No one looks more foolish than a man who thinks he knows everything.
The more I learn, the more I see a theme arising. Each lesson comes with a caveat that I am no closer to obtain a complete understanding. There are always many more lessons waiting.
One of the most challenging situations for me is when a cultural bias is pointed out. I was fortunate not to have been raised around racism. I've never felt like being a white American man made me better than anyone else.
But I am a white American man. Every thought I have ever had has been the thought of a white American man. Recently, I discovered a five-year old book that showed me that I also read the Bible as a white American man - and that isn't necessarily a good thing.
I have always considered myself a thoughtful student of the Bible. I hate the proof-texters who will use one verse - or even part of a verse - in the Bible and justify some action they were determined to take regardless of any Bible passage. I have always been careful to try to understand those passages in their proper context.
However, I have never been able to understand the Bible outside of my own cultural perspective. I never even thought about it until a friend recommended the book, "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes."
Despite what some people would have you believe, Jesus wasn't a suburban white Republican with a Country Club membership.
"Misreading Scripture" starts off strong and just gets better. In the introduction, the authors discuss the parable of the prodigal son. I have taught Sunday School lessons on this story from multiple angle. I have heard dozens of preachers with different ideas on the story. I know this one. I started to believe the authors might not have realized how well I had avoided cultural bias in my scripture reading.
Then they talked about asking students from different cultures to retell the story after being taught about it in class. They pointed out that students in America never pointed out the famine.
I immediately began scanning my brain for what they meant. What famine?
I had to go reread the parable.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story, right after parables on a lot coin and the lost sheep.
Its right there in verse 14, "And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need."
In all of the times I had read and heard this story, I never paid any attention to the famine. I had considered the father's pain from a son asking for his inheritance while dad was still alive. I had appreciated the father's love even after the son had squandered his inheritance and needed to be rescued. I had considered the entitlement and sinful attitude of the son who stayed with his dad and wasn't happy about the party they threw for the prodigal when he returned from his wasteful and reckless tour of a foreign land.
There is a lot going on in this parable, but when you consider the famine, you see another vein running through the story. Remember the parables before this one were about lost sheep - a man had one hundred sheep, lost one and wouldn't rest until he found the one to rejoin the 99 - and lost coin - a woman had 10 coins, but stopped everything until she found the one she lost by any means possible. The prodigal son could easily be called "the lost son" and the lengths God will go to bring him home. That would make sense in the context of what Jesus was teaching.
To people in America who have never experienced famine beyond their television screens, the story is about the kid wasting dad's money. To people who understand famine, they realize that the son was doing just fine in his debauchery until the famine hit.
Then he faced the worst of life when, as a jewish man, he had to feed pigs and didn't even make enough money to feed himself.
To the people hearing Jesus teach this in person, the theme of the story was probably that God will even send a famine to make us realize how much we need Him. When we do, He'll be there to welcome us back.
Does that mean that I was wrong every time I taught this or that the pastors who I heard preach about it were wrong? Not really. Like I said, there are a lot of layers in the story. The allegory is rich. But until I considered the story as it was taught by the messiah to a north African audience, I had missed one of the main points - I missed an entire famine.
When I traveled to Ethiopia to adopt my son, I learned a lot about what I don't know and how our comfort level and entitlement as Americans can change the way we relate to people and behave in community.
It's easy to be isolated when you have all that you need. Traveling to Ethiopia showed me how people act who really need each other.
The famine in the story of the prodigal son drove the son back to his father and drove me to reread many of the parts of the Bible that I let my Americanism help me interpret.
Take a look at the world from a different perspective. You'll be glad you did.