I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from xii-xiv talks about the steps by which we can read parables that are both true to their original meanings and to their cultural context. The following is the excerpt.
In writing this book, I’m not only talking about Luke’s message, but also walking through an easily accessible method that both lay readers and preachers can use in their reading. I will consistently follow the following steps to show the possible meanings these fictional stories Jesus told might hold. Through this method, I hope to move the reading from the first-century world to twenty-first-century reality for anyone who seeks their relevance beyond literary entertainment.
To begin with, in the introduction that follows this preface, I will talk about Luke’s world and paint a picture of the readership that originally received his message. Certainly, Luke’s world was somewhat different from the world of Jesus and his followers. I’ll be mindful of the world of Jesus as well when reading the parables. One thing is certain: authors wrote to audiences.
As modern readers, we may want to think that the Gospel writers were writing to us. They weren’t! They were writing to an ancient audience within certain social conventions. Admittedly, my own experience as an Asian-American Christian with teaching experience in Asia may color my perspective. Such coloring may not be bad because there are some points of convergence between my own culture (or any other culture) and the biblical world. We shall see. In any case, having a background roadmap to navigate these stories from the perspective of the biblical audience is very important for modern understanding. This paradigm will be something that guides our ethical and homiletical reflection at the end of each parable, but we’re jumping ahead.
The first step to reading each parable, after we have reconstructed Luke’s world, is a reconstructive reading of the parable in an alternate way. In this first step, we look at one way Jesus could’ve told the parable. In this process, we should let the parable speak for itself instead of trying to theologize and moralize it. Quite often, in modern preaching, people do not let the parables speak for themselves but import their own narratives into them. There were obviously many possible ways to understand the parables in Jesus’ day. In this study, we’ll explore one way as a sample of how the parable could have functioned within its own cultural environment. I shall change what I consider the key element within the parable to see how the parable might have gone in a direction quite different from the intent of the storyteller. The characters of the parable will play an active role in determining how the story would have turned out. Another criterion I use in determining the key narrative element is the overall intent of the parable. In most parables, Jesus talks about what issue or question the parable is trying to address or answer. We can change the key element to address the issue in a different way and see what comes of it. In this step, I will provide my own altered version of the parable. Readers themselves can surely imagine other ways the parable could’ve been told to address the issue raised by Jesus and his situation.
In the second step, after coming up with an imaginary variation to the parable, I will establish the meaning of each parable as Jesus told it. In so doing, I will address the broader context from which the parable arose. How do I determine where the boundaries are for the broader context? It’s quite simple. I use the change of occasion and location in Luke’s story to determine the exact event that gives rise to Jesus’ parable. After discussion of the meaning of the parable, I will have a subsection called “context” to explore how narrative context influenced the formation of such a parable. This is an important element in determining the initial meaning a parable had for Jesus’ original audience. While range of meaning is a relatively open system, this step allows us to attend to what meanings are impossible and therefore narrows our scope. In this second step, we should be attentive to Jesus’ background if possible so that we don’t read Jesus outside of his own culture.
With the third step, after understanding the parable within Jesus’ context in Luke’s Gospel, we are ready to jump into more practical discussions. This third step has three phases. First, we discuss what Luke’s writing of the story would have meant to the original readers by connecting the meaning of the parable for Jesus’ audience with Luke’s readers. Second, we look at how the meaning from the original readers transfers to our world by looking at converging points between our culture and theirs. Third, we can look at how knowing all this can impact our preaching and Bible studies. The third step will provide some homiletic suggestions for busy preachers and Bible study questions for the busy Bible study leader. Here we’ll explore possible misreadings that can be found in the popular teaching of these parables. I’ll point out those pitfalls so that we can avoid future mishaps.
These three simple steps will always consider the metanarrative we’ve reconstructed from Luke’s world and they will highlight for us the possible and impossible meanings. This multidimensional reading will end up presenting a Jesus who was socially subversive for his time and ours. Readers will hopefully be able to follow and benefit from this intellectual exercise to further and deepen their personal reflections.