Living the Parables of Jesus Today

On this blog I’ve maintained a number of times that the parables of Jesus invite us to imagine another world, to imagine the kingdom of God, and they do this by creating a world, by inviting us into that world, and then — like an experience in Narnia — depositing us back in this world changed, illuminated and challenged to live out the kingdom in this world.

What is your advice for reading the parables of Jesus? What are typical mistakes?

In the book edited by Ian Paul and David Wenham, called Preaching the New Testament, Klyne Snodgrass has an article that explores how to preach the parables but his sketch is as useful for preachers as it is for anyone who wants to know how to “apply” or, better yet, live out the parables of Jesus today. Here are Klyne’s major points:

1. Use concrete and personal language. Abstractions are how we store ideas; concrete ideas are where we live. Jesus points the way: as he told concrete stories so we need to explain the parables in part by telling concrete stories. I heard this weekend a sermon on the prodigal son that began with a breathtaking story that 100% mirrored the prodigal son story. Brilliant embodiment of the parable and the point Klyne is making. Anyone who preaches the parables by converting them into abstract theology … I won’t go there.

2. Study the advantages of indirect communication. The parables exemplify indirection. Children’s sermons are memorable because they are concrete and at the same indirect (at least at first as a story is told). Parables are like the Trojan Horse. Use your own form of indirection, creating a parable that breaks numbness of the familiar, and disorient folks by probing elements of the parable less familiar.

3. Commit to seeing both the text and people. Bridge the two.

4. Keep the parables as Jesus’ parables. Preach Jesus and the kingdom, not simply the parabolized story. Cross check your reading of the parable with the teachings of Jesus.

5. Observe literary characteristics. Read the parable in context; read the parable itself as a literary text.

6. Shun allegorizing and the dogma that parables have only one point. Correspondences are not the issue in reading parables. The concern is the analogy.

7. Study parables that have the same form to see how various kinds of parables function. Klyne’s epochal book, Stories with Intent, is the place to go to see the various kinds of parables.

8. Focus on the theology of the parables. “The parables are there to give us insight into God, the kingdom, the mission of Jesus to Israel and the nature of discipleship.” [Focus on those themes and you will be miles ahead.]

9. Focus on the identity displayed or called for in the parable. Scripture tells us who we are, and parables provide identity about God, kingdom and us.

10. Do not run from the difficulties. Judgment, demand, etc… Jesus was not into making people comfortable.

11. Let the Bible be an ancient book.

12. Aim for response.

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  • Clay Knick


  • Scot, last Sunday I preached on the parable of the prodigal son as a picture of ‘evangelical repentance’ (didn’t use that language) and the Triune embrace and welcome of God, based on an image in Irenaeus that’s picked up, developed, and applied to the parable by J. B. Torrance. There was nothing concrete about, aside from the rich details of the parable itself–very abstract, and I don’t think there was a thing in the world wrong with that. The people got a new image to help understand the Trinity, and a unique invitation to come to a fully Trinitarian God and be a part of his life. I won’t do the same thing in three years when the pasage comes up again, but I think this (thankfully) turned into a powerful message and didn’t suffer a bit from being abstracted. All that to say, I feel like your insistence on point one comes across way to strong.

  • scotmcknight


    I think you’re a bit defensive on this. First, it’s not my post but the points made by Klyne Snodgrass and the second thing is that Klyne is not a strong defender of the one-point method (read #6 above).

    On Luke 15, Yes, I would agree there’s good stuff on repentance here. Welcoming God, obvious; that it is Trinitarian is Christian theology explaining the Father. Jesus’ parable was not about the Trinity, of course, though what he says can be enveloped by that.

    Not sure what you mean by abstracted is what Klyne means, and he has some strong words about converting the story into higher levels of theological abstraction.

  • Scot,
    I apologize for the tone–I was absolutely being defensive. I think it was the one line, “Anyone who preaches the parables by converting them into abstract theology … I won’t go there” which made me feel as if I were being accused of mishandling the text, or what have you (and I assume that was you, not Klyne Snodgrass).
    And there’s a good chance I’m misunderstanding his point there. In fact, it’s not really clear to me what would be the line between “abstract theology” and “the theology of the parables” in #8, so something’s clearly not clicking for me.
    Just so you know, I actually had a very positive overall reaction to the post–it made me kick myself for not picking up his Stories with Intent at a sale last year–I think it was mostly that one line that rankled me a bit.

  • Stories with Intent is a great book that will enrich your study of the parables (and your teaching them). Totally recommend it.

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks Nance. It seems Klyne is talking about those who convert story into propositions, see the stories as nothing but illustrations of higher level abstract truths (God loves us, Jesus wants your money, etc) and fail to see the potency of a narrative’s dynamic.

  • Marshall

    12. Aim for response.

    …. and pay attention to what you do when you get one.

  • Love this book and use it a lot. Thanks for featuring it.

  • TJJ

    I remember a seminary prof suggesting that Jesus’ parables practically preach themselves. He advised all one really needed to do was “release the story” and then get out of the way. And that if one could not preach powerful messages from the parables, that maybe one should look into being an engineer or something. That last bit being tongue in cheek of course. It took me many years to understand what it meant to “release the story”. Snodgrass seems to be saying something similar.

  • TJJ

    Actually I think the correct phrase was….”Unleash the Story”!