Sometimes we are wary of being overly “academic” as we approach our Bibles: it shouldn’t be just about “head knowledge”. And yet, if we are reading the Bible for all it’s worth, perhaps there is merit in exploring some more scholarly approaches to looking at the parables. Analysing the structure of a parable may help us not to miss out on the richness of the teaching.
Structure can be approached in different ways that are all worth considering:
- Who is in the story, and how do they change during the parable? (Biographical progression)
- What is the sequence of events, what are the time indicators? (Historical and chronological progression)
- Does the place change during the parable? (Geographical progression)
- How do ideas and themes develop in the story? (Conceptual progression)
The parable of the Good Samaritan is presented by biblical and cultural scholar Kenneth Bailey as having a particularly strong structure that would have been recognised by the hearers as distinctly Jewish. Read it in Luke 10:25-37. There are seven scenes (a perfect structure!), which I have put into a table, adapted from Bailey’s work. The observations in the table demonstrate that the parable is formally, and pleasingly, structured.
|1||Robbers attack him – they steal from him and beat him||Opposite to scene 7|
|2||A priest sees the man and does nothing||He should have transported him to safety – opposite to scene 6|
|3||A Levite sees the man and does nothing||He should have bandaged the man – opposite to scene 5|
|4||The Samaritan sees the man and shows him compassion||The climax – compassion comes from a surprising source!|
|5||The Samaritan bandages the wounds||He does what the Levite should have done – opposite to scene 3|
|6||The Samaritan transports the man to a place of safety||He does what the priest should have done – opposite to scene 2|
|7||The Samaritan pays for the man – he has money spent on him||The man is provided for and the story feels complete – opposite to scene 1|
You’ll notice that the table above refers to a “surprise” element (a feature of many parables, often demonstrating the radical nature of the Lord’s teaching). The surprise is that the Samaritan, who should have been a stranger, turned out to be the real neighbour.
What is the context of the teaching in which the parable sits? Who is the Lord talking to, and why?
But the story is also open-ended in nature – another common element of structure. We are left waiting for the return of the Samaritan, but also confident that the injured man has been provided for.
A further open-ended parable is that of the two sons (Luke 15:11-32), where, surprise, the prodigal finds himself at the feast but the older brother does not – will he or won’t he take the father’s invite?
When the Lord leaves a parable like this, he forces us to think about the chronological progression: What could happen next? What does it mean for me? He brings us into the story, as it were, to make sure that we apply it to our own lives; we become active participants. Look out for open-ended parables, because this part of the structure is key to the Lord’s great narrative art in teaching us.
I have perhaps saved the most important question about structure for last: What is the context of the teaching in which the parable sits? Who is the Lord talking to, and why?
If we are reading the Bible for all it’s worth, perhaps there is merit in exploring some more scholarly approaches to looking at the parables.
Context reveals the underlying point of many parables: a classic example is seen in ‘a man had two sons…’ (Luke 15:11). Who do they represent? The people listening to Jesus are revealed at the start of the chapter: tax collectors and sinners/Pharisees and scribes.
Similarly, the discourse around the Good Samaritan parable is key to apprehending the Lord’s meaning – the lawyer finds out that we can/should become anyone’s neighbour by showing compassion, even if we are seen as a surprising source.
Stephen McCabe, The Church of God in Belfast