Clearing Up the Story
By Anthony Casperson
Have you ever heard someone telling a story that you’ve heard a million times, but then the one telling it mentions something you’ve never heard before? A detail that makes certain puzzling parts of the story more clear. Maybe a character you’d never heard of. Or an entire scene that had always been omitted.
It’s particularly common in stories that have long had only parts retold. And even more so if it’s a retelling of a retelling of a story. Eventually, details that were present in the original story are forgotten, and others storytellers have filled in pieces or tried to smooth out the lack of specifics.
One of the YouTubers I occasionally watch researches into the origins of various myths/legends/fairy tales/nursery rhymes and then compares the original tale (or the earliest known version at least) with a common pop culture version. (Disney movies tend to come up a lot.)
But what I find interesting is how many important details of the original stories, which help a person understand many parts of the overarching story, are lost in the various adaptations. Some of these are intentional because the themes and driving ideas of the original don’t fall in line with the desire of the retelling. But there are many other times where this new retelling didn’t look into the original, but rather a different retelling that already made similar decisions about the original. Thus, they didn’t even know those earlier details existed.
However, I find that these various types of stories aren’t the only place that this happens. Missing the main point of the original, because we’re retelling a copy of a reproduction of what may or may not be the original, in quite the number of stories. Unfortunately, we followers of Jesus sometimes tell the bible story we learned in Sunday school rather than what was actually written in the bible. I’ll give two examples.
First, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. To begin with, the title itself points us in a specific direction that, while it might have good application, isn’t what way that either Jesus or Luke (who recorded the teaching in his gospel) meant it.
Don’t believe me? Look at Luke 15.
First, you’ll notice that the parable in question is the third of three similar parables. The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (a closer name for the parable with regard to the context). A person loses something, they leave behind the remainder of those objects they had in order to search for the lost item, and when they find it, they throw a lavish party worth much more than the single object lost.
And if you understand triplet parables in the culture, you learn that the third story will showcase the point of the parables in a deeper way. And usually through the tweaked differences in the third story from the first two.
But with Luke’s aid in the telling of the story, we get a piece of the reasoning before we even have to reach the third story. Go all the way to the top of Luke 15. Verse 1 tells us that sinners and tax-collectors gathered by the dozens around Jesus. And the next verse shows the reaction of the religious and cultural elite of their time. They grumbled and complained. How could a righteous man collect such dregs?
And then we get to verse 3.
“So he told them this parable.” Because of the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus told this triple parable. He had something to say to these religious and cultural elite who thought their works were everything God wanted.
With this in mind, take a look at the Parable of the Lost Sons (the best title for this part). One of the main differences between this parable with the previous two is the fact that the father didn’t go searching for the younger one, but waited for his return. However, when he threw a party for that returned son, and the older brother pouted outside (like the Pharisees were doing), it was then that the father searched for the older brother. He left the younger to find the older.
So, while we can speak to the goodness and grace of God toward those who leave, live a reckless lifestyle, and then return having understood the error of their ways. It is even closer to the original point of Jesus to speak against the self-righteous dismissal of such people because that attitude leaves a person just as lost and in need of being found.
Sometimes you can think you’ve done everything right, and still be lost.
My second example will be quicker because I’ll be preaching on this passage when we start the next sermon series in just under 2 months. This story comes from Daniel 1. Here, we see Daniel and his three friends refuse the food of the Babylonians and ask for different food.
The translations say that the four Jewish boys ask for vegetables. And every time I’ve heard the story, I envision the boys having plates of steaming carrots and peas placed in front of them. And many sermons and Sunday school lessons have reinforced that thought. But as I looked at the Hebrew, that word translated as vegetables has a meaning of “that which is sown.” It’s also used to describe food given as feed to animals.
So, it seems that what the boys asked for was less a vegan diet, but rather more of a grain diet. Wheat, oats, and other seed-like products. (Sorry to ruin a certain diet plan.)
But what does the exact food eaten have to do with anything in these verses? Well, often this chapter is taught with an emphasis on eating healthy foods, like steamed vegetables rather than a lot of meat. And the teachers and preachers will speak to how the specific foods helped considerably with keeping the boys healthy-looking.
However, showing that the rations the boys received were given to them in a form where they had to cook and bake their own food, emphasizes how their food was absolutely not at all related to the idolatry of the nation that was trying to brainwash them.
The four boys stayed true to their God. They put him first and foremost. And it was the work of God, far more than their diet, that led to the blessing of God in their health. Thus, what we should get out of the story isn’t a diet plan, but a call to put God first and foremost in our lives too. (I guess in my parenthetical statement above I should have said “Sorry, not sorry, to ruin a certain diet plan.”)
Just because we’ve heard a story a million times since we were children, doesn’t mean that there isn’t the possibility that some details have been lost. This is why it’s best for us to keep our heads in the truth of the word of God more than just listening to the storytellers.
Take a look in the book. You might just come to understand God and his ways all the more easily than what others tell you.