Archive for June 18th, 2009

I’ve been thinking about the parables since we started studying them here–well, that implies only; I’ve been thinking about them for a long time. To wit, I’m always on the lookout for some new bit of information that will help me get a better grasp on the content of Scripture. I came across this important bit of study from RC Sproul which, I believe, helps make, at least, part of the point I was making in my previous post in the De-Sanitizing the Parables series we are writing here at**

This is from Sproul’s book Knowing Scripture. It’s an older book, published in 1977, by IVP. I confess I haven’t read the entire book–I’m confessing since I have criticized those who make judgments about books without reading them entirely–but I don’t believe I am taking Dr Sproul out of context when I cite his work here. And these words are important because they echo what I said in my first post about that parables: We should approach them with caution.

In chapter 4, Sproul gives 10 practical rules for biblical interpretation. I am concerned here with number 9: Be Careful with the Parables. Thus,

Of all the various literary forms we find in Scripture, the parable is often considered the easiest to understand and interpret. People usually enjoy sermons that are based on parables. Since parables are concrete stories based on life situations, they seem easier to handle than abstract concepts. Yet, from the viewpoint of the New Testament scholar, the parables present unique difficulties in interpretation.

What is so hard about parables? Why can’t these pithy stories simply be presented and expounded? There are several answers to this question. First is the problem of the original intent of the parable. Jesus was obviously fond of using the parable as a teaching device. The puzzling question, however, is whether he used parables to elucidate his teaching or to obscure it. The debate focuses on Jesus’ cryptic words found in Mark 4:10-12:

10When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12so that,
” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Jesus continues by giving a detailed explanation of the Parable of the Sower to his disciples. What does he mean by saying that the parables are not to be perceived by those who have not been given the secret of the kingdom of God? Some translators are so offended by this saying that they have actually changed the wording of the text to avoid the problem. Such textual manipulation has no literary justification. Others see in these words an allusion to the judgment of God upon the hardened hearts of Israel and is an echo of God’s commission to the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah’s famous vision in the temple (Is. 6:8-13) God said to him, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah volunteered by saying, ‘Here am I. Send me!” God responded to Isaiah’s words by saying,

9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
” ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Here God’s judgment involves giving the people ‘fat hearts’ as a judgment on their sin. It is punishment in kind. The people did not want to listen to God, so he took away their capacity to hear him. (94-95)

In fact, I shall argue in my next post (on the parable of the Sower/soils) that an understanding of what took place in Isaiah 6 is essential for understanding what Jesus said in Matthew 13–not just of the sower, but all of the parables.

Sproul makes two important points here. First, he notes that the parables are not as easy to understand as we are want to think they are. We must, as he will conclude, be cautious. Second, he argues for understanding them in context, especially with reference and deference to their Old Testament predecessors and backgrounds. I agree. Much (all?) of what is written in the New Testament is an unfolding or exposition of what is written in the Old Testament. You’ve now doubt heard the old saying, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.”

I think this is a fine example where understanding the context, the culture, and the Scripture (OT) is essential to understanding the meaning of the parables Jesus spoke. Another example, building on Eugene’s post from the other day, confirms this idea of understanding the culture and context and Scripture. How would we listen to Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed differently if we had first listened to Ezekiel 31 where the tree in which all the birds make their home is Pharoah, king of Egypt?

1 In the eleventh year, in the third month on the first day, the word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes:
” ‘Who can be compared with you in majesty?

3 Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon,
with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest;
it towered on high,
its top above the thick foliage.

4 The waters nourished it,
deep springs made it grow tall;
their streams flowed
all around its base
and sent their channels
to all the trees of the field.

5 So it towered higher
than all the trees of the field;
its boughs increased
and its branches grew long,
spreading because of abundant waters.

6 All the birds of the air
nested in its boughs,
all the beasts of the field
gave birth under its branches;
all the great nations
lived in its shade.

I submit to you that perhaps the parable makes better sense, or at least a different sense, when we consider this passage of Scripture. Those who heard Jesus’ parable that day about the mustard seed would surely have known about Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning Pharoah. See then how Jesus transformed a parable in the Prophets from one of judgment to one of blessing; destruction of Pharaoh, construction in Jesus. It’s really a beautiful thing. This is but one example though, and is by no means conclusive or exhaustive. (Nor, for that matter, is it meant to upend Eugene’s fine exposition of the parable. It is simply to demonstrate that Jesus was not entirely thinking outside of what he knew when he did speak the parables. It is to show that perhaps the answers are ‘there’ and that we need to know where to look.)

Sproul goes on:

If Jesus is to be taken seriously about the use of parables, we must acknowledge an element of concealment in them. But that is not to say that the only purpose of a parable is to obscure or conceal the mystery of the kingdom to the impenitent. A parable is not a riddle. It was meant to be understood, at least by those who were open to it. There is also the consideration that Jesus’ enemies did have some understanding of the parables. At least enough to be infuriated by them. (96)

Yes. Consider this:

He went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.

13“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’

14“But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 15So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “May this never be!”

17Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written:
” ‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”

19The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.

Well, if it is true that Jesus spoke this parable ‘against them’, then how are we to understand it? To whom does it apply in our culture? Are there ‘them’ in our culture? Who would ‘them’ be? These are important questions to ask before we go off half-cocked and slap any old meaning on the parable we wish. It may not be as cut and dry as we think. We may need to be extra cautious: they knew the meaning, that doesn’t guarantee that we do. And how did they get this one right and so many others wrong?

Sproul concludes:

In dealing with the ‘concealment’ aspect of the parables there is one very important factor to keep in mind. The parables were originally given to an audience that lived before the cross and the resurrection. At that point in time people did not have the benefit of the entire New Testament as a background to aid them in interpreting the parables. Much of the parabolic material concerns the kingdom of God. At the time the parables were given there was much popular misconception of the meaning of the kingdom in the minds of Jesus’ hearers. Thus, the parables were not always easy to understand. Even the disciples had to ask Jesus for a more detailed interpretation of them. (96)


Again, the basic rule is one of care in dealing with them. (97)

Well, I think Sproul is correct. And if the people who lived in that culture, and understood that culture, misunderstood the parables Jesus spoke, how much more are we who do not live in that culture, and know little about that culture, susceptible to misunderstanding the parables Jesus spoke? I submit that we are even more susceptible precisely because we don’t want to take the time to know the context in which the parables were spoken.

I’ll note two resources that I have found particularly helpful. The first is a DVD series of lessons published by Zondervan: The Parables of Jesus, general editor, Matt Williams. From customer review:

The Teachers featured on the series are : Dr. Gary Burge, Wheaton College; Dr. David Garland, Truett Theological Seminary; Dr. Mark Strauss, Bethel Seminary; Dr. Michael Wilkins, Talbot School of Theology; Dr. Matt Williams, Biola University; Dr. Ben Witherington III, Asbury Theological Seminary.

Hosted by Jarrett Stevens and filmed in locations as diverse as Gloucester harbor, the Holy Land, Boston’s Old North Church, and Chicago’s lakefront, each volume consists of six fascinating sessions. Each session is taught by a different instructor and consists of three components:

1. Historical and cultural background
2. An engaging, close look at the biblical text and its meaning
3. Accurate, encouraging, and challenging applications of the Bible’s message to life today

This is a most helpful set of six lessons that can be used in Bible School, small groups, or other venues.

Another resource that is most helpful for understanding the geographical, political, social, economic, scriptural, and cultural background to many of the pericopes in Scripture is the work of Ray Vander Laan. His work is exceptional–especially his ‘That the World May Know’ series of lessons. You will find Vander Laan’s work most insightful in your efforts to understand the Scripture. From the ‘Our Philosophy’ page at his website:

God’s people settled in the land and developed customs and tradition and culture. And so when God’s Word became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus lived like a Jew, talked like a Jew, and worshipped like a Jew. Jesus was a Jew. Thus, Jesus’ words, actions and teaching methods, for example, were in keeping with the customs, traditions and religions of the Semitic culture into which he was born.

One way for us to know Jesus—and thus God the Father and the Holy Spirit—more intimately, is to carefully assess our 21st-century culture and Western attitudes in relation to and in light of the 1st-century world of Jesus. Immersing ourselves in the culture of Scripture and Jesus of Nazareth often brings additional insights to our understanding of the text. It is helpful to learn to “think Hebrew”? in the way that the original writers of the Text thought.

There are surely more resources available for study, but these are two that I have personally used in my own ministry work. As always, my goal here is to help you better understand the Scripture by whetting your appetite…creating a hunger for Christ, a hunger that can only be satisfied by Christ.

May you be blessed in your efforts and satisfied by His.

**Some of this post is question asking. Please be careful to note where I am asking questions as opposed to making definitive statements. I am interracting here with Dr Sproul’s work which I found to be particularly helpful.

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