This is our third “catch-up Friday.” Use today and the weekend to get back on schedule, if you’ve fallen a bit behind.
But if you’re up-to-date, here’s something that’s not part of our “Why Jesus?” series, but touches on yesterday’s parable – which I find interesting.
Yesterday we looked at the parable of the lost sons. This parable was the subject of a study by Mark Allan Powell (see his book What do they hear? Bridging the gap between pulpit and pew) in which he describes the different ways in which different cultures “hear” this parable. He asked groups of people studying the parable to re-tell the parable in their own words, and answer the questions “why was the son hungry?” and “what was the parable about?” The results were intriguing.
In the US, the focus of the telling was on the bad choices made by the young man. He was hungry, they said, because he squandered his wealth. In their re-telling of the parable, 94% would leave out the famine altogether. The parable was about how our choices as individuals get us into trouble.
In Russia, the situation was the opposite. He was hungry because there was a famine. The parable was about the foolishness of leaving one’s family and support network (i.e. God’s providential care) when outside forces can unexpectedly come at any time and take everything away.
Refugees in Tanzania
In Tanzania, among a group of refugees, the son was hungry because the foreign country was full of mean people – they made much of the fact that no-one gave him any food (which is indeed in the story as Jesus tells it!). Powell pressed back: but what about him squandering his wealth? Oh, they replied, everyone loses their money when travelling in a foreign country – you’re a target! For them, the parable was about the generosity of the Father vs the hostility and meanness of the world.
Powell points out that each of the three reasons can be found in the text, but it takes an intercultural reading to bring them all out.
We might also argue that we need some first century Jews expecting the imminent end of the exile to help us hear the parable how Jesus originally intended it to be heard, but that was yesterday’s subject. For now, we can just find this fascinating.
You want more?
I heard George Wieland (from Carey Baptist College in New Zealand) tell about a similar experiment he’d been running. Students from different sub-cultures ran bible studies on the story of Zacchaeus, recording and transcribing the group discussion:
- A group of young, white males quickly turned the study into a discussion of how Christians ought to view wealth.
- A group for older, single women focused on Jesus’ acceptance of Zacchaeus.
- A group of refugees couldn’t get past the fact that Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ name.
We tend to learn more when we study the bible with different “voices” – people who have different ethnic or cultural or life-stage backgrounds from ours.