The Good Samaritan. The Prodigal Son. The sower. The talents. The sheep and the goats. Of all the things that come to mind when people think of Jesus, chances are that most would cite a parable.
“Throw away your Flannelgraphs,” Jared Wilson tells readers in his new book, The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables (Crossway). “They are flat and soft, and the story of Jesus is neither.” Drilling through icy layers of familiarity, Wilson takes us on a fresh journey of discovery among the stories of the Galilean God-man.
“When Jesus teaches a parable, he is not opening up Chicken Soup for the Soul or a fortune cookie but a window into the hidden heaven lies,” Wilson explains. “He is revealing a glimpse of eternity crashing into time, a flash photo of his own wisdom brought to bear.”
I talked with Wilson, pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Vermont, about whether we should teach like Jesus, popular misinterpretations, Jesus vs. Paul, and more.
Why did Jesus teach in parables? Is it a practice we ought to emulate in our preaching and evangelism?
The most common answers to this first question are that Jesus taught in parables to make his teaching easier to understand—to serve as “sermon illustrations,” in other words—or to draw people in with well-spun stories and the like. There are shades of truth in both of those answers, but they don’t quite get at what Jesus was really doing teaching in parables. In Matthew 13, Jesus himself explains that he teaches in parables in some way to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that “seeing they will not see, and hearing they will not hear.” This means the parables of Jesus work in a parallel way to the gospel itself—they open eyes and ears to see and hear the truth, or they further harden people against the truth. The parables reveal or conceal Christ’s glory, depending on the quality of the spiritual senses of those hearing them.
I don’t believe we can emulate the practice of Christ’s parables in our preaching and evangelism, as we are not Christ and don’t have the same ministry as he did. We do not preach ourselves; we preach him. So we ought to make that contrast as plain as possible. But that doesn’t mean we should never use illustrations that are parable- or story-like in our preaching and evangelism.
What do you think is the most commonly misinterpreted parable among evangelicals?
Nearly all of them? We tend to make every parable a sort of moralistic tale, something that ends up more about behavior modification than spiritual beholding of Jesus. Not that the parables don’t urge changes in behavior. The parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, is perhaps the most popular among evangelicals today, especially among those of us with concern for social justice issues.
Yet if we make that parable simply about “being nice to those different from us,” we aren’t mis-reading the parable exactly, but we aren’t getting out of it all that is really there. I find it interesting that the hero of the story is the Samaritan. This is a scandalous move by Jesus. Because if he only wanted to convey the message that we should be nice to people who are “untouchable,” he would have made the Samaritan the victim and had the heroic savior be a Jew who was willing to touch the untouchable to do the right thing. Instead, Jesus makes what the Jew would consider a “half-breed heretic” the hero of the story.
We have to ask why. Certainly Jesus had problems with Samaritan theology. But perhaps he’s making the point that all of us are, because of sin, “untouchable.” He’s making the point that Jews are just as sinful as Samaritans. And ultimately because he’s making the point that he himself will identify with the sinners—will in fact become the curse—to rescue those who trust in him. But there are lots of other parables we keep misinterpreting too, particularly the ones dealing with money.
What is the “gospel of the kingdom” Jesus preached? Did Paul preach this gospel?
The gospel of the kingdom Jesus preached is that the sovereign presence of God is breaking into the world, signaling the reversal of the curse given after the fall. This gospel announces all the other entailments of God’s reign coming to bear in the world—the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with the Father, restoration of creation, and so on. This gospel is coming in and through the rightful king, the Messiah, Jesus himself. Paul preaches this gospel too, but it sounds different in a variety of places, mainly because Jesus isn’t just announcing the kingdom but actualizing it and preaching “me!” while Paul is heralding the kingdom by preaching “him!”
What specific counsel would you offer a person who is preparing to preach the parables?
I would advise him not to avoid the imperatives present in them, but not mistake the imperatives for the primary purpose of the parables, which is to reveal the glory of Jesus Christ. In many ways, this is the kind of advice I’d give anyone preaching any text of Scripture, but it is especially important with parables because studious preachers sometimes seek to find things in them that aren’t really there—codes and allegories, for example. Not every detail of the parables always corresponds to some special meaning.
Is there a parable that’s historically been confusing to you that has recently opened up with new insights?
I’d say the parable of the dishonest manager in Luke 16 has always bugged me. It seems on the surface (in v. 9) that Jesus is telling us to use money to win friends and influence people. And in a way, he is. But I couldn’t figure out how the parable and the concluding point didn’t commend things that Jesus himself elsewhere discourages or outright forbids. This is one of those cases where the parable is just what it is—a story. We aren’t always meant to make one-to-one connections or analogical allegories out of them.
With plenty of help in my studies, I read the parable now to be heading toward the larger point(s) Jesus is making: be shrewd in your use of material/earthly resources (“unrighteous wealth”) so that you may have an influence for eternal riches. He’s not commending dishonesty or greed or materialism as evangelistic tools! He’s in a broader way reminding us to treat temporary riches as temporary, and to be wise and discerning about our handling of them, so we don’t attach our heart to them or lead others astray in our dealing with them.