemporary analogy as well. This, too, is a sound preaching strategy.


3. Search for Dynamic Equivalents

The narrative nature and metaphorical shock of Jesus’ parables model for us preachers a way to preach that can seek to be just as engaging and shocking. In Luke 14, for example, Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath dinner in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus breaks all of the prescribed cultural norms observed rigorously by the Pharisees-he heals a man on the Sabbath, he picks on the guests who are jockeying for the best seats, he even picks on the host for inviting only his fellow Pharisees.

The air is no doubt heavy. Most probably wish they were elsewhere on this particular day. Then one of the guests offers a beatitude: “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God! (Luke 14:15)” In response, Jesus tells a parable about a great dinner and guests who refuse to come.

It is essential that the interpreter do everything possible to discover the exegetical significance of the text’s numerous details. In its historical and cultural context, Jesus seems to imply that if they are not careful the Pharisees may miss the eschatological banquet, while so-called outsiders are inside feasting.

At this point in sermon preparation a shift in thinking is required. What   in our day is analogous to well-intentioned religious persons whose lives are incredibly ordered but whose priorities are not? Consider a possible parallel:

Stephen gently closes the door and, as usual, the clock on the VCR reads a few minutes after five o’clock. Stephen is home from work. He has twenty minutes or so to go through the mail, slip out of his suit, and sit down to watch Tom Brokaw on the “NBC Nightly News.” He opens the hall closet and tries to find room for his briefcase. The floor of the closet is a shambles. He hangs his coat up and tries to close the closet door, but some­ one’s parka is bulging out. He rearranges the coats and gently shuts the door, thinking, Just once I ought to slam a door. But sophisticated people don’t do that.

“Hello. Anybody home? Where is everybody?” The cat rubs against his leg, getting hair on his suit. Stephen opens the can of cat food and then notices that no one has cleaned the dish. “That figures,” he says to no one.

The mail has been brought in but obviously has not been sorted the way he likes-bills in one pile, correspondence in another, and ads in a third.

Frustrated, Stephen goes upstairs to change clothes. The bedroom is a wreck. Gloria has left her blouse hanging over a chair, and her closet looks like burglars have gone through it. Stephen changes his clothes and begins to straighten up the bedrooms- theirs, April’s, and Steve Jr.’s.

“Where is everybody? Probably went shopping. They’re always shopping. I can hardly make enough money to keep up. Perkins, down at work, is definitely after my position. I’ve seen him in action. He’ll do anything to get what he wants. Pledge cards are due at the church this Sunday. Oh, great, the news has started!”

He goes to the kitchen to grab a snack en route to the den, manages to avoid looking at the sink full of dishes, and then notices the note stuck to the refrigerator door: ‘Stephen, We waited till almost 4:30 for you and then had to leave. You said you’d be home early tonight. You missed April’s birthday party last year. Try not to miss it again this year – Gloria’.

“April’s birthday party?! At Showbiz Pizza Place.” They had planned it. Stephen had been reluctant. “That place is a zoo. But the sixth birthday is a milestone.”

April had interrupted his coffee and morning paper: “Daddy, you’ll be there tonight, won’t you?” He had given her a big hug, the best of intentions.

The clock reads 5:45 p.m. Somewhere in his soul   Stephen hears a door slam-the kind you see in great banquet halls. “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God?” Hmpf! The kingdom of God is like a person who receives an invitation …a good person, with good intentions. But who somehow doesn’t show up.[50]This story is adapted from Eduard Richard Riegert, ‘”Parabolic’ Sermons,” Lutheran Quarterly 26 (1974): 24-31.


4. Determine the Flow and Structure of the Sermon            

Preaching from the parables does not readily lend itself to three point That is because such traditional forms do not do justice to the inspired literary form in which the parables have been passed down. The parables are not mere containers that must be opened to get to the true contents. The narrative form and its teaching are both integral. A variety of sermon forms are available which can communicate the contents while respecting the text’s form. Let us consider some options.

As noted above, Luke’s parables frequently give away the “punch line” in introductory phrases before telling the “joke.” Many traditional sermon forms use this style, an approach known as deduction. Deductive preaching entails the preacher revealing the thesis of the sermon near the beginning then exploring the text to show how it relates to that thesis.

Inductive preaching, however, reverses that process. The sermon explores the text so that the thesis begins to come clear as the sermon progresses, but not completely until near the end of the message.[51]The classic work on inductive preaching is Fred B. Craddock, As One without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971). See also Lucy Rose, “The Parameters of Narrative Preaching,” in Journeys toward Narrative Preaching, ed. Wayne Bradley Robinson (New York: Pilgrim, 1990), 23-47, who offers helpful practical suggestions.

Preaching the parables in Luke’s Gospel offers the preacher both choices. Early within the sermon the preacher could briefly explain the teaching of   the parable about to be explored in the message. Or the preacher might choose to explore the parable allowing the thesis to emerge steadily near the end of the sermon.

For example, the preacher could begin a sermon on the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) deductively. Imagine that some introductory story has been told, perhaps about the recent death of a wealthy celebrity. Then the preacher clarifies where the sermon is headed:

Jesus knew what material possessions can do in a person’s life. He knew the seductive power that money and things can wield in even subtle ways. That’s why he told this parable in Luke’s Gospel. Let’s look at it together this morning and see if perhaps we are being seduced by materialism …

Or the preacher could begin with the same story about the death of a wealthy celebrity, then proceed with an exploration of the parable but not negatively. Martin Copenhaver, in a sermon entitled “Building Barns, Postponing Life,” imagines paying a pastoral call on the widow of the farmer in the parable:

“What was important to him?” And his widow answers “His family is-was-very important to him. He was very proud of his children, although I’m not sure they really know that. But he spoke of them often. His wallet was thick with their pictures …And his church was very important to him, although I know you might not have seen much evidence of that in recent years. He didn’t stop believing in God I’m sure of that but somehow, life just got so busy.”

Later, the widow adds: “He would always try to reassure me, mostly by using words like tomorrow or soon and phrases like this won’t last forever and some day and I promise. And he meant it. I know he did.”[52]Martin B. Copenhaver, “Building Barns, Postponing Life,” in Best Sermons 3, ed. James W. Cox (San Francisco Harper and Row, 1990), 256-57. Emphases his.

Besides the deductive and inductive options, there is a range of narrative possibilities too. Eugene Lowry, in his book How to Preach a Parable, outlines four different approaches. The book is not solely about preaching texts that are parables but preaching any narrative so that something parabolic­ like happens in the hearing of it. Still, Lawry’s approaches combine the biblical text and contemporary stories in marvelously creative and varied ways. “Running the story” consists for the most part in retelling the biblical story following “the actual flow provided by the biblical text itself.” “Delaying the story” entails beginning with contemporary materials before allowing the biblical story to emerge later in the sermon. “Suspending the story” occurs when the narrative retelling of the parable must be interrupted momentarily with contemporary material to assist listeners in connecting with the text. “Alternating the story” is a kind of narrative structure in which biblical  and contemporary vignettes are interwoven throughout the sermon.[53]Eugene L. Lowry, How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 38-41, briefly outlines his approach in the first chapter. The remaining chapters explore each approach in some detail an include sample sermons along with Lawry’s comments. See also his work The Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), in which he sets forth his theory of narrative preaching; and his new comprehensive textbook on narrative methodology, The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery (Nashville: Abindon, 1997).

As an example of “alternating,” consider a preaching strategy for the three parables in Luke 15. Luke tells us that the Pharisees want to know why Jesus eats with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Three parables ensue. The first story is about a shepherd who loses one of his hundred sheep. When he finds it, he has a party to celebrate. The second story is about a woman who loses one of her ten coins. When she finds it, she has a party to celebrate. Likewise, the third story is about a father who loses one of his two sons. When he finds him, he has a party to celebrate.

That plots seems simple enough, but perhaps it suggests a preaching strategy. The first two parables invite agreement. When something lost is found later, a celebration is in order. Following a brief retelling of the first parable, the preacher might draw a modern parallel-perhaps a story of a parent and child searching the neighborhood for their lost dog and finding it. Following a retelling of the second parable, the preacher might tell of a couple on vacation losing their wallet and finding it later with everything intact. The listeners would now be positioned to hear the third parable, as well as some contemporary story that reminds us how hard it is to welcome some kinds of people. The preacher might tell a story about a minister’s daughter who gives birth out of wedlock and then brings the baby home to the shock of all the neighbors.


5. Decide on the Type of Application

For all practical purposes there are only two types of application in preaching: direct and indirect, though some have catalogued a third type.[54]See J. Daniel Baumann, An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), 247-51, who notes that “no application at all” is a third option, but not a legitimate one. Direct application is the more traditional model, in which the preacher clearly states somewhere in the sermon (customarily, throughout the message) what the text means for the listeners. Indirect application is a tool in which the preacher suggests implications which listeners piece together for themselves as the sermon progresses.[55]See Craddock, As One without Authority, chapter 6, who discusses indirect application at some length.

Preachers are presented, therefore, with a dilemma. On the one hand, direct application seems the obvious choice. Is not clarity what all preachers desire? Who wants listeners leaving the sanctuary, scratching their heads, unclear about what was being said? On the other hand, Jesus’ parables are riddle-like narratives, putting certain demands on the listeners: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 14:35).

What, then, shall the preacher do? Should the sermon be opaque like so many of Jesus’ parables are? Should the sermon be transparent like so many of Luke’s introductions to Jesus’ parables are? Both approaches are viable options, depending on the preacher’s comfort level and the congregational norms found in various churches, but perhaps there is another option.

Robert Kysar, a biblical scholar and homiletician, tells about an abstract painting of the crucifixion that hangs in his office. A first-time viewer usually cannot make it out, and so he has to explain how to see it. About halfway into his explanation the visitor typically blurts out, “Oh, yes, I see it now.”[56]Robert Kysar, “The Promises and Perils of Preaching on the Gospel of John,” Dialog (Summer 1980): 217-18. Maybe there is a way for sermons to do that, to allow listeners to wrestle with the parable’s meaning(s), but to also give clues along the way. Maybe indirect application throughout the message combined with some brief direct application near the end could prove efficient.

In a sermon on the Prodigal Son, for instance, the preacher might conclude with that story about the daughter’s pregnancy:

The minister and his wife came out to greet her as she arrived. All the neighbors expected a confrontation. After all, she had brought disgrace on the family name. Were they ever shocked when the parents came running out to the car making a fuss   about their new grandbaby! As they were going into the house, the father leaned back out the door and shouted, “Aren’t you coming over? We’re having a welcome home party. Are you coming?”

Good question! Are you coming? Are you coming to the party called the kingdom of God?



Kenneth Bailey compares ancient Near Eastern storytellers to concert pianists able to work their magic on a grand piano.[57]Bailey, Poet, 35, uses the comparison more in terms of doing exegesis than preaching. There are established patterns that are customary. Everyone recognizes the familiar tunes of the parables, especially Luke’s well-known ones. Sometimes, how­ ever, musicians decide to throw us for a loop, like the extemporaneous jazz player, who momentarily abandons the tune or at least disguises it.[58]See Eugene L. Lowry, “The Narrative Quality of Experience as a Bridge to Preaching,” in Journeys toward Narrative Preaching, 67-84. Lowry is an accomplished jazz musician who explores the metaphor in some depth within this article. The parables of Jesus are like that. The territory and characters are recognizable and familiar, when suddenly something happens. Frequently “the storyteller interrupts the established pattern …to introduce his irony, his surprises, his humor, and his climaxes.”[59]Bailey, Poet, 35. “The world of the parable,” writes Robert Funk, “is like Alice’s looking-glass world: all is familiar, yet all is strange.”[60]Robert Funk, Language, Hermenutic, and Word of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 160.

The parables of Jesus are literary masterpieces, no doubt. When properly heard, however, they often shocked listeners in ways unimaginable to most of Jesus’ listeners and Luke’s readers. Our sermons ought to do the same. , Accounting for the social world and how parables work can aid in that process. If we are faithful in the task set before us, perhaps our sermons can produce an experience as moving as the finale of Beethoven’s ninth symphony and as haunting as Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” Heaven knows these musicians gave themselves fully to their art form. Surely our preaching deserves the same!

References   [ + ]

Category: Journal Article
Tags: ,

Share This Article:  

Southwestern Journal of Theology
To download full issues and find more information on the Southwestern Journal of Theology, go to