He looked totally out of place–not in the coffee shop, but in the culture of the Christian convention. Nothing of his persona was congruous with traditional Christianity, at least not in the Deep South. This wasn’t a young man hired and dressed in a costume designed to capture the attention of passers-by and promote the latest book or video game. He was simply being himself. I wondered how he felt. How did the conservative Christian crowd treat him?
Later I discovered that he was a speaker at our event–sharing the awesome story of his radical conversion to Jesus Christ. How would the crowd react to this lost sheep that had been found? Would they sit as critics or as cheerleaders when they saw him come to the platform? Would they have treated him any differently if he weren’t a speaker? Did he even have a chance for a relationship with the clean-cut Christians?
This month I want us to look at how to handle parables as we read them in the Word of God. In the process, we might find out more about our reactions and ourselves when we encounter those whom we might have a tendency to disdain.
Let’s begin by reading through Luke 15:1-10. When you find the word parable, put a rectangle around it.
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near [Jesus] to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He told them this parable, saying, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
A parable is a story with a point, and if you are going to interpret a parable correctly you have to get the point. How? Look at the setting of the parable. Who told it, to whom and why? What caused or provoked the telling of the story? In Luke 15 Jesus ties three stories together–all because of one situation. Read the two stories in the above passage again while looking for the setting. Next, we’ll look at the third story, The Prodigal Son, in Luke 15:11-19.
What’s happening with the Pharisees and scribes? What are they doing and why? Did you notice the “so” of verse 3? What prompted the three stories? Write down your answers; it will help you retain what you are observing. Then look back at the first two stories. Do they have anything in common? If so, what? Write everything down before you go any further.
Read the first 10 verses again. Do you see any key repeated words or phrases? List them before going any further. Remember, a key word is important, as it unlocks the meaning of the text. I mark them, with their synonyms or pronouns, in a distinctive color or symbol. For instance, I’ll put a red cloud around joy or rejoice and then color it yellow.
So stop and mark the text. Mark each of the following words with their synonyms: sinners, lost, rejoice, joy. Now look at each marked word and see what you learn from marking it. For instance, what is there to rejoice over? What do you learn about the sinners? What do they do? Did you mark repent or repentance?
Now stop and think: What were the scribes and Pharisees doing? What were they obsessing about? Did you notice the repeated phrase, “in the same way I tell you”? So where is the joy? In heaven! And where’s the grumbling? On earth! What is Jesus’ point? He tells one more story to really drive it home. Read Luke 15:11-19. What is this story about? Did you see any more of the key words you marked earlier? If so, mark them the same way.
Look at Luke 15 as a whole. What happens in this third and last story? How is the third story tied to the other two? What is the occasion of the parable? Is the point of the story about the prodigal son or the elder brother? How is this elder brother described? Where is the brother’s focus? List your insights. Can you relate to the story in any way?
The Prodigal Son is a wonderful story that touches the heart. It is encouraging to prodigals. It gives an example for parents of prodigals. Many a sermon has been preached from Luke 15, talking about the prodigal and his father. However, Jesus’ focus is the elder brother who missed the heart of God and didn’t understand that Jesus’ purpose in coming was not to be ministered to but to seek and save that which is lost (Luke 19:10). Like the scribes and the Pharisees, the elder brother missed the lavish grace of God.
From the coin, to the sheep, to the prodigal, there should have been rejoicing because what was lost was found! How are you doing? Are you rejoicing when a lost sheep (like my brother in Christ at the convention) is found?
If you would like to study this month’s topic on your own, see the articles on parables in the New Inductive Study Bible and in Kay’s book, “How To Study the Bible.”