Preaching the Parables with Robert Farrar Capon

Preaching the parables of Jesus might seem an easy matter, but preachers know different. We typically try to “explain” what they mean, but precisely in doing so we often violate their provocative, confounding, and converting intent. Jesus tells stories not to teach a moral lesson, as in Aesop’s fables, but to turn the religious, moral, and theological world of his hearers upside down and inside out. Jesus intended to baffle and confuse, to befuddle and mystify. To hear the Lord’s parables rightly is to be given a new perspective on God and his good creation. Ultimately, it is to be drawn into the coming Kingdom.

No writer helped me more in my preaching of the parables than the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon. Capon was not a biblical scholar per se, but he spent a lifetime studying and preaching the parables of Christ. In the 80s he published three books on the parables—now gathered into one volume, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment—and they quickly became an essential resource in my sermon preparation. Capon has a unique gift in bringing the parables to life, often in surprising ways.

In this series I will not, of course, be engaging every parable of our Lord. For the most part I will be res­tricting myself to those parables I loved to preach, but only for the most part, for there are also important parables that I found difficult to preach and might have avoided if they were not appointed in the lectionary to be read on a given Sunday. This is one of the important functions of the lectionary: it prevents preachers from being overly selective in their choice of sermon texts. We preach the biblical passages the Church tells us to preach.

With the help of Chesterton, Capon describes the intent of the parabolic teaching of the Lord:

G. K. Chesterton, who was a master of the apt illustration, once gave some sardonic advice about the limitations of parabolic discourse. He said that if you give people an analogy that they claim they do not understand, you should graciously offer them another. If they say they don’t understand that either, you should oblige them with a third. But from there on, Chesterton said, if they still insist they do not understand, the only thing left is to praise them for the one truth they do have a grip on: “Yes,” you tell them, “that is quite correct. You do not understand.”

To put it simply, Jesus began where Chesterton left off. In resorting so often to parables, his main point was that any understanding of the kingdom his hearers could come up with would be a misunderstanding. Mention “mes­siah” to them, and they would picture a king on horseback, not a carpenter on a cross; mention “forgiveness” and they would start setting up rules about when it ran out. From Jesus’ point of view, the sooner their mis­guided minds had the props knocked from under them, the better. After all their yammer about how God should or shouldn’t run his own operation, getting them just to stand there with their eyes popped and their mouths shut would be a giant step forward.1

As noted above, Capon was not a New Testament scholar, though he was no doubt trained in the historical-critical method in seminary. He does not share with us the scholarship that no doubt informed his reading of the parables. Nary a footnote is found in his book. He does not provide us historical information about the Pharisees or the socio-economic conditions of Palestine, as one finds, for example, in the valuable works of Kenneth Bailey.2 Capon reads the parables within the context of the totality of Scripture and the dogmatic tradition of the Church. His exegesis, in other words, is canonical and theologi­cal. But most critically, he reads them in light of his understanding of the gospel as revealed in the incarnate Word Jesus Christ:

There are two very different ways you can come at the Incarnation. One is to turn it into a transaction that was poked into the history of the world at a specific time and place (namely, in the Person and work of Jesus); the other is to model it as a feature of the constitution of the universe—a Mystery present in creation from beginning to end, but which was finally and fully manifested to us in Jesus.3

Capon does not apologize for reading the parables as a Christian theologian; on the contrary, he believes it is the only way to read them rightly. We cannot understand the parables unless we first grasp that the One who speaks them is the eternal Son of the God of Israel, who has unconditionally reconciled all humanity through his death, resurrection, and ascension. Capon’s interpretive method might therefore be described as paschal, apostolic, eschatological.

I begin with the parable that Capon tells us is crucial to understanding the mission and teaching Christ—the parable of the Sower.

Footnotes

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment (2002), p. 7.

[2] See Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (1983).

[3] Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ (1993), p. 80. Capon frequently speaks of the grace of Christ as non-transactional. See this long extract from Hunting the Divine Fox I have copied into my blog: “The Mystery of the Non-transactional God.”

(Go to “The Sower”)

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2 Responses to Preaching the Parables with Robert Farrar Capon

  1. Sonya says:

    I loved Capon and used him a lot in my preaching years ago as well! And I still have the books. They survived many a book cull. How good to find him still ‘preaching’ today.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steven says:

    I’m 2/3 the way through this set, which is my first exposure to Fr. Capon’s work. It’s been a blessing and a challenge to grapple with his ideas. And I love his style.

    Like

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