Questions on the New Testament Part 3: Parables and Taking the Bible Literally
The parable of the lost sheep and the prodigal son
The parable of the lost sheep and the story of the prodigal son, both favorites among pastors and other church staff seem to present to conflicting ideas. Here are the two parables:
“Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 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!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”
— Luke 15:3-7
But when he came to himself he said, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough to spare, and I’m dying with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.' He arose, and came to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran towards him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
— Luke 15:17-20
The story of the lost sheep seems to suggest that the shepherd, who in the story is assumed to be analogous to God or Jesus, goes looking for the lost sheep while leaving the rest of the flock behind. In other words, it suggests that God comes looking for us.
In the story of the prodigal son, the boy who runs away from home after being a total git and demanding his inheritance, returns on his own accord and apologises. The father only comes to him after he sees that the boy has made the decision to return. The sheep in the previous parable never made the decision to return, well at least not that we’re made aware of nor is it suggested in any way shape or form from the text assuming the sheep is being made analogous to a person, in that story the shepherd went looking for it.
In other words, in the first story it is presumably meant to be interpreted that God comes looking for us.
In the second story, the opposite is assumed. There are verses that suggests that God chooses us, not the other way around seems to be more in favour of the first parable than the second.
"If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."
- Luke 14:26
Honouring one’s parents (a commandment from the Torah), taking care of family, valuing life (including one’s own) are all core values in Judaism. This seems particularly odd considering that Jesus was a Jew, he wouldhave been going against some core fundamental values the Jewswere taught, and it was not as though there was a problem with them that they needed amending, at least not that meets the eye.
Some say this is because the Greek word for hate means something different, if so (this is commonly said for many words in the bible) why was the verse not written to reflect its original meaning? The people translating in theory had the Holy Sirit who could probably have told the translators to do this. This also goes against the teachings about loving each other spoken by Jesus in the gospels. One proposed explanation and a highly plausible one are that it was altered by the Roman Catholic Church. It is worth noting that in many of these societies, those in power were literate while quite often those with neither power or wealth were not literate and hence those who were illiterate had no way to question whether what they were being told was right or wrong. Literacy was not a large concern among those struggling to make enough of a living to survive and sadly is still not in many places.
Though he would have been very familiar with Jewish tradition on valuing family, being Jewish himself, Jesus shows an odd level of contempt for this tradition, both in the instance labelled above and in another passage when he tells an apostle off, just about, when they ask if they can first bury their father before following him (Matthew 8:21-22). If these passages are not meant to be taken literally as some say we are supposed to interpret the bible, then how do we to decide which parts are and are not? There seems to be no unified consensus on this issue. The passage from Matthew that says if a part of your body causes you to sin to cut it off (Matthew 18:8) was probably not meant to be taken literally as blood loss and death, or infection, would be highly probable.
The explanation for why Jesus spoke in parables is given in the following passage which has been mentioned in a previous post:
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”11 He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.12 “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.
13 “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
14 “And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive;
15 for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.’
16 “But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear;
17 “for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
- Matthew 13:10-17
If Jesus wanted everyone to believe, which evangelicals will often say and the Bible does support the idea in places, why would he deliberately cause people to misunderstand? If God's intention was to deliberately cause people to misunderstand the Bible it appears that thus far he has succeeded. The only problem is, this does not seem very loving and also makes it look like God is willing to let most people perish. Most Christians however don't believe that is the case.
Disobeying the Jewish Sabbath
The Jewish belief in the law of pi’kuah nefesh, states a Jewish person is obligated to break Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) if a life is to be saved seems to be ignored at times in the New Testament. It seems strange that Jesus gets in trouble for breaking the Sabbath when it is an established rule that the rule if someone's life is in danger. In fact, as far as Judaism is concerned this law, originating from the Torah, overrides any law in the Torah that would otherwise prevent that person from being receiving aid. The Pharisees would have known this although there may have been some cause of confusion if they did not understand an illness was likely to cause death as the very nature of what caused disease would not be understood for centuries to come (though the Hebrews did much better at understanding how to reduce disease than many cultures)/
Is the Bible Supposed to Be Taken Literally?
While there are Christians who believe the Bible should be taken literally, there is one passage in Matthew Chapter 18 which would suggest a literal interpretation of the Bible is incorrect and nobody takes 100% of it literally. The verse in full:
“7“Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! 8“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. 9“If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell.” – Matthew 18:7-9
Obviously attempting to do any of the above would result in serious injury or death and hence hopefully no one would consider taking these passages literally. Given the lack of medical facilities at the time there was an even greater chance of such actions being fatal. The fact that Jesus spoke in parables employing both metaphors and allegories, which are not supposed to be interpreted literally such as in the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son, would also suggest the bible should not be taken literally and is, at least as far as the Old Testament is concerned, a collection of stories meant to teach but not meant to be taken literally.