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Parables Read from Multiple Perspectives

By Karen Austin

When I encounter a hardship in my life, I benefit from turning to the scriptures for comfort and guidance.  In the second half of my life, I found myself looking at parables from multiple viewpoints. Narratives afford that type of richness. They can speak to us in complex and nuanced ways.

The Prodigal Son

For example, when I was growing up, I would look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) from the viewpoint of the two sons—the one who rejected his heritage, lived for pleasure, and then finally became penitent after he lost everything.  I also would view myself as the brother who was angry that the prodigal was forgiven.

The elder son explained his anger this way: “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends” (Luke 15:29).

This exchanged illustrated the nature of forgiveness: we should not keep a ledger regarding other people’s infractions and their rewards. Jesus instructs us throughout the New Testament to show charity towards all.  It is God’s place to stand in judgement, which is succinctly expressed in Doctrine & Covenants 64:10:  “I the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”

Now that I have been a parent for a quarter of a century, I can put myself in the shoes of the father. Obviously, this parable invites us to see the father in this story as our Heavenly Father. I am not a highly evolved person. Nevertheless, I do have the opportunity as a parent (and with other roles of authority—at church and in my paid job) to respond to people in my charge when they make poor choices.

I can also imagine myself as characters that are on the fringes of this parable: the drinking buddies, the inn keepers, the harlots—any person who took advantage of the prodigal son by promoting his vice and capitalizing on his recklessness.

How do I treat people who are vulnerable? Do I support them in vice? Or do I invite people to virtue? If someone is full of sorrow, anger, and despair, do I egg them on? Do I participate in gossip? Do I conspire to give other people friction in some way or another, such as excluding them from social activities or from professional development opportunities?

Or do I behave like the other set of fringe characters? Am I gracious with those who have had a rough past, knowing that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)?  Can I choose more often to make a feast, provide music, and dance to celebrate those who return to fellowship?  I can also do more to thank my fellow saints who celebrate me when I return (repent) to fellowship, even if I only metaphorically left my spiritual home.

I am sure there are more ways to mine this parable for spiritual meanings. It is rich with possibilities and deserves to be reviewed regularly for, given its depth, nuance, and complexity.

The Good Samaritan

Lately, I have been meditating on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).   The context of the story stems from a lawyer (someone schooled in the many Jewish laws) who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

If I dismiss the lawyer and Jesus to focus on the parable itself, there are five roles: 1. the traveler who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. 2. the thieves. 3. the two men who passed by—both having essentially the same role as religious leaders (a priest and a Levite). 4. the Samaritan, and 5. the host of the inn.

Jesus invites the lawyer to put himself in the role of the Samaritan, the one who rescued the beaten man.  This is notable because the people of Samaria were in a culture war with the mainstream Jewish people. The Jewish people in power saw the Samaritans as being of mixed race and practicing an impure version of Judaism.  The auditor / reader seems to have two choices: be like the hypocritical religious leaders or be like the humble Samaritan.

(To read more about the Samaritans and their friction with the Jews of the Southern Kingdom, see this article by Laurel G. Cole: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1974/12/the-samaritans-a-yesterday-people-today?lang=eng )

But we also have other roles depicted in this parable that we might adopt.  At times we are the man beaten and robbed, near death. We are vulnerable to the world, and–God willing–a Samaritan comes to our aid.

We are also, on our very worst days, the thieves.

How might we rob people and victimize them, even if it’s with a microaggression or with neglect? We might rationalize that others deserve our scorn or neglect. Can we invite the spirit to root out contention and recognize our responsibility to care for others? True, we do not have enough time and energy to minister to everyone. But we can certainly work to do no harm.

Finally, are we the host at the inn? We might be occupied with responsibilities with family, school, work (volunteer or paid), and self-care. However, we might receive an unexpected invitation to care for another because a Good Samaritan invites us help someone in need.

I know that I am more willing to accept an assignment if I volunteer. If it’s someone else’s idea, I often find myself declining out of a strong need to be my own boss. I need to remember the host of this inn and how he accepted the assignment to nurse the beaten man back to health. The Samaritan even gave him extra resources (money) to fulfill this assignment. We do not get to see what happens next, but the parable implies that the host fulfilled his duty and that the man beaten and robbed returned to health.

Rereading Can Be Enriching

At times I am tempted to decline rereading the scriptures, telling myself, “Oh, I have read that parable so many times, I have it memorized.” But my situation changes.  Nephi admonishes us to “liken the scriptures unto yourselves” (1 Nephi 19:24).  However, my “self” transmogrifies from decade to decade, if not from week to week (to weakness to strength to weakness again).  Given that I am still learning and growing, I can benefit from revisiting parables and other passages in the scriptures and invite the spirit to breath new life into them, appropriate for my current needs.


About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

1 thought on “Parables Read from Multiple Perspectives”

  1. Thank you, Karen, for inviting me into a slower, more nuanced look at parables and scripture. I'm so goal oriented, I often miss important bits of the journey for the end. An instructive read.


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