Recently I have been doing some thinking about how our contexts affect our reading of Scripture. In doing my own little case study of how this plays out in “real life” I came across three different interpretations of Luke 15:11-32: one by Donald Juel, one by N.T. Wright, and finally one by Allan Powell.
This parable (Luke 15:11-32), provides an interesting example of how:
One’s social location can affect how one interprets a text.
Lets start off by looking at Juel’s interpretation.
Juel sees this parable as ultimately being a parable about the older brother and titles it “The Lament of a Responsible Child.” He thinks this is an appropriate interpretation because it makes sense of the grumbling of the Pharisees towards Jesus about his eating with sinners. Thus it seems as though Juel might be reading this as a parable about having a legalistic attitude.
Wright on the other hand attempts to understand the parable in light of a 1st century Jewish framework. He says that fresh on the minds of Jews at the time would be concepts of exile and restoration. Thus the audience would have heard this as a parable about Israel; Israel (the lost son) has finally returned from exile.
Finally Allan Powell presents various interpretations each explicitly within their location. Powell doesn’t really interpret it himself but rather he shows how our social location affects the interpretation. He gives the parable to various groups of interpeters: First he gives it to 12 American seminary students then he tells them recount it from memory. These students emphasized his wasteful attitude towards the money the father had given him. Then he gave the parable to some Russians. The Russians saw the parable as about the younger brother’s foolishness. Finally he gave it so some Africans. The Africans saw the sin as being in the society that didn’t help the brother.
Upon reading all of these interpretations, initially I thought, “yes that made sense, I can see how they got that interpretation.” Not once did I think,
“That is not in the text!!!”
I believe that all of the readings could be defended primarily because they make use of the context. Juel makes use of the narrative elements around the parable. Wright makes use of what he takes to be the historical context. Powell points out that the Africans (as well as the Russians and Americans) try to take seriously their own context. None of these readers are being irresponsible with their interpretation; they all back their readings with evidence why theirs is right. All of the readers are being responsible with the text to a certain extent. However, because there are so many ways to be responsible with the text: literary context, historical context, reader’s context it is difficult to say what constitutes a correct reading. Thus it is probably better to say that some readings are better than others; in saying this we must remember that interpretation is an art with certain sensibilities, and not a science with a prescriptive method.