Preaching the Parables, Part One

There are roughly three dozen parables in the Synoptic Gospels, and twenty-nine of them appear in the Revised Common Lectionary on twenty-four Sundays over three years.

The difference between the two numbers (29 and 24) is that on some Sundays, the Gospel for the Day contains more than one parable. In fact, during Year A, on the Sunday designated for Proper 12, three small parables appear in a single reading: The Treasure in the Field, The Pearl of Great Price, and The Dragnet (Matthew 13:44-52).

Statistically, then, the Gospel for the Day contains one or more parables on approximately fifteen percent of the Sundays of the Church year. Most of these are in years A and C of the three-year cycle.

It needs to be said, however, that there is no clear consensus among interpreters on what units of gospel material can be (or should not be) classified as parables. There are many other Sundays on which parable-like sayings of Jesus occur.

For example, is the saying of Jesus read on the First Sunday in Advent, Year A, concerning the owner of a house being on guard for a possible break-in by a thief (Matthew 24:43) to be regarded as a parable? It is not counted as a parable in the tally above. If all sayings of this kind are to be counted, the number of parables and parable-like sayings is considerably higher than the figure provided.

All this is to say that the preacher will encounter materials in the gospels on many Sundays that consist of parables or parabolic sayings. Each one presents issues for interpretation. They require that the preacher be nimble and quick to catch the nuances, surprises, and even humor that the parables contain.

To be sure, the parables convey messages that are profound and serious. But they do so in ways that do not call attention to their own profundity and seriousness. They arrest the attention of the hearer by their use of imagery and story, and then they leave the hearer with an impression concerning the character of God or a question concerning the self.

What is a parable? The books on parables have a wide range of definitions. It seems that there is no one definition held in common.

A place to start would be with the word “parable” itself. It is a loan-word from the Greek word parabolē, which means a “comparison.” Going with that as a start, my own definition goes like this: A parable is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between God’s kingdom, actions, or expectations and something in this world, real or imagined.

There are two types of parables:

  • Narrative Parables−the comparisons made include narration. These parables typically have a “once upon a time” quality about them and the particularity of stories set in the past.
  • Similitudes−the comparisons are made without stories but by means of the words “is like” or “is as if” (for example, see Matthew 13:44, The Treasure in the Field). Analogies are made between their subjects and general and timeless observations.

For more information on Preaching the parables, we suggest Arland Hultgren’s book The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000),
or the audio resource In the Company of Preachers,
whose latest edition deals with “Preaching the Parables.”