Preaching Parables – Two Thoughts

Last Sunday I preached from Luke 18, where there are two parables at the start of the chapter. A couple of thoughts about preaching parables:

Jesus told stories that packed a punch, don’t deaden the force – Of course the preacher’s role includes the need to explain the story, but we also need to preach the story in such a way as to achieve a similar effect as Jesus intended. For example, as I preached on the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, how could I help the listeners today to feel the force of that story in the way that Jesus’ listeners felt it? Well, I couldn’t just read the text. Nor could I just tell the story as it stands. As Jesus set the scene in verse 10, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector,” his listeners would immediately have significant emotional reaction. One was a good guy, the other a very bad guy. But for my churched listeners, their emotional reaction would be muted at best, the exact opposite at worse. For churched folk listening today, one is a bad guy (the one who typically opposed Jesus and ultimately got Him crucified) and the other is probably ok (the one who Jesus would hang out with, the one who might be like the other former tax collector that gave us our favorite Christmas readings in a Gospel). This is the opposite emotional reaction than Jesus intended. So, I chose to tell a contemporary story, in some ways equivalent to the parable, but not a forced equivalency. Having felt the force, we were ready to go back, read the text and have it explained. When it comes to preaching stories it is easy to kill the specimen by dissecting it. Stories are best observed alive, rather than cut up.

Incidentally, I could have chosen to do the same thing with Luke 18:1-8, but chose not to. I felt that story would work with a more straightforward “read a bit and then explain” approach, while maintaining the flow of the story. On another occasion I might use a contemporary version first.

The Gospel writers recorded stories in carefully packaged contexts, don’t rip them out – Whenever I preach from a Gospel passage, I am very aware of the double context. There’s the original historical context when Jesus spoke the words to the people around him. Then there’s the written context when Luke arranged, edited, commented on and put together the Gospel (different audience, different point in time, sometimes with different purpose). So when preaching a parable of Jesus, I am not dealing simply with a story Jesus told, but with a story Jesus told in a context Luke put together. So it is important to recognize the blending of both contexts. In the case of Luke 18, I focused primarily on the stories as Jesus told them (as presented by Luke), but was careful to notice the written contexts stretching back into chapter 17 for 18:1-8, and then on through the next two stories for 18:9-14.

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2 thoughts on “Preaching Parables – Two Thoughts

  1. Interesting idea to retell the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in a modern context – I’d be interested to know how you did this in a way that would gain the same reaction or anticipation as Jesus’ audience had. I can’t see how it would work, because congregations don’t have the same sort of expectations of religious leaders as those in Jesus’ day did. Let’s try:
    An elder arrived early for the service and sat down on the other side of the chapel from the young lad he’d never seen before. He looked like one of that gang that hung around outside the swimming pool being a nuisance on their skate boards. The elder bowed his head to pray as he always did and said, “Thank you, Lord, that by your grace I have been kept from that sort of life and was a member of the church and had a good job by the time I was this guy’s age.”
    The young lad didn’t even bow his head or close his eyes, but just said , “God, I don’t even know why I’m here, but I know I need you. Please forgive me for ignoring you.”
    Are we getting any where near with that? I’m not sure – I think most congregations would see it coming!

  2. Thanks Timothy – perhaps you have started something here. Your story certainly parallels the original in many respects. Like you wrote, I also think most congregations would see it coming! Of course, it’s hard to really surprise people when the reference for the message is in the notice sheet (how often do our titles give away some tension we could be using in preaching? That will be a post sometime!) Having said that, I think it is possible to think through a modern version of a parable, deliberately paralleling key points, but also deliberately obscuring some parallels, so that the tension is not given away too early. The goal is not to totally surprise people, but to have our story “do” what the original story “did.” So, perhaps others will follow your lead and give modern versions of this parable. If I’m not too embarressed by my version after I read some others, perhaps I’ll add mine on here as well!

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