Meatball Exegesis!

by Wes Allen on Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Preacher’s Question:

Sunday seems to come every 2 and ½ days. What is a method of sermon preparation that is realistic in terms of time commitment but yields a quality sermon?


Professor O. Wesley Allen’s answer: Meatball Exegesis!

This blog by Dr. O. Wesley Allen, Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology is in response to the following question by a student:

The techniques learned in seminary OT/NT classes were for academic papers and not really for sermon manuscripts. What are your thoughts, techniques, and tips for concise but thorough exegetical work that will be helpful for a pastor who only has about 2-3 hours per day for sermon preparation? Any resources you recommend?

Thank you in advance and for having this platform.


Rev. Kyland Dobbins, M.Div. ‘10


Harry Emerson Fosdick advised that for every minute preachers spend in the pulpit, they should spend an hour in the study working on the sermon. His point is well taken that good sermons require intentional and deep work. But c’mon! Did Fosdick not have 3 hymns to pick, 8 Bible studies to lead, 23 meetings to attend, 47 hospital visits to make, 75 pages of reports to write, and 819 complaints to field each week? Oh yeah, not to mention, didn’t he also care about maintaining a personal life with healthy boundaries between work and home?

On the one hand preachers need not to allow the immediacy of so much of ministry to become an excuse for not blocking off enough time on their calendars to do serious sermon preparation. After all, the sermon is the one time a week that pastors get to address the most people and meet the most congregational needs. On the other hand, though, preachers need to be realistic about the busyness of life and ministry and not put added guilt on themselves by setting unreasonable expectations about how much time is really available (and how much time is really needed!).

Eight to ten hours a week is sufficient for sermon preparation if

  1. it is used well
  2. it is patterned each week to fit the preacher’s best study/creativity time
  3. it is spread out over the week giving the brain time to percolate about the sermon even when the preacher is not consciously working on it.

If we imagine 2-3 hours a day (in a four day work week—yes, preachers should take a weekday off!) spent in sermon preparation, the first day should be dedicated to interpreting the biblical text. On the first day we determine what the text said, and then on the remaining three days we determine what we are going to say and how we are going to say it.

Theologically trained clergy can easily get derailed during the interpretive portion of sermon preparation because (admit it!) exegesis is fun. As long as we don’t have a professor with a red pen waiting for us, digging into a text and discovering new things is a blast… and it’s meaningful. But we do not need the level of investigation of a text we used in writing exegesis papers in seminary to properly interpret a text for the pulpit and to avoid getting hooked at the first shiny thing dangling in the waters of the text.

Stephen Farris argues that preachers ought to think of exegesis for preaching as being like meatball surgery as described in the classic sitcom M*A*S*H. When your patient has been injured and other patients are waiting for life-saving surgery, you must get to the heart of the matter with a quick but correct diagnosis, fix it, and then move on. In meatball exegesis, preachers need to get to the heart of the text quickly and accurately, interpret it, and then move on to the next task of ministry.

The professor in me hates to admit it, but commentaries are the best tool for doing this. The problem is not all commentaries are equal and commentary authors are not the ones standing in the pulpit before your congregation on Sunday morning. So preachers need to find a balance between their own investigation into a text and consulting commentaries as conversation partners that make the best use of their time and get the best results.

Before turning to a commentary, preachers need to:

  • Read the text aloud a few times, emphasizing different words and parts of the passage just to see what you notice. Write down both observations and questions.
  • Make sure the plain sense of the text….well, makes sense. Examine the passage sentence by sentence. Get down to the level of each word. Use a Bible dictionary to look up any character or topographical references or any concepts that might have a different significance in the ancient world than today.
  • Reflect on the historical and literary contexts of the passage. Why was this written to the particular audience to which it was addressed?
  • Attend to the flow, structure, and logic of the passage. What is the bad news in (or implied by) the passage and what is the good news? Determine where the climax is—that will usually indicate what should be in the climax of your sermon.
  • Try to write the claim of the text (as you currently conceive it) in a single sentence.
  • Write down the theological category into which the text as a whole best fits (your sermon should be in the same category). Does it deal with ethical, soteriological, stewardship, ecological, etc., matters?
  • And write down the choice of character in the text (for narratives) or person behind the text (author or audience) with whom you will ask your congregation to identify—keep this point of view throughout the whole sermon.

Now turn to commentaries. Note the plural.

The only way to justify the short process described above (which done well should take about an hour) is to begin with a critical commentary—one that gets into the nuts and bolts, jots and tittles of the text; one that deals with the original language of the text in at least some detail. (If the passage is from a biblical book with which you are less familiar, this reading should begin with at least scanning the commentary’s introduction.) In terms of meatball surgery, think of this step as consulting a specialist to confirm or correct and certainly to expand your diagnosis of your patient before you begin treatment that cannot be reversed. After reading this commentary carefully and slowly, the preacher should revise the work from the final three steps above: writing the claim of the text, the theological category to which the text belongs, and the point of identification for the congregation.

Now the preacher should read at least one more commentary. This one can be less detailed and more theological in nature, but it should still be a commentary on the whole biblical work from which your passage comes. After reading it, the preacher should again revise what she or he has written down in the steps named above.

Finally (and not until now) preachers may, if they so feel compelled, consult lectionary commentaries, preacher’s helps, and (heaven help us) online resources. These will take preachers yet a step farther beyond from the nuts and bolts of the ancient text to the contemporary needs of a congregation. A final revision of what has already been revised, and at the end of a couple or so hours, preachers are ready to set the work aside to stew in their brain and be used as the starting point for tomorrow’s work.

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics

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