Dwight L. Moody used to remind pastors to "put the cookies on the bottom shelf so everyone could reach them."
What he meant--and what he practiced as well as it could be done--was, "Keep the message simple." Make it accessible to everyone.
How many times have we sat in a class or church service that was numbing our brain and lulling us to sleep because of its "precept upon precept" style of presentation, when the speaker/preacher said those magic words that jerked us back to life: "Let me tell you a little story...."
We sat up and listened for a dozen reasons. We are built to enjoy a story (which is nothing in the world but a recount of how someone other than ourselves dealt with life; it's how we learn), we love a good laugh, we devour great insights, and we appreciate the break in the flow of the lesson that day. But what we especially appreciate is that the story may help us grasp the contents of whatever principles the speaker was sharing.
Case in point....
They criticized the Lord Jesus for hobnobbing with the lower class, people who were clearly sinners, bad influences, and reputation ruiners. Now, had our Lord graduated from certain schools of preaching current today, He would have answered something like this:
"There are three reasons why these creatures need me--
- Their hearts are astray from God
- Their minds are askew from the truth
- Their lives are assailed by the devil
Therefore, I have come to do three things for them--
- to bring them back to themselves
- to bring them back to their Heavenly Father
- to bring them back to the life God intended for them."
But no, He didn't play this little game. He simply told a story, the one we call The Prodigal Son. (I'm completely aware Jesus actually gave three stories there--the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son. Each brings out a facet in His answer.)
Why did He do that and why do we love the story of the wayward son so much?
He did it because it accomplishes the same thing as a two-hour lecture on the fallenness of mankind, the forgiveness of God, and the restoration of the penitent in one-tenth the time and with ten times the power.
Few would have remembered the lecture; no one can forget the story.
The story is so true, so "real," that the heart of everyone encountering it for the first time resonates with a "Yes, that's me. I've been there, done that."
And that's why we need parables. Anything that strong, that potent, in such a tiny package which is such a universal donor--well, sir/ma'am, we'd be foolish not to make good use of it.
We're studying parables in Matthew's Gospel these days.
I want to suggest something. Whether you are a preacher or a Sunday School teacher, a seminary professor or a homemaker, a teen or a retiree, this is for you.
Find one of Jesus' parables and read it through twice. Then, lay the Bible aside and make sure you remember its details. Then, go on about your business and think about it throughout the day...
- Reflect on what Jesus was saying regarding the subject at hand. He never told stories in a vacuum. Like Abraham Lincoln, certain subjects "reminded him of a tale." So, what was going on that made Him think of that?
- Reflect on the hearers. What did they think and what do you suppose was their reaction? Imagine yourself in the crowd.
- Is there something else in that little story frequently overlooked? You're holding it up like a penny you just found on the parking lot--so familiar and so common that most people walked right on by without picking it up. You're looking at it from every angle, the front and back as well as the serrated edges. You're inspecting every detail, even looking for the insignia for the mint which made it.
- Does this parable speak to where your life is today? How?
- How would you restate that story in current, everyday words and phrases? Give it a try.
- Lastly, pray that story. Pray its lessons in your own life.
Which parable should you start with? Consider one of these lesser known parables of Jesus....
Matthew 11:16-19 "Children in the Marketplace." It's a common scene, an unforgettable image, and a great lesson. Ask any preacher. He gets criticized for not telling stories, and for telling too many. He gets critized when he preaches a topical sermon and criticized when he doesn't. That's how it was when John the Baptist came preaching a harsh message, followed by the good-news ministry of our Lord.
The point of this story seems clear: "Some people appear to want it both ways, but the truth is often that they don't want it either way!"
Matthew 12:43-45 "The Unclean Spirit returns to the Empty House." Here's a fellow who decides to reform himself. He exercises strong self-discipline and gets the demons (bad habits, obsessions, whatever) out of his life. He cleans himself up and is proud of what he has done. But he has a problem: his life is empty now. Unless he replaces the alcohol and bar-hopping and womanizing with something positive and powerful, he becomes a sitting duck for the enemy.
Have you noticed that the Lord loves the image of our lives as a house? Revelation 3:20 comes to mind. Think of your life as a house. Ask yourself whether you have invited Jesus in, and whether you have turned over the keys to Him? Or have you restricted Him to the living room and roped off certain private areas of your home?
Matthew 18:21-35 "The Parable of the Unforgiving Steward." If you need forgiveness or if you are overwhelmed at the Lord's forgiveness in your own life--you should be!--you will find your spirit resonating with this story. On the surface, it's a simple enough message: "He who is forgiven should also forgive others." Or as the Lord said, "Freely you have received; freely give." (Matthew 10:8)
Don't forget to tie that parable in with "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" in the Lord's Prayer.
Do not fail to notice the question of Peter which prompted the story in the first place. We keep wanting to put limits on our forgiveness. Thank God, there is no limit on His!
We need parables.
God made us that way.
Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mt. Used with permission.
Original publication date: November 4, 2009