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Why Jesus Spoke in Parables, Final Part

The solution to our understanding the parables is first to hear them and secondly to understand them in the context which they were originally meant. When the parables “were originally spoken, they seldom needed interpretation” (Fee and Stuart, page 160), thus the first part of the solution is to hear them. They were written by the authors to transmit the message found in the parables. The reader of the time would have immediately understood the meaning. The second part of the solution is to place them in context either by understanding the context of the day or to place them in the context of today. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan could be understood in the historical perspective of the day or it could be paraphrased to bring understanding in today’s culture. To understand the historical perspective of the day requires an intimate understanding that Samaritans and Jews had a hate for each other much like many might find between extreme Islamists and legalizing Christians. The reason for this began when the Jewish nation was taken into captivity to Babylon. The Jews left behind inter-mingled with non-Jews, and those left behind by Babylon. Later when Nehemiah and Ezra returned to re-build the temple these same Samaritans harassed the Jews in their building process.

    The Samaritans were despised by the Jews for establishing a rival offshoot of Judaism – a heretical sect. The Samaritans despised their despisers. A centuries-long running feud resulted, with provocative acts on both sides. The Samaritans protested the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls after the Babylonian exile, making a precarious political situation much worse. In turn, John Hyrcanius, a Jewish governor and priest, marched on the Samaritan sanctuary at Shechem in 128 B.C. and destroyed it. (Fickett 1999, page 107)

Approximately two years before Jesus told this parable, a group of Samaritans had defiled the Jewish celebration of Passover by throwing human remains into the temple courtyard during the celebration. And again, in our understanding of Jewish orthodoxy, we need an awareness of the significance of this act to truly understand the interpretation. Once this is understood it is easy to understand why the Jews despised the Samaritans. The point is this: the parables need to be placed in context to allow us to be truly moved by them. Another solution would be to bring the parable into today’s cultural understanding. For example, one could substitute the characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan with modern day characters. The expert in the Law could easily be characterized as a lawyer. The Priest could be replaced with a Cardinal or Bishop; the Levite could be replaced with a conservative Christian, and the Samaritan could be replaced by a Muslim extremist. In fact, read Luke 10:30-36 and replace the names to understand context. The point of the parables is to evoke a change in the person hearing the story. As Frederick Buechner has said, “A parable is a small story with a large point.” As Jesus told parables, their meaning was unlocked in the mind of the recipient. In our endeavor to understand parables this should be our primary objective – to get to the meaning of the parable as we understand it in our particular culture. Without this unlocking of the mind the parable is just a useless story.

Creed Branson, Executive Minister


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