Illustrations Enliven Our Preaching

A parishioner listening to a homily on Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not very impressed until the preacher offered an illustration about a man who played a record twice for his friend and asked, “Which did you prefer?” The friend responded, “The second; it was purer and sweeter.” His host then informed him, “The first was played with a needle. The second with a thorn.”

The power of good illustrations to enliven a homily cannot be overestimated, especially when a preacher wants to make the Gospel more lucid and understandable. Illustrations illumine and clarify. When presenting something complex, a “for instance” is needed. We have to locate the familiar to explain the unfamiliar. An illustration will often add clarity to some abstract concept that otherwise would guarantee dull or yawn-induced preaching.

Profound thoughts are often conveyed by a simple illustration. Illustrations are like windows “bringing in the clear sunshine of comprehension,” as Thomas Long states in his Witness of Preaching. The test for the preacher is to make his homily perfectly clear. Clarity can be sacrificed by technical and theological terms such as “paschal mystery,” “hypostatic union,” or “transubstantiation.” To be understood, doctors often have to put a diagnosis in lay terms. Preachers need to do the same. If we cannot clarify our thoughts to our listeners, it usually is an indication that those thoughts are not clear to us.

Clarifies Point

Examples help clarify a preacher’s point. To convey deep concepts, Jesus used ordinary objects familiar to his listeners, such as mustard seed, pearls, coins, wheat, and salt.

At times our hearers respond to preaching by thinking, “We have heard all that before.” A good illustration can counteract that. Many homilies are characterized as boring, ho-hum, or sleep inducers. Illustrations from the pulpit often banish dullness and boredom. Homilies with illustrations are more easily remembered. People will often remember a story or anecdote and then be able to recall the point more readily.

parables
Jesus used parables to stimulate his hearers, and illustrate a point.

In her book A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis, Diane Ackerman tells the story of Jack Lewis, an 80-year old Protestant minister, who received a wrenching phone call one morning from a man holding a gun on his wife and children. Jack Lewis was courageous enough to walk into his home, sat down next to the man and said, “Tell me your story.”

After 10 hours the man gave Jack his gun. Ackerman goes on to show how many of us have a loaded gun. But once we have told our story, maybe we are ready to lay it down.

Illustrative preaching can be most persuasive, especially when encouraging others to forgive. An emotional story can have a deep impact and move hearers to action. I read of a Russian woman whose son was court-martialed and executed on the eve of World War II. The grieving mother searched out the soldier who had fired the single shot that killed her son, only to discover the he was lying in a ditch, critically ill and near death. She nursed him back to life — and then adopted him.

A common criticism is that listeners are wearied by preachers repeating the same thing over and over again. Preachers who use illustrations avoid repetition and add freshness to a homily by approaching a topic from different angles. Illustrations that pack a punch challenge listeners.

Here is one example: Once Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., American physician, poet, professor, lecturer, and author, attended a meeting and happened to be the smallest person present. “Dr. Holmes,” quipped a friend, “I should think you’d feel rather small among us big fellows.” “I do,” retorted Holmes. “I feel like a dime among a lot of pennies.”

Which Illustrations?

We hear the expression that variety is the spice of life. This is true when applied to illustrations. Variety imparts freshness and vitality to preaching. We have to understand how each type of illustration is most effective. We need to select the best material, whether a figure of speech, metaphor, image, story or experience. We should also make sure that the illustration we choose is not mere ornamentation and that it applies to as many age groups and cultures as possible.

Most preachers have a “tool chest” of figures of speech that get a point across forcefully. Similes can be used. For example, some preaching is like a fruitcake, full of concepts but lacking examples with which people can identify. Maurice Blondel wrote that our lives are like “morning freshness in the evening.” Someone said of Mother Teresa that she was very gentle and kind, but when it came to the poor she was like a bulldog. Jesus often said, “To what shall I liken this?”

Metaphors

Metaphors seek to create new understanding by describing something familiar in a fresh way. Speaking of locomotives as “iron horses” certainly creates a vivid picture in the mind of the listener. Metaphors make words mean more than they ordinarily do. They are implied comparisons. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14).

Metaphors can tease us into thinking differently about something. John Dominic Crossan makes a distinction between metaphors of illustration and metaphors of participation. Metaphors of illustration are stories told to make a point and then be forgotten. Metaphors of participation, such as Jesus used in His parables, create meaning because the hearers get involved in the story.

The reality of the text becomes the reality of the hearer. A powerful metaphor of human sin is found in Colleen McCullough’s book The Thorn Birds.

The bird with the thorn in the breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and dies singing. At the very instant the thorn enters, there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But, we, when we put the thorns in our breast, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.

Allegories are developed metaphors that have two levels of meaning: one obvious, and the other symbolic. Examples include William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Jesus used the vine (Jn 15), an image of the chosen people (Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1), to re-echo the lilting song of the vine from Isaiah 5:1-7. Another example is Jesus saying, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15).

Parables

Parables are most useful. Jesus told parables not only to stimulate his hearers but also to let them draw their own conclusions. “He spoke to them only in parables” (Mt 13:34). The parable of the prodigal son is an invitation for hearers to consider how they might need to return to the Father. Which character do we identify with in this parable? Very few want to identify with the elder son, the righteous one who remains faithful, but will not rejoice in his wayward brother’s return.

The story is unfinished. We don’t know what the two sons said to one another later. Or how the younger son lived out his repentance. Unfinished, yes, because we are part of it. How do we live it out in our daily lives? Stories are used to illustrate a point, but often they are the point. Nathan’s story confronting David is the point.

In trying to impress on his audience the need for paying a price of their time, one preacher used the analogy of people going into a store and spotting something they like. As they pick up the article, the first thing they do is look at the price tag. Once they do, they often put it down. The price we have to pay for coming to Mass, going to the sacrament of reconciliation, witnessing our faith, can never compare to the price Jesus paid on the cross where he shed his last drop of blood for us. Isn’t it true, the things that cost us most we value most?

Personal Experience

Some of the best illustrative material can come from our own personal experiences.

Megan McKenna related the following experience. “A few years ago, traveling in Wales, I did a parish mission in a dark, grim and poor small town, made nearly all of slate mined in the hills above the town. At night we would sit in a cozy house by a fire, drinking a bit of whiskey and watching the sky darkening and the shadows coming on.

It was fascinating. The house was high in the hills above the town. First there would be one light. Then the minutes would pass and another light, then another. A trail of light wound its way below us, around and in and out. I watched, wondering what it was and how it was created.

My host smiled and said, ‘Ah, you’ve noticed. We are still poor and a bit backward here. That is the lamplighter, walking through the town, lighting the gas lamps. When I catch sight of the lamps being lit down below in the town, I remember how John Ruskin once said that you always know you are in a presence of Christians by the trail of light they leave behind.’”

If you are a fisherman and know that you might have some fishermen in your congregation, you might use a visual illustration of how you use a fly to catch a certain fish, a worm to catch another, or a lure to catch a larger fish. Visual objects are used to connect with spiritual things.

Jeremiah was told to bury his loin cloth and later retrieve it. Showing how rotten it had become was a sign of what had happened to the disobedient Israelite people.

When my dad lay dying in the hospital, I thought that as a priest I would be able to help him. I never felt so powerless in my life. My dad looked at me and I looked at him, and we did not say much. But we spoke volumes in our silence. Then the words of St. Paul took on a deeper significance for me: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. . .for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).

Sources For Illustrations

The Bible is a storehouse filled with stories and people who can be used to exemplify a point: The stories of Susana, Ruth, Esther and Judith. The heroism of the Mother of the Maccabees. The struggles of Job, Jonah and Jeremiah. Hosea and his harlot wife, Gomer. David and Saul. Samuel, Matthew, John. The story of Ananias and Sapphira. Peter. Judas. Dismas, the good thief. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night. Preachers need to tell the stories found in the Scriptures so they remain alive in the hearts and minds of their listeners. Making them more aware of these stories is often far more beneficial than filling their heads with abstract ideas.

The Wonders of Nature

Being attentive to nature and marveling at its wonders can improve our preaching. How often Jesus used things in nature to drive home his points: the birds of the air, the lilies in the field, the good tree and the bad tree, the sower and the seed, just to mention a few.

Wasn’t it Karl Barth who insisted that all good preachers must have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other? Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly states:

Preachers need to devote some time and energy to understanding the complex social, political and economic forces that are shaping the contemporary world. Watching the evening news on television or scanning the headlines of the daily paper may be a beginning, but it is not enough. Preachers need exposure to more serious and sustained commentary on the contemporary world (No. 34).

But newspapers can be very helpful. Listeners will be more attentive if we use items from the news. If it is timely or current and fits the subject matter, it enables the preacher to illustrate some idea in a forceful way. Once I read a powerful story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about Kathleen Cliff who suffered a 12-hour attack by her former boyfriend. He brutalized her by punching her, smashing her head to the floor and gouging out her eyes. She later said to him, “I forgive you, I wish you well.” Kathleen said that it is only by faith she was able to forgive.

Good preaching is often a reflection of our reading. Hours spent in reading and praying over the Scriptures, delving into Church history and perusing good magazines is not wasted. Reading biographies or excellent fiction is also helpful.

Stories from Reading

Reading has given me some good stories. One example is the story of a priest in Africa who took a strong stand against apartheid. Naturally he created many enemies. One day he received a letter, but was unaware that it contained a bomb. In the process of opening it, he lost both of his hands and was struck blind. He responded: “They might be able to take my two hands and take away my eyesight, but I will continue to speak out against the injustices of apartheid.”

Preachers need to draw on their own inner struggles, pains and joys while empathizing with their hearers. Experiences dealing with people in nursing homes or hospitals can offer preachers material for their homilies. I remember visiting a man in a hospital who said to me, “I almost did it, Father.” “Did what?” I said. “I almost committed suicide,” he replied.

Then he went on to unravel his story. He went through a painful divorce. His children no longer speak to him. He lost his job. Then he pulled out a small crucifix. “Do you notice anything about this crucifix,” he inquired? I noticed that the corpus on the crucifix was broken. He said, “I pressed the crucifix so hard in my hand that I broke it. But that saved my life!”

Powerful films can be a forceful way to drive home a point. “The King’s Speech” is the story of King George VI of Britain, who ascended the throne but had a speech impediment. With the aid of a speech therapist who helped him find his voice through some unorthodox speech therapy, King George VI was able to lead his country through war.

Another excellent movie is “Of God’s and Men,” the true story about a group of eight Trappist monks stationed in an impoverished Algerian community. Under threat of fundamentalist terrorists, they must decide whether to stay and risk death or return to their homeland, France.

Plays, poetry, popular songs and travel also can provide rich illustrative material for homilies.

Clarify Abstract Ideas

If anyone still objects that homilies with illustrations lack depth, consider that Immanuel Kant and many others philosophers used illustrations to clarify their profound thoughts. Illustrations clarify abstract ideas. They counteract the ho-hum mentality of “here we go again, another boring homily.” They are easily remembered when told in story form.

In Preaching that Speaks to Women, Alice Mathews stated that she used a sewing machine as an illustration as “swift revenge for all the football stories I’ve had to listen to over the years.” She writes, “When illustrations are skillfully used, stereotypes in people’s minds can be replaced with images that are far more constructive and biblical.”

An illustration once given, however, should not be explained. Like humor, it dies or lives on its own merits. We also need to be wary of using too many illustrations. They have to take us back to the Word of God. Jesus clarified so many of his profound ideas by means of illustrations. Why not imitate the master?

FATHER HART, O.F.M. Cap., is a member of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph.