One parable is definitely misinterpreted without a cultural study.
In spite of…wide attention given to the parables…2 aspects of…interpretation still need serious attention…the cultural milieu and the literary structure of the parables…. Modern scholarship has been engaged for well over a century in trying to rediscover the cultural context of the Bible. Ancient literature has been examined…. The problem is that cultural attitudes in any literature are assumed and only rarely, if ever, explained…
What’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to people from another culture, and vice versa. Bailey also explains how literary structures affect the New Testament and particularly why the parables were structured as they were in Luke 9:51-19:48. But our focus today is on the cultural challenges to the interpretation of the parables. Next week I’ll focus on what’s probably the most problematic parable of all: the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-9).
When studying the apostle Paul, one is dealing with theology expressed in conceptual language. But in…parables…theology is expressed in stories about particular people…in a given cultural setting…the culture…informs the text…. Plummer, for example, notes the father in…the Prodigal Son turns and addresses the servants immediately after hearing his son’s confession. Plummer affirms…this order must have been given after the two had returned to the house because no servant would run out and down the road. He is…thinking of a 19th century British butler…. The hermeneutical question is, of course, very important, but the historical question of “what it meant” must be answered prior to… “what it means.” …Ben Sirach reports that a nobleman is known by his walk…referring to the slow, dignified pace of the Middle Eastern patriarch…one of the crucial keys to the parable of the Prodigal Son….
Reading this whole book gives a much better understanding of the problems and solutions than what I can try to give in this “Readers Digest” summary. The solution is partly summarized here:
In the south of Egypt…mountains of Lebanon, and in the isolated communities of upper Syria and Iraq, there are peasant communities which have lived in remarkable isolation from the rest of the world…they regard changelessness as being of highest value…. This identity…has maintained itself in Middle Eastern peasant society all through the centuries…. Access is on foot or by donkey. There is a town crier and a village weaver…their intellectual life is in the form of poems and stories preserved from the past…
Bailey explains how different scholars studied these cultures, what should be done, and why. But moving on to the connection with Christ’s parables,
The parables of Jesus have a surprising list of unsavory characters. In addition to… [the Unjust] Steward are the unjust judge, the neighbor who does not want to be bothered in the night, and the man who pockets someone else’s treasure by buying his field. As Smith notes, “The parable of the Unjust Steward, whose conduct goes from bad to worse, is only the most outstanding example of a class of parables, the use of which appears to be a unique and striking feature of Christ’s teaching.” In 3 of the 4 cases listed above, Jesus is using the rabbinic principle of “from the light to the heavy,” which means generally, “how much more.”
Next week I’ll sum up what Christ was teaching in his story of the Unjust Steward. This includes how culture affects our interpretation of this parable, and why. Meanwhile, consider our responsibility to act on what we already know. James 1:22-25 warns we’ll deceive ourselves if we don’t, and Isaiah 55:11 promises God’s word will accomplish whatever he desires. Meaning it will harden some hearts and soften others.
Does your heart soften when you learn from God’s word?
I took this picture from the bus when I was in Israel driving around the arid southern part of Israel in 2004.