“And the disciples came and said to him, ‘why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:10-11 NKJV).
Some time ago I took a series of pictures in the late afternoon as I was walking back across a field following some baptisms. Looking at those pictures now I find myself wondering just what it was that I was primarily trying to capture. Was it the setting sun, or the empty field? Perhaps it was simply the fading light at that special dusky time of day.
One may ask of many pictures, what is the main point of focus? There may be much in the picture of which the photographer was not particularly aware. But why did he take that picture? What was it specifically that he hoped to show?
Those questions are also relevant to our study of the Bible. In many texts there are possible meanings or implications that may not have been pertinent to the writer. Modern readers may find questions of interest, such as “what did Jesus write in the dirt?” (in John 8:6, 8). Most students would agree that the writer of that text had no interest in that question. It was not his focus.
This principle is especially applicable to the parables of Jesus. His stories are practical, interesting, and filled with potential applications. Some of them contain intricate details, such as Lazarus being “carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). What role do the angels have in that story? Do we have a right to expect the same treatment at our death?
In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), is there any particular significance to the amount which he paid to the innkeeper? What spiritual lesson should we gather from that?
As we study the parables today we must recognize that Jesus almost always had, and revealed to his listeners, one or more particular motives for telling each story. Every parable had a primary moral or lesson which was addressed to a particular audience. In the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus answered the questions, “Who is my neighbor, and what does it mean to love my neighbor?” Anything in the story that did not point to those answers is simply background detail which adds to the realism of the parable. One should not expect to find hidden meanings in each small item.
To return to the opening illustration, the picture is simply one of a sunset over an open field. The trees and other items to be seen are mere background, or filler. Sometimes in the biblical text there is information given that is of little or no spiritual or doctrinal significance. Part of good scholarship is learning to identify those details.