One of the lost arts of our day is that of good storytelling. For generations, people huddled around the hearth and heard tales passed from mouth to ear. Some were famous tales that survived over-alteration, and came from places like those from the collection of the Brothers Grimm. Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859), were German scholars who collected and published folklore during the early 19th century. They popularized stories such as “Cinderella”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Rapunzel”, “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Snow White”. Their first collection was published in 1812, and they have been retold countless times.
Many storytellers offered their tales because of the moral they taught the listeners – for storytelling can be a powerful way to transmit a world view and moral system. If you follow the trail back through history, one of the profound moralist storytellers was Jesus, Who used that very medium to explain some weighty truths about God and walking with Him. Jesus seems to have truly enjoyed telling stories – it didn’t matter if it were of plants, fish, rocks or gardens – He had a tale from which He could make eternal truth graspable for the average listener. Unfortunately, as time has passed and cultural references have changed, some of His best material seems dulled from its original luster.
In fact, I would argue that sometimes we struggle to follow God when we know what He has told us to do – it is a battle of the will. Yet, other times we honestly struggle to understand the record God left us in His word – and that can happen easily in grasping the truth from a story told by Jesus. We won’t do what we should and won’t avoid what we must if we don’t understand what Jesus taught about God, life, others and surrender. Some training in His time and the method of storytelling of long ago is essential to properly grasping His message….
Key Principle: We must learn to listen carefully to the storyteller to truly understand His message.
In this lesson, we return to parables as the medium through which Heavenly truths will be unfolded by God, as He taught in human skin from a hillside in the Galilee two thousand years ago. Though this isn’t a CLASS, it is a learning situation, and I want to carefully suggest that learning the pattern of a parable can keep us from extracting the wrong ideas from the Gospel accounts. A casual search of YouTube will reveal that many don’t seem to understand how to get the central truths from the stories recorded in the New Testament – so this is worth our time and attention.
There are three stories that Jesus went on to present to people that we want to look at briefly in this lesson. Each has been misunderstood and misapplied because the form they were delivered in was unfamiliar to the one teaching each passage. We want to understand parables, and get a particular grasp on how to get the intended truth from them the Teacher offered. The three parables are:
• The Parable of Joy in a string of three stories,
• The Parable of the Shrewd Learner (along with application teachings),
• The Parable of Sufficient Revelation.
For the moment, let’s rehearse the biggest principle in dealing with parables. The rule is this: Let the main thing be the main thing, and let the details fall away. No parable is intended to teach a dozen principles – that isn’t how the form was used by the rabbis of yesteryear. Don’t apply YOUR rules to the text – apply the rules of the people in the original situation. Let me illustrate this once more with the first well known parable string with three stories.
The Parable of Joy
We have explored this story a number of times in the past, but each opportunity in a passage is a new mix of listeners, so let’s stop and think through the scene, the string and the Savior’s key principle. The text is Luke 15…
The story opens with the setting that defines the need and true audience for the teaching. Luke 15:1 “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. 2 Both the Pharisees and the scribes [began] to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So He told them this parable, saying…
These verses tell us clearly three things:
First, broken people and people with reputations came to Jesus – and He was approachable.
Second, religious leaders thought that Jesus’ approachability was a terrible quality, because it signaled at the least compromise and at the most outright sinful acceptance of those who should be shunned.
Third, Jesus chose to tell a story to make the point to the grumblers. That is a key. Jesus didn’t teach the three stories of the “Parable of Joy” to get broken people to learn about God’s love. He didn’t teach them to people with bad reputations to get them to understand how to clean up their lives. If the hearts of people such as these were moved, it was secondary. Jesus was responding to religious grumblers, and that sets the landscape of the teaching.
Jesus told three stories in the string: a story of a lost sheep, a story of a lost coin, and a story of a lost son. The first story referenced a man on his job. The second story was about a woman in her home. The third story was about a broken-hearted parent and two fussing siblings. In the end, Jesus included almost everyone in his audience – men, women, parents, children. Think through each story and the pattern of “something lost” followed by “something found” responded properly to by “JOY!”
In verses 4-7, Jesus used the shepherd’s craft to explain the story…
Luke 15:4 “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? 5 “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” 6 “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!’ 7 “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.
The pattern is clear: a sheep lost, a sheep found, a celebration of joy ensues. The message is simple: “When that which is lost is found, JOY is the natural result.” Jesus made the point that HEAVEN REJOICES when sinners return – because that is what redemption is all about.
The second story of the string is found in verses 8 to 10, this time in a home with a woman who lost what was likely one of her prized dowry coins.
Luke 15:8 “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? 9 “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!’ 10 “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.“
Again the pattern is clear – if you are listening carefully: a coin is lost, the coin is recovered, neighbors are invited to share a celebration of JOY. Again, angels are taking joy over the recovered sinner. Again the message: “When that which was lost is found, JOY should be the result!”
The final story is told of a father and his two sons in verse 11 to 32. Look closely at the text. You will see the cast of characters is verse 11. In verse 12 you will be surprised at the insolence of a rebellious and restless son. In verse 13 you watch as he journeys away, and in verse 14 you watch as he throws away all that came to him in inheritance. By verse 15 you can see his desperation in the word “impoverished”. In verse 16 – 19 we see the boy hungry, standing in pig slop, dreaming of home and rehearsing his shame before his father in his mind.
The turning point of the story can be found in verse 20, because the boy came to his senses and went home. His father raced out to him as the boy attempted to humble himself in verse 21, but his father was busy hugging and preparing a celebration. Stop. Don’t get caught in the details… in the pattern IS the point. The pattern was a son lost, a son found… now enter the detail that DOESN’T FIT. Something is wrong in the end of the story…
Luke 15:25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 “And he summoned one of the servants and [began] inquiring what these things could be. 27 “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and [began] pleading with him. 29 “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and [yet] you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and [has begun] to live, and [was] lost and has been found.'”
Look at the older brother. He is the religious moaner from the beginning of the story. He wasn’t happy with an approachable Teacher – he wasn’t excited about broken people being restored to God. He was angry and grumbling. God was forgiving, and that never sits well with someone who has worked so hard to do the right thing. It feels like the one who did wrong got all the same benefits but didn’t have to work so hard at it!
The truth is the Pharisee didn’t have any idea how hard it was to be the lost son. He didn’t know the inner price that someone pays in becoming crushed by their own rebellion. He did right, and he didn’t have much in the way fo patience for someone who didn’t work as hard at righteousness. He saw his discipline as work, and their moral sloppiness as a short cut. He couldn’t feel what it was like to walk in the dark places the lost son knew all too well. The Pharisee didn’t understand the deep inner shame the broken boy brought to his father.
The point of the parable is simple: When that which is lost is found, joy should be the result. If that is NOT what happens, something is wrong with our heart. People who know God should celebrate broken people being restored to God, and value them as much as they do those who never walked away. I believe without a doubt that was the heart of what Jesus wanted to say.
Let me be clear: I have heard this taught many times about the father’s love – but I don’t believe that was Jesus’ intent at all. I have heard it taught about the boy’s need to come to his senses and repent – and it made a great Gospel appeal – but I don’t think that was Jesus’ point at all – and I believe taking the main point from the details of a parable is both WRONG and DANGEROUS. Let me prove my point as we explore in Luke 16…
The Parable of the Shrewd Learner
Jesus offered yet another parable. Look carefully at the setting, because you will again see the principle in light of the setting and some knowledge of those to whom the teaching was directed…
Luke 16:1 Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this [manager] was reported to him as squandering his possessions.
Jesus was addressing His followers (not grumbling Pharisees) and trying to make a singular point – but you have to read the whole thing with that ONE POINT in mind. Keep reading…
Luke 16:2 “And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’ 5 “And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he [began] saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 “Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’
What the man appeared to be doing was cheating his master, but that wasn’t the point of the story. Jesus made clear that the man did what he did to PLAN AHEAD, and that was exactly what his master saw that was lacking in the poor manager. The man who owned the loans was less concerned about getting back all that was owed than he was at the fact that his affairs were in the hands of a man who didn’t plan ahead, and haplessly fell into situations rather than being proactive.
Let’s see if we can pick out the main point in Jesus’ teachings in verses 8 and 9:
Luke 16:8 “And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. 9″And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.
Don’t lose focus here – this saying is hard to unravel. Jesus was trying to make the point that shrewd dealings and careful planning seemed to be lacking in His followers. There is TRUST in God’s provision, and then there is presumptive laziness. There is confidence in the Lord, and there is hubris in throwing all back on God as the owner. Jesus wanted the disciples to know that they needed to learn to be shrewd. They needed to learn to use the things of this world to promote eternal purposes. Things here will melt away – but they are given to us to steward and we must not waste them. Look at verse 9 and read it slowly. Jesus said that His disciples should make friends in the here and now and use the temporal, physical wealth (referred to as “wealth of unrighteousness”).
These words sound confusing, as if Jesus is suggesting bank robbery or some ill-gotten gain – but that is not in view at all. The translation of a common Hebrew expression (used in Targumim by other rabbis) contrasts the word “unrighteous,” against “the true riches” in Luke 16:11, and means “not real, not permanent, not to be trusted.”
When moved from Hebrew and Aramaic by teachers, it often sounds funny and requires explanation, as in 1 Timothy 6:17.
1 Timothy 6:17 “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”
The point is the money and physical goods of the earth are not to be wasted as the steward had done, but used for God Who supplies them. At the same time, they represent property that is “deceitful” and not to be trusted as any permanent sign of success. In fact, if you look at the three teachings that follow the parable, you can see this even more clearly…
Three Teachings on Temporal Wealth
Lesser and Greater Wealth
Jesus said that physical wealth is a LESSER thing, but spiritual wealth is a GREATER thing. If God cannot trust us with money, He won’t trust us with souls. He said:
Luke 16:10 “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. 11 “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the [use of] unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true [riches] to you? 12 “And if you have not been faithful in [the use of] that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
It is the responsibility of the followers of Jesus to steward properly the temporal riches to be given access to the greater riches that pay in eternity. Do you want to see God at work in and through you this year? Jesus said the place to start is stewarding well the time, talent and treasure God had already given you.
Choosing to Serve
Jesus also warned that temporal wealth and eternal values will, at some point, part company. Each will pull our hearts, but the directions are not compatible. He said:
Luke 16:13 “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
It is the responsibility of every believer to serve God with their temporal things, not make their temporal wealth into their God.
The Cloaked Greedy Ones
While Jesus was speaking, the Pharisees were making fun of Him. Jesus made clear their real issue was their heart – and their handling of His cousin John the Baptizer showed they wanted to keep their place at the expense of standing for truth. Luke reminded:
Luke 16:14 Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. 15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God. 16 “The Law and the Prophets [were proclaimed] until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. 17 “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. 18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.
Don’t get thrown off by the divorce comment – it related to John’s preaching that got him arrested. The Pharisees knew Herod Antipas was wrong for stealing his brother’s wife and putting the kingdom in jeopardy with a war – and all that was going on in the background of the news at that time. This was a simple reference to what everyone knew after John’s vicious death. Jesus’ point was simple: “You men know John was right morally, yet you did nothing to risk your positions for truth. Don’t look now, but your compromise is showing your underlying greed!”
The point of the whole story and the teachings is not cloudy: Jesus wanted His disciples to learn to use and not waste material things with shrewdness and planning – in order to maximize the eternal benefits. Wealth in the here and now is temporary, but it can be used for things that produced lasting benefits if we don’t walk off into our monastery and deny ourselves any contact with what God provided for our use. Stewarding things can be God’s test bridge to stewarding lives – when we don’t fall in love with things, serve things and compromise to keep things that will melt away at our last heart beat anyway.
Don’t forget. The only way you will not end up at the wrong place in the teaching is to allow the main thing to be the only thing Jesus was teaching. If the details of a parable are the point, even a little bit, you could end up teaching that Jesus liked the deception of the manager – and that isn’t true at all. The main thing was the shrewd stewardship, not the “markdown process” on the bills he used.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
The third and final story for this lesson is the well-known story of a rich man who came from a family that did not trust the testimony of the Scriptures, and died having trusted in the riches of this life as a symbol of God’s acceptance for the next. Jesus told the story:
Luke 16:19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 “And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the [crumbs] which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 “And he cried out and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and [that] none may cross over from there to us.’ 27 “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—28 for I have five brothers– in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 “But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.‘”
The rich man in verse 19 lived a life of opulence and dressed his part. A poor man named Lazarus (whose name is from Eleazar, or “God is my help”) lay outside the gate of his villa eating the cast off scraps from his table, according to verse 20-21. Lazarus was sickly and sore-ridden, and eventually died – as did the rich man – as told in verse 22.
Jesus awkwardly juxtaposed the rich man in torment and Lazarus in comfort. Note that in verse 24, the rich man thought Lazarus should still be brought into the position of service to HIM. Father Abraham’s reply was telling: “You had a life of comfort while Lazarus suffered – he cannot come and help you now (16:25-26). The rich man begged that Lazarus be ordered to go to the house of the rich man’s family and warn the living of their end to come – a sort of Dicken’s ghost to an Ebenezer Scrooge. Father Abraham offers but one observation – “If they don’t believe the Word of God as provided, they will not believe one back from the dead!”
Remember, the point of these stories is always found in the setting. Jesus was speaking in front of two groups – the disciples and the Pharisees. One group was learning; the other was scoffing. Despite what you may have read – every evidence in the text is that this is NOT an account of the afterlife – it is a story. For one thing, Abraham isn’t a gatekeeper in eternity any more than Peter will meet you at the pearly gates. This was a parable – and the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The introduction of a name with meaning doesn’t change the fact that it was a mere story. In the afterlife, those who are comforted don’t watch the torment of others – that was a detail like the way the unjust steward figured out how to make friends… stick to the point.
Jesus taught that the testimony of the Scripture was enough to lead people who are open-hearted to a right relationship with God. He was going to be the “dead man” that rose in the days ahead – but that wouldn’t be MORE if they wouldn’t believe the testimony of God’s Holy Word. The Pharisees that didn’t believe the LIVING WORD standing before them, nor truly grasp the Written Word provided them would later resist the RISEN WORD that would be revealed. That was Jesus’ point, and it all came to be as He promised.
It is essential that we recognize that we must learn to listen carefully to the storyteller to truly understand His message.
If we allow the details to distract us, we will be led into the stories that teach an ethic different than the Scriptures…
Look at what Jesus taught in this lesson – and clear out the details to get the key principles that change the way we think.
First, He said that JOY should come to the people of God when one who wandered from God is broken by life and returns into His arms. If we aren’t joyful about that – something is WRONG with us. Jesus’ people are to be those who hurt for the wanderers and rejoice with each who find their way home – safely into a relationship with God. One of the unintended consequences of living the truths of Scripture is that they will make us FEEL DESERVING of God’s love, welling up pride where there should be nothing but humble gratitude. Do I care about the wanderers? Am I more concerned about how their sin keeps them from God, or how they mess up my country? My inner Pharisee can quickly show – and I need to replace the sense of justice with the truth of undeserved mercy.
Second, Jesus taught that His followers need to become shrewd and careful stewards of the temporal things for eternal purposes. They don’t need to spurn riches of this world, nor serve riches of this world; they need to use them for things that will matter in the time after life’s days on earth are over. Do I love the things of this world more than the eternal purposes of God? Are my dreams about acquiring things that will one day slip away in an estate sale after I am gone from here? Do I see the value of what God has put in my hands – my time, my talent and my treasure – to be able to use them for His glory?
Third, Jesus taught that people in this world need to carefully heed the Scriptures concerning who they are, and what their end will be. If they refuse the Scriptures, the miraculous change that Scrooge made after the three visitors will be the exception – not the rule. Each time I hear God’s voice and don’t submit, a callous grows upon my heart. I become more resistant to listening. Not only that, but like the rich man, I become someone who believes I have obtained some modest riches in this life because I am BETTER than some other poor soul in some destitute village. It is a lie. I live with good things, but I am not good inside. I am self-willed, arrogant, and smug. I need to see myself in the mirror of God’s Word – a man in desperate need of the mercy of God, deserving nothing.
I am often reminded of one of Robert Frost’s sayings about our world: “Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, while the other half have nothing to say and keep on saying it!” We need to approach words with care or real communication will not result.
The humorbin.com offers some encouraging thoughts on miscommunication that help set the serious tone of this teaching back into our own mixed up daily lives… They wrote:
“Cracking an international market is a goal of most growing corporations. It shouldn’t be that hard, yet even the big multinationals run into trouble because of language and cultural differences. For example:
• In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”
• In Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “you will eat your fingers off.”
• Years ago, when General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova in South America, it was apparently unaware that “no va” means “it won’t go.” After the company figured out why it wasn’t selling any cars, it renamed the car in its Spanish markets to the Caribe.
• When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say: “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, through mistranlation the ads actually said: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”
These are examples of failed communication that should make us both SMILE, and take our task seriously when we open the Word. Our Savior had profound truths to tell us in his stories – but we must become students of the parable to grasp what they meant – or we could get the wrong impression – and that could make for real trouble! Wrong teaching can come from wrong listening.