How Yeshua’s Stories Were Misinterpreted (Lane)
Being Prophetic-Blessing People
by Lonnie Lane
Everyone loves stories. We are continually entertained by stories. The NEWS is about stories, even gossip are stories. As children we love to hear stories read to us over and over. We love to know how it will all work out and invariably we project into the stories and vicariously live in them for a while. We are inspired or forewarned, encouraged to go on as we see how others did, and learn how to untangle the knots in our own experience as we see how the mysteries in other’s lives are resolved. The Bible, too, is comprised of stories we read repeatedly, gaining new insight into them over the years.
Yeshua loved to tell stories. They were known as Mashalim, or parables. Parables were not unique to Yeshua. A product of His culture as much as any other Jewish man at that time, He quite naturally employed the same means of teaching His disciples that other rabbis employed since they would have been familiar to the people. The difference for us is we listen to them knowing that we’re hearing the Mind of the Master, of the One who participated in God’s design of humanity. His parables paint word pictures of that same life “stuff” that He created us to live in. He makes His own mind known, however, by telling the stories as they would be seen from above, where God is. As He once participated in creation, He now continues to re-create through verbal confrontations with spiritual and moral realities behind life’s various and practical episodes through His stories.
Multitudes gathered around Him, not just to be healed but to hear His stories. When the rabbis told their stories for purposes of instruction, the moral would be evident, logical, even predictable. One could easily tell who were the good guys and what was being conveyed. The more educated you were, and the more you kept the oral (or rabbinic) law (that which was added to the Torah) the quicker you would have gotten the point, and assuming you were one of the good guys, you’d be able to congratulate yourself for your righteousness. But when Yeshua told stories, just when the crowd would have thought they figured out what the point was, He’d turn the whole thing on its head and they’d find themselves staring into their own hearts.
The “good” people were suddenly revealed as the selfish, the greedy, the rebellious, the jealous, the unwilling, the one without compassion….” It’s as if He saw life from the inside out, where their hearts were, instead of like everyone else, based on performance. No wonder He antagonized those who were sure they were the “good guys.”
At first, He engaged in mashalim everyone could understand, riddles they could solve, even if He did turn them on their bellies and expose what was normally hidden. And He spoke a lot about the Kingdom of heaven: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…..” He told stories people could relate to, of things that their own lives were made up of, in their daily experiences. With the telling of a story, His listeners had to respond inwardly. You couldn’t just hear the stories and go on as if you had only just heard a good anecdote. They got inside of you and you had to either look in your inward mirror and own up to the fact that you could be just like that one in the story, or you stuck out your bottom lip and swaggered a bit and said, “Who does He think He is, insinuating like that?”
Everyone listened but not everyone heard. That’s why He continually said, “Let him who has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying” (Matt 11:15; 13:9, etc.) Little by little, the sheep-hearers began to be divided in heart from the goat-listeners. And the goat-listeners hardened their hearts little by little until they couldn’t hear truth at all anymore and every word seemed accusatory and confrontational and more and more obscured from their understandings of what God might be saying to them. They heard it as a personal offense instead of an invitation from God to get their hearts right with Him.
“Hearing” was not just a matter of intellect but, whether they were conscious of it or not, the stories would impact the people spiritually, intuitively. Inherent in the stories was meaning beyond what His words said that had to be spiritually discerned. Looking for a coin wasn’t really the issue in the story; it was about searching for what is valuable in the Kingdom. Looking for lost sheep wasn’t about sheep, but about people lost to God whom God was searching for in order to rescue them.
Yeshua’s parables were not meant to teach a story so much as they were intended to evoke a response even to the point of a moral paradigm shift. While we may be able to see, because of what we know of Yeshua that they didn’t, we are still accountable to them as they were. The parables were meant to bring us into a confrontation with our attitudes, our values, our prejudices. Yeshua was looking to provoke them to reconsider what to them had been the norm until then. The premise is if there wasn’t change, they didn’t hear! When change takes place, they (we) got the message. The mindset of the Bible is not concerned with cognition as it is with behavior. Because that is how God thinks, and that was how He brought the Hebrews to think. Keeping God’s commandments isn’t about understanding them and wrestling with what they really mean (as the Greek minds would tend to do as we will see), it is about obedience.
The parables impacted (or didn’t) those who heard His voice. For us today, to read them without allowing the historical context to shape our understanding of them is to miss much of the relevance of the stories. On the other hand, the gospel writers somewhat adapted the stories in order to contextualize them without doing injustice to the basic parable itself. Matthew speaks of a thatched roof while Luke says they removed the tiles. No meaning of the parable is changed through this simple adaptation to what the respective readers would have related to. Understanding that His hearers were often displaced persons who had lost their land due to overbearing taxation by the Romans or knowing that the Hebrews despised the Samaritans as half-breeds because they had returned after being captured by the Syrians and had intermarried with them and even though they still wanted to follow Yahweh, they were in violation of much of Torah, gives meaning to the stories without which much impact is lost. The emotional force of His words to the hearers may be vague to us, but to understand their visceral responses is to relate it to our own feelings of displacement or cultural alienation and to get inside the parable with them.
The parables weave together. A unity exists between them. There’s a natural flowing harmony between the outer and the inner, between the spiritual and the natural, between the moral and the practical. The things of everyday life can easily be related to the affairs of the Kingdom of God. This holistic perspective very much defines the way life was for the Hebrews. Very feet on the ground, involved in the earth, while aware of God in their midst and of His requirements of them morally and spiritually. Later, interpretations which were based on more Greek Platonic thought than on a Jewish integrated life-style introduced more obscure meanings to the parables. Seeing them as allegories to which any meaning could be applied removed them not only from their Hebrew mind-set but often rendered them anti-Jewish.
Allegory in general was initiated by Origin and Clement, men classified as church fathers, in the early third century. But it was Augustine who was the first to apply it to Scripture. His intent was to rescue those whose Christianity was shot through with paganism. But in doing so, he introduced a tragic “illness” to Biblical interpretation. He believed that no one could understand the Bible just by reading it. There is our first clue that he may not have been reading by the understanding of the Holy Spirit but more on that thought later. Like the philosophers of his day, he was always searching for deeper meaning, as if the meanings in Scripture aren’t deep enough when understood through revelation by the Spirit. So he read the stories as a series of moral narratives in which the characters have deeper meaning, and by doing so he rejected the obvious meaning in the texts. He sought to discover deeper and multi-layered meanings that only the initiated could discern. His goal was to rise above the ordinary understanding of the material practicalities of life and to rise above to God, to the “ineffable presence in the minds of the wise men, when their spirits are souring above matter” (The City of God” 9.16).
Herein lies a foundational error that went against the very heart of God. Since “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), His intention was and is that all Scripture could be understood for just what it said so that it could be put into practice in the practical life of anyone who reads it. There is no hierarchy of any kind intended by God among those who wish to know what His Word says or within His people. But Augustine’s use of allegories increased the separation which had already begun to exist between the church leaders and the ordinary people. It was what contributed to the enormous schism between the laity and the clergy which had formed, the very thing which Yeshua said He hated which He identified as the Nicolaitans (Rev 2:6, 15) which refers to a hierarchy of the ruling class over the rest of the people giving rise to a “pecking order” of fleshly and eventually abusive leadership.
Augustine promoted another heresy that is with us today and which has brought about untold suffering and error into the church. He introduced the idea of “supersessionism” which had a very negative affect upon the Jews. This was the theory of substitution whereby the church became the substitute of “ancient” Israel. We would call it “replacement theology” today. When this idea was introduced, it presented a problem for the church. If the church was the new Israel, then what was the purpose for national Israel to have existed in the first place? Augustine had an answer: The Jews witnessed to the prophecies that foretold of Jesus and of divine judgment. The Jews reveal the validity of Christianity, he said. “The Jews who slew Him…are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” The Jews, therefore, protected the Christians from being accused of inventing the prophecies that would validate Jesus. The ironic twist of fate was that this very issue protected (some of) the Jews initially when the Crusades began in Western Europe and the church began to persecute “heretics.”
But what he did by interpreting parables allegorically is a travesty, that is to say he presented them as an absurd caricature or imitation, a mockery or a perversion of what Yeshua intended. What Augustine accomplished, as has been said about his treatment of the parables, was that it was more of an avoidance of them rather than insight into them. If you were to take the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, you would find, he constructs an entire “other” scenario that can’t possibly have been what Yeshua meant.
Here’s what he sees: A certain man (being Adam) went down from Jerusalem (the place of peace or Eden) to Jericho (which means the “moon” and signifies our mortality because it wanes), this journey supposedly signifying the Fall. The thieves are the devil and his demons who stripped man (of his immortality). The priest and the Levite are seen as representing the priesthood of the Old Testament (which could profit nothing for salvation and are definitely labeled as the bad guys.) The name Samaritan in Augustine’s language of the day meant “guardian” and was therefore interpreted as being the Lord Himself. The binding of the wounds is seen as restraint of sin and the oil is comfort of good hope; wine is the encouragement to work with a good spirit. The donkey or beast is the flesh in which Jesus humbled Himself to come to us. The Inn is the church where weary travelers are refreshed. The “morrow” or day when the traveler would return is the resurrection and the coins are the promise of life to come. The Innkeeper is the Apostle, presumably John. As you can see, one could really apply anything one wants to any symbol as there’s nothing objective or concrete in it. One wants to say, “How did you get THAT out of this story?” But nonetheless, the parables have been thusly interpreted for centuries, with the result that they leave people with a distorted idea of God, and a very confusing set of subjective applications, not to mention a considerable amount of anti-Semitism.
All this brings up some interesting questions, at least to me. If Augustine didn’t believe the Bible could be understood except as interpreted by what was entirely antithetic to God’s entire premise, was it possible that Augustine wasn’t born again? Could it be that through all the respect that his works have been given that he did not have the Spirit of God to interpret the Words of God as God intended? Was he perhaps just a product of his own Greek culture – just a really good philosopher – so that he was unable to see God’s ways clearly through his Hellenistic glasses, so to speak? Perhaps, like those who were offended by Yeshua’s stories and took offense because they did not have ears to hear, for whatever reason among Yeshua’s initial hearers, Augustine was not a man who could really discern God’s voice. It would appear that he either didn’t have ears to hear or his determination to come up with a higher (non-Hebrew) interpretation blocked out the voice of the Spirit to him. Either one would scare me. Is it possible, that in his quest to rise “above matter” he was even given demonic insights to present another gospel than the one Yeshua preached? The fact that he contributed to unbiblical rhetoric by interpreting parables as being anti-Hebrew could not possibly have correctly represented the “God who is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Yeshua warned us that “false prophets shall arise to seduce…if it were possible, even the elect” (Mark 13:22). Evidently it’s possible.
Upon concluding His parables, Yeshua doesn’t ask, “So, what’s your conclusion?” Regardless of whether He asks for a response or not, questions come to the mind of the hearer: What would you do? How would you respond? What have you done in the past that tells you who you are in the story? The requirement for a response does not come to the hearer out of some complex intellectual judgment or by his or her perceiving some esoteric symbolism in the story to find its true meaning. It comes because one cannot avoid visualizing what He’s just described and from that will come a value judgment, a conviction, a response. Ether what He said revealed the truth in my own heart and I capitulate and own the condition of my heart before God, or I don’t. How His hearers respond to the story inevitably results in how they respond to Yeshua Himself.
Augustine removed the stories from their reality and in doing so, introduced absurd applications that distanced the parable from our gut response to it and therefore to God. He explained away the conviction to present a theological treatise that had little to do with the individual’s heart response to God. He eliminated the parables’ value by solving the problem, by providing an answer to a puzzle that wasn’t really there in the first place. And in doing so, he introduced to the church a concept of God that removed Him far from the personal response that the parables were designed to bring to those with ears to hear. Another unfortunate departure from Hebrew roots that brought a great misrepresentation not just of the Hebrew but of God Himself! Here’s yet another place where the restoration of Hebrew roots to the body of Messiah will bring about truth and will provide for us a correction to any misunderstandings we may have of the Person of God.
The parables brought to us an “in touch” sense of the Kingdom being present with us now, even while we wait for Yeshua’s return. They deal with the “now” and the “not yet.” They also let us know that while we wait for the fullness of the Kingdom, God is not passive or absent but is in our midst actively involved in every practical aspect of our lives. The parables are “apocalyptic” in that they say to us, “Be aware of the end, the yield, the harvest, the judgment… God is involved.” But they also tell us that for which we yearn, of the presence of God, the justice and the peace, is also available to us now. For those who were victimized by injustice and unrest, that was a profound revelation to find out that, even while under Roman rule, peace and justice are available in God now.
Reprints of this article is permitted but must include: Reprinted by permission of Messianic Vision, www.sidroth.org, 2008.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.