This is part of a series of posts based on the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. To see the previous posts in this series, click below:
Are You Reading the Bible Wrong?
How to Read: New Testament Letters
How to Read: Old Testament Narrative
How to Read: The Gospels
One of the concepts that frustrated me about English class was the way teachers push meaning into irrelevant parts of books. Even if what the teacher says is true, I leave puzzled and with a migraine. For example, often a character in a book is described as wearing a certain color of clothing. I remember having to answer questions such as, “What is the significance of Peter wearing a blue shirt to the grocery store”. My answer: He put on a blue shirt and went to the grocery store. The teacher’s answer: Peter’s blue shirt is the author expressing his sorrow over having to work at a grocery store in his early years in order to financially support his family.
1. You do not need secret interpretive keys to understand parables.
Parables seem to be the type of literature that we over-complicate the most. We have a tendency to think we are wise by attaching significant spiritual truth to irrelevant details in Jesus’ parables – much like my frustration with English class. Simply put, Parables are simple stories that illustrate some type of spiritual truth. Jesus was a master of teaching through parables and they were one of the primary ways he spoke about Kingdom realities.
Almost every parable has one main point. Jesus is teaching in such a way that people understand the concepts in the parables. For example, the parable about the Good Samaritan teaches that all people are considered your neighbor, regardless of race or religion. The parable of the Prodigal Son is that the heavenly Father rejoices when lost people return to him. It is bad Bible reading to attach significant spiritual truths to small details in the parables.
Even those we consider spiritual giants have misread parables in this way. Many people rightly look to Saint Augustine as a hero of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, he would have done an excellent job in my English class according to his interpretation of the Good Samaritan.
2. Find the points of references.
In order to understand the parables, you need to identify what the points of references are in the story. As we discussed above, the parables are stories which illustrate a greater spiritual truth. This is done by telling a short story with multiple characters and a plot. Each of these things, when rightly understood, are points of references which illustrate the main point Jesus is trying to express.
Keeping with parable of the Good Samaritan, the points of references would be the following:
The man who was robbed
The priest and the Levite (religious leaders)
The “good” Samaritan (a people group hated by the Jewish people for apostasy and mixed race)
As indicated by Jesus’ question in Luke 10:36, Jesus is illustrating the duty of all mankind to help those who are hurting and in distress – regardless of race, religion, or vocation. We come to this conclusion by studying the points of references and bringing ourselves into Jesus’ question that closes out the parable.
3. Who is the Audience?
As stated above, Jesus often taught through the use of Parables. As an excellent teacher, Jesus would form his parables around the people he is speaking with. Having a proper understanding of the audience of Jesus’ parables, you will begin to see the reason for each parable’s use. For this example, let’s look at the popular parable known as the Prodigal Son. In essence, Jesus tells the story of a son who forsakes his father, spends all of his money, and then returns to his father. His father then throws a celebration and the rebellious son’s older brother is both jealous and angry that the father is celebrating the prodigal son.
This story takes on significant meaning when you understand that Jesus was speaking to an audience made up of two types of people:
1. Tax Collectors and “sinners”
2. Scribes and Pharisees
The first group of people were those that disregarded much of Judaism through their sinful lifestyles. The second group of people were those that tried tediously to follow the commands of the Law. Combining both the audience and the points of references, we can come to the following understanding of the Prodigal Son:
- The son who forsook his father and squandered his inheritance can be identified with the tax collectors and sinners who each forsook their Heavenly Father for the things of this world.
- The older brother who is mad at the father for accepting the prodigal son back into the family can be identified with the Scribes and Pharisees whose obedience to dead religion had turned their hearts cold to the rest of mankind.
Both learn a significant truth through the parable: that God forgives and accepts sinners who return to him; regardless of how “religious” people feel about it.
What is your favorite parable? Who is the audience and what are some points of references that would help you understand the main teaching of the story? Let me know by leaving a comment!