When being prepared in the seminary for our future preaching role, I recall two bits of advice: ‘preach what you pray’ and ‘you are always preaching to yourself’. Both comments undermine the notion that preaching is about telling people what to think or what to do.
The Gospel for Sunday 3rd February gives an account of Jesus’s first sermon in his local synagogue. Known only to them as ‘Joseph’s lad’, he pre-empts criticism of his preaching by quoting the phrase ‘Physician heal thyself’.
There is an assumption by those who don’t often get around to opening the Bible that Jesus spends his time moralising – telling people where they are going wrong. But his preaching method is storytelling; telling people how things are rather than telling them what to do. And his stories lead them to conclusions which are the opposite of what they might expect.
In parables such as the Mustard Seed, the Dishonest Steward or the Labourers in the Vineyard, Jesus turns people’s expectations on their head. When people don’t ‘understand’ what Jesus means, he doesn’t apologise. His preaching leads people to make connections. ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like….’ But they have to do it for themselves; when they are ready.
There’s an irony in that. The devout religious leaders don’t ’get it’, whereas the failures and the inadequate connect with his preaching straight away. Whenever the self-sufficient and successful see themselves reflected unfavourably in his stories they are defensive and enraged. But by the time the penny has dropped, Jesus has already slipped away. It is a pattern that is to repeat itself.
Jesus predicts his own arrest and execution but he doesn’t need miraculous powers to see it is inevitable. The alternative for him would have been not to preach at all.