Most Christians have some idea of what a parable is. Ask an adult Sunday school class and you might hear: “It’s a story!” Another might chime in, “with a moral message!” But the truth is, parables are a very special kind of story with a few key features. And unless we really understand those features, we won’t fully grasp what Jesus is up to.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to preach a sermon on the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22. Incidentally, we have a great Scripture Guide on this text, if you are interested. Anyhow, as I began writing the sermon, a thought occurred to me. What if, instead of trying to simply explain this confusing parable (and they’re almost all confusing…on purpose), I actually explained what a parable is by using my text as an example?
I’ve done a fair bit of thinking and writing on parables, and so it wasn’t too challenging to explain the concept and then merely incorporating the parable of the banquet was easy as pie.
The exciting thing is—it seemed to help the congregation better understand both the wedding banquet text and the nature of parables. So I thought, what if I shared how I went about this? Then, if it’s helpful, you can incorporate it into your own preaching and teaching.
Parable Feature #1: A Common, Easy-to-Understand Setting (at least for Jesus’ listeners)
The start is the easiest. Whenever Jesus would tell a parable, it would be in a setting his audience would understand without effort. (Two sons vying for their father’s inheritance, a man traveling to Jericho, a vineyard being worked by hired hands) Each of these examples would be completely comprehensible to Jesus’ listeners. This is how I put it in the sermon:
So one key feature of a parable is that they always involve a common setting. When Jesus describes a king giving a wedding banquet for his son, this would have been second nature for the listeners to both comprehend and grasp how the social/religious dynamics were expected within the story…Everyone in the audience would have recognized the dynamics of a wedding banquet for a King’s son.
Throwing a banquet would have been a major deal, not just for the family, but for everyone involved. It would have required significant expense, and significant planning, and everyone would know that when the banquet was ready, their job was to come and enjoy the feast.
So the setting is completely understandable. A king is throwing a party for his son, and everything is ready…now all the guests must do is come prepared and celebrate the feast.
Parable Feature #2: A Shocking Event Takes Place
This isn’t the most difficult to understand, but definitely a place most of us moderns get confused when it comes to parables. Knowing Jesus intentionally adds this element by design is extremely helpful. We may assume Jesus is without guile, but the parables are case-in-point that this is not the case.
This is how I put it in my sermon:
But then there is this second dynamic to a parable, quite the opposite from the first. And that is this, within the story, something will take place that would be so shocking, so out-of-the-ordinary that its listeners would most likely have a visceral if not violent reaction.
And so, that’s exactly what happens in our passage when the king sends his messenger to invite his guests:
…let’s pick up in verse 5:
But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.
The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.
Here again, it’s important to remember the audience Jesus is speaking to. Remember, Jesus is in a sparring battle with the chief priests and scribes. These are people who embody the famous song from Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition, Tradition!!!!”
To murder a king’s messengers for inviting them to a feast would be the ultimate breaking of the traditions expected of them as his guests.
Parable Feature #3: A Disruption of the Religious Status Quo
The third element of Jesus’ parables hinges on the first two: create a common scenario, then incorporate a shocking event, in the hopes of then making his listeners wrestle with their understanding of their faith. Here’s how I put it in the sermon:
And so this brings out the third and final major aspect of Jesus’ parables. The whole purpose of a parable is to shock the listener, which ultimately disrupts their pre-existing beliefs about God.
We see this in some of the other well-known parables. Why did Jesus make a Samaritan, the hated Samaritans, the hero of that story?
To disrupt the Jews understanding of who their neighbor was.
Why did Jesus tell a story where a younger brother would ask for his inheritance, which was to essentially wish his father dead? To disrupt the Jews the status quo understanding of works righteousness and point them to grace.
And why does Jesus tell this parable of the King’s Wedding Feast? To disrupt his fellow Jews from believing that their identity as priests or scribes or Pharisees was going to cut it when it comes to their eternal destination.
In other words, this strange new kingdom Jesus is preaching about has very little to do with the way things usually work–where the rich, the powerful, the well-connected receive all the goodies, leaving the rest of humanity reaching for the scraps. It’s an upside-down kingdom, where “the first will be last and the last will be first.
The truth is, while most Christians think they understand parables, many are missing one of these key ingredients. By describing the nature of this storytelling art form and then using the actual parable to illustrate what Jesus is teaching in the parable you are preaching on can be a really effective way of bringing the text to life.
Keep it simple as well. Using these three core features that anybody can understand will ensure your congregants will follow along.
I hope this helps!
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. Stu has a B.A. from Pepperdine University and an M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary. He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golfing, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
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So good brother. This was super helpful.