Your Culture is Showing! Cultural Context and Bible Interpretation
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
Recently I was teaching the Resurrection story to a group of kids in our church and I never considered how much culture would play into their understanding. I carefully worked my way through the death of Christ and then to his burial in a borrowed tomb. Intending to keep the kids connected, I began asking a series of questions. “Who took Jesus off the cross?” A child responded, “Joseph!” “Where did they put Jesus’s body?” Another piped up, “In the borrowed tomb.” Holding the flashcard with the Roman soldiers guarding the door to the tomb, I asked confidently…. “Do you see the soldiers holding the spear? What was the spear for?” Proudly a young boy raised his hand and proclaimed, “For picking up hay!”
Welcome to my culture
Culture determines context
Culture determines context. In a farming culture, tractors have a giant ‘spear’ on the front so they can lift the giant rolls of hay. The young man in our story answered the question correctly based on his cultural upbringing. A tractor spear is indeed for picking up hay! Why is this story relevant? It demonstrates that the culture that we grow up in absolutely affects how we read and interpret the Scriptures. We wouldn’t expect a person to do otherwise! Knowing that truth, it helps us to see the importance of considering the cultural context in which parables are written.
When Jesus Christ spake in parables he wasn’t standing in a small rural church in central North Carolina. He wasn’t speaking to a large crowd assembled at the ‘First Baptist Church’ of your nearest major city. This wasn’t an appearance at a Christian college chapel, a megachurch gathering, or frankly anything that looks like modern American culture. Jesus was speaking to a culture that was very different than ours and spoke in parables that were riddled with cultural inferences and connections. Though Christ explained the purpose of many of his parables right after speaking them, our ability to understand and comprehend the details of those parables might just be limited our own cultural influences!
Bible culture wasn’t American culture
The culture during Christ’s time was far different than ours in many ways. It was a highly agricultural society. There was a distinct geography in the region that framed the background of many of his parables. They had lived in an honor/shame culture as opposed to a guilt culture to which most Westerners are accustomed. There was a heavy connection with community as opposed to our individualistic society. Many parables were spoken to a Jewish audience which would draw all the complexities of the Jewish religion and culture as well.
Consider these three examples:
1. The Parable of the Good Samaritan was given to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” In this parable Jesus chose to use the Jerusalem/Jericho region on purpose. There is cultural significance to including a Samaritan as the one who reached out to offer help. Even the identity of the other men that passed by is significant in the Jewish culture. Though the meaning is clear within the next few verses, the importance of those unique elements cannot be overlooked!
2. The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector was given to illustrate the contrast between those that trusted in themselves vs those that had no faith in their own merits. The Pharisees were a very religious group known for their observance to all points of the law. No one would have been considered more righteous to the listeners that the Pharisees. When Jesus said that the tax collector was the one that walked away justified it would have caused in incredible stir among the listeners. This aspect of the religious culture cannot be overlooked
3. However, the best example is The Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable was one of a three part set of parables that demonstrate rejoicing over the salvation of the lost. In my opinion, it is most colorful and culturally deep parable that our savior used to communicate truth. It brings in the honor/shame cultural dynamic, the community outrage over a rebellious son, the Jewish inheritance, the shame of feeding unclean animals, the undeserved yet gracious response of the father, as well as the shameful response of the cynical Pharisees. No parable provides a clearer picture of salvation, and no parable is as tied to culture as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Do you really want to understand how the parables reached into their culture and communicated spiritual truth? If so, consider the cultural context of a parable! For more information about the upcoming book, follow this link and register to receive your free digital copy!
Pastor DJ Harry