Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
Front cover image from The Lamb and the Homeless Man by John Russell Roush, 2018
And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
— 2 Samuel 12:1-4
Although there are some thirty to forty parables in the synoptic gospels alone1, in the old testament we find very few, just eleven according to one source,2 and some of those being simple metaphors rather than stories, for example, these words that Balaam speaks to Balak, Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion.3 With Nathan's parable told to David we have an early example of the style of parable that Jesus would later use to great effect—that is, great effect to the reader of the gospels, perhaps not so much for the scribes and pharisees for whom many of the stories are intended. In this case though, and for the most part unlike Jesus who leaves the meanings of his parables to personal interpretation, Nathan clearly explains to David the meaning of the story, and David immediately repents.
Parables such as Nathan's are told to help people contextualise complex issues, and see them through new eyes. Commonly a context is picked that will be familiar to the listener. In this case the story of a lamb, told to a shepherd is designed to produce empathy and understanding. Jesus frequently used the context of fishing, farming, the struggles of debt and hunger when talking to the common people, and the context of worship and wealth when talking to the scribes and pharisees.
If we come across parables in the Bible which seem remote to us, it sometimes helps to place the story in a new context, one that is familiar. This way the story becomes timeless, as indeed all parables are when given a little thought.
Of course, one could argue (and many do) that every story in the Bible is itself a parable, some containing nested parables. It's certainly true that every story in the Bible is a teaching story, and one that we can make relevant to our lives today, as this series of reflections is aspiring to do.
1 The exact number depends on how they are counted, Wikipedia lists 37, other sources less, and occasionally more as they include some of the 100+ metaphors that Jesus used.
2 Parables Recorded in the Old Testament, blueletterbible.org
3 Numbers 23:24