I recently led some students through a case study of Luke 16:1-13, the “notoriously difficult” Parable of the Unrighteous Manager. In Jesus’ parable, the manager gets sacked by his boss for dishonesty, finds a shrewd way around his dilemma, and for some reason receives praise from his former boss. After discussing verse nine at length (“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings”), I told my students that I think this verse might mean: 1) use whatever money God has entrusted you on earth wisely and righteously because the way you use your money reflects your spiritual standing with God, 2) “unrighteous wealth” in this verse is being employed in a neutral sense to mean “money” (rather than money gained unjustly) and 3) the “eternal dwellings” is a reference to heaven. I confessed that I really don’t know who the “they” who receive you into the eternal dwellings are. I added that commentators vary greatly in their interpretations of this verse.
Toward the end of our discussion, one thoughtful student queried, “But why would God include a verse in the Bible he inspired that we struggle to understand?”
I tried to offer a few comments about staying aware of cultural differences between the first century and the twenty-first century, but left class feeling I had not adequately answered an important question. Since I’ve had a bit of time to consider this question outside of class, let me suggest five perspectives on why God might include a verse in his Bible that we struggle to understand.
1. Most things in the Bible are clear. Despite the amount of time that Bible teachers and pastors expend on explaining difficult verses, the truth is that if you ask most people — even those who have no background in the Bible — to summarize the main ideas of most paragraphs in the Bible, they can do so. As long as someone generally knows how to read and understand texts — I admit that some people have never really developed this skill — I believe that an attentive reader will readily understand most of what he or she reads in the Bible. By way of example, even in the difficult parable of the unrighteous manager, a reader will easily grasp three main takeaways from the parable: first, you must be wise in the way you deal with the world (v. 8), second, one who is faithful in small things is faithful in large things (v. 10), and third, you cannot serve both God and money (v. 13). There may be individual phrases or sentences within a paragraph that we struggle to understand, but the primary message of any given paragraph is usually accessible.
2. One reason we might struggle to understand a particular phrase, clause or verse (as with Luke 16:9 mentioned above) is because there exists a linguistic and cultural gap between Bible times and modern times. We need to keep in mind that there are some things that a person living, say, in first-century Palestine would have readily understood that we struggle to understand. (For example, in the aforementioned parable, what were the typical job responsibilities of a “manager”? How were “managers” paid? What would a listener have understood when Jesus used the expressions “unrighteous wealth” or “eternal dwellings”?) The language and culture gap between Bible times and ours is one reason we sometimes struggle to understand certain expressions found in the Bible.
3. Another reason we might struggle to understand is that some passages include situational details that were shared between author and audience to which people reading twenty centuries later don’t have access. In other words, there are some things in the Bible that would have been understood by the specific person or group to whom they were written because author and recipient(s) were engaged in an ongoing “conversation” — and God hasn’t deemed it necessary for us to know all that was taking place. By way of example, there is a “brother” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8 whom Paul says is “famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18-19, 22; cf. 12:18). In other words, most early Christians knew who this brother was. But today we struggle to figure out who he was. Let us grant that even in such cases, 21st century readers can often still benefit in some way by reading what was written; but let us also acknowledge that God may have inspired certain words for an original audience that were necessary for the original readers that are not necessary for us to know.
4. Nevertheless, I think that what I have written still may not adequately explain every verse we struggle to understand in the Bible. I think that sometimes God in his sovereign plan has intended that some things — not the primary things, of course, just some things — will be misunderstood by some. That God doesn’t intend every reader to understand everything seems clear from Jesus’s own explanation of his purpose for using parables. One of Jesus’s stated purposes was that those who believed in him would “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” But a purpose for those who rejected him was that “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11, 13). Like the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, the parables spoke a message of confusion to those who rejected the messiahship of Jesus. “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14 quoting Isaiah 6:9). Yes, God’s Word brings light to those who receive it, but also can usher people who reject the message into epistemic darkness.
5. Furthermore, even among those who have received Jesus as Messiah, I think God still may intend that they (we) aren’t going to understand everything. The original sin in the Garden was rooted in the desire to obtain knowledge and thus “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Our desire to know and understand everything is a not-so-faint echo of our original revolt against God. Our lack of ability to fully understand certain verses in the Bible — not to mention certain grand concepts that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with for centuries — is likely one way that God reminds us that only he knows and understands all things. Accepting our finitude, including those aspects related to our attempts to understand some difficult parts of Scripture, helps us learn to walk by faith, not by sight.
Before I close this blog post, though, let me remind you once again that the primary ideas of biblical texts are readily accessible to anyone who pays attention to such issues as genre and literary flow while also attending to major themes in the Bible. Moreover, everything you need for salvation and godly living is crystal clear in the Bible since such truths are reinforced in multiple places in Scripture. That doesn’t mean, though, that every single phrase and clause in the Bible will be utterly and completely understood by everyone who reads Scripture.
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.