Without a parable

by Stan Mitchell

“All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable” (Matthew 13:34, ESV).

Every now and then I will read an article or hear a preacher say something like this: “Sermons should not have stories or jokes; preachers should only preach the word.”

Let’s be clear. Of course preachers should preach the word (2 Timothy 4:2). They should preach it after spending a great deal of time in prayer and preparation (2 Timothy 2:15).

There are, furthermore, far too many preachers for whom a biblical text is an afterthought, not the foundation of what they preach. Beware the preacher without a biblical text.

I have listened to preachers who indulged in what might be called gratuitous jokes, humor that has no bearing on the lesson. I have also sensed that for some the message came primarily from the illustration, not the biblical text. This is a genuine concern.

Yet we need to be thoughtful about the role of humor, illustration and stories. Matthew in what was probably hyperbole declares that Jesus never spoke to the crowds without a parable. What is, after all, a parable? Isn’t it a story?

Biblical writers, the prophets, and Jesus himself made use of illustration. James was the master illustrator. Do you want to envision the run-away nature of gossip and harsh words?

Picture a tongue as a deadly forest fire (James 3:5). Do you want to know what it’s like to hear God’s word and fail to put it into practice? Think of a man who looks into a mirror, then does nothing about what he sees.

My concern is that we will communicate to young preachers and their listeners that the task of preaching is to be a grey and fact-filled enterprise with as much passion as a teenager doing Saturday chores.

If it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying from the heart.

Young preachers should be encouraged to develop their craft. They should learn how to reverently open up the truths of a biblical text. They should lean on the text for the substance of their message.

But they should also learn from the great preachers of the Old and New Testaments to illustrate, plead, make use of irony, and even utilize visual aids (Ezekiel, Jeremiah) to convey the precious message of Scripture.

“And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'” (Matthew 18:2,3).

I suspect they never forgot the sight of that little child, and how they were to adopt his humility and faith!

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