Contextualizing a Parable for Creative Teaching in Africa

Families in Africa are confronted in their relationships with each other as they live lives in accordance with the scriptures. Pastors and educators encounter families in crisis during their teaching and nurturing sessions in the church. The difference between the cultural world of the Bible and the culture of contemporary/traditional Africa requires the contextualizing of our teaching of scripture. According to John Mbiti, contextualization is that of teaching scripture with an understanding and appreciation of African thought and beliefs.1 During such learning sessions, families appreciate receiving relevant illustrations fitting their everyday lives. Contextualization is important for the families to handle the problems of home, society, school and personal interaction.

For pastors and educators in Africa, the effectiveness of our teaching depends in part on our ability to understand how scripture can influence daily life in Africa. A recent study addressed the attitudes and practices of current leaders enrolled in the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST). These leaders/students represent the Church in Africa, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. More than thirty African pastors/fathers were interviewed. These pastors/fathers gave their interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son with regard to their own cultural world. They also gave their perspective of teaching the parable of the prodigal son through contextualization.

Jesus Christ used the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) to reinforce the principle of God’s love and forgiveness. The characters in the story (the father, the younger son and the older son) portray powerful ideas in the dynamics of a family in its cultural context. Jesus draws our attention to the image of the heavenly Father through the act of the earthly father. The actions of the younger son and older son are reminders of our compromising actions in daily living. Nevertheless, the parable ends well with the return of the younger son. It is indeed every parent’s desire to have the family members back home.

Luke 15:11-32 from an African Cultural Context
In the African context, it is unthinkable for a son to request for an inheritance while the father is alive. The son will be cursed by the father and other family members. Moreover, an African father is looked upon as a fool if he decides to give away the family’s plot of land or finances to a rebellious son. If the rebellious son decides to return home, a celebration will not take place in most homes.

In Ethiopia the community will go to the extent of slaying the foolish young man to prevent a whole society from being cursed. The Bamasaaba tribe in Eastern Uganda prepares every young man to be circumcised at the age of eighteen to avoid any rebellious attitude or disobedience. To the African, one’s culture and tradition are important, for they provide an identity for the present relationships and for the future with regard to one’s status in society.

Interpreting Luke 15:11-32 in the African Context
To interpret this parable in the African context we must apply three educational principles to the passage: the teacher, the learner and the teaching-learning process.2 With reference to the parable the pastor/teacher is viewed as the father, the learner is viewed as the two sons and the teaching-learning process is viewed as the encounter between the father and the two sons. These principles are important in the contextualizing of the parable for creative teaching.

The First Principle: The Pastor/Teacher. The parable of the lost son teaches God’s forgiving and merciful attitude toward sinners and his yearning for the lost. The parable also describes the actions of the father, the younger son and the older son. The scene at home becomes a stirring moment when the father welcomes the younger son back.

The details in vv. 20-24 reveal the feelings of the father. The anxious father waited patiently for his son to return. The son’s return brought immediate happiness and forgiveness on the father’s part. The father’s desire is to bless his son; the agony, the waiting moments and the pain of separation are over. In each other’s presence there is joy, love, reconciliation and healing. They hear each other’s voice and experience each other’s presence.

An African pastor would teach the congregation the importance of respecting and obeying the father figure in the household. A biblical principle from Ephesians 6:1-4 is a strong injunction for “children to obey their parents” and for fathers to “bring (children) up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This would imply that the father should discipline his children. Therefore, the African father will not easily give in to the son’s demands for an early inheritance. The father must explain to the children that the family’s inheritance will be shared equally among them upon his death. A request for an inheritance prior to his death would indicate a curse and a desire that the father die early.

Another area of teaching imparted by the African pastor is that of the biblical concept of forgiveness on the part of the father toward the return of the prodigal son. A proverb from Burundi is a powerful teaching for all fathers: “Even the worst child rejected by society must be taken care of, whatever he has done, and he must be accepted as a son.” Christian fathers who have experienced the pain of a lost child are taught to accept their sons upon their return and to nurture them to become responsible adults in the home, church and society.

Apparently, the concept of celebration to welcome home a rebellious son is not within African culture or tradition. To receive one’s lost child back home is a major step for the father. Therefore, a feast of any nature is redundant. Instead, the father will be wise to utilize this time to counsel and guide the son in the way of the Lord. The following proverb from Rwanda reinforces the importance of teaching and reconciliation: “The one son who does not sit to listen to his father will not know what the grandfather had already said.”

Jesus did not conclude the story in v. 24; instead, he went on to describe the reactions of the older son (vv. 25-30). There was complaint because obedience and duty had become a burden. Service to the father and to the household was no longer a joy. His thinking was ungracious and judgmental. Could the older son be lost although he was home? What kind of act is portrayed here by the older son?

Jesus remarked to the Jewish leaders that an individual cannot rely on good works. The older son may have erroneously considered his own good works as a sufficient basis for inheriting his father’s property. The love and unmerited favor of God are for all sinners. We are redeemed by this grace and not by our own good works (Ephesians 2: 8-9).

In the African context, a believer may have one’s roots in tribalism or in a religion such as Islam. Comparing our heavenly Father to an earthly father may not be appropriate. Africans may have had experiences from childhood of fathers who did not relate to their children through outward expressions of affection. In some homes, the mother is often seen as the more intimate parent. Hence, the parable of the lost son may need some added explanation for the scriptural teachings to be relevant in the African context when taught in an African environment.

The Second Principle: The Learner. The second principle is that of the learner represented by the lost son and the older son. The parable of the lost son should especially motivate those in the teaching ministry to seek out the learners desiring to experience the love and forgiveness of the heavenly Father. The gospel story needs to be proclaimed to those who enter our church schools. Bible teaching includes the message of God’s love for all people and the idea of forgiveness needs to be emphasized. The good news calls for a response from the hearers/learners. Scripture needs to be taught regularly so that the learner is encouraged and ready for the many challenges he or she will face.

The older son portrays the picture of an unforgiving family member toward another family member. Christian education concerning the home is essential in any church so that issues pertaining to family development can be discussed. There need to be opportunities to help young people build relational skills and right attitudes toward one’s parents. We have heard some younger children say, “My parents do not understand me.” There is a generation gap! Before the family disintegrates, the pastor/educator and the parent need to meet so that healing can take place. To the African learners the Christian story is distinctive if the adult is there for comfort and to provide a listening ear. For the learner to identify with the biblical message the teacher needs to utilize creative teaching to make the message come alive.

The Third Principle: The Teaching-Learning Process. In the parable the father is seen as an active teacher during the encounters with both sons. When the younger son returns the father makes a deliberate attempt to welcome him home. This is a warm and loving process. The younger son will remember this experience during his development and his time with the family. But to the disappointment of the father, the older son views this return as repulsive. The father uses this opportunity to teach the older son the importance of having both sons at home and that both are equally important. The father’s reply to the older son is looked upon as an opportunity in which the teaching-learning process is crucial. The patience of the father toward both sons should be emulated by all African adults. 

Contextualizing for Creative Teaching
The teacher, the learner and the teaching-learning process are important and urgent principles for any African leader working with people in the home, church and society. An African pastor/educator and parent is an effective “carrier” of the word to another African. As a respected leader of the church and the home, the pastor/educator and parent have many opportunities to teach the word of God to their families and friends. These leaders are effective witnesses through their lifestyle to the African continent and to the world.

The late theologian and educator Byang H. Kato took on the challenge of training and equipping pastors and leaders to be effective teachers of the word of God to their members.3

The African Church must stand alongside the families and believers in the battle against the attacks of Satan and the world. The Church needs to become strong through creative teaching of the truth. Families and believers need to be on their guard against false teachings through a deep and accurate understanding of the word of God. A consistent study of scripture that begins in the home and is followed by regular teachings in the church is an encouragement to people desiring to grow spiritually.4 My prayer is that God will give us strength and wisdom so that through us “the message might be fully proclaimed and all the people might hear it” (2 Timothy 4:17).

1. Mbiti, John M. 1969. African Religions and Philosophy. New York: Praeger, 14.
2. Anthony, Michael J. 2001. Introducing Christian Education. North Dartmouth, Massachusetts: Baker, 117.
3. Kato, Byang H. 1975. Theological Pitfalls in Africa. Kisumu, Kenya: Evangel, 140.
4. Downs, Perry G. 1994. Teaching for Spiritual Growth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 197.

Suraja Raman is a missionary from Singapore and teaches in the Educational Studies department at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Kenya.