In a recent article at his excellent blog on studying scripture, George Guthrie talks about how knowledge of cultural context can help us better understand the Bible. He writes:
If I simply wear my “cultural glasses,” the way of looking at the world which has been crafted in my own cultural context, the teaching of Jesus can be skewed. I may not feel disoriented, since I am comfortable in my culture, but I may have a skewed vision of what Jesus is saying, missing aspects of his powerful, culture-altering message. So how might learning more about the cultures of Jesus’s day help us?
1. Understanding Jesus’s cultural context helps me hear the intended impact of Jesus’s teaching.
For instance, consider the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Remember that when the son came to his senses, starved and worn out with his wasteful life, he decided to go home. By stringent guidelines of the culture (think of the directions in Proverbs for dealing with a rebellious son!), the father had every right to turn the son away and treat him harshly.
Yet, when the son stepped over the horizon, moving from his life of rebellion to the home where he had been raised, the father saw him coming. He ran to his son. Some scholars point out that an important, socially-respectable patriarch did not run in public. He was dignified. People ran to him, not the other way around. This part of the story would have shocked Jesus’s audience. The father did the unthinkable in terms of social norms—because of a love-infused grace. Jesus is telling us: the Father’s love is reckless in the eyes of the world. Rather than stand-offish, God enthusiastically embraces those who repent and turn to him.
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