What is a Parable?

Most Christian scholars have misunderstood parables for quite sometime.  In applying a hellenistic, greek mindset to studying the parables; the original context, intent, and meaning is sometimes lost.  The Hellenistic mindset is primarily concerned with an egocentric viewpoint, everything is related to “me,” or “I.”  In the original first century Hebrew context, a parable was almost without exception “theocentric.”  When a first century sage named Yeshua (Jesus) came onto the scene, his parables were taught instinctively and focused on God and what the parable could reveal about his character.

I’m going to try to share a new parable every Monday, and alternate between the Talmud and Bible.  Before I do that I wanted to set the table, and clarify my approach to looking at parables.

First, what are the main problems that cause great confusion when studying parables?  The first difficulty arises when one has a lack of knowledge about the Hebraic mindset and no knowledge of Jewish culture.  When taking a Hellenistic approach, we often attempt to derive esoteric, allegorical meanings from the parables, which leads to some confusion.  Also, we were not there when these parables were told and often do not know the actual circumstances or atmosphere in which the parable was told.

There are 8 key points to remember when studying parables.  These are examined at great length by Dwight Pryor in his video teaching series, “Behold The Man,” which I highly recommend.  It’s available for purchase at the Center for Judaic Christian studies, and there is a link to their website on the right side of this page.  Here are the 8 things to keep in mind when looking at a parable:

  1. Yeshua’s primary emphasis is to exhort people to live moral, godly lives in harmony with other people and with God.
  2. There is a Christian prejudice that the parables were told to obfuscate the truth for the masses, which is not the case.
  3. In response to an incident or question, the teacher would often teach and then conclude his teaching session with a parable to illustrate the main point of the teaching.
  4. Parables are not allegories.  Dr. Brad Young, in his brilliant work Jesus the Jewish Theologian describes the parables as “one act, live dramas with a specific function.”
  5. They are teaching aids used to convey a central point, and told to clarify the preceding teaching.
  6. Parables apply simultaneously to the masses and the scholars.
  7. Parables convey a greater dimension of truth than a literal story, and each detail is not meant to be taken as an allegory.
  8. They are almost always connected with specific incidents or questions, and the storyteller and context determines the meaning.

In applying a first-century Jewish mindset to the parables, one would view the parable of the “prodigal son” as read in Matthew 21:28-32 in a much different light.  In its original setting and context this parable would be a shocking story about the mercy of a father toward his sons.

When the first son demands his share of the inheritance, he is essentially saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.”  This would be a shocking statement in the Oriental world of the ancient near east.  The fact that the second brother accepted his share of the estate would be equally as horrifying and shocking to a first century Jewish audience.  There have been two actual instances of this type of situation happening in recent history in the middle east, and in one instance the father died of a heart attack after his son’s request upset him so much.

When the wayward son returns, the Father has a shocking amount of mercy on his son, and everyone (except the older brother) celebrates and participates in the happy reunion.  Shalom is restored, and everyone rejoices.  It’s interesting that the Hebrew word for “forgive” comes from the same root word as the word “dance.”  Forgiveness and reconciliation should ultimately cause rejoicing and dancing, if you ask me.

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