Teaching the Parables to a Post-Modern Society

The parables of Jesus are powerful stories that, when they were told, spoke meaningfully about the kingdom of God. The reactions that many of the parables received indicate that they were more than simple moralistic stories, but were subversive speeches meant to garner a significant reaction. Can these parables be told in such a way that they are able to garner the same reaction in today’s post-modern society? That is the question this paper seeks to answer.

The answer to the question will take the form of three parts. First, contextualization will be defined, and the need for contextualization will be examined. The examination will center upon both the need for contextualization in general, and then narrow to the need for contextualization of the parables in particular.

Second, a method will be set forth for contextualizing the parables. This will include the need to look at both the first and second horizons of the scripture. This section will include an explanation of what post-modernism is, and several significant steps which must be taken for proper contextualization of the parables.

Third, an example of a contextualized parable will be set forth. For the purposes of this paper, the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21-35) will be used as a model of contextualization in a post-modern society.

I. The Need for Contextualization

A. What is Contextualization?

The question of exactly what constitutes contextualization is a complex one. No simple definition will do justice to the intricate concepts that are included in the use of the term. However, in this paper, contextualization is seen as a bringing together the "relationship of the gospel or Scripture to culture, or, as it has more recently been put, the relationship of text and context." Thus, contextualization is an attempt to make the Scripture applicable and understandable to modern society.

B. Why is There a Need for Contextualization?

Contextualization is needed, very simply, because the Scripture was written thousands of years ago. The writers of the ancient texts lived in a different world from the present reader. To understand, and bring the assumptions and unstated premises of the ancient world into the present is to contextualize the message.

In short, the message needs to be contextualized, because the contexts in which the Scripture was written are radically different from those in which it is heard today. The words that were spoken or written two thousand years ago are still true, but they are not as easily understood as they were when they were written. The attempt to cause the words to have the same power in a modern context as they had in an ancient one is the art of contextualization.

C. Why are the Parables Particularly Important?

There are two reasons for seeing the parables as particularly important for contextualization. First, because stories have great power, and second because the parables need to be "re-set" in order to have their original strength.

Anthony Thiselton has pointed out that the parables have lost their original power. Using the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18) as an example, he shows that the parables are simply not heard today in the same way that they were when they were spoken. This may stem from the fact that the parables are so well known that there is no surprise, no "shock of recognition" which was present in the first telling.

Thiselton argues that because of these problems the parables need to be "re-set" in a different context. That is, for the parables to have the intended effect, they must be modernized, and told in such a way as to engender the reaction that was intended when they were first delivered.

The question that arises, of course, is how far can one go in modernizing and re-telling these stories? When does the "modernization" stop, and creation of an entirely new story begin? How can one retain the inspired nature of the story, while still modernizing it? These are questions that must be answered through an examination of methodological issues in contextualization. But at the outset it must be stated that the canonical version of the parables must be the starting place. That is, the contextualized version cannot stand on its own. It must stand in connection with, and under the authority of the Scripture.

Thus it seems clear that because of cultural factors, if the parables are to have the power that they once had, they must be contextualized. The larger question still looms. How is that contextualization to take place?

II. A Method for Contextualization of the Parables

This section will attempt to do two things. First, a method for the examination and understanding of the "first horizon" will be set forth. Second, a definition of post-modernism will be attempted and a method for applying the "first horizon" to the "second horizon" will be set forth. The parable of the unforgiving servant will be used as an example of the method in use.

A. Examining the First Horizon

It should be noted at the outset that any attempt to contextualize a parable without first attempting to understand the story in its first century setting is foolhardy at best. One simply cannot contextualize without first understanding what the parable meant in its first century context. Thus this examination of the "first horizon" is critical to proper contextualization. This strong stand on "authorial intent" guards against subjectivism and keeps contextualization from turning the parable into a wax nose, to be shaped by whomever sees fit.

The examination of the meaning of the parable in its first century setting is not as easy as it might seem at first. There are a variety of barriers which stand between the twentieth century reader and the first century parable. Grant Osborne offers seven basic principles for understanding the parables in their first century milieu.

1. Note the setting within which the parable is placed.

2. Study the structure of the parable.

3. Uncover the background of the earthly details.

4. Determine the main points of the parable.

5. Relate the point(s) to Jesus’ kingdom teaching and to the basic message of the individual gospel.

6. Do not base doctrines upon the parables without checking corroborative details elsewhere.

7. Apply the central truths to similar situations in modern life (contextualization proper).

To examine the hermeneutics of parable interpretation would take one far afield and would not be of much help in terms of the central focus of this paper. There are however certain issues in the parable of the unforgiving servant that the contextualizer would want to examine carefully before moving away from the first horizon. One must realize that "to understand [and thus contextualize] the theology of the parables one must recapture the culture that informs the text."

B. Issues in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

1. Humour in the First Century

The exegete must ask the question of whether the exaggeration in the parable is an example of Semitic humour. Did the enormous amount of money owed by the man signal something important to a first century audience? Is Semitic humour in evidence in other parts of the NT or other first century writings? Did Jesus use humour often, and if so what did it communicate?

2. Financial Transactions in the First Century

Given that this parable is essentially about two financial transactions, a careful look at finances of the first century will be important. The amount of money that the man in the parable owes is astronomical. Was debt a significant problem in the first century? Would it have been possible for a person to owe this much money? Was this debt forgiven or merely postponed? It will be imperative to understand finances, wages, loans, and debt, and their impact on first century life.

C. Jesus’ Use of Old Testament Allusions

Does Jesus/Matthew intentionally place obscure Old Testament echoes in his text? Are there such echoes in this particular parable? That Matthew has a penchant for the use of the Old Testament in his gospel is clear. One must have a good understanding of the Hebrew Bible to gain a clear understanding of his work. It is even possible that Matthew, expecting his work to be used in a catechism type setting, "with the end of stimulating interest in the Bible, may well have planted allusions which he knew would, without assistance, escape the perception of unlearned Christians."

Thus the exegete must proceed along several lines. First the text must be examined in an attempt to locate the allusions. Then an attempt to answer the question of why Jesus would have used this technique, and what it might have meant to his readers must be made.

Wright points out that the use of allusions is very important in much New Testament work. He goes on to state that it is,

highly probable that writers in second-temple Judaism alluded to a good many biblical texts, deliberately conjuring up a world of discourse with a word or phrase. It is also highly probable that readers in the twentieth century, alert for such allusions, will hear at least some where none are intended. It is absolutely certain that modern readers who are alert to this danger, and hence unwilling to allow any allusions beyond more or less direct quotations, will radically misread important texts (italics mine).

Thus the contextualizer must attempt to understand the text in light of both the obvious and less obvious allusions.

Once the parable has been properly understood in its first-century context, then it is time for the actual contextualization to begin. One must never skip the first step however, because it helps to guard against a dangerous tendency to read modern meanings into ancient texts which are not actually contained there. Grant Osborne points out that "we cannot transform the context cross culturally until we have determined first of all its meaning in its original context." Thus the contextualization of the text must start not in the modern world but in the ancient one. A proper understanding of "the cultural background not only deepens our understanding of the original text but also provides a bridge to the current significance of the text."

D. The Second Horizon

Once one has come to an understanding of what the parable meant, then the question of "what the parable means" can be asked. It is impossible to understand the second without the first. Contextualization in the second horizon must endeavor to understand the culture in which the message is being proclaimed, and apply the ancient message in a way that is relevant in the modern world.

1. What is Post-Modernism?

An important step in contextualization proper is understanding the receptor culture. For the purposes of this paper, the post-modern culture of the United States has been chosen. What then is post-modernism?

A concise definition of post-modernism is cited by Vanhoozer who holds that post-modernism should be seen as "incredulity towards metanarratives." A more precise explanation of post-modernism's literary outlook is found in Edgar McKnight's work, Post-Modern Use of the Bible where he states that "the post-modern perspective . . . is that of a radical reader-oriented literary criticism, a criticism which views literature in terms of readers and their values, attitudes and responses."

A fuller definition of post-modernism was given by Grant Osborne at the regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Osborne lays out five aspects of post-modernism:

1. The Critical Aspect-The absence of meaning. By this Osborne means that the author has disappeared from the text, and the text has no final meaning in and of itself.

2. The Moral Aspect-The absence of convictions/radical relativism. This is the total rejection of the imperative, and the position that all views of reality are a construct of the mind.

3. The Societal Aspect-radical pluralism and tolerance. This leads to the view that there is no absolute truth, and one view of truth has no claim to be held over another.

4. The Religious Aspect-radical universalism and secularism. This is the view that one religion cannot ever claim to have truth, particularly in comparison with another.

5. The Practical Aspect-pragmatism. Pragmatism becomes a radical determiner of ethics. The question is not whether something is right or wrong, but whether or not it works in the marketplace.

In the words of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a paradigm shift has occurred in our world. The epistemological argument is no longer about whether the scientific method is the best way to find truth, but about whether truth even exists. This shift may be the most serious problem to face New Testament Scholars in this century. These scholars spend their lives studying absolute truth in a world where many deny its existence. The rise of post-modernity, which has been caused by this paradigm shift, has brought a new set of problems to those who deal with any type of literature, but particularly to anyone who deals in what he or she believes to be the word of God.

2. What Steps Must be Taken to Contextualize the Parables in a Post-Modern Society?

One now comes to the heart of the matter. Given the problems brought about through post-modernism, how is the process of contextualization to actually take place in a post-modern society? There are three areas that are particularly important in this process.

The first area is the realization of the importance of story. In a society which denigrates imperative statements, story becomes increasingly more important. One only needs to look at popular movies such as "Leaving Las Vegas" to see the power of the post-modern message as it is delivered by story. The movie is billed as a "true love story" and is the tale of a prostitute and an alcoholic that is dark and almost pointless. The fact remains however, that this was a very popular film and that it communicates the sense of "meaninglessness" in life which characterizes post-modernism.

The power of story in this culture is that the storyteller has to fight less against the inherent bias which those in a post-modern culture have against any kind of propositional communication. This bias against propositional truth is well stated by Spretnak in the book States of Grace, where she says that a,

sense of displacement and shallow engagement dominates deconstructive-post-modern aesthetics because groundlessness is the only constant recognized by this sensibility. The world is considered to be a repressive labyrinth of "social production," a construction of psuedoselves who are pushed and pulled by cultural dynamics and subtly diffused "regimes of power." Values and ethics are deemed arbitrary, as is "history" which is viewed by deconstructed post-modernists as one group or another's self-serving selection of facts.

The power of story is such that, when properly used, it circumvents such cynicism. It "takes the back door" to communication and is able to speak to others in a way that propositional truth often simply cannot.

Thus the first and perhaps most important aspect of contextualizing the parables is simply to let them be what they are: stories. The realization that Jesus told these stories should help the modern to understand that they are capable of communicating on their own.

The second important step in contextualizing the parables is very closely linked with the first. This step simply reminds the contextualizer that the stories should not be placed into propositional form. This does not mean that in every case the parable must be preached in a narrative format, but only that when dealing with an obvious post-modern culture, to turn the stories into propositions is to lose much of their power.

One of the values of preaching the parables holistically is that there is great power in understatement. This power is particularly strong when one is dealing with a culture that has a bias against any form of imperative. Spretnak points this out when she states, "[t]he belief that all assertions of truth, . . . are merely 'socially produced' means that no analysis or conclusion can be accepted beyond being 'enormously suggestive'." Preaching the parable holistically circumvents much of this problem, because the imperatives are often not stated but simply implied. In certain contexts (like post-modernism) implying the imperative may be even stronger than stating it boldly.

In addition to recognizing that parables are story, and preaching them holistically, a third element is important for the contextualization. This element consists of making the details of the parable live in the minds of the listeners. While this point may not seem as important as the first two, and could actually be seen as a subset of preaching the parable holistically, it is critically important. The ‘earthy details’ were one aspect that helped make the parables of Jesus so strong. It was the fact that these parables were drawn from every day life, yet contained shocking and even scandalous conclusions which made them communicate in a way which straight propositions could not. It is only by recognizing the importance of the details (not for doctrine but for storytelling) that one gets the full "reversal of expectation" which is so critical to the power of the stories.

The contextualizer must take seriously the details which have been unearthed in his quest for the first horizon. He or she cannot, however, simply freight these details in from two thousand years ago. They must be updated, using the information that was gleaned from research, and the knowledge about the current culture. This may be the most difficult part of the task, but it will pay huge dividends in the way that the parable communicates to modern listeners.

III. An Example of a Contextualized Parable

The man owed a whole lot of money. I don’t mean two or three thousand dollars on a Visa, or five or six thousand on an American Express, but he owed a whole lot of money. He owed close to three million dollars. The bookie to whom he owed the money called on the phone and told the man to meet him right away.

The man knew that he was in serious trouble. He had run up those debts and had no way to pay them back. As he drove his ragged old car, all the way to the meeting he tried to think of ways to get enough money to pay back what he owed. He simply knew that his job as a waiter would never even pay the interest on the money, much less the principle.

When he got to the meeting it was as he had feared. The bookie wanted all of his money and he wanted it right then. The man pleaded and begged, but the bookie said that it was over. "You know that I am a patient man," said the bookie, "but my patience has run thin. I need that money and I need it now. If you can’t get it I will have my boys take care of you and your family." Terror spread through the man as he realized that he was not only going to be hurt, but the pain would be spread to his wife and two small girls. At that news he fell down on his knees crying and begging, "Please, just give me a little more time to pay back the three million. I am expecting a big tip at my waiter’s job tonight. Please don’t hurt my family, just give me a little more time." The bookie felt something that he very rarely felt, compassion. He had seen the two small girls and they were beautiful, so he did something that he had never done before. He said to the man "O.K. I tell you what I am going to do. I am going to forget all about this debt. I shouldn’t do this, and you do not deserve it, but I am going to have pity on you. Don’t you ever forget what I have done for you."

The man was astounded. He was free. The debt that had plagued him for almost his entire adult life had been taken away. It was almost too incredible to believe. He looked carefully at the bookie, thinking that this might be some kind of cruel joke, but he saw a look of compassion in his eyes and knew that his debt had been forgiven.

He walked outside of the restaurant where the meeting had taken place and he saw a friend, another waiter, who owed him three dollars. "Hey do you have that three dollars that you owe me?" he cried out angrily. "No, please just give me a little time, I am expecting some good tips tonight," his friend replied in a frightened tone. The waiter was not content to wait for his three dollars, but grabbed his friend by the neck and began choking him. "Give me the three dollars. I know that you can pay," he said. Finally his friend lost consciousness and he left him there, beaten and bruised, on the side of the street, in front of the restaurant.

What the man did not realize was that there were other waiters standing around. When they saw what the man had done, they were shocked, especially because they had heard that he had been forgiven of millions of dollars. They could not believe that a man who had been forgiven of millions, would choke a friend over three bucks, so they called the bookie.

"Is it true that you forgave a man of several million dollars today?" "Yes, why do you ask?" he said. When they told him of the waiter choking his friend into unconsciousness, the bookie was astounded. He called the man and demanded another meeting.

"What is wrong with you?" the bookie shouted! "I forgive you millions of dollars and you choke a man over a lousy three bucks. Here is your three bucks" the bookie yelled as he threw three one dollar bills at the man. "But forget about the forgiveness of your debt. You owe me the money and you owe it to me now." With that the bookie’s friend’s, Vito and Johnny, came in and took the man out back and he was never heard from again, though some say that if you walk by the abandoned warehouse down by the docks, you can still hear him screaming at night.

This is what God our Father will do to you if you fail to forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

Conclusion

There will be obvious differences in the details whenever contextualization takes place. It is to be hoped, however, that due to a careful exegesis of the parable in the first horizon, none of the essentials are violated and the main points of the story are made clear.

Some might argue that making the main character in the story (who represents God) a bookie is irreverent. There are at least two responses. First, in many of the parables, the main characters are simply drawn from everyday life. This is not meant to imply that God is a bookie, or a farmer (Mark 4), or a man who gives wedding feasts (Matt. 22). It is only meant to be a story where one particular aspect of that character sheds light on some aspect of God. Second, is being a bookie any worse than turning a debtor over to the ‘torturers’ (Matt. 18:34)? The starkness of what happens to this man adds to the realism of the story. Thus, the contextualization of one of the main characters as a bookie is not at all out of line with much of the storytelling of Jesus.

A second objection may be that those listening to this story in an urban, post-modern society are very unlikely to have had contact with a bookie. While this may be true (the contact may be greater than one realizes, cf. Pete Rose and Michael Jordan’s father) it does not destroy the realism of the story. The point of contextualization is not to make every story about the listeners, but to make every story understandable and interesting to the culture. Given the serious problem of debt in modern America (whether owed to a credit card company, or to a bookie) this story will touch a cord with the listeners.

An attempt was made to have the story be as shocking and as disorienting as it was for a first-century audience. While the final detail (i.e., hearing the screams of the man) may seem gruesome, it is no less so than that of the original story. Debtors were turned over to torturers in hopes that the family, realizing that their loved one was being harmed, would use every available means to gather the money that he owed.

There is no doubt that Jesus was a master storyteller, and that much more research needs to be done in the area of the first horizon of his parables. There is however, a wealth of material available for those who wish to understand the stories of Christ better.

The important thing to realize is that once the background of the parable has been gathered, and the parable understood in its first-century context, the contextualization process has only begun. The preacher of the parables must spend some time "exegeting his culture" if he or she expects the stories to have the intended effect. It is not enough simply to repeat the stories, they must be recast in new and exciting ways. It is through this recasting that the stories will gain the "shock of recognition" that was so typical of the preaching of our Lord.

 

Footnotes

1 See William R. Herzog II, Parables As Subversive Speech (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994).

2 For an explanation of the metaphor of the "two horizons" see A. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).

3 P. Feinberg, "The Contextualization of Theology", 1997 [Xerox], Class Handout, 3.

4 Thiselton, Horizons 12-16.

5 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1991), 245-247.

6 For a bibliographic tool see Warren S. Kissinger, The Parables of Jesus. A History of Interpretation and Bibliography (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1979). Note that this tool is very outdated at this point but is a fair starting point.

7 D. J. Hesselgrave and E. Rommen, Contextualization (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 114.

8 See Elton Trueblood, The Humour of Christ (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1964).

9 On the seriousness of the problem of debt, see N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1992), 169; Gerd Theissen's wonderful historical novel The Shadow of the Galilean uses debt in first century Judaism as one of its primary plot devices.

10 See J. Duncan M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1970), 37; Eta Linnemann, Jesus of the Parables (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 175; M. De Boer, "Ten Thousand Talents? Matthew's Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant," CBQ 50:215.

11 Ibid., 34.

12 For a fine introduction to first-century Judaism see D. Mendels, The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism (New York: Doubleday, 1992).

13 I am self consciously avoiding the term 'inner-Biblical' or 'intertextual' because the terms bring with them a certain amount of theological freight that 'use of the Old Testament' does not.

14 Dale C. Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 287.

15 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996), 584.

16 Osborne, Spiral, 92.

17 Ibid., 134.

18 F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); quoted in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, "Exploring the World; Following the Word: The Credibility of Evangelical Theology in an Incredulous Age," Trinity Journal 16, no. 1 (1995): 7, n. 11.

19 Edgar V. McKnight, Post-Modern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988) Press, 1988), 13-14.

20 Grant Osborne, "From Text to Context: The Problem" delivered at the regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 14, 1997.

21 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2 ed., International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, no. 2, ed. Otto Neurath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 66. While Kuhn's work is specifically written to deal with the emergence of scientific theories, it applies equally as well in the philosophical realm. Kuhn says about these shifts that they occur only because of gains that are achieved by "discarding some previously standard beliefs or procedures and, simultaneously, by replacing those components of the previous paradigm with others."

22 see D. L. Goetz, "Post-modernism," Leadership, Winter (1997), 55.

23 Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Post-modern Age (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 13-14.

24 Spreatnak, Grace, 235.

25 See J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972), 27; Craig Keener, The Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 1993), 96.

26 The material available for the scholar doing parable research is huge. What follows are only a few of the more important works. On the first horizon of the Lukan parables see K. E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976). For a good overview of parable research see C.L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: IVP, 1990). The classic works in the field of course are J. Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (Freiburg: Moher, 1899); C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London: Nisbet & Co. Ltd., 1938); Jeremias, Parables, and Linnemann, Parables. Some newer works to consider (in addition to Blomberg) are J. W. Sider, Interpreting the Parables: A Hermeneutical Guide to Their Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995); R. Q. Ford, The Parables of Jesus: Recovering the Art of Listening (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).

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