I had a preaching and teaching class in my second semester Bible College, and I remember hearing about a quote from a famous pastor, something along the lines of “a preacher should not preach on the parables until he has taught for thirty years.” Those may not be the exact words, but the truth is still visible – the parables are tough (although I don’t really think they are that tough).
To get into the parables, I’m reading Interpreting the Parables by Craig Blomberg. The second half of the book deals with the parables themselves, while the first half deals with the methods and controversies of interpreting the parables.
This will be an easy example, but I’ll give a parable that is seen in both Matthew and Luke where the main difference between them is one word.
Matthew 13.31, “[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.”
Luke 13.19, “It [the kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden….”
This is a small squabble, but a squabble nonetheless. Why does Matthew have Jesus saying the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed sown in a field, but Luke has it in a garden? What’s with the change? Does it matter?
To give an example, lately Mari and I have been watching a show called Unforgettable on Viaplay. The show revolves around Detective Carrie Wells who has hyperthymesia, a rare medical condition that gives her the ability to visually remember everything she has ever seen or heard. We watch the show in English with Norwegian subtitles hoping something will stick in my mind.
In one episode titled “Throwing Shade,” New York’s Major Crimes Unit is, as is usual, looking for a murderer. There’s a scene in this episode where Jay (the Unit’s computer genius) and Eliot (the Unit’s boss) are combing through video footage of the last month of the murder victim’s life. Jay and Eliot have a receipt proving the victim (O’Bannon) ate lunch at a certain restaurant, yet O’Bannon doesn’t show up on the video footage.
Jay says, “Looks like we got nothin’ on O’Bannon going inside, but maybe entered through the back.” Americans know Jay means “…but maybe [he] entered through the back [of the restaurant].”
If you look at the second line of text, you’ll see the Norwegian translation says “Kanskje han brukte bakdøra.” Literally it means “Maybe he used the backdoor.”
What’s the significance?
Jay doesn’t say O’Bannon entered through “the backdoor,” but that he maybe entered through “the back.” Directly translated, Norwegians don’t say someone “entered through the back.” So where Jay says “maybe [he] entered through the back,” the translation tells Norwegians that Jay is speaking of the back door (“bakdøra”).
To give another example, when Americans have house parties, if someone’s looking for Jonny Quest and you say he’s “out back,” the Americans understand that that Quest is in the backyard. Yet if translated literally (“Han er bak” or “Han er ute bak”), Norwegians would give you a blank stare and think, “Behind where?” (Actually, they’d say “Bak hvor?”—but that’s besides the point). It’s American slang that doesn’t translate over. One has to be more specific.
This is why we have different Bible translations. A literal translation doesn’t always mean a better translation. It depends on what you are using the literal translation for. The biblical characters used a non-English language with it’s own slang and colloquialisms. If we read the Bible word for word without knowing the culture, we’re likely going to miss the point.
What About the Parables?
Why does Matthew use a “field” and Luke a “garden”? Blomberg gives us some insight,
Jewish tradition forbade the planting of this kind of seed in a garden, whereas Greeks commonly cultivated it there. The imagery has been changed to be more intelligible for a Greco-Roman audience…. Often the form of a message must change precisely in order to preserve its meaning in a new culture, whereas a literal word-for-word translation might prove unintelligible” (94, emphasis original).
It’s related to the American phrase “You’re driving me up the wall.” Americans use it to mean “You’re driving me crazy.” But people of other cultures probably wouldn’t understand this phrase. In 200 years even Americans probably won’t understand this archaic phrase. They might think someone is literally being driven up a wall, and they’ll join the ranks of other cultures who need a commentary on the expressions of odd America.
Sometimes a parable that seems different is just that, a different parable. Other times the wording is different because it’s a different culture who has different expectations. The point of the parable isn’t where the mustard seed is planted, but what happens after it is planted. Whether it be out in a field or nearby in a garden, when the gospel is told God will work it for his glory and will bring about a knowledge that will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.