Parables

September 6, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Posted in Christianity | Leave a comment
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One of the more well-known types of literary expression used in the gospels is the parable. Many of the parables are even known to those who aren’t born-again. Parables play an important role in the truth that Jesus preached. And yet, they also seem to be some of the most misunderstood or misused passages in scripture. Don’t believe me? First, let’s list some of the more popular parables:

  • The parable of the good Samaritan
  • The parable of the prodigal son
  • The parable of the four soils

Now, think about all of the sermons that you’ve heard preached on these and other parables. Can you say which ones were actually in context? Were they treated properly and rightly divided? Or, were they used to preach an agenda or a view other than what scripture says?

This is the problem with the way parables are often handled. Most times, it is unintentional. But, there are times when those using them purposefully twist them to make them say something other than what they really say. Before we look at one of these parables as an example, let’s look at some general things that we need to remember about parables.

A parable is a story which isn’t usually factual, but is still true to life. It’s main purpose is to teach one moral truth. While everything about a parable is used to reinforce this one truth, it is dangerous to try to give a specific definition to each aspect of the parable unless scripture gives that definition (either in the parable, or in the context of what is happening). For instance, Jesus explains the parable of the sower to His disciples, so we know what each of the soils represents, as well as the birds of the air and the thorns. We don’t have this type of explanation for every parable though. Because of this, we have to take care in interpreting parables and keep the following in mind:

  1. What is the occasion for the parable/why is Jesus telling the parable? Because parables give one moral truth, we should look for why the parable was told in the first place. Did someone ask a question? Did something happen that caused Jesus to tell the parable?
  2. Look for the intended meaning of the parable. Sometimes, the meaning of the parable is given in the parable itself other times, it’s given before/after the parable is told.
  3. Don’t make the parable mean/say anything beyond what is clearly stated or applied to the hearers of the parable.
  4. Identify the central moral truth of the parable. No detail of the parable is to be given any meaning that is independent of the main teaching of the parable. When looking at the parable, identify the relevant details that support that main truth. To give a different meaning to parts of the parable that don’t support this main truth (taking it out of context) is to twist/misinterpret scripture. A detail is only relevant if it reinforces the main truth of the parable.
  5. Interpret parables in the context of the culture of the times in which they were told rather than in the modern culture. Many times, having an understanding of the culture of Bible times makes understanding the parable much easier. For instance, in the parable of the virgins, we are told about the bridegroom coming and five of the virgins being ready while the other five didn’t have enough oil for their lamps. An understanding of the marriage customs of that area during that time will make understanding the parable much easier.
  6. Don’t establish doctrine when parables are the primary or only source of that doctrine. You cannot build a solid doctrine on parables. Parables can be used to affirm doctrine, but not be the foundation of it. Not only that, it is important to make sure that the understanding of the parable fits with the rest of scripture. If a non-parabolic passage of scripture can be shown to contradict our interpretation of a parable, then we have misunderstood the parable and need to go back to square one.

Now that we’ve looked at these things, let’s take a look at one of the parables Jesus told that is often misquoted, misunderstood, or just plain misused. The passage that we’re going to be looking at is Luke 15:11-32:

And He said, “A man had two sons. “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. “And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. “And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”‘ “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'”

This parable is commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. Before I even get into the parable itself, let me just say something about the title that most give it. While the parable does talk about a prodigal son, I think that the title most give it contributes to its misinterpretation. This isn’t just a parable about the prodigal son, look at how Jesus starts the parable:

And He said, “A man had two sons.

It is a parable about two sons. This may seem like nitpicking, but it will hopefully be clear by the end that this is important. The parable talks about how a younger son decides that he doesn’t want to wait for his father to die in order to get his inheritance. Instead, he goes to his father and asks for it now. He then takes the money to a foreign land and squanders it on loose women and loose living (that’s the prodigal part). Then, the young Jewish boy finds himself in the middle of a foreign country during a famine and without a cent to his name. The young man finds himself in a pig sty, ready to eat the same thing that the pigs eat. This would have been repulsive to the Jews who could hear Jesus speaking. The idea of being around unclean animals like pigs would be bad enough, but to be willing to eat what they ate would have been unthinkable.

But, it is here that the man comes to his senses. He realizes that even the hired servants of his father have it better off than he does. He says that he will go back to his father, admit his sin, and ask to be like one of his hired servants because he’s not worthy to be a son. And this is exactly what he does. Then, the parable says that the father saw the son while he was still a ways off and ran to him. He hugs his neck and kisses his son. The son admits his sin and asks to be like a hired servant. The father will have nothing of it. He orders a servant to go get the ring, robe, and shoes and put them on his son. They are also to go and kill the fatted calf so that they can celebrate the return of the father’s son “who was dead and now has come to life, who was lost and is now found”. When all was ready, they began to celebrate.

Here is where most pastors/preachers stop. They talk about how you can come back to God. They speak to those who have professed Christ and then “backslid” into the world. They tell them that they can still return to God just like the young man did and how God will receive them like the father in the story did. How He is looking for them to return to Him and watches for them every day. The plea continues with talk of how it doesn’t matter what they’ve done or how long they’ve been away. If they will just come back to God all will be well.

Let me ask a question though. Is that what the parable is saying? Does the parable really talk about backsliders coming back to God? Remember, a parable only has one central truth and in this case, while it’s given in the parable itself, it seems to be oft overlooked. Before we talk about the main truth of the parable, let’s look at the context.

In Luke 15:1-2, Jesus has been preaching and teaching large crowds against the pride of the Pharisees and talked about what it takes to be His disciple and now the sinners and tax collectors were coming to Him to hear Him. In response to Jesus talking with them and touching them, the Pharisees grumble:

“This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

In response to this, Jesus begins to tell them three parables. In the first, Jesus asks them which one of them having 100 sheep and seeing one is lost, wouldn’t leave the 99 in the open field and go find the lost one. When he finds it, he puts it on his shoulders and brings it home. He calls his friends to come and rejoice with him for what was lost is now found. Jesus then says, “In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need repentance”.

Ok, let’s think about this for a minute. The Pharisees have grumbled about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors. The lowlife people that would make a Rabbi like Jesus unclean. Jesus tells them the parable of the 100 sheep. He says that the shepherd would leave his 99 sheep and go find the lost one. When the lost sheep is found, he rejoices with his friends. This is what the Pharisees would do too. He then says that there is more joy in heaven when a sinner repents than there is for 99 righteous people. But wait, who doesn’t need repentance? The Bible makes it clear that we all need repentance because we’ve all sinned. Not only that, but it says that there are “none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:11/Psalm 14:1-3). So who are the righteous people that Jesus is talking about if no one can be righteous and everyone needs repentance? Well, no one is righteous in God’s eyes, but they can be righteous in their own eyes… The 99 righteous are those who are self righteous. They are right in their own eyes. Am I sure? Well, in the context of the parable, yes. Remember, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, after their grumbling about His eating with sinners and tax collectors.

He then goes right into another parable. This one is about a woman who has 10 coins and loses one. The woman then lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she finds it. This coin was a silver drachma. It’s value by itself wasn’t much, but it was still enough for the woman to search for. When she finds what was lost, she goes to her friends and calls for them to rejoice with her that what was lost was now found. Again we see Jesus summarize the parable with an almost identical statement to the first:

“In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

Again, Jesus talks about joy in heaven over a sinner who repents. But, there is an interesting bit of information here. Jesus says that the rejoicing is in the presence of the angels in heaven. God Himself rejoices over the repentance of a sinner! God rejoices when the lost who are His are found again.

Do you see the pattern developing? The shepherd lost a sheep. He went looking for it and what was lost was found. The woman lost a silver coin. She searched for it and what was lost was found. In both instances, Jesus talks about a sinner who repents being represented by what was lost and then found. In the first, He compares the lost to the self righteous, but in the second He focuses on the lost. Without hesitation, He tells them the parable of the two sons. We’ve already covered a summary of part of the parable. How the son went off and wasted his inheritance. How he recognized his sin and came back to the father in repentance. How there was rejoicing upon his return. But, we haven’t talked about the rest of the parable yet. See, it is this part that most overlook or ignore and it is this part that makes the point of the parable.

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'”

Here we have the elder son working in the field. He comes in from working and hears the music and commotion. He stops one of the servants and asks what’s going on. The servant tells him that they are celebrating the return of the younger son safely. The elder son gets angry and will not go in to celebrate. When the father finds out, he goes out to the elder son and pleads with him to come celebrate. In anger, the elder son says that he has served the father for years and has never neglected a command from him but was never able to have a young goat to celebrate with his friends. However, the younger son (who wasted his wealth on prostitutes) comes home and the fatted calf is killed and there is a huge celebration. The father responds by telling the elder son that he has always been with him and all that is his belongs to the elder son. He then gives the reason why they had to celebrate and rejoice: The younger brother was dead and has begun to live, was lost and is now found.

Do you see the necessity of the whole parable being preached? Without this part of the parable, it is easy to try and make something else out of it. In the parable we have a younger son who is lost and the elder son who doesn’t leave the father. The younger son leaves and wastes his inheritance, while the elder son stays with the father and never neglects (in his own words…) one command of the father. The younger son was dead and now has begun to live, was lost and now found. Now, consider the context of the parable. Remember, there is one central point of the parable and it has to fit into the context!

The Pharisees were grumbling because Jesus was spending time with sinners and tax collectors. They saw themselves as righteous (see Luke 18:10-14). They believed that they were the only ones that kept all 613 Jewish laws. They were the only ones that were really obedient to God and they had never neglected a commandment of God. The Pharisees were like the elder son! On the other hand, those sinners and tax collectors were like the younger son. They had lived like prodigals, but they recognized their sins and came to Jesus looking for the way to be right with God. They were listening to Him. The point of all three parables is the repentance of those who are lost and the rejoicing that follows. This is dealt with in the first two parables and then expounded upon in the last one. The parable of the two sons was given to show the difference between the hearts of the Pharisees and the hearts of the sinners and tax collectors. While the Pharisees grumbled about the slightest law being broken, the sinners came to Christ. This isn’t the first time that they had heard about the hardness of their hearts or their pride and arrogance, and it wouldn’t be the last. In just a few more verses (Luke 16:14) we find them scoffing at Jesus yet again for what He says.

The importance of interpreting parables the right way and in context is paramount when studying scripture. But, this leads to another interesting discussion. I said above that the parable of the two sons is one of the most misused in scripture, and I still believe that to be true. Many pastors use it to talk about backsliders and how they can still come back to Christ. As we’ve seen, that’s not the point of the parable at all. So, what does that do with the theory/idea of backsliders then? Well, first, we should define what a backslider is. This is important because we want to make sure that everyone has the same understanding and we’re not just talking past each other.

A backslider is a person that has professed Christ as their Lord and Savior at some point in their lives (usually at a young age) and then has “fallen away” from Him and spent weeks, months, and/or years living in sin. They turn their back on God and live like the world but are still saved. Sometimes, these “backsliders” have some sort of tragic event happen that “gets their attention” and they come back to the Lord. This “coming back” may be another period of time which then leads to another falling away, or it may lead to the point where the person follows Christ for the rest of their lives.

With this definition of a backslider, we can then look at the parable first to see if it actually talks of this and then look at the rest of scripture to see if the idea of a backsliding Christian bears itself out. As we’ve already seen, the context of the parable of the two sons is the instance where the Pharisees grumble about Jesus talking to, teaching, touching, and eating meals with sinners and tax collectors. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus compares the hearts of the Pharisees (as the elder son) to the hearts of the sinners and tax collectors (as the younger son). Other than the context of the statements made by the Pharisees, we don’t have any given definitions of who is who. This means that we cannot read anything that we may think is true into the parable. We cannot define the younger son as a backsliding Christian. There is nothing in the context that would give us that idea. Jesus was talking to the Jews at the time. He even says in another place in the gospel that He didn’t come to the Gentiles but to the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24). So, Jesus is talking mainly to Jews. The Pharisees were Jewish, and so were the majority of His listeners (unless they were Samaritans, but that would still make them half-Jewish). The fact that the young man is a son of the father can’t be taken to mean anything specific because Jesus doesn’t define it that way and there is nothing in the context that would imply that it means anything specific. It is just a part of the story. If you wanted to make it mean something that may fit, you could try to say that the younger son was a son to the father the way that everyone in the world is generally considered a son of God because He created them. This doesn’t automatically make them Christians though.

Another thing to look at is the fact that the father says that the son was dead and now has begun to live. When did the father say this? He didn’t say this until after the son had returned from his escapade. It wasn’t until the son had repented of his sin and asked for forgiveness that he had “begun to live”. So, even in the parable itself we see that there is no support for the young man being a believer and then falling away and then coming back to God.

Along with this, we must remember that we cannot build a doctrine on parables alone and that if another part of scripture contradicts the doctrine we make from a parable, we have to start over from square one. To refresh your memory, a backslider is someone who professes Christ as their Savior and Lord and then falls away from the faith and lives in sin. The problem with this is that it is contradicted in other areas in scripture. The main one we’re going to look at is found in 1 John 3:7-9:

Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

The key word in this passage is the word “practices”. The word means to do something, but there is something that isn’t really apparent in the English. To get a better understanding of the meaning, we can look at the Greek. In the Greek, each verb has a voice, tense, and mood. What we’re interested is the tense. The word “practices” is in present tense. This means that it is an action that starts now and continues on into the future. So, when John says in verse 7, “the one who practices righteousness”, he’s talking about the one that lives their life according to God’s moral standard (the meaning of righteousness) today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and on and on into the future. This is the one who is righteous. Then, when John talks about the one who is of the devil, he uses the same word. He says, “the one who practices sin is of the devil”. The one who practices sin is the one who commits a sin today, and commits the same sin tomorrow, and the next day, and on and on into the future. They habitually, continuously, knowingly commit the same sin. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of backslider, someone who turns away from God to live in sin? Yes, it is. John knows this and just piles on. In verse 9, he says “no one who is born of God practices sin“. No one who is born of God can live in sin. This means that a backsliding “Christian” is not born of God, and if they’re not born of God, they’re not a Christian to begin with.

Now, before you get mad at me, let me make a distinction. A Christian can (and will) struggle with sin. There are sins that each of us will struggle with. We will have those things (most often the things that kept us from Christ to begin with) that we will deal with for the rest of our lives. We will be tempted to do those things almost daily. But, struggling with sin is much different than diving into sin and living in it. It’s not the same as knowingly and willingly choosing to live in sin (which is what a backslider does). The amazing thing is that God says that He will give us a way out when we are tempted (1 Cor. 10:13).  

Understanding parables is important in our study of scripture. They were given so that those who could understand the truth would hear it while those who were unable/unwilling to hear the truth wouldn’t be condemned for their hearing it. They speak to us central truths that can be beneficial to us and give more support to the doctrines that we hold to. Because of this, please take care in what you read and how you read it.

Thoughts? Comments? Leave them below and I’ll try to get back to you soon!

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