I have always thought in metaphor and simile. From a young age it seemed natural to me to translate a concept from one form to another, just to prove I’d grasped it. When the same thing happens to a story the result is a parable. It might be simple and charming, it might even tug at an emotion, but at first glance it appears no more than a story. The power of a parable is in that ‘ah-ha’ moment, when I realise what the story means in its own parallel universe. So because of the way that my thinking is wired it seemed inevitable that I would be drawn to writing in parables just as I was first attracted to reading them.
Of course there was one man above any other associated with parables. Jesus was the master of the medium. In fact the Bible says that “he did not say anything to them without using a parable”(a). Now here’s a curious thing: It seemed that most of the original hearers of these parables did not understand them. Even those closest to Jesus had to come and ask what they meant!(b) What Jesus spoke to that first audience was radical and completely different from anything they had heard. So why would he choose a form of communication that the people didn’t understand? The answer is surprising, but obvious – he didn’t want them to understand; he was actually being coy about his message! I’m not conclusion-jumping here. As unexpected as this might seem, the gospel writers record Jesus as saying to his disciples, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.'”(c) This is an approach that is alien to the culture of the present day church, where clarity and directness are paramount. In current Christian culture ‘The Gospel’ is to be preached and so, of every hearer, a decision is demanded one way or another. Now both of these approaches are seen in the Bible and both produce results. For the person who is given revelation (God-given insight) the ‘ah-ha’ moment can come via either preaching or parable. But one of these approaches does have a downside.
Let me illustrate: For years I sang in a rock band, and being the lyricist too I was the natural front man. My songs had a message, but I was never under any illusion about why the people came – it wasn’t to hear a sermon but to experience the music and excitement of a live band. Having been to Christian concerts myself, if I’d heard more preaching than music it left me feeling uncomfortable, like I had been cheated. So I wasn’t going to do that to anyone else. In our concerts I offered no “come forward now” appeals. From my vantage point on the stage I could see that there were a few at the front who might respond to an invitation of faith, but I still had an eye on those at that back who might leave in disgust. I was playing to all these people; I cared about communicating to each one. I wasn’t going to shake the tree that would have loosened the fruit at the front, but left those at the back bruised from the experience.
The downside with preaching is that it turns away those who don’t respond. A parable doesn’t do this because if you don’t have revelation it’s only a story and where’s the offence in a story? The one who doesn’t get a parable may still get it another day, when he is ready to hear the deeper meaning. The one who doesn’t respond to preaching is likely to learn their lesson and steer clear in future.
Back when I first came to faith there was an accent on rallies, crusades, missions to get people to hear a famous preacher. And they worked; they reaped their harvest and many people came to faith. But at the same time many more were turned off evangelism. I believe that what I see around me in the UK is the result of this. We are left with the toxic waste of caution, cynicism and contempt for the church and its message. I don’t believe that preaching will do it for this generation. They’ve had it and they didn’t like it. They’ve had the inoculation and are now immune to it.
Today, few people like being preached at or lectured to. So isn’t it time for some subtlety, some coyness, and the layered beauty of parables? Isn’t it time to re-discover what Jesus always understood?