It is important to read the New Testament with first-century eyes. In our post-modern world, we often resort to individualistic interpretations of the Bible. So, our bible studies consist of a group of people eating pizza and saying things like: “Well, this is what it means to me…” However, each passage of Scripture is preprogrammed with meaning and is not really up for debate. We must maintain an air of humility by understanding that our finite ability will sometimes be insufficient to properly extrapolate the historical, cultural, literary, and grammatical data necessary to provide a perfectly accurate interpretation. TheBible is infallible; our interpretations are not.Our inability to attain certitude, however, should not squelch our efforts to uncover pertinent background information that elucidates the text.The original recipients of the New Testament letters lived within a certain cultural context. We will be better preachers, teachers, and students if we make an effort to understand that context.
I believe that a fresh understanding of Scripture will unleash a fresh passion in the life of the minister and produce biblical, life-changing sermons. Consider the example of the Prodigal Son of Luke 15, and how an understanding of context brings the passage to life.
There are numerous cultural considerations that make themselves apparent as the text unfolds. The youngest son is asking for an inheritance from his father that, according to Jewish custom, could not be given until the father died. His request essentially indicated that he cared more about the money than he did his father’s life. The rebellious son, in a round-about way, told his father:“I wish you were dead.” He then escaped to a foreign land, squandered his inheritance, and found himself wallowing in a pig-pen. Obviously, pigs are the least kosher of animals. The cultural connotation is that the son has descended into the furtherest depths of depravity.
Luke 15:1-2 explains that the purpose of this parable is to respond to the accusations of the Pharisees that Jesus received and dined with sinners. The religious Jews listening to the parable would have identified the young man as the vilest of villains, and would likely delight in his humiliation and demise. However, the response of the father deviates from the expectations of the listeners. Like Jesus, he is anxious to receive and dine with a sinner. To the Pharisees, the sinner was a nameless, faceless, unclean violator of the Law. To the father, the sinner was his son.Jesus seeks and saves sinners because they are the children of the Father.
When the son came to his senses and returned to his father, the text records that the father ran to meet him. In our cultural context, it makes perfect sense for a father to run to his estranged son. In the first century, however, a Middle Eastern man never ran. It was considered shameful because it would require him to raise up his tunic and expose his bare legs. In New Testament times, honor was a highly coveted commodity. A person did everything they could to gain and retain their honor and avoided shame at all costs. The father was severely shamed by his son’s action, and now was bringing shame on himself by showing off his legs. So, why did the father run? Why didn’t he save face, and let his son come to him?
Perhaps, the father ran to retrieve his son to save him from the community. Kenneth Bailey, author of The Cross & The Prodigal, explains that a disgraced Jew who had shamelessly associated with Gentiles, squandered his father’s inheritance, and audaciously returned home would be excommunicated. In a ceremony, called the kezazah. They would fill a large, clay pot with burnt beans, break it at the sinner’s feet, and exclaim“You are now cut off from your people!” The father runs so that his son does not have to experience that level of shame and dishonor. In clear view of the other villagers, the father emotionally reunited with his prodigal son. It was abundantly clear that there would be no kezazah ceremony. The son was accepted by the father, and by extension the community–despite what he had done.
As pastors and leaders trusted with sharing the Gospel, these historical facts and cultural considerations should excite us. Because, we can now poignantly communicate to our listeners that our heavenly Father has taken our shame through His Son, who willingly endured the cross.
We deserved the shame, but our Father took it for us. All we have to do is turn to Him. And, absurdly and incomprehensibly, He will run to us with forgiveness, acceptance, and restoration.