Towards a Jesus-Centered Apologetic (Part Four)
The parables of Jesus are far more powerful and controversial than most realize. These explosive stories cut through the thickest of cultural misconceptions about God. Sadly, we often sanitize them, and thus rob them of both their impact and their meaning, by reducing them to simple morality lessons.
As you read the parables, consider the context in which Jesus shared them. Who is his audience? What events immediately preceded and follow the parable? What is the main point the parable seems to be teaching? Is there a “bad guy” in the parable? Who is it? If so, how does that affect the meaning of the parable?
As mentioned in an earlier post in this series, you shouldn’t try to make every minor detail in the parable have a spiritual meaning. Generally speaking, the main point will usually be found towards the end of the parable and can often be understood simply by looking at the immediate context. Remember the real-estate mantra, “Location! Location! Location!” By looking at the context of where the parable is situtated, you will have the ideal vantage point for making sense of Jesus’s stories and seeing what contemporary misunderstandings of God they can relate to.
Look at both to whom Jesus is speaking, and whom Jesus is talking about. If someone in the original audience gets offended by Jesus’s story, consider why. Be curious. As you read Jesus’s parables, keep a journal of these kinds of details. Write down your ideas about how you can use different parables in conversations with unbelievers. You might be surprised to see how the Lord will bring all this to memory the next time you are sharing your faith.
The Lost Stories of Jesus
In this post I want to give one example of a parable I love to use when talking about Jesus. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories of lost things. As you look at the passage, begin by considering what events led to Jesus’s stories.
As you will see, the first two verses tell us what is going on. Tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus. Jesus received them and ate with them. And the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes, were furious. So, Jesus told them a parable that includes stories of lost things.
The way Luke explains this should clue us in. It was because the religious leaders were angry that Jesus told them the parable. So, the meaning of the parable will likely be tied to their outrage. Let’s consider Jesus’s three stories.
The first story Jesus tells is about a lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Jesus sets a pattern that the first two stories will follow. There is (1) a lost thing, (2) a search, (3) the lost thing is found, (4) there is a celebration, and (5) there is a spiritual application. One sheep is lost, the shepherd searches for it and finds it, and then throws a party. Jesus then says there is even more joy in heaven when one sinner repents.
The second story is about a lost coin. The coin could very possibly be a part of a dowry and a sign of the woman’s marital status. Whatever the coin represented, it clearly held great value in the eyes of this lady. So she turns her house inside out trying to find it. When she does find it, she invites her neighbors and throws a party to celebrate. Jesus again restates that there is more joy in heaven when a lost sinner is found. Now that this pattern is established through the first two stories, Jesus deviates from it radically in the third story which should make us all sit up and pay attention.
The Lost Son
The last story Jesus tells in Luke 15 is about a man and his two sons. The youngest son demands his inheritance. Surprisingly, the father gives it to him. That son promptly goes out and wastes it. When he comes to his senses, he returns home and his father greets him, clearly forgives him, and throws a party in celebration.
Most of the time when we think about this story we think about this youngest son as the prodigal. But what about his older brother? How might the older brother be a part of Jesus’s intended reason in telling these stories? If you look back at the beginning of Luke 15, what group of people is most like the older brother?
The older brother is angry that the father received the younger son, who wasted his money on prostitutes. The older brother is mad that their father received the younger brother and is eating with him. The older brother is just like the Pharisees and scribes at the beginning of the chapter, who were angry that Jesus received sinners and ate with them.
Did you notice the ways this third story broke ways with the pattern established in the first two stories? Like the first two stories, this one involves something being lost, but there’s no search. Where is there no search in this last story? How might the lack of a search fit into Jesus’s response to the religious leaders who were angry at Jesus? Jesus answers this question directly several times in his teaching ministry when he states that his mission is to seek and save the lost.
In the culture of Jesus’s day, it would not have been the father who would go out looking for the son. Jesus’s audience would have known this very well. In a patriarchal society, it would have been the oldest son, not the father, who would go out on the search. But the older brother in this story doesn’t go on a search. In fact, he was angry that the son came home at all. He was just like the religious leaders who were unconcerned with the lost.
In a lot of ways, this parable shows us that Jesus is doing what the brother in the story failed to do. Jesus came as our better big brother, searching for lost sons and daughters to bring us home for a celebration. These stories counter the common misunderstanding that Jesus is just for religious or “good” people. Jesus told us these stories to help us understand the heart of God for sinners like you and me.
Studying the Parables
The lost son wasn’t the one who ran away. It was the one who never truly came home. The older brother was like the Pharisees. He couldn’t see past his own self-righteousness. While many people consider themselves too “irreligious” or “immoral” to believe in God, they don’t realize how well-represented they are in this story about how much God loves repentance wherever and whenever it is found. God is like the father in this story, eager to forgive.
Read through the parables of Jesus and make notes about what you find. Always keep in mind the application of how these stories connect with people who are far from God. Though our culture might not always seem overly interested in hearing a list of propositions, most are open to listen to a good story. So, introduce them to the one story that changes everything. In reading your way through Gospels with an eye towards evangelistic conversations, you’ve begun a journey towards a Jesus-centered apologetics. May the Lord grant you many Jesus-focused conversations.