Preaching is a challenge. If the text for the sermon is a familiar biblical narrative, the congregation has likely already decided the character in the story with whom they will identify. Teachers of preaching often use the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) as an example. Many churchgoers have been taught to identify with the younger son who comes home and is embraced by the father. The moral of the story: Come to your senses and God will welcome you back. Time to party.
But it may be that the church is actually a lot more like the resentful older brother than the returning younger one. So, how can the preacher implicitly convey this message while not coming off as the holier-than-thou older brother? How can the sermon function to change congregational consciousness? I believe that point-of-view dynamics offer an insight into this issue.
The preacher is a narrator of sorts. Good preaching involves stepping into the world of the text and then resurfacing with a new way of being in the contemporary world. If the preacher can be understood as a narrator who bridges the gap, then the sermon has the potential to either merge the church with a character or distance the church from a character. Or, it may be that the sermon functions to do both. The sermon could begin in such a way as to merge the church with a character in the text, producing empathy in the listeners, but then distance the church from the character, resulting in condemnation from the listeners.
Returning to the parable of the Prodigal Son, how might point-of-view crafting be used to merge the listeners with the resentful older brother instead of the younger brother? One possibility is by amplifying what is already in the text. In this case, the psychological plane could be used. When the younger brother returns, the older brother “heard” music and dancing (Luke 15:25). Let’s imaginatively step into the world of the text and take it further. What did he see? What did he feel? What did he reason within himself?
Or, using this text, the spatial plane could also be used (see Nov 5/2013 post). The narrator uses the spatial plane in this story, following the younger son’s activity. So, the reader merges with the younger son. And by the end of the story, it’s time to party! But, how might that change if the sermon imaginatively followed the activity of the older son? The older son was in the field but then he came to the house (Luke 15:25). Again, we could step into the story and follow the older brother for a while. What was he doing out in the fields while his brother was living recklessly? Move the camera close. See his hardworking, calloused hands. Watch the sweat drip from his brow. Look at the blisters on his feet. Is a little recognition really too much to ask for?
When used correctly, the planes can function to merge the church with a character in the story. The listeners may even begin to feel empathy for the character they once condemned. In this case, having produced that feeling of empathy for such a person, the sermon can then move to the realization that we too have probably responded inappropriately at times when the party was thrown for someone else.
The study of point of view can equip preachers with an understanding of why it is that the church has trouble seeing itself as certain characters within the story. Empowered with this understanding, the sermon can function to help the congregation develop a more realistic self-understanding.