I’ve been asked to preach a narrative sermon as part of my ministry training course, and that brought to mind some reflections on narrative preaching that I wanted to share here and invite feedback on.
There are brothers who, desiring to be Biblical and to reflect the nature of God’s revelation, have been led to preach the parables as provocative stories, leaving their hearers to work out what is meant. After all, that’s what Jesus did. Reveal too much too soon, the theory goes, and the point of the parable is lost.
Granted, much of the Bible is narrative; stories are a powerful way of communicating; and good sermons often reflect these truths, taking people on a journey and retelling stories. But even though Jesus preached in parables, I try not to.
For a start, I’m not sure that any of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament tell any uninterpreted parables. Let me know if they do. But assuming they don’t, why doesn’t Paul for example preach the same way Jesus does? Because he’s distorting the pure message of Jesus into his theological framework? Because he’s contextualising the teaching of the Messiah to philosophically-minded Greeks and barbarians? I think not. It’s because he’s operating in a different salvation-historical context.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that Jesus taught in parables as a way of enacting the judgement of Isaiah 6, that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8.10 // Matt 13.14, Mark 4.12). As I understand it, Jesus used parables deliberately to conceal the truth, at least at first glance, from those “outside”. But those on the inside are enabled to interpret the parables, because they are given the “secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4.11).
When you have the secret, everything is no longer in parables.
Now consider that the word “secret” is the same word that is translated “mystery” in many English versions of Paul’s letters. The mystery hidden from the ages in God but now made known. The mystery that is Christ. The mystery of the gospel. The apostles don’t teach in parables because Christ is now risen in glory and the Spirit has been poured out on the church. Now they set forth the mystery of the gospel plainly, as they ought (Col 4.4). To speak in parables without interpreting them would be put salvation-history into reverse gear and pretend that Christ had not been raised.
Even when we are preaching on the parables in the Gospels, we need to recognise that we are not in the same salvation-historical place as Jesus’ first hearers. The parables are part of books that aim to present the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1.1). In the Four Gospels the Holy Spirit reveals plainly the mystery of Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, great David’s greater Son. Parabolic preaching that is not using the secret of the kingdom as an interpretative key is not actually faithful to the inspired text or the one who inspired it.
The same reasoning could perhaps apply a fortiori to the puzzling parts of the rest of the Bible. If Jesus’ own teaching needs to be interpreted in light of the mystery of the gospel to make sense, then how much more does the Old Testament? (Irenaeus and Luther make this point, I think.)
So, narrative preaching – maybe, but parables floating free of the proclamation of the gospel? No.