Podcast Episode

Finding Meaning in the Parables

How do you determine the meaning of a parable? And how should you apply it to your life? In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss how to identify the meaning and significance of the parables of Jesus.

Episode 6
1hr 22m
Apr 20, 2020
Play Episode
Show Notes


Essentially, the way we understand Jesus’ meaning is to identify the main characters of a parable and note that each character is embodying some point—some part of the message.


  • Parables carry both meaning and significance. The meaning is what Jesus originally meant by the parable in his context, while the significance is how we experience that meaning. Both are essential to understand the parables.
  • One of the main ways to interpret the parables is to identify the main characters/objects in them. These characters each embody a part of the main message.
  • We honor Jesus and the tradition of his parables when we adapt their meaning and significance to our world today.

The Parables in Context

In part one (0:00–10:20), Tim and Jon recap the series so far. Tim explains that the word “parable” is a compound word in Greek meaning “to set alongside.” The parables are set alongside the reality of Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God, not just as moral ideals.

Many people grew up reading the parables through the lens of personal relationship with God. While this misses the original context, we should ask ourselves: how do Jesus’ parables about him in his world speak to people outside his context?

The Gospel authors recorded the parables because they saw enduring value in them. The original context can become a guide to the significance we pull from it today.

Meaning and Significance in the Parables

In part two (10:20–17:45), Tim and Jon discuss the difference between meaning and significance in the parables. Tim explains that meaning is what is intended to be understood while significance is how we experience that meaning. We should always strive to understand meaning while realizing that different people will experience the significance in different ways.

Tim shares that many Bible readers tend to listen for significance first, bypassing original meaning. How do we bridge both meaning and significance today?

Characters in a Parable

In part three (17:45–33:45), Tim and Jon talk about characters as a key way to identify meaning within the parables.

Parables have historically been interpreted between two extremes, allegorical and creative realism—either that meaning is in the eye of the reader, or there is only one main point to every parable. Jesus seems to interpret his own parables differently.

When Jesus tells parables, he identifies main characters in the story. The parable of the sower, for example, identifies one main character (the sower of the seed) with four sub-characters (the four soils) and a counter-character for each (the birds, rocks, thorns, and fertile ground). Craig Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables) prescribes this as the main way for understanding Jesus’ meaning in the parables—by seeing each character as embodying a part of the main message.

One way to tell whether an object is a character in a parable is to ask whether it is indispensable to the main plot. Characters can also serve together as composites (for example, the parable of the hired workers).

Tim and Jon walk through a few three-character parables. Many of these have an authority figure (father, king, master, landowner), usually embodying Jesus or God. Along with this authority figure are two subordinates, usually contrasting a positive and negative response (a slave, subject, son, debtor, etc.). The parable of the prodigal son is a classic example that is easy to understand and come away with the main meaning.

A Surprising Parable

In part four (33:45–49:15), Tim and Jon unpack two-character parables in the Bible. The first kind contrasts two opposite characters (like a tax collector and a Pharisee). These are similar to three-character parables, except in these cases, the listener serves as the evaluator. The second kind of two-character parable includes an authority figure and a subordinate.

Tim and Jon dive into a parable that has confused Jon for a long time—the parable of the shrewd manager.

Luke 16:1-13
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.

“For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

This parable shows a character who has to make a decision. He deals shrewdly with his master’s wealth, and in a surprise twist, the master commends him for his shrewdness. Jesus compares this to how those in the world deal with one another. Then Jesus brings a twist by pointing out that the manager was commended for valuing relationships over money.

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager: The Meaning

In part five (49:15–61:00), Tim and Jon continue to unpack the parable of the shrewd manager.

In Jesus’ mind, relationships are more important than money and should be served by money rather than the other way around. This is why the master praises the manager—not because he stole his money, but because the manager didn’t allow money to distract him from the greater goal of relationships. This is how Jesus views money and calls his followers to view it.

This parable forces the listener to decide what it is they trust.

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager: The Significance

In part six (61:00–67:30), Tim and Jon talk about the significance in the parable of the shrewd manager.

Tim points out that the rich man forces a choice. Whether we live for Jesus and his Kingdom forces a moment of decision on us. Will we trust that Jesus is more trustworthy than all the economic structures around us? If those who don’t know Jesus cheat one another because they know the value of relationships over money, then how much more should we use the money God has freely given us by God for the benefit of others?

Adapting the Parables

In part seven (67:30–end), Tim and Jon conclude the conversation with a review.

To read the parables well, first pay attention to the narrative context of the Gospel authors, namely Jesus announcing the Kingdom of God in the first century. Then, understand the significance of the parable for readers beyond the Gospel. Look for how the characters or other indispensable elements in the parables correspond to characters in the narrative. This whole package helps to define the parable’s significance for us today.

Finally, once you have the basic plot arc of the parable, understand the basic meaning and significance, Tim says that we owe it to Jesus to adapt these parables to our own day, just as he adapted the parables to his audiences.

Additional Resources

Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables

Show Music

  • Defender Instrumental by Tents
  • Ocean Patio bu Philanthrope x Dayle
  • Instrumental by Kaleidoscope
  • Jumping off the Porch by Broke in Summer
  • My Room Becomes The Sea by Sleepy Fish
  • doing laundry by weird inside

Show produced by Dan Gummel.

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Scripture References
Luke 18:10
Luke 16:1-15
Luke 15:2
Luke 8:1-3
Matthew 5:14
Isaiah 2:5
Luke 18:1-8
Matthew 6:26

Parables E6 Final
Finding Meaning in the Parables
Podcast Date: April 20, 2020
Speakers in the audio file:
Jon Collins
Tim Mackie


Jon: This is Jon at the BibleProject, and this is the last episode of our

discussion on how to read the parables. In this conversation, we're going

to look at some strategies for taking the ancient parables of Jesus and

adapting them to our modern lives.

Tim: It seems to me that we owe it to him to give as much attention to how

we translate them into our own cultural contexts, which means I think

adaptation. You can watch Jesus adapting parables in the Gospels. A

version of it in Matthew and a version in Luke will be a little bit different.

And so if you get the main idea, I think it ought to inspire new creative

adaptations of the parables in our own setting.

Jon: We're also going to look at one of my favorite parables, the parable of the

dishonest and shrewd manager. In this parable, a manager finds out that

he's going to get fired by his master. And so before he leaves, he comes

up with a plan. He calls up all the people that owe his master money and

he cooks the books for their benefit. And when the master finds out what

this guy did...

Tim: The narrative says he was a dishonest manager. Jesus is perfectly clear.

But it's like a joke that has a twist at the end. Instead of getting taken to

court, the manager says, "You're still fired, but you're going to get

ahead." So I think it's because the master commends him at the end,

that's what leads us maybe to think, "Oh, this is a parable of praising

certain kinds of behavior, namely, dishonesty."

Jon: What is going on here? Why did Jesus tell this parable? And if we can

understand it, how can we apply its wisdom? Thanks for joining us. Here

we go.

We're going to finish this conversation about how to read the parables.

Tim: The parables of Jesus.

Jon: The parables of Jesus specifically.

Tim: Specifically. Yeah, that's right. There's lots of other parables in the Bible.

In fact, we've now started this conversation so many days ago.

Remember the word "parable"?

Jon: Oh, no.

Tim: Did we talk about the word "parable"?

Jon: The word parable.

Tim: How is it that I'm not bringing this up until the very last episode? I'm


Jon: Maybe it's perfectly timed.

Tim: It's a compound Greek word. "Parable" is from the Greek word


Jon: What's that called when it's just you're saying the word in English? That's

the Greek word?

Tim: Well, it's a transliteration. "Parable" is a transliteration of the Greek word

"parabolē". It's compound. "Para" is a Greek preposition "next to", and

then "bolē" comes from a verb "cast" sometimes or "to set". To set


Jon: To set alongside. It's a little parable in and of itself.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. It's a figure of speech. A parable refers to a saying, a

teaching, or a story that sits alongside another reality. It's actually the

same concept of metaphor, which is also a compound Greek word. But to

set alongside. So Jesus wants to talk about how his Israelite audience

faces a decision about his offer of the kingdom of God. So you have Jesus

offering the kingdom to good people. So he tells a story about a king

giving resources to some managers or stewards. So Jesus, king, money

equals the offer of the kingdom; stewards equal his listeners for Israel at

that moment.

Jon: So the thing that's happening in Jesus' life is something...

Tim: The reality.

Jon: The reality. And then the parable is set next to that.

Tim: Yeah. It's a little parallel reality that he weaves that helps you gain new

insight through the parallel story into the real thing. It's set alongside.

Remember our conversations about metaphor. This is from George Lakoff.

Jon: Metaphor.

Tim: We have a target that we want to describe or give new insight into. And

so we borrow from a source domain to describe a target. I want to talk

about, remember time, so our experience of time, which is very

amorphous. But then the moment you take from the source domain of

possessions, you can begin to form metaphorical themes alongside our

reality of experience of time. So time is something that we spend, we

lose it, we save it...

Jon: By comparing it to possession, you begin to understand it.

Tim: Basically, parables are extended metaphors. Instead of a short phrase or

one word or image, the whole story of a parable becomes a large

metaphor. So anyway, parabolē - set alongside.

Jon: Set alongside. However, we did go out of the way to show that if you

tried to take every element of a parable and turn it into part of the

metaphor, a metaphoric scheme, you could definitely go way beyond

what Jesus was intending.

Tim: Correct. Last conversation, we'll talk about one of the most helpful kind

of guidelines or controls on keeping our interpretations grounded. But

we've already talked about a few. First of all, this is like going into recap


Jon: Yeah, recap mode.

Tim: First of all, the parables were one of the most common ways Jesus

communicated, not to talk about some other set of ideas of universal

religious truths or moral ideals. The parables were in the service of his

larger project, which was to announce and inaugurate God's reign and

rule here on earth as it is in heaven.

Jon: Through him.

Tim: Through himself. And to form a group of people who were living under

God's reign in this new and surprising way.

Jon: He was telling parables to explain what he was up to.

Tim: That's right. The parables are a commentary on what Jesus is doing in

the actual stories in which he's telling the parables?

Jon: And then in our last episode, we talked about the parable of the...

Tim: What's called sometimes the talents or the king and his servants.

Jon: And it was so hard for me to unwind the way that I have read a parable,

to then use that principle of what was Jesus doing in that moment, and

why did he tell that parable to those people to explain what he was up to.

And that Luke actually gives you the massive hint. Like Jesus was doing

this because he saw his disciples were misunderstanding what it meant

for him to go become king. So then he tells that parable.

And then we read that parable, I had that in my mind, "Okay, that's what

this parable's about and I still couldn't follow it. I was like, "Whoa, I can't

do it." But then we walked through that and it was really helpful, and still

hard for me to let that become the way I'm understanding that parable.

Tim: It's as if our instincts are trained, and it's true in much of the Christian

tradition, that the parables are about Jesus is talking about something

else other than himself, and that the parables...that my first set of

questions that I should ask, this is our expectation, I think is that they're

about me and God. Jesus is telling a story about me and God. Because

I'm one of his followers, this is his teaching. He teaches about how

people relate to God, right? That's what moral religious teachers do. So

it's a whole new context.

And ironically, it's the one that's been sitting there for 2000 years just

patiently waiting for us to pay attention to the actual context. And I

should say this isn't like a brand new idea. There are many people

throughout church history who have been, I think, responsible for the

parables, but it's tended to be a minority.

Jon: This reading of - what was that parable? Where was that at?

Tim: Luke 19.

Jon: Luke 19. One thing that this did to the parable, which is interesting to

me, is it made it less mysterious and less like a riddle and made it in a

way...Well, maybe that's not fair. But because it's not about me, it

becomes less interesting.

Tim: Oh, interesting.

Jon: You know what I mean?

Tim: Okay, interesting.

Jon: When it was about potentially me, then I could put myself into that

parable. Now I just want to like sit in it and think about it. But if we go,

okay, so this was about the people around Jesus and these reactions to

the king were all about the specific types of reactions that his followers

and the people who are against him we're going to be doing in the next

couple of weeks, and that this whole idea of more will be given and being

wise with what you already have was for the disciples to prepare them to

go out and be commissioned by Jesus, that's helpful. But then it just kind

of makes me to be like, "Okay." Kind of [inaudible 00:09:06] a little bit

for me.

Tim: Sure. I hear that. And I think that's because we haven't taken the last

step yet, which is to ask, how do Jesus' parables about himself given to

his contemporaries, how does Jesus' story and those parables, how do

they speak to people who aren't sitting there in that moment? And do

they at all?

Jon: Because Luke wrote it for someone who's not sitting there.

Tim: Yes, that's exactly the point. Luke obviously thinks all these parables in

Matthew and Mark have enduring value beyond just the moment when

Jesus spoke them to his contemporaries. That's why they're in the

Gospels. It's dual, though. They're not just in there because they think

now they can speak to us only. They're in there because one, they give

us a window into what Jesus was actually saying and claiming about


How do we bridge that gap? Actually, this is the very next step that we're

going to talk about. But the first most important thing is that we

understand what Jesus meant by this parable in the moment when he

speaks it in the narrative context that the Gospels have provided. And

that should be our guide to its meaning, which can then bridge us to the

next step to say, "Okay, what is the significance of what Jesus was saying

to them? What is its significance to me?


Tim: As we're making that transition, I realized I think we've had...this is a

pretty meta conversation in biblical interpretation about the meaning of

meaning. Where do you locate the meaning of a text like the Gospels?

I'm going to make this not too theoretical.

[crosstalk 00:11:09]

Tim: A helpful distinction in history of literary interpretation and biblical

interpretation in the mid-20th century, it's a guy named Emmanuel

Hirsch. I think he coined it. This is very handy distinction that's been very

helpful to me, the difference between meaning and significance. I don't

think we've talked about this.

Jon: No.

Tim: Okay. It's really, actually simple. Meaning is what I intend you to

understand from the words that I'm speaking to you. So it's author or

communicator-focused or sourced. Let's make this very practical. When

you're listening to your wife Tristen talk, in theory...

Jon: She has a meaning behind the words.

Tim: ...she's trying to communicate something to you, and you will do well to

discern not what you think she means. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

No, you'd listen because she might be saying something new you've

never heard her say before. So it's communicator-focused. So when

you're looking at a literary text, we don't have access to the person

behind it anymore, but we assume that the literary text embodies the

meaning they want to communicate.

Hirsch drew a distinction between that and what he called significance.

Significance is more listener and reader-focused, which is if you just get

home from work and Tristen is communicating, what she doesn't know

yet is the kind of day you've had. And so she can't predict the

significance that her meaning will have based on the day that you had.

So it could be that you're just in such a great mood and whatever, she

tells you something, and it just you light up in a way that she didn't

anticipate because it makes you so excited. And that's because her

meaning, which was something she could comprehend and try to get to

you but she had no idea the significance of how that might land with you.

Because that has to do with you and your experience. There you go.

That's the idea of meaning versus significance.

Jon: Meaning is what I intend as the communicator. Significance is now that

you understand my meaning, what does that mean to you or how does

that affect you?

Tim: In English, we can actually say, what does that mean to you? What we

really intend is what's the significance of that for you. Because it's not

like the person now means something different. It's not what the person


Jon: Here's what they meant.

Tim: Here's what they meant.

Jon: And that's one thing. Get to that...

Tim: Honor that.

Jon: ...and now, how does that affect you?

Tim: That's right. And in theory, we should care about what people mean just

because we care about other people and care about what they mean.

Jon: Right. It's a kind way to live in the world.

Tim: However, none of us listen without interests. We typically start paying

attention at the moment we think that something matters to me and is

significant to me, sadly. Oh, gosh, this happens all the time. I am

incapable of listening to two streams of communication at the same time.

Jon: Oh, yeah, I don't think anyone can do that.

Tim: Well, my wife does it regularly.

Jon: Really?

Tim: Oh, yeah. She can listen to what I'm saying and what both sons are

saying like at the same time and like sort it out. This happens regularly

where one of my sons is singing and the other son is listening to an

audiobook and then Jessica is trying to communicate something to me.

This happed the day before yesterday. And she just gets like a minute

into telling me something, it's probably important, and I just have to

choose at that point, like, "Okay, am I going to just go along with this or

do I just, you know, "Sweetie, I'm sorry. I didn't hear anything. You've

been talking for so long, and I didn't hear any of that."

Jon: It's the last thing that your wife wants to hear.

Tim: And it's usually when I start to clue in like, "Oh, what she's telling me, I

have to like do something or respond." I'm interested. And I realize, "This

has huge significance for me," and so then I respond and start listening.

Jon: Yeah, that's interesting. I'm really bad at that. I am constantly being

distracted by things. I would guess way more than the average person

am I in a situation where someone's talking to me and I realize, "I've no

idea what they're saying right now." I was somewhere else. And I have to

make the decision, "Do I stop them and make them start again or do I

just try to pick it up and figure it out." And I usually just try to pick it up

and figure it out. It usually works. But I think people could tell like, "I

don't know if Jon's a pretty good listener."

Tim: The whole point is our listening is more complicated than we often think.

Jon: No. The whole communication theory thing is very complicated. I can

appreciate this distinction. I have a meaning and when I communicate,

and when that lands for you, it has a meaning beyond my meaning.

Tim: Correct. I like how Hirsch uses a different word because then it makes

the word "meaning" less confusing. Right?

Jon: It has a significance.

Tim: Because all of a sudden, I feel like for me it's helpful to...Man, you could

footnote this with many books about the problem of defining meaning.

There are some problems in defining meaning only in terms of the

speaker's intention or the purpose. But I just want to set that aside. I

think the instinct that most Bible readers are trained to look for first is

significance. And what we tend to do is bypass or ignore meaning and

just cut right to significance.

Jon: What did Jesus mean and what's the significance of it for me?

Tim: For me, yeah. Those are distinct but related realities, and I want to make

sure that the significance I'm drawing is really what Jesus intended.

Jon: Cool.

Tim: That was simple. We could have had a 45-second conversation about

that. But I think it's a valuable point. So how do we begin to draw

significance that's connected to Jesus' meaning?


Tim: We know that there are two extremes in the history of interpretation of

the parables. We talked about this. There's the allegorical field day where

every single little detail is given symbolic significance and the decodering

is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. The other extreme is to say,

listen, it's all just creative realism. There's only one main from any given


However, when Jesus explains his own parables, which he does a few

times, it's clear that he does see different symbols that stand for different

things. The parable of the four soils. So let's just take Jesus' method as a

guide. What has Jesus done? What he's done is identified the main

characters in his story.

So you have a farmer sowing seed. That's the word of the kingdom

implied. He's the farmer sowing seed. Sowing God's seed. And then each

soil is like a character. And then there's a counter character for each

character. You have a main character, the soil, and then you have the

birds or the thorns or the rocks. That kind of thing. There may be other

details in the parable, but notice Jesus, he's just drawing attention to the

key focal character points of the story. That's how he unpacks it.

Jon: Got it.

Tim: Craig Blomberg in his very helpful book, "Interpreting the Parables",

turns that into kind of like a rule of thumb. That essentially the way we

understand Jesus' meaning is to identify the main characters of a parable,

and note that each character is embodying some point, some part of the

message. And he advocates that that's the surest and most reliable guide

that we don't go overboard.

Jon: Because you could take any element of Jesus' parable and say, "Maybe

this has some sort of hidden meaning."

Tim: That's right.

Jon: But then you can get out of control and have a field day. So how do you

know what parts of Jesus parable actually do have meanings that you're

supposed to clue into? And what you're saying is one sure-fire solution is

to focus on characters. It acts like a character, it's embodying...

Tim: One of the key messages of the story.

Jon: ...a key message.

Tim: Sometimes there's only one character. You know, a woman hides leaven.

However, even there there's two elements to that character. There's what

Jesus is actually comparing the kingdom of God to is the leaven.

Jon: Was leaven a character then?

Tim: The leaven becomes the character.

[crosstalk 00:20:53]

Jon: ...when does an object become a character?

Tim: I think it's fairly intuitive about a woman placing leaven in the dough.

That's what the kingdom of God is like. So there the woman is God and

the leaven is like a character. So I guess you'd say that's like a very

simple two-character parable.

Jon: The leaven is a character.

Tim: Yeah. Sheep are characters, coins are characters.

Jon: I mean, anything can become a character. But when does something

become a character?

Tim: I think when it's crucial to the plot. Take that element out of the plot, the

story falls apart.

Jon: Really?

Tim: Mm hmm.

Jon: Now I feel like we're just using the word "character" pretty loosely.

Tim: Oh, okay. I guess you're right. Characters or objects crucial to the plot.

Jon: Objects crucial to the plot.

Tim: Yeah, it's like a diagnostic. It's to say, "Hmm, did Jesus mean something

by this parable?"

Jon: Element in the period?

Tim: Does Jesus mean something by this particular detail? Well, if I took this

detail out, does it change the nature of the story? Does it change the

plotline? If you take the leaven out...

Jon: And I'm sure if you take a character out, it will. Unless the character was

just some random flourish.

Tim: That's right. In the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan puts the injured man

on his donkey and binds his wounds with oil.

Jon: So is the donkey a character?

Tim: Is the donkey a key symbol? What does the donkey symbolize? What

does the oil symbolize? At its basic in that story, there's the man who

gets injured, there's a Levite, there's a priest, and then there's a helper -

the Samaritan. That's it. That's the plotline. And then the helper has all

kinds of different little agents and instruments. A donkey, oil, the

innkeeper, and so on. But all of those just serve as one corporate


Jon: So the point you're making now is, is the character or object or I suppose

you could even now talk setting, is any of those elements crucial to the


Tim: Indispensable.

Jon: Indispensable.

Tim: Without that element that it would be a different story altogether.

Jon: Maybe the reason why you lead with characters is that generally


Tim: Most often.

Jon: ...most often a character is indispensable to the plot. In fact, maybe we

couldn't even think of an example in a parable, a character is


Tim: And that's because in narratives in general characters are the conveyors

of narrative's meaning.

Jon: I mean, we could come up with examples of narratives, even really good

narratives where you could take a character out and the plot still works.

Tim: Sure. In which case you would say they're minor characters. And then

typically, they are little sub-elements of a larger...sometimes characters

are composite. For example, of the generous, the guy who goes out and

hires people all day long, he hires people at the beginning of the day and

then all these hours of the day. But in the end, it's the guys who came

first, who got hired first in the day, they're the ones who speak up, and

they're angry at everybody who came after them. So then all of a

sudden, it's a three-character parable.

Jon: Got it.

Tim: It's the landowner, the grumpy guys...

Jon: Guys that worked the longest.

Tim: ...and then everybody else got hired later, which is a composite character.

Really it's a three-character parable. But character slots can sometimes

be composite and have other indirect, have a donkey, have some oil,

have an innkeeper. That kind of thing. I love this about you. In your

search for clarity, you problematize everything which is wonderful. I love

it. That's what I love about our conversations because you're helping me

clarify even more.

Let's just look at some examples.

Jon: Okay

Tim: Let's just quickly survey some three-character parables. Something we've

looked at already. A huge number of Jesus' parables have an authority

figure: Father, king, master landowner, and usually they embody or

symbolize either himself or the God of Israel. And of course, that's on

purpose that those are kind of blurred together often in the parables. And

then that usually there's two subordinates of some kind contrasted as

one positive, one negative. So a slave, a subject, a son, a debtor, a

manager, that kind of thing.

So if you think through that each character embodies a main point, it's

pretty intuitive. Let's take the prodigal son, for example. So you got two

contrasting sons. The character who gets the most airtime in Jesus' space

is the foolish, younger son. So they embody a main principle that Jesus is

trying to get across. There are people who are foolish, completely foolish,

who don't deserve some - decide - generosity, mercy, grace, forgiveness.

Jon: Foolish and self-focused in a way that ruins relationships.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. He cuts himself off from his family. You've got a

surprisingly generous merciful father, who wants to reintegrate his son

back into the family. Then you have the older brother who holds a

grudge, and so on, against his younger brother. I think it's it's fairly

intuitive. Each one of those communicates something.

So here's how Blomberg summarizes that. He says, "Like the foolish

prodigal son who returns and finds forgiveness, even the most serious

human failure doesn't close the door on God's mercy." So notice what

he's done there. In the context, Jesus is talking about his reception of

people that the Pharisees have put on outside of Israel. Tax collectors,

sex workers, many of the poor, and destitute. So he's taken Jesus'

parable commentary on them and he's turning it into a larger principle.

Jon: He's finding the significance?

Tim: I think so.

Jon: If I remember correctly, this parable is part of the lost...

Tim: The three lost.

Jon: The three lost parables. Lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. These were all

told in the context of - was this...? It was the context?

Tim: Yeah. Religious leaders who think that Jesus should be ashamed of


Jon: Was it when the woman comes to...No, no, that's different.

Tim: No, this is just they see Jesus throwing Kingdom of God parties for all

these people who are changing their ways and following the way of Jesus.

And they resent Jesus.

Jon: So the meaning that Jesus has for this parable is he wants them to

understand that what he's doing is he's extending God's generous love

and forgiveness of God to those people, those outcasts in his immediate


Tim: Yeah. The people who look like failed Israelites, they are failures of

keeping the covenant.

Jon: So much so that you compare them to someone who squandered

inheritance in a foreign land and has nothing to show for it. He's even

defiled himself by raising pigs, which he shouldn't do.

Tim: That's right. We're seeing in that character that's an ethos to the Jesus

movement that continues right on through into the Jesus movement, that

the church is founded by the apostles. And it should be a part of the

ethos of a Jesus movement. There is nobody who's too far gone. There's

nobody who's to failed as a human.

Jon: So you just turned it into what's the significance for the Jesus


Tim: Yeah, I just turned it into like a theological principle for the Jesus

movement at large. But that's truly what Jesus is trying to do with a

story like this is communicate a core ethic of the kingdom of God. There's

nobody who's too failed to be human being to receive God's mercy and

find a new start.

Jon: That's interesting. So Jesus is, through these characters, explaining a

core ethic of the kingdom of God. It has a meaning for his context right

then. But then anyone who hears it, even if they're in that context or

beyond, can see that meaning and see the ongoing significance of it.

Tim: Totally. It's actually so intuitive that we forget that Jesus actually meant

something by it in a historical context. We immediately go to the

significance for me and all people of all time. Usually that's where we go

first. And in the prodigal son, it's not that hard.

Jon: No, it's one of the easiest ones to do.

Tim: Totally. That's why I'm doing it first. The same about the generous father.

It's such a patent image of Jesus' description of the God of Israel.

Generous, indiscriminate...

[crosstalk 00:29:44]

Jon: Foolishly generous.

Tim: Yeah, totally. And then the image of the grumbling older brother who

resents...It's actually such a universal image of having a sibling that you

resent because your parents did something for them. That's such a

universal...I guess it depends on if you have a family and siblings. But it's

a pretty widespread phenomenon to have siblings and if your sibling

blows it...

Jon: To feel like there's some favoritism?

Tim: Yeah. Or just your sibling blows it and you feel like they don't deserve the

mercy or forgiveness that your parents give them.

Jon: It's a common human condition to think that other people don't deserve


Tim: Totally. And that's even more universal. That's right.

Jon: This shows up a lot in siblings.

Tim: Totally. I'm just saying that the actual narrative image of a sibling

resenting their other sibling for something that parents do is pretty

widespread experience.

Jon: In the way that Blomberg says the old brother should not have

begrudged his brother's restoration. So those who claim association with

God shouldn't elevate themselves but those who are supposedly

undeserving of God's grace.

Tim: Yeah, that's his summary. I think that's exactly right. The prodigal son,

there's a reason why it's one of the most famous parables of Jesus. So

intuitive how Jesus' meaning speaks a significant message. And notice

what he's done is he's located each of the three characters.

So there are other things in the story and actually, things that I think are

significance. A Jewish storyteller talking to a Jewish audience, meant to

assumed a Jewish characters, he goes out to the Gentiles, he's becomes

a slave feeding pigs, which is like the iconic animal of people dividing line

between kosher and non-kosher Jew and non-Jew. He returns home. So I

think there are echoes of the story of Israel here on a large scale level,

but I wouldn't, therefore, say the pigs symbolize the Gentile nation. I

think we're probably pressing it too far. The pea pods or the carob pods

or whatever that he longs to eat symbolize this or that.

Jon: Or the ring that the father gives him symbolizes something specific.

Tim: Yes. My Greek teacher used to say this. He said, "The good ship Exegesis

is flown by the seat of our pants." And it took me so long to understand

what that means.

Jon: I don't know what that means.

Tim: Let's say you're sailing a ship called Exegesis.

Jon: Which is how you interpret?

Tim: Which is a fancy word for interpretation. It means to bring out meaning.

So the good ship Exegesis is flown, which is the sailing term for sailing.

Though, now that we have planes we think it means flying.

Jon: Sailing is a lot of fun.

Tim: So good ship Exegesis is flown by the seat of our pants. Which you know,

he would smirk, and then we would spend one hour parsing all the verb

and paragraph or something. Which is not flying by the seat of your

pants. That's being very methodical. The point is that there is an element

of judgment call in all interpretation. So what we're looking for is just

using our best historically informed, sensibilities. And I think Blomberg

really helps us here. That landing on the main characters is a really

reliable guide to the main message that is meant by Jesus in a parable.

Three character parables.

Jon: Yes, there are three character parables.

Tim: Let's look at some two character parables.


Tim: Often, there's two types of two-character parables for Jesus. Sometimes

he'll contrast a good or positive character or object with the negative one.

So a tax collector and a Pharisee go up to the temple to pray. The tax

collector says, "Lord have mercy on me."

Jon: This is the one that always sound like a joke setup.

Tim: That's right. And the Pharisees says, "Oh, God, thank you that I'm not

like that tax collector." And so it's just become very clear. Each of the

characters embodies a message or a character type that you do and don't

want to be like. Those are contrasting ones.

You have a wise builder of a house on the rock, foolish builder of the

house on the sand. You have a house owner who locks up his house, and

if he knows there's a thief in the neighborhood, he stays up and he's

alert. Then you have the thief who wants to break in and only take for

himself. That kind of thing. Those are fairly intuitive. The contrast is

usually between people's motives, or behavior, their values, and the


Oh, this is interesting. This is the point Blomberg makes. The difference

between those type of two-character parables where you have to

contrasting characters, it's very similar to the three-character parables.

Like a foolish son and then a begrudging son. That kind of thing. Or you

have a good servant and a bad servant. In the three-character parables,

you have an authority figure who evaluates. In two-character parables,

the listener is the evaluator. You become the authority figure. So it's like

the balls in your court to evaluate.

Jon: Which is wiser.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. And this relates to another type of two-character

parable, which is oftentimes there is an authority figure and a

subordinate figure. But often these are some of the most difficult

parables because once again, you're trying to figure out and evaluate the

authority figure's evaluation of the subordinate. The one of the parables

you puzzle over the most it's in this category.

Jon: The shrewd manager.

Tim: The shrewd manager.

Jon: Cool. We get to talk about it?

Tim: Let's do it right now. Do you want to read it?

Jon: Sure. Three character parables, authority figure, someone under the

authority. Two people, one that usually is good, one that is bad generally.

Two character parables, there's two types we're talking about. One is

there's no authority figure. There's just two contrasting subordinates. And

then there's another type where there's actually an authority figure and

just one subordinate. So there's no subordinate to compare them to.

There's the interaction between the authority figure and the subordinate.

Tim: Yeah, you're just watching. So you're watching and you're paying

attention to how the authority figure evaluates the subordinate. And then

you yourself are trying to evaluate the subordinate. And there's an

interesting interplay. These are amazing parables because it's the

interplay. The authority figure in the parable and the listener become

different evaluators of the subordinate. And sometimes it makes a

fascinating parable. This is sounding abstract. This will be perfectly clear

once we read the parable.

Jon: This is Luke 16. "Jesus said to his disciples, 'There was a rich man who

had a manager, and charges were brought to him (the manager) that this

man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him,

'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your

management, for you can no longer be manager.' He's terminated. He got


Tim: Yeah, he got notice.

Jon: "The manager said to himself, 'What am I going to do, since my master is

taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig,

and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that when I am

removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.'

So, he summoned his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first,

'How much do you owe my master? He said, 'A hundred measures of oil.'

The manager said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write

fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' He said, 'A

hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and write

eighty.' The master commended the dishonest manager for his

shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with

their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends

for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they

may receive you into the eternal dwellings. "One who is faithful in a very

little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is

also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the

unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?" Puzzling


Tim: It's a great parable. Jesus tells this immediately after the lost coin, the

lost sheep, and the prodigal son. The next sentence is, "And he also said

to his disciples..." It's the next thing. So if you're reading a red-letter

Bible, Luke 15 is almost all red letters. And then you move right into the

red letters of this teaching right here.

Right after you finish reading, Jesus has this famous line: "No servant can

serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other or be

devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and

mammon. Now the Pharisees loved money. They were listening to Jesus

talk about this and we're making fun of him, scoffing at him. And so he

said to them..." And then he goes on, and he gives another long speech.

But so the point is, is that this is a follow up still addressing the Pharisees

about the questionable company that he meets. Remember?

Jon: Yeah.

Tim: 15, what we just talked about. And then also the response to this is

people thinking Jesus has an unrealistic view of money, they make fun of

him. I just want to say that's the response to this parable. Whatever

Jesus is doing with this parable, we need to make sense of both the

narrative context before...

Jon: And after.

Tim: ...and what people take away from it. Which is to say, "This guy's crazy.

What a ridiculous view of money this guy has."

Jon: And his thing about two masters. That's interesting. Okay.

Tim: We're doing step one, which is to honor the narrative context of the

parable. So whenever I come across the parable of Jesus, I scan up to

see what's the last narrative moment, and is that significant? I scan

down. Is there a narrative after this that helps me understand. In this

case, we get two. We get it on both sides.

Jon: And the one before is about - we already talked about it - Pharisees think

Jesus is being too loose and he's being generous too in offering God's

forgiveness. They are too outside, and he tells the story of the lost sheep,

lost coin, and the parable of the lost son. And then immediately, he goes

into this next parable, which seems unrelated.

Tim: Yeah, at first. We'll ponder it, and see how it is or isn't related.

Jon: But he tells it to his disciples not to the Pharisees.

Tim: True. However, the Pharisees do overhear...

Jon: They're listening.

Tim: ...and they respond.

Jon: So it's like he tells the stories to the Pharisees, or is he talking to his

disciples the whole time?

Tim: No. Back in chapter 15, "The Pharisees were grumbling saying, 'This man

receives sinners and eats with them.'" He told them this parable.

Jon: Okay. So he tells the three parables to the Pharisees. He turns to His

disciples and then he tells them a fourth parable. And this fourth parable

has two characters. An authority figure (the rich man), and the

subordinate (the manager). The rich man is firing the manager.

Tim: This is good. Notice, Jesus doesn't want us to think about the reasons

why. Jesus is rushing everything to the moment of getting fired and the

guy's response.

Jon: The reason why he was wasting his possession.

Tim: That's right. Wasting his possessions. Why and how? Well, we don't know.

But it does set a context for what he is also about to do. Wasting, well, I

mean, that could mean so many things. But Jesus apparently doesn't

want us to focus on that.

Jon: If you're managing someone's wealth, then your expectation is your

wealth will grow or at least maintain

Tim: Maintain or grow.

Jon: And if you say like, "Hey, this manager I have less wealth this month and

last month. And even last month before. Something's wrong with this


Tim: "I got to fire him."

Jon: "I got to fire him." It makes perfect sense.

Tim: It makes perfect sense.

Jon: He's mismanaging.

Tim: The rich man isn't necessarily a good guy or a bad guy. He's a neutral

character doing something sensible.

Jon: And we don't know if the managers just was doing it on purpose, just had

a bad run of market bets.

Tim: Although Jesus' disciples, we know a lot of them were made up of lower

class. So they would have a negative view of people with a lot of wealth.

Jon: Oh.

Tim: That's just the nature of the social situation. Rich landowners and

managers are not popular to the majority of craftsmen and day laborers

and the poor in Galilee in Jesus' time. It's totally different economic


The guy gets fired. And then we get a window into his psyche. What am I

going to do?

Jon: Can polish up my resume.

Tim: So notice we're back to this theme. An authority figure brings a moment

of reckoning that forces a crisis of decision on the character. Huge motif

in Jesus' parables. So we're in that neighborhood of an authority figure...

Jon: So this is a crisis parable?

Tim: The parable about this guy had to make a decision. Sometimes, yeah,

that's right.

Jon: What were the three categories again? There was parables about the

nature of God's kingdom, the surprising nature...

Tim: The surprising nature or...

[crosstalk 00:44:11]

Jon: The ethic of God's kingdom.

Tim: Second is parables about the value set, the upside-down value system,

and ethic.

Jon: And the third is about a crisis.

Tim: Is the focus on the crisis of decision that God's kingdom forces on Israel

of his day and what you're going to do about it.

Jon: I think this is a third category.

Tim: Well, I'm just saying, it's about a character whose authority figure forces

him to make a decision.

Jon: It's interesting because I've always read it in terms of ethic one. Like,

"Oh, so there's something about how I should be behaving?"

Tim: Okay. Yeah, yeah, got it. Good. That's a great example of the

assumptions that we bring too. Jesus' teachings are, well, either moral

religious truths about God and me, or their ethical truths about how I

should live.

Jon: So what's so confusing about this parable is you're like, "So this guy was

dishonest and rewarded."

Tim: He was wasting. Okay. Let's go on. His master has these accounts and his

last day on the job, he just straight up...

Jon: He cooks the books.

Tim: He cooks the books. And then three steps. "You owe less. How much do

you owe?" "A hundred." "Nope, you owe eight now." When the master

finds out what he's doing...

Jon: You'd think the master is going to get really angry."

Tim: Totally.

Jon: You would expect the master to be like,...

Tim: That's the twist in the story.

Jon: ..."You wicked. I can't believe it. You're going to jail. I'm suing you for all

you're worth. Your life is over."

Tim: That's right. That's the twist in the story. I mean, the narrative says he

was a dishonest manager. What he just did was dishonest. Jesus is

perfectly clear. But it's like a joke that has a twist at the end. But instead

of getting taken to court, the manager says, "You...

Jon: Like, "How are you thinking here?"

Tim: "You're still fired, but you're going to get ahead." I think it's because the

master commends him at the end, that's what leads us maybe to think,

"Oh, this is a parable praising certain kinds of behavior, namely,

dishonesty." Right?

Jon: Yeah.

Tim: Notice what Jesus says next. He says, "Listen, the sons of this world are

more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the sons of light."

Jesus is using very loaded apocalyptic symbolism here of the children of

dark and the children of the light. This is key image here.

Jon: People who are for the kingdom of God and people who are not for

kingdom of God.

Tim: Yeah, it's Genesis 1. People of the realm of chaos and death were people

have the realm of divine light and new creation. Notice at the end, he

says, "People of the darkness, people of this world are more shrewd in

dealing with their own kind." He's summarizing the story that he just


Jon: So the story is about someone who is of the darkness being shrewd?

Tim: Yeah. Here's how people who haven't been transformed by the kingdom

of God behave. But then he goes on, surprisingly, to say, "You know,

there's something to be learned here. This guy was forced with a moment

of reckoning. And what did he do? He valued relationships over money."

Jon: Over his master's money.

Tim: Yeah, that's true. That's the point he says. Jesus goes on: "make friends

for yourself by means of unrighteous wealth." So the assumption here is

that money is a god. The word mammon. Mammon is a deity. Mammon.

Sorry, I didn't look this up, but I'm going to. One second. Mammon, it

comes from the root word in Hebrew or Aramaic, the Semitic word,

aman, which means trustworthy. Trustworthy.

So the mammon becomes the word for money but that in which you put

your trust. The trusted thing is what mammon means. And the word

occurs in sayings of Jesus. It's money personified as a spiritual power

that stands in competition to God. He calls it here "the mammon of

unrighteousness". I'm reading from Dictionary of Deities and Demons in

the Bible. Such a helpful dictionary.

Jon: Never heard of it.

Tim: This is an article on mammon by PW Vonda Horst. It's a uniquely Jewish

term referring to wealth personified as a spiritual power. It's like one of

the principalities and powers in Paul. Jesus views money as a


Jon: An emergent bribery.


Tim: Okay, sorry, I just wanted to register that point. So in Jesus' mind, what's

of ultimate value is people and relationships. And money is an instrument

in the service of a greater cause. I think that's the basic point.

Jon: That's the basic point. The manager was wise to realize that. That he is in

a position to manage this guy's money but only for like another moment

in time. And so he realized, "The most valuable thing here is not the

money. It's the relationships. Yeah. And I only have one more day. So

what am I going to do? I'm going to focus on the relationships in spite of

the money."

Tim: Correct. In other words, the character becomes for the listener, like a

contrast character. There's something praiseworthy about him. And that's

the little twist about the master at the end where he praises him at the

moment you expect him to take him to jail or something like that. But

the point isn't, therefore, you go cheat people out of money, cheat some

people out of money to give it away and make good relationships. You

know, Robin Hood steal from the Sheriff of Nottingham and give it to the


Jon: The sheriff was just trying to arrest him, right? He was stealing from...

Tim: But isn't he a bad guy?

Jon: No, no, no. There was the King Louie, I think was the main bad dude,

who's the lion in the Disney one.

Tim: Sheriff of Nottingham is the main antagonist in the legends of Robin

Hood. I thought he was the bad guy. An unjust rich tyrant. I'm always

trying to get Robin Hood. The point isn't steal someone else's money so

you can give it away. The point simply is, here's the character who didn't

let money distract him from an even greater goal, which is securing. He

has a crisis of decision, so he secures his future by downgrading money

to an instrument.

And then Jesus makes him into a contrast character where he says,

"Okay, so that's what the people of this world, the sons of this age..."

Jon: It's intuitive to them.

Tim: Yeah, it's intuitive to them, but sometimes you don't allow money to

distract you from what's more ultimate.

Jon: And that becomes really obvious from the words to be taken away.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, totally.

Jon: That's when it becomes clear as day.

Tim: That's right.

Jon: Otherwise actually, it isn't so intuitive and obvious.

Tim: Oh, correct.

Jon: Because you're just kind like, "He get all this money. I think money is my

power." Well, you don't realize actually true power comes through

relationships. And that was a massive business revelation to me. All

business boils down to relationships. That's the most important thing.

And you think that it's about your P&L and being able to make money is

the most important thing. But that's an effect. Well, business principle.

Tim: Yeah, that's it. Notice how Jesus turns the focus to vocabulary about trust

and faith at the end. He says, "I tell you make friends of yourselves by

means of unrighteous wealth." He's using the image of the parable.

Money is an instrument and then it's clear Jesus actually doesn't have a

very high view of people with a lot of resources, which is they are fine, so

that when it fails, they may receive you into eternal dwellings.

So flip that over. Don't let money be something that keeps you from

entering into the life and the people of God's kingdom.

Jon: Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourself so when it's gone...and

that's Jesus' view of wealth. It's like it doesn't stick around, and it will be

gone. There's something more important that's being built. And that

thing is what you should use money for. And that's and gaining friends is

connected to that thing.

Tim: If we think of Jesus as a teacher of just ethical truths in general, this

becomes, "Oh, here's the teaching of Jesus about what to do or not to do

with money." So stop. Our first principle. This parable fits into his larger

proclamation of the arrival of God's kingdom that forces a crisis of

decision upon you. And what are you going to do? What's the context?

Jesus is forming communities of new brothers and sisters of equals with

him as their teacher.

Jon: A lot of them are poor.

Tim: A lot of them are poor but some of them are loaded. Like the women

named in Luke 8, they were financing the whole Galilee mission.

Jon: The tax collectors.

Tim: The tax collectors, right? So you have a really diverse group of people

that are coming around Jesus, to live under God's reign and rule as Jesus

defines it, which is surprising. And this parable fits into that call. So it is.

It's a crisis parable. You are faced with a crisis when I'm faced with the

invitation to the kingdom of God. This is a parable about how money it

gets downgraded in significance and importance and it shouldn't prevent

you from making God's reign and rule the thing you really trust in. And if

anything, you should view it as an instrument just like the sons of this

world do. The sons of this world know when to downgrade the importance

of money.

Jon: When they get fired?

Tim: When there's some greater value at stake.

Jon: Yeah, they can figure it out.

Tim: And then Jesus says, "You do the same thing."

Jon: Because there's greater thing or value at stake. In a way Jesus is saying,

just like that shrewd manager just found out he's losing his job, I want

you to feel like that.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. You're about to lose all your money.

Jon: It's all going to be gone.

Tim: It's all gone. Correct.

Jon: It's not going to be here in the long run. You're finding out that you're

getting fired from the job you thought you had which was protecting your


Tim: That's exactly right.

Jon: That's over. Now that you know that's over, what are you going to do?

Tim: That's correct. And even to boil in Jesus specific context, he's telling


Jon: His disciples.

Tim: ...and his disciples. Israel, "Everything we see around us, the temple

down in Jerusalem, these tax collecting booths, really nice synagogues

that people might give to because they've profited off of, you know, all of

this debt slavery going on here, all going down." That's his

announcement, "God's going to allow Rome to destroy this place if Israel

doesn't accept my offer the kingdom." That's the crisis as he's

announcing it. There it is. That's the crisis. This parable is about that

crisis. Don't let money prevent you from accepting the kingdom of God.

Jon: Why does he use the term "eternal dwellings"? What's the significance of

that term?

Tim: Oh, I know. I think it's a new Jerusalem language. The eternal

tabernacle. It's new Jerusalem. I've never quite focused on that before in

that way. But it's the same thing with like in the Sermon on the Mount.

The city on the hill is Isaiah 2 image the light. The city on the hill. Here,

it's the eternal tabernacle. It's God's kingdom arriving here on earth as it


Jon: It is a strange image for him to say, "You're going to be welcomed into

this kingdom by the friends who you were generous to." That's not how

salvation works in my mind.

Tim: I hear that. However...

Jon: Or I guess he doesn't say you're welcome by the friends. But you're

welcomed in because of the way you dealt with your friends, how you use

your wealth.

Tim: But again, in the context of what he's doing, he's a traveling band with

these little kingdoms of God parties in every town. So how are you going

to respond to my offer to the kingdom in this ragtag group that's forming

around me and that I leave behind in every town? You can look at it

through your normal Greco Roman lens of honor and shame and status

and power and be like, "These losers, listen, I'm building wealth. I'm

building status. I'm trying to get up the pyramid here in my culture, and

there's no way I'm going to give up everything that I've built that is

trustworthy to go follow Jesus and do that." And so it's attacking wealth

as one of the many things that keep people from accepting the upside-

down surprising offer of the kingdom.

And it is about trust. This was noted by Kenneth Bailey, a fascinating

scholar. He has great set of studies on the parables in Luke in a book

called "The Poet and the Peasant". But he noticed if you were to retro

translate this parable from Greek, which it's then back into Aramaic,

which scholars do, there's all of these wordplays on the word "aman",

trust or trustworthiness in this.

So one who is faithful, so one who is aman in very little is also aman in

much. One who is not faithful, not trustworthy is also not trustworthy. If

you haven't been aman with unrighteous mammon, who will trust you

yemen hen. It's like every line in this is lit up with the word "trust". And

so this is about crisis of decision. The kingdom of God forces upon you a

crisis of deciding what you're going to trust in for your destiny.

Jon: The meaning of Jesus was, he goes to his disciples, and he says, "You

guys are like that manager in that what you thought you were protecting

and managing is going away, and you're being called to something new.

You have this crisis moment of your allegiance changing. The manager

was fired, but you're being called to something greater. And so now, what

do you do with the wealth that you have access to? It needs to serve a

greater purpose as we go and proclaim the kingdom of God and travel

around to cities." The Pharisees who are listening, overhear this, and

they're just kind of like, "That's dumb. He just doesn't understand money,

how money works."

Tim: "He doesn't understand how the world works."

Jon: And it's kind of cute and naive.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. The point isn't to command the dishonesty of the

manager as such. That's just an illustration. The point is that he's making

a value decision based on a moment of crisis that's forced on him. He's

going to lose everything.


Jon: Now let's talk about significance. What's the significance for you for this?

Tim: Well, one is in terms of the master or the rich man character, the

authority figure is bringing a moment of reckoning. There's motif in many

of Jesus' parables. That fits into the larger pattern. The kingdom of God

forces a moment of ultimate decision in the present leading up to the

ultimate decision and reckoning at the culmination of history, whenever

that's going to be. But that culmination of history has lots of foretastes

like what he was offering to Jerusalem in that moment and the leaders of


So I think we can pretty easily extrapolate that out as the good news

about King Jesus travels around the world, and whether or not people are

going to live as a part of his kingdom. It forces a crisis of decision. What

am I going to do in this moment about Jesus? I think that's essentially

what that the rich man firing you moment in the parable, that's the

significance that it takes. It forces me with the decision, what am I going

to do?

Jon: It's funny. It's like, "Do you realize you've been fired?" That's been

internalized. The Pharisees don't realize it. They're kind of like, "No..."

Tim: "What do you mean? I've been fired and my money's worthless?"

Jon: "No. You don't understand. We've got a whole thing going on here and

you're just trying traveling around...

Tim: Homeless guy.

Jon: ...just hanging out with poor people and hanging out with questionable

people, and you think you understand how money works and how power

works? You don't." And Jesus is saying, "You don't actually realize you've

been fired." And the shrewd manager would take this moment of crisis to

get his house in order.

Tim: That's right. Because the parable gives you like he finds out he's going to

be fired and then he has a window of response.

Jon: He has a window of time.

Tim: This is the window of response. The equivalent is that am I going to

trust? Think of all the "aman" word plays. I'm not going to trust that

Jesus is more right than all of the economic, political, social structures

around me and that all of this is transient and is headed for some

moment of reckoning? Even if it's not within my lifetime, it's a matter of

trust that God will hold all of it accountable. And I need to make a

decision in this window of time that I have about what I'm going to do.

So then the question is, what are you going to do? Then that's where the

character of the steward comes into play. So I think that the significance


Jon: The manager?

Tim: The manager, yeah. The steward. Yeah, the manager. If I'm going to

prepare for that moment of reckoning, I should be extremely wise and

even shrewd with how I use the things that I trust him.

Tim: Which is usually money. Many things that you can trust in.

Jon: And security of all sorts.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. And again, it doesn't mean, oh, therefore go be

dishonest with money. That's not the point.

Jon: Go be shrewd.

Tim: The point is he becomes like a negative image, an inverse image. Go be


Jon: If you flip the image and this is what I've done before, tell me if this is

going too far, if you flip the image and now it's not a rich man and a

manager, it's King Jesus and a disciple. And king Jesus isn't firing the

disciple. He's basically like promoting him. You know, just saying like,

"You've got a new job and your job is to take my wealth, and just be

generous with it...

Tim: Yeah, that's right. Which is a way of devaluing it for your own personal

trust. It's saying, "This isn't mine. I don't have..."

Jon: "Your goal is to give it away and make friends with my wealth." That's

kind of ethic of the kingdom.

Tim: There's another parable a couple chapters later, and it says Jesus was

telling his disciples how they should pray. And then he says, there was

this unjust judge, just a bad guy, but this woman keeps coming to them

over and over saying, "Give me justice. Give me my vindication." And he

wouldn't listen. And she comes back again the next day, he wouldn't

listen. She comes back again the next day. And finally, he brings her


Jon: She wore him out

Tim: Yeah, she wears him out. Totally. That's the parable. He told about how

they should pray. So the point isn't, "Oh, God is like an unjust judge and

I have to bother him." It's using negative characters to make a how much

more example. So if an unjust judge will respond to constant pleading,

how much more will the generous Father?

Jon: Who is just.

Tim: This is very similar. If the sons of this age cheat each other, but they still

understand that money is an instrument and not a god, how much more

should the sons of light understand that money is an instrument and not

treat it as a god? That's the logic of it here. In which case, your little

alternate parable, or Jesus' parable, I think is totally right.

Jon: Because it's the how much more?

Tim: Yeah.

Jon: Yes. Okay.

Tim: He's not likening God to a rich man and his disciples to people who cheat

rich people. It's how much more. How much more then we have of God

who's issuing notice on all of the things that we trust in?

Jon: What's the saying of Jesus? Is it a parable where he literally says, "how

much more"?

Tim: Oh, yeah, if God cares for the birds of the field in this way, how much

more does he care for you?


Tim: Let's summarize where we are. The guideposts. First pay attention to the

narrative context given by the gospel authors...

Jon: And we talked about that in the last episode.

Tim: ...which is the context of Jesus announcing the kingdom to Israel in the

first century.

Jon: The meaning.

Tim: This is the meaning of the parable. Next step is I want to understand the

significance of the parable beyond the original context - how it speaks to

audiences and readers of the gospel. And that's, I think, a very helpful

guide is kind of condensed into the principle given by Craig Blomberg.

Jon: Focus on the characters?

Tim: Focus on the main characters. Each main character embodies the main

point or principle of the parables.

Jon: Remember how you gave the illustration of Jesus isn't just some teacher

talking about abstract ideas, and he put the abstract ideas like in a cloud

above him and the parables are helping you understand those ideas?

Actually, his parables are explaining what he's up to and then that whole

thing comes down and surrounds him. It seems like that's the meaning.

Tim: Well, yeah, him telling a parable that's giving commentary...Think if you

have a little narrative scene, and then the parables and a little bubble,

and it's a narrative, and its characters correspond to what's happening on

the ground in the very scene. I look at the main characters of the

parable, how they connect to the characters than the actual narrative the

way he tells it, that whole package then becomes a guide for how it's

significant to me.

Jon: And then there's principles that you can then discern.

Tim: Each main character of a parable...

Jon: And those principles can be applied to, which is this is just basic Bible

study method.

Tim: Yeah totally. That's right.

Jon: As you observe, interpret the meaning, and then you can then apply it to


Tim: And the value of this principle of each main character embodies a

principle or message is really to help us from getting distracted...

Jon: From other details.

Tim: ...in Bible codes, allegory where it's just kind of...

Jon: However, you did say the yeast was a character.

Tim: Okay, object.

Jon: Which means now that's a slippery slope. So really I feel like...sorry, I'm


Tim: It's all right. Indispensable objects are character.

Jon: The principle isn't just about characters. It's, is this element of the story


Tim: Indispensable? That's right.

Jon: But there is something about how he's focusing on characters because it

seems like that is where the juice is.

Tim: Totally. That's right.

Jon: But then I guess the question becomes, when does an object become a

character? It's really obvious that a human in...

Tim: And that's why I think it's indispensable to the plot. If you take the

leaven out of the parable, you just have a woman and bread. You don't

have the parable anymore? If you take the donkey out of the parable of

the Good Samaritan, you don't skip a beat.

Jon: If you can't take it out without the plot being changed, does that mean

it's a character or does that just mean it's indispensable?

Tim: It's an indispensable plot element. But plot elements or characters are

the vehicles of the main story.

Jon: So if principle, if we're going to boil down the principle, that we need to

focus on the characters or is the principle a more general - let's focus on

indispensable elements of the story, which are typically characters but

sometimes objects?

Tim: That's good. I'm changing my notes right now based on our conversation.

That's great. No, that's right.

Jon: And when an object becomes...

Tim: Like a character,.

Jon: An object often becomes like a character, especially when it's


Tim: Because the leaven...

Jon: It has a motive.

Tim: And has agency and action in the story. It infiltrates and transforms like a


Jon: The donkey doesn't have any agency.

Tim: It just carries the guy, but he could have been carried on a horse or on

the guy's back.

Jon: Yes. Does it have a desire? Does it have agency? Okay, cool.

Tim: Once you've made that step, then on to the last page of the notes here,

then I think we owe it to Jesus to brainstorm. Sit down, and once you got

the basic plot arc of the parable, you see what he meant by it in the

narrative context, you discern its significance. Kind of the basic messages

or principles embodied by the characters. Remember, at some point in

this conversation you tried to imagine Jesus going to sleep one night

thinking things up.

Jon: I was thinking about it again when you're talking about two character

parables, three-character parables. I wonder if Jesus had that kind of

nomenclature and he's like, "Oh, I have a good new three-character

parable I'm working on."

Tim: Yeah, totally. Yeah, that's right. Exactly. So he went to bed some nights

thinking of like, "I'm going into Bethsaida tomorrow. There's this two like

synagogue leaders who hate me, there's that one Bible scholar who really

thinks I'm a heretic." And he's thinking, right?

Jon: Yeah.

Tim: "But then there's that blind man, and I'm going to pray that God's

kingdom will heal him tomorrow." This was how Jesus had thought. He

went to bed thinking about his mission and what he was doing and what

he would do tomorrow, and praying...

Jon: You would assume.

Tim: Yes. So he paid attention to his context and he adapted his stories and

the parables to give these subversive cryptic kingdom riddles. It seems to

me that we owe it to him to give as much attention to how we translate

them into our own cultural contexts. Which means I think adaptation. You

can watch Jesus adapting parables in the gospels, right?

Jon: Sure.

Tim: A version of it and Matthew and a version of Luke will be a little bit

different. And so if you get the main idea, I think it ought to inspire new

creative adaptations of the parables in our own settings. Because if

you're a pastor, if you're a youth pastor, if you're a leader of a small

group, whatever, you have your own context and the people that are

unique from what Jesus faced in Bethsaida. But those basic ideas could

be remade into the new modern-day parable.

Jon: Have you ever seen that done really well?

Tim: I'm trying to think. Sure. I was a teaching pastor for many years, so I

lived in the world of sermon illustrations. That's essentially what sermon

illustration were. But I did actually boiled it down to like a technique

where I would be studying text, a biblical text, I would be like, "Here's

the main ideas at work." I would boil it down into a principle form, and I

would force myself to write out each point in the main sentence. Then I

would just ponder those main principles and look and recall life

experiences that fit that profile. That's how I came up with sermon

illustrations. And it seems to me that's something of how Jesus came up

with his parable.

There's the scholar, N.T. Wright. He's actually really well-known for

building in parables into his academic writing, which is what makes it so

fun to read, because most scholars don't write like that. He had a parable

about a wealthy donor to like a local university, who gave a big piece of

art, like a huge statue. There are some gifts that you could give to a

university and they would hang it on the wall of an existing building. But

there are some things given by a donor that is so big, it's its own thing,

and so they have to go...

Jon: Get some land for it.

Tim: They have to get some land for it. And like maybe at the little park of the

university. They have to build something new and put it on a pedestal. It

was a little parable about how Jesus' message was given to Israel of his

day, but it didn't leave Israel as it existed and forced it to accommodate

this new thing that couldn't be accommodated into their existing system.

Jon: It's like giving someone a puppy. It's like, "Congratulations. Your life has


Tim: That's right. It was four sentences or something. But then all of a

sudden, four years later, I could remember these little parables that N.T.

Wright put into his different academic books. And that's the power.

My basic point here is these are brilliantly told stories. That's why we're

still telling them 2,000 years later. And so I think the last step of truly

getting the significance of the parables is adapting them into new

parables for our own day. Can you think of good examples? I feel like

you've told me about when you were in your 20s and kind of building out

your Christian worldview, there were a couple of like teachers that you

really admired, who were good parable tellers.

Jon: There was this guy Peter Hyatt who I think he still teaches, he was a

Presbyterian preacher and I was turned on to him by a professor at

Multnomah because we were going through a class on educational theory

and developmental educational theory and how do you communicate

truth to someone in a way that actually changes them and how that's

really hard to do while you're preaching. And I was like, "Do you know

any good preachers that do that well?" He was like, "Yeah, this guy, Peter


His sermons turned into these masterful, extended almost parables.

Sometimes I listen to one of them and I'm just like, "That was confusing.

I don't think I get it." And other times you're listening and you're

confused and then it drops. And you're like, "Oh, I see what he's doing

here. I get it." And he was also really good at taking kind of pop culture

stuff or like not even pop culture, but just culture and showing the


Tim: I bet that's what it was like to hear Jesus teach.

Jon: Oh, right, be confused.

Tim: Sometimes confused but sometimes I get it. And when I do get it, it

lands heavy. And then packing in little clues and connections to help me

understand the moment that I'm in. I guess that's what it was like to

listen to Jesus.

Jon: Totally. Which is fun. I grew up in church in a very Protestant tradition,

where someone gets up and teaches for 45 minutes and offloads a bunch

of information to you. And you're supposed to upload it. And I don't know

how many hours of sermons I've heard in my life. I bet I could probably

figure it out. And the amount I remember, so small. So, so small. Yeah.

And I think that I would rather have half the time you just be confused

and the other half the time be really impacted than all the time being

like, "Oh, I'm following," but then it just goes away.

Tim: That's funny. My first mentor I had teaching me how to preach it's a guy

named Chris Dawson. He's a pastor in Madison, Wisconsin. He's a really

amazing communicator. And something he drilled into me in the years

when he was mentoring me was people are going to forget almost

everything you said. He would just constantly remind me. You have to

build your sermon in light of the fact that people will forget almost

everything you say.

And so, in his mind sermons are really just try and communicate one

idea. If you have three ideas, break it into three segments. One idea and

just work it. Work it with a story, work it with image, work it with...make

sure it's grounded in the biblical text. Do as many things as you can to

circle around that one thing. And I'm really grateful for that because I

think that's true.

Jon: It seems like TED Talks really paved the way for how you do that really


Tim: Yeah. Especially in a more public space.

Jon: Yeah, because that's not really...

Tim: The main idea talk.

Jon: The one main idea, and it doesn't have to be more than 10 or 20

minutes. Which you got to fill some time in a true service. So maybe

that's not doable. But man, that's the hardest thing is keeping it short.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. And think about the parables.

Jon: They're so short.

Tim: Yeah, you can tell them in like two or three minutes. Some of them in 30


Jon: Can you imagine, you go to church, you got all dressed up, you're singing

the songs, the preacher gets up and he just 45 seconds tells a story and

then he's back down, and you're taking communion.

Tim: Yeah, these are lessons here. There you go. That's the parables of Jesus.

Jon: Cool.

Tim: So good, man. I'm excited to make this video.

Jon: Thank you for listening to this episode of the BibleProject podcast. That's

it for our conversation on how to read the parables. If you're new to the

show, and you want to look back at our back catalogue, a couple things

I'd recommend. We have an episode on the word "soul" in the Bible. We

also have a short series on the Holy Spirit. Those are both worth checking


The video on how to read the parables is out. It's on our YouTube page,

youtube.com/thebibleproject, and our website, bibleproject.com. Today's

show was produced by Dan Gummel. Our theme music comes from the

band Tents. BibleProject is a crowdfunded nonprofit. We're in Portland,

Oregon, and you can look at everything we've done. You can find it, and

it's all free because the generous patrons that have come alongside of us

and helped us make it. It's all at bibleproject.com. Thank you so much for

being a part of this with us.

Woman: Hi, I'm Noerine [SP] from Sri Lanka. My favorite thing about the

BibleProject are the Read the Scripture series. We believe the Bible is a

unified story that leads to Jesus. We're a crowdfunded project by people

like me. Find free videos, study notes, podcast, and more resources at

the bibleproject.com.

7 Episodes

Episode 7
Parables in Context – Parables Q+R
Why didn’t Paul use more parables? Is the parable of the four soils about salvation, or something else? In this episode, Tim and Jon answer these and other excellent audience questions on the parables of Jesus.
51m • Apr 23, 2020
Episode 6
Finding Meaning in the Parables
How do you determine the meaning of a parable? And how should you apply it to your life? In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss how to identify the meaning and significance of the parables of Jesus.
1hr 22m • Apr 20, 2020
Episode 5
Decoding the Parables
Tim and Jon talk about the first of three questions to ask ourselves when reading parables and look at the symbols Jesus wove into his parables.
1hr 11m • Apr 13, 2020
Episode 4
The Crisis of Decision
The parables of Jesus force a choice for his listeners. Will they embrace the upside-down value system of the Kingdom of God, or will they refuse to participate in the party? In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss two additional themes of the parables.
52m • Apr 6, 2020
Episode 3
Parables as Subversive Critique
Jesus often used parables as a means of indirect communication to critique and dismantle his listener’s views of the world in order to show them the true nature of God’s Kingdom. In this episode, Tim and Jon talk about the role of the parables in persuading listeners through subversive critique.
1hr 3m • Mar 30, 2020
Episode 2
Jesus and the Parables of the Prophets
Many of Jesus’ parables sound oddly similar to the parables of the prophets. This isn’t coincidence. Jesus saw himself as fulfilling the role of a prophet to Israel’s leaders. In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss the parables as part of Jesus’ prophetic role to Israel.
1hr 14m • Mar 23, 2020
Episode 1
The Purpose of Parables
Parables are a common tool, even today, for teaching morals through short stories. But is this how Jesus used them? In this first episode of a new series, Tim and Jon talk about what parables are and how Jesus used them in surprising ways.
1hr 11m • Mar 16, 2020
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