Three Stories of Loss
Lk 15:1-32, Mt 18:10-14
Other than the parable of the good Samaritan, the parable of the prodigal son is probably the best-known of Jesus's stories. Often, the fact that it's part of a trilogy gets ignored, but that grouping reveals a much more complex story than a simple tale of sin and forgiveness.
Shepherds and Sheep
Women and Coins
Fathers and Sons
The Hypothetical Villagers
The Younger Son
The Elder Son
Even more baffling than the ideas about Jewish attitudes toward shepherds to which the first parable has given rise are the ideas about Jewish attitudes toward women derived from the second.
A common component of Christian interpretations of this trio of parables is the idea that the Pharisees at which it was supposedly directed would have been offended at being asked to identify with either the "shepherd" in the first parable or the woman in the second.
Here's Craig Blomberg, a Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary, an evangelical seminary, and a member of a number of well-respected institutions ranging from the Society of Biblical Literature to Tyndale House to the NIV translation committee, in Interpreting the Parables:
Interestingly, although the biblical shepherd was a cherished image of care for God's people, first-century shepherds were generally despised by the average Jew, due to their reputation for lawlessness and dishonesty. Jesus thus places his audience in a bind; the Pharisees naturally would have tried to identify with the authority figure in each case but would have balked when that figure turned out to be a shepherd or a woman.
Jared Wilson, who's a professor, director, author-in-residence, and so on at a number of Baptist seminaries, says something similar (no sources cited) in The Storytelling God:
Although the shepherd was a cherished image of God’s care for his people throughout the Scriptures, by the first century the average Jew thought of shepherds as somewhat shady characters. They were sketchy types, the stereotypical longshoremen or “cursing sailors" of their day. And in his opening inquisition, Jesus asks the Pharisees to identify themselves with the shepherds. Then, he suggests they put themselves in the place of a woman. How rude.
In Jesus the Storyteller, Stephen Wright, a professor at the British evangelical Spurgeon College, notes that many of the allegorical readings of various parable characters as God makes little sense, since surely such unflattering figures as a master who murders his slave or a woman or shepherd cannot be metaphors for God:
God is very unlike a reluctant friend (Luke 11.5-9), an unclean shepherd (Luke 15.3-7), a woman who has lost a coin (Luke 15.8-10), a master who will not serve his servants (Luke 17.7-10), or one who cuts an unfaithful slave in pieces (Luke 12.42-48). The logic of these parables is grounded in the fundamental unity of how things work’ in God’s world: in the images they might suggest of God they show an ironic awareness of the impossibility of truly imaging him.
Levine cites similar comments from Arland Hultgren (a professor at Luther Seminary (ELCA)), Kenneth Bailey (a professor at Princeton ordained by the Presbyterian Church, who became an Episcopalian theologian), Joachim Jeremias (a German Lutheran theologian and one of the most influential modern parable interpreters), Bernard Brandon Scott (a professor at the Phillips Theological Seminary (Disciples of Christ) and a participant in the Jesus Seminar), Klyne Snodgrass (a professor at North Park Theological Seminary (ECC) and recipient of a Christianity Today book award), and Barbara Reid (a professor at and president of the Catholic Theological Union and past president of the Catholic Biblical Association). The section concludes with a quote from Ralph Wilson, author of the JesusWalk Bible Study Series (whose website, one might note, welcomes "Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, atheist"—that is, every religion they can think of except Jews): "In contrast to rabbinical contempt for shepherds, . . . Jesus, who has fellowship with the despised and sinners, knows and appreciates them as people.”
This is not a fringe viewpoint; nor is it associated with a particular denomination. It is present in the teachings of both mainline and evangelical churches, Catholic and Protestant seminaries, among both conservative professors and those credited as feminist and progressive voices.
While most of these commentators at least note that the image of the shepherd had a long history of highly positive associations for Jews, they're all convinced that the Pharisees would have been deeply offended to be asked to identify with a shepherd in a story (and some go so far as to suggest that that offense would cause them to plot to murder Jesus).
First off, this sort of rhetoric Others the Pharisees into inhumanity and incomprehensibility. They were human beings, like all of us, and while we might not like being called out indirectly in a story, the overwhelming majority of us don't respond to an unflattering comparison by going out and hiring a hitman or attempting to get the storyteller executed. The Pharisaic style of interaction was debate, and the records of rabbinic debates are replete with everything from mild disagreement to full-on insults and yet no one murders anyone else.
All of this assumes that the shepherd actually was a "despised" or even "unclean" figure to the Jews of Jesus's time. (Again, one's profession may have kept one tamei (in a state of ritual impurity) more often than average, and gentiles who had no interest in entering the Temple would have no reason to remove themselves from that state, but no human being is inherently "unclean" any more than any human being is inherently dusty or sweaty or muddy. And inversely, no one is never impure anymore than anyone is never sweaty. Surgeons have to keep themselves as disinfected as possible far more often than most of us, but that doesn't mean they're inherently cleaner than the rest of us. Shepherds may not have been able to get to the mikveh as often as priests, but neither were most people who didn't spend their days working in the Temple.)
Second, even granting—for the moment—the premise that Pharisees considered the shepherds of their time to be unsavory or untrustworthy, the idea that they would be insulted by the comparison or unable to identify with the shepherd in the story assumes that they would have heard the comparison as referring to modern shepherds, rather than to the traditional image of the shepherd as portrayed in the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh.
Shepherds in Jewish thought
Shepherds in the Torah have highly positive associations. Abraham is a herder, and so is Isaac. Jacob acquires wealth by herding and breeding Laban's flocks, and falls in love with Rachel, a shepherdess, whose name means "ewe." Joseph and his brothers herd Jacob's flocks, and Joseph instructs them to introduce themselves as shepherds when they are presented to Pharaoh. Moses and his wife Tzipporah are both shepherds. King David is a shepherd, and the image of God as shepherd and good leaders as shepherds appears throughout the Tanakh.
Given that rabbinic parables tend to evoke the world of the Tanakh rather than their times when drawing on images such as kings, queens, shepherds, and servants, there's no reason to assume that their first association would be with the supposedly despised first-century shepherd rather than the revered biblical one. It's like assuming that they would see a king in a parable as a negative figure because they would associate him with Herod, the current and despised occupant of the throne rather than with the metaphor of God as king used throughout the Tanakh or any of the legitimate kings that had held the throne.
Just like us, the Pharisees were capable of understanding characters in stories to be metaphors or taking lessons away from stories featuring characters that weren't exact matches for their social/demographic/personal characteristics.
The origin of the idea
So where does this idea that the Jews of Jesus's time despised shepherds come from?
In 1882, Frederic Farrar states in his commentary on Luke that "shepherds were a despised class." Farrar seems to cite Heinrich Meyer to support this, yet I can't find anything in Meyer's commentary that describes shepherds as a despised or unclean class. To the contrary, Meyer claims that it is only appropriate that the "lowly and yet patriarchally consecrated class of shepherds" receive the first "revelation of the Gospel outside the family circle" at Jesus's birth. In other words, Meyer is noting that the shepherds were poor, but also that they retain the aura of holiness of the patriarchs who shared their profession. Farrar's characterization of them as "despised" seems to be original, but it is an assertion which is repeated by Strack and Billerbeck (1924) and then becomes a trope in biblical commentaries.
Reference works such as Jeffers's The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era cite Aristotle as a source for this attitude. Aristotle is certainly an authoritative-sounding source for the attitudes of Greeks living some three centuries before Jesus, but less so for those of Jesus's Jewish contemporaries.
Levine lists Philo's On Agriculture 61, Mishnah Kiddushin 4, and Midrash Tehillim 23 as possible origins for this trope. But none of these provide good support for adducing this attitude to first-century Pharisees:
Philo wasn't a Pharisee; he was a wealthy Hellenized Jew living in Alexandria, so his attitude toward shepherds is not a good source for understanding the attitudes of Pharisees, who spanned the economic gamut. More importantly, Philo is describing the attitudes of kings and other wealthy people who are "loaded with great prosperity, without at the same time being endowed with prudence." He's criticizing the opinions of kings and nobles, not his coreligionists' local rabbis.
Kiddushin provides a record of a discussion between a number of rabbis about which professions they think make people trustworthy or untrustworthy. One rabbi cites herders as untrustworthy (along with everyone from shopkeepers to sailors), while others disagree. It's also a passage from over a century after Jesus, after the destruction of the Temple and subsequent upheaval, and so on.
Midrash Tehillim specifies that God does not have any of the failings of human shepherds. It's also a collection of midrash from various eras which was codified into its current form in the 13th century, which makes it hard to know when a particular passage is actually from.
The most seemingly compelling citation for the idea that the Pharisees (and first-century Jews in general) held shepherds in contempt is from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b). In the context of a discussion about who should be qualified to serve as witnesses in court, shepherds are disallowed since they allow their animals to graze on land belonging to others, which is a type of theft and thus disqualifies them from being reliable witnesses.
There are a few important things to understand here. First, the Talmud is a record of debates around the Mishnah. Reading it is essentially sitting in on a conversation in which theories and opinions and ideas are floated and picked apart and analyzed. Second, the debates the Talmud records go into the 4th and 5th centuries CE. The passage in question even notes that the idea that shepherds should be disqualified from serving as witnesses is a late development. The Mishnah, on the other hand, which the document upon which the Talmud is later commentary, cites shepherds as reliable witnesses. Levine cites Mishnah Bava Kamma 10:9 as speaking of accepting shepherds as judges, but that passage does not contain such a provision, and I'm unable to locate what passage she may have meant.
In other words, to support the idea that shepherds were despised by Jesus's contemporaries and that Pharisees would have been insulted by a story that asked them to identify with a shepherd, Christian commentators turn to the attitudes of Egyptians living around 1500 BCE, Greeks living around 300 BCE, or Jews living in 300-400 CE.
First-Century Jewish Views on Shepherds
So what was the attitude of first-century Jews living in Judea or the Galilee toward shepherds? The answer is an unsatisfying "we don't know."
The Damascus Document, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, may be the only non-NT reference we have from non-Hellenized Jews of the time, and it uses the sort of elevated language about God-as-shepherd (carrying the Qumran community "in their distress like a shepherd a sheep") found in the Tanakh rather than discussing real-life, contemporary shepherds.
Why are Christians so wedded to the idea that shepherds were despised?
As Levine notes wryly, "it is almost impossible to read about Luke 15 without encountering the term 'outcast' every three or four pages." Christians want very much to see the "tax collectors and sinners" of the context as poor people persecuted by snobbish and hateful Pharisees. But the gospels rarely bother to specify what sins its oft-referenced "sinners" have committed, but when it does, they tend to be wealthy people who are failing their obligations to the poor. (We probably should see wealthy people who exploit the poor as sinners, but most of us would not describe them as "outcasts.")
But recognizing this would make Jesus's decision to socialize with them a little more challenging to accept, and possibly give the Pharisees a point we can sympathize with, rather than treating them as inhuman, incomprehensible "religious authorities" who hate sweet, humble shepherds with their adorable lambs.
Christian commentators who sneer at the Pharisees for not wanting to have a cordial dinner with wealthy Roman collaborators who are harming the vulnerable and show no interest in ceasing to do so, however, ignore that Paul instructs Christians to do exactly the same thing—in fact, to be even more exclusionary—in Corinthians 5:11:
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. 'Expel the wicked person from among you.'
Why, then, do Christians accept Paul's instructions not to sully their own moral purity by dining with those who are "sexually immoral," or those suffering from afflictions like alcoholism, and to cast such people outside their community, while condemning the Pharisees for refusing to dine with those who abuse and extort their own people to live comfortable lives as the puppets of occupiers?
These commentators want so much to position the protagonist of the first parable in the trilogy as a humble outcast despised by cruel, self-righteous Pharisees that they fail to actually read the parable: the protagonist is a sheep owner, not a shepherd.
Is the protagonist wealthy? It's hard to say. The most analogous modern culture is probably the Bedouin, in which village families tend to own about 12-25 sheep, while pastoralist families own 85-235. If the sheep owner isn't someone who makes most of his income from the sheep, 100 is quite a lot sheep, and most likely would require help to manage (among the Bedouin, caring for the sheep among village families is usually the responsibility of unmarried daughters; in the Torah, Rachel is the one who herds her father's flocks). On the other hand, if raising sheep is his primary business, 100 is on the low side (especially compared to someone like Jacob, who can spare 220 sheep, and as many goats, as a gift for his brother). Again, we just don't know.
Either way, the insistence that Jesus here is positioning himself with the poor, persecuted, and outcast and that the Pharisees would be insulted to be identified with the protagonists of his stories distracts from the main theme of the story: the active measures taken by the sheep owner to locate and reclaim his lost sheep, and his invitation to the community to celebrate his success.
The commentary on the figure of the woman in the parable of the lost coin takes a similar approach to that on the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, insisting that the Pharisees—or even male Jews in general—would find it insulting to be identified with, or to be asked to identify with, a woman in a story. See the quotes from Blomberg, Wilson, and Wright in the section above for examples. Levine notes similar quotes from Hultgren and Bailey. Former President Jimmy Carter, in his bible study on Ephesians, argues that first-century Jews made the Taliban look progressive on gender.
Christian attitudes toward women in parables
Even if you assume that later rabbinic attitudes toward women (the shelo asani blessing discussed below, the separation of women in the synagogue) were common in the first century, the textual evidence doesn't support the idea that the Pharisees would have been unable to handle a story that featured a woman as a protagonist or unable to identify with women in stories, or that they would have found the identification of God with a woman offensive, because they told such stories themselves.
As far as difficulty identifying the woman in the lost coin parable with God goes, this seems to be more a case of Christian projection than a Jewish attitude, as Christian commentators seem far more comfortable identifying the sheep owner and the father as allegorical representations of God than they are doing so with the woman.
We find a representative example of this squeamishness in William Bekgaard's The Parables of Jesus Revisited (2011). Bekgaard (a Missionary Baptist) is quite comfortable identifying the sheep owner in the first parable as God:
The second common interpretation allegorizes that the ninety-nine sheep are God’s people, with God being the shepherd. God seeks the sinner and receives the repentant. When "found," God rejoices over them more than the ninety-nine self-righteous lost.
He's also quite comfortable identifying the father in the third parable as God (in fact, he offers three different interpretations of the story, identifying the father as God in all three):
Some say the story represents the sinner who turns from the Savior at the age of accountability... The father represents God and what would be his typical response.
But when it comes to the woman, it's as if he can't quite bring himself to say "the woman represents God."
Nearly all interpretations couple this parable with that of the lost sheep. Usually it is not dealt with separately. Here is a typical response to this parable, “The woman in this parable represents the same person the good shepherd did in the former one, and illustrates the persistent anxiety and unremitting diligence of Christ in seeking to find and recover a lost world."
Another view, but one that has no support from other interpreters is as follows: The lost coin represents a lost soul [who], realizing that he is lost, [understands] that no effort should be spared by him to find and thus secure salvation that he should seek and seek, and never give over the search until he finds it [his soul]. The woman is the one [with the lost] soul, and the coin is the soul.
Lockyer, in his work All the Parables of the Bible, has made this observation: “The shepherd seeking his sheep symbolizes divine tenderness; the humble woman searching for her silver piece with much diligence and painstaking portrays divine earnestness.” He goes on and talks about the manly qualities (courage, endurance) being complemented by feminine virtues (patience, diligence, and minute observation). All of this is relating to God and his seeking. These are very good observations.
While he states straight out that the "shepherd" and the father represent God, Bekgaard seems to avoid saying the same about the woman, talking around it to an almost comic degree. She represents "the same person the good shepherd did." She represents Christ's "diligence." She is someone with a lost soul. She represents "divine earnestness."
Augustine at least manages to associate her with Sophia (Wisdom personified). Most common appears to be the association with the sheep owner as Jesus, the coin owner as the holy spirit, and the father as God (see, for example, this commentary which spells it out quite explicitly).
As I noted above, this reluctance to identify with women or to associate God with the feminine (even the literal figure of a woman), when retrojected onto first-century Jews, appears to be more about Christian projection than actual Jewish attitudes.
"...who did not make me a woman"
A relatively common homiletic prooftext for this attitude is a morning blessing known as shelo asani, a morning blessing in which a Jewish man thanks God for not making him a woman. For example, David Buttrick (Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide) proclaims that "In a patriarchal society where pious men could pray, ‘Blessed be God that he [sic!] has not made me a woman,’ Jesus’s stories with central female characters would be startling, if not offensive.
The blessing is part of the shacharit prayers, a series of blessings in which a Jew thanks God for everything from having awakened to being able to rise out of bed. Traditionally, a Jewish man thanks God for not having made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. A Jewish woman replaces "who has not made me a woman" with "who has made me according to the divine will."
The traditional explanation for this blessing is that, since women are exempt from many of the commandments (mitzvot) men are obligated to fulfill (for example, the traditional commandment to be fruitful and multiply is binding for men, but not for women (or, outside of traditional circles, for people with wombs, regardless of gender) since childbirth risks the life of the child-bearer), men should be grateful that they have a greater number of opportunities to fulfill commandments. Similarly, since free people have the freedom to fulfill more commandments than slaves, and Jews have been given more commandments to fulfill than Gentiles, a Jew should also be grateful to be both Jewish and free.
The Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, which represent 90% of practicing Jews in the US, have stopped saying these blessings. The Reform movement, for example, replaces the trio of shelo asani ("who has not made me...") blessings with she-asani ("who has made me...") formulations: she-asani btzelem elohim ("who has made me in the divine image"), she-asani ben/bat chorin ("who has made me free"), and she-asani yisrael ("who has made me a Jew").
Orthodox Jewish men still recite the shelo asani blessings, but even some Orthodox rabbis and other thinkers express discomfort with it. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests in The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy that women should recite a parallel blessing thanking God for not making them men. Professor Abraham Berliner, who died in 1915, is quoted in the 1961 Hertz Siddur (the prayerbook of the British Orthodox movement) as saying that all three blessings should be replaced with a single blessing thanking God for making the speaker Jewish. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and the past president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, challenges apologists to accept that whether or not the blessing is humiliating is the right of those potentially humiliated to determine (Keren, Issue #2, 2014). Joel B. Wolowelsky, a prominent Modern Orthodox educator, (in Women, Jewish Law and Modernity ) notes that even if one understands the blessing as thanking God for having the privilege of more opportunities to fulfill commandments, it is hardly courteous or compassionate to profess thanks for a privilege in front of people who don't have it. So even in some Orthodox circles, the status of the blessing is contested.
In other words, I'm not interested in making excuses for it. I think it's misogynist, and I'm glad that most practicing Jews have opted to leave it in the past.
On the other hand, it's not a useful prooftext for attitudes among first-century Jews. An argument for saying such a blessing is first found in the Tosefta, which was compiled around 200 CE, and it is fleshed out in the Talmud, which was compiled between 350-400 CE. Most importantly, these documents were compiled in exile after both the destruction of the Temple and the disastrous Bar Kokhba revolt, after which the Romans depopulated most Judean communities, killed over half a million Jews, and sold most of the survivors into slavery. What is normative practice for a community after it has been subjected to that sort of trauma may not reflect what life looked like before the disaster, and as we've seen in Afghanistan, in post -WWI Germany, in Iran after the revolution, in the United States after WWII, societies often re/assert "traditional" (conservative) gender roles after periods of upheaval and trauma. I don't know for certain that Jewish men weren't saying something like the shelo asani blessing during Jesus's lifetime, but there's also no proof that they were. It is simply irresponsible to retroject attitudes from a community whose entire world has changed backward.
It's even more irresponsible to assume that a blessing expressing gratitude for a privilege is incompatible with any sympathy for, identification with, or willingness to interact with people without that privilege.
Women and Stories
While a society's stories do give us some insight into how the society views women, they aren't reliable indicators by themselves of what women's lives were actually like, especially when they're written by men. Stories often portray women as men think they should be, rather than as they are or were. They can be an attempt to get listeners to reinforce roles that are more conservative than what is actually normative for the society, or they can push back against restrictive roles.
It's irresponsible to assume that the prevalence of female protagonists in stories is automatically indicative of the status of women in a society, especially when that society is removed from our own by two millennia and only a handful of documents from the time period have survived.
The ancient Athenians revered a goddess as their polis's patron deity, and told stories about many other goddesses and heroines. Yet the Athenian ideal for women was that they remained secluded within the home; Greek writers stated baldly that women were inherently inferior to men; and women were not allowed to conduct financial transactions above a nominal amount, own property in their own name, or represent themselves in court. (As in most cultures, this was the practice for noblewoman and the ideal; poor women, out of economic necessity, did business and left the home, and some noblewoman most likely found loopholes or obliging male relatives who would provide them with legal cover.) Court cases of the time claim that respectable women were ashamed even to be in the presence of their male relatives (Lysias's Against Simon) and that even speaking a woman's name in public implied that she was not respectable (Apollodorus's Against Neaera). Ancient Athens appears to have been full of statues of women, and yet the ideal for actual women seems to have been that they be completely invisible.
Similarly, future generations will likely regard with horror and contempt the fact that women couldn't open bank accounts in the US without a husband's permission until 1971, or that marital rape was legal until the 1990s; that a 13-year-old could be married off by her parents in New Hampshire until 2019, or that a woman who bears a child that is the result of rape still can't put the child up for adoption without the rapist's consent in some states. Our society retains some profoundly ugly attitudes toward women (especially women of color, trans women, and lesbian/bisexual/asexual women), which nevertheless do not equate to considering stories about women scandalous or ensure that men are unable to understand stories in which women are the protagonists.
I am not arguing that first-century Judea or the Galilee was egalitarian or particularly enlightened on gender issues—far from it. Jewish culture of the time was firmly and unapologetically patriarchal. But there is no evidence that it was particularly different from the rest of the Mediterranean milieu at the time, or even that it was more misogynist than most societies throughout most of human history. As I noted above, we know from the New Testament itself that at least some women had control of their own money, had freedom of travel, owned their own homes, and so on.
The idea that men didn't talk to women would have prevented business from getting done in the marketplace, we have ample mentions of female patrons of Jesus's ministry from the NT, and no one in the NT seems to find Jesus talking with and teaching women to violate social norms. (Particular women, such as sex workers and foreign women, yes. Women in general, no.) There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus's attitudes or behavior toward women were at all unusual for a Jewish man of his time.
Women in Traditional Jewish Texts
So what do Jewish texts actually say? Do they indicate that male Jews of Jesus's time would have been offended by the idea of treating a female character as an allegory for God? That they would have been scandalized by stories with female protagonists? That they would have been offended by the idea of being asked to identify with female characters, or at having feminine characteristics ascribed to them?
The Tanakh usually uses masculine pronouns for God (although Moses occasionally addresses God in the feminine), but the use of masculine pronouns can be misleading. Hebrew is much more strongly grammatically gendered than English, so everything from people to objects must be identified as either male or female; it goes further than the Romance languages in this regard, as even verbs in Hebrew are gendered. The Jewish imagination has had no trouble comparing God to women, starting with the Torah itself.
The assertion that humans are created in the divine image comes immediately before the specification that humans were created as both male and female. The idea of humanity as created in the divine image is explicitly not limited to male humans.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech (Understanding Judaism) notes that the divine name (the Tetragrammaton, usually translated as "the Lord") is grammatically feminine. (The other name most often used for God, elohim, is not simply a plural for el, god (elim). The most plausible explanation for it is that it is the feminine word for a deity, elah, with the masculine plural ending -im.)
The presence of God (which would become the Holy Spirit in Christianity, and usually gendered as neuter or male in Christian texts) is, in Hebrew, the feminine shekhinah.
In mystical exegesis, discussion of the feminine aspects of God flowers (see Rafael Patai's The Hebrew Goddess for a thorough survey).
Nor do the Tanakh, rabbinic literature, or Jewish mysticism shy away from asking the (presumably male) reader to identify with women:
Moses (Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rabbi), the prophet par excellence in Judaism, whose importance is unparalleled, compares himself to a mother and a wet-nurse.
The prophets repeatedly identify themselves and other Jewish men with women.
The most common metaphor for the people Israel as a whole is God's wife.
The Tanakh is filled with female heroes such as Ruth and Esther and Jael.
The Jewish people themselves are specifically the children of Sarah, not Abraham, as Abraham has other wives and children.
The Tanakh's book of erotic poetry, Song of Songs, switches off between male and female narrators, who describe, quite explicitly, their lovemaking.
There are female Jewish war leaders, like Deborah.
Moses, the most important figure in the Torah, spends his entire childhood being saved by women.
The Torah, the holiest object in Judaism and the source of Jewish culture and identity, has to be verified by a female prophet, Huldah, before it can be trusted as genuine.
The rabbis are also described in the Talmud as teaching women directly and consulting with their wives. They told parables about women, and compared themselves, biblical heroes, and God to women:
Bereshit Rabbah (midrash on Genesis) compares Abraham's adherence to Torah to a woman who holds onto a spindle that has helped her become wealthy, and Abraham himself to a woman whose husband should cease testing her.
Midrash Tanchuma compares God to a mother screaming in sympathy with her daughter in labor.
Bamidbar Rabbah (midrash on Numbers) compares the appearance of God's presence after the death of Aaron to that of an unkempt woman.
Sifra (midrash on Leviticus) compares Aaron to a shy bride.
In Bereshit Rabbah, the rabbis note approvingly that Sarah (in contrast to other women of the time) ruled over her husband.
Lamentations Rabbah compares Israel studying Torah in exile to a woman abandoned by her husband, who remains faithful and comforts herself by reading her ketubah (marriage contract): the most privileged activity in Judaism is reimagined as the act of a woman.
Imagining Oneself as the Other
Cross-gender imaginative identification was hardly unknown or taboo in Judaism. Most of the instructions in the Torah apply to both women and men, and yet assume that the listener or reader is male; women have to imagine themselves as men all the time in patriarchal cultures. And Jewish men told stories in which women were the heroes and point of identification.
Again, this is not to say that Jewish culture before modernity was what we today would recognize as egalitarian or feminist. It was explicitly patriarchal (as Christian cultures have been until modernity). Even the stories starring women were most likely written by men, so they can hardly be said to be giving a voice to women. Poet Merle Feld poignantly laments the absence of stories by women and imagines what our tradition might look like if women's first-hand experiences had been a central part of our texts in her poem We All Stood Together:
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down...
My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Male imaginings of women's experiences are not a substitute for women's actual accounts of their experiences. But arguments that patriarchal traditions simply despise feminine identification and refuse to imagine feminine experiences ignore that those traditions often prefer to appropriate them (again, this is not a mitigation of the marginalization of those with non-male genders, but it also belies the idea of total contempt for the feminine).
Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), while traditionally very much the province of men, involved regular gender-bending. The indeterminacy of gender identification continues today in the mystical elements that have become part of normative Jewish practice. On Friday evening, Jews gather for kabbalat shabbat, greeting Shabbat, which is envisioned as welcoming a bride to a wedding. However, the various layers of tradition associated with the practice make the identification of exactly who is uniting whom in this wedding slippery: the Jewish people are the bride, uniting with God the groom; Shabbat is the bride, uniting with Israel the groom; the feminine aspects of God are reuniting with the masculine ones to return reality to primordial wholeness; the Shekhinah is uniting with the people of Israel.
Far from being offended by the idea of imagining themselves as women, male Jewish mystics reveled in attempting to cultivate the qualities Kabbalah identifies as "feminine" within themselves, and pictured both Torah study (in which the male student romanced the feminine Torah) and human union with the divine (in which the male human played the receptive, feminine-coded role and might even imagine himself as female) as erotic encounters.
Jay Michaelson notes in Kabbalah and Queer Theology: Resources and Reservations:
Men with feminine souls, women with power and traits traditionally associated with masculinity, men whose genitalia is said to contain both masculine and feminine attributes, and of course a godhead which is itself in a state of constant auto-eroticized, multi-gendered, polysemous sexual congress—all of these are themes which, while imbricated within an ostensibly conservative theological structure, present a radical rereading of the intersection of gender identity and, with appropriate qualifications, can provide useful resources for contemporary queer theology.
Of course, not every Jewish man was encouraged to imagine himself as feminine. Jewish tradition paints mysticism as dangerous for all but the wisest and most educated practitioner, and even includes a parable warning of its dangers.
If this seems odd, implausible, or extreme, consider that imagining the encounter between the divine and human as erotic is also a trend in Christian mysticism, in which the male mystic is clearly either imagining himself in a feminine role or a same-sex encounter. See, for example, John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14: Batter my heart, three-person'd God" (c. 1610):
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Even more explicit is St. John of the Cross's "Dark Night of the Soul" (c. 1578):
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
On a darker note, among the many negative stereotypes Christendom has leveled against Jews, the idea of Jewish men as overly feminine has been one of the most enduring, from medieval rumors that Jewish men menstruated to modern images of the Jewish man as weak, soft, and effeminate.
It strikes me as almost emblematic of the paradoxical nature of Christian antisemitism that in the midst of still-current stereotypes of Jewish men as too feminine and of Jews generally as violating normative, traditional gender roles, Christian commentators also position Jewish culture as so profoundly misogynist that even telling stories with a female protagonist would have been so outside the norm that it might have resulted in death for the teller.
Women in Second-Temple Literature
Jewish literature before and after the time of Jesus is comfortable comparing both God and its male culture heroes to women. It includes female heroes and protagonists, and tells stories that expect the audience to identify and sympathize with women.
But what about Jewish literature around the time of Jesus?
Josephus (37-100 CE) chronicles the lives of Hasmonean and Herodian women such as Mariamne and Salome. He also expands on the role of biblical women such as Michal, the wife of David. While his portraits of women are not always positive, he seems to treat telling stories about them as normal and expected. Similarly, Philo (20 BCE-50 CE) often treats non-Jewish women (and non-virginal Jewish women) as threats to Jewish men, he had no problem telling stories about both women of his time and women in the Tanakh. Of course, both of these men were upper-class, highly Hellenized Jews.
But in addition to the writings of historians, we also have the rich vein of apocryphal literature from this time period. Ascetic literature like that from the community at Qumran (which may be the same as the Essenes) tends to focus on male characters (and such celibate communities may have been single-sex or at least separated men and women, although the absence of women at Qumran is disputed—see, for example, the survey of literature on the subject by Tal Ilan and the summary of the essays in the Women at Qumran issue of Dead Sea Discoveries).
The apocrypha contain both expansions of the roles of biblical women and new stories featuring female protagonists:
The Genesis Apocryphon (3rd century BCE-1st century CE) expands the roles of biblical women such as Sarah and Lamech's wife Bath-Enosh.
The Books of Maccabees (2nd century BCE-2nd century CE), which detail the martyrdom of a heroic mother and her seven sons.
The romance of Joseph and Asenath (200 BCE-200 CE), which greatly expands the role and character of Asenath (Joseph's Egyptian wife), including her divine visions and conversion to Judaism.
Additions to the Book of Esther (1st century BCE).
The Book of Judith (1st century BCE), in which Judith beheads Holofernes, the general of the attacking Assyrian armies.
The Book of Tobit (1st century BCE), which tells the story of Tobit, raised by his grandmother to remain loyal to his Jewish identity in exile, rescues and wins the love of Sarah, who is being tormented by the demon Asmodeus.
Expansions on the characters of Deborah and Jael in Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities 31 (1st century CE).
The Life of Adam and Eve (1st century CE) tells Eve's side of the expulsion from Eden story.
The Book of Gad the Seer (1st century-2nd century CE), which details the life of Tamar, daughter of King David, after she moves to her mother's birthplace after being sexually assaulted by her brother and slays her would-be rapist with a sword.
The Wisdom of Solomon (mid-1st-century CE), in which the narrator is Lady Wisdom.
Far from considering telling stories about women to be unseemly or insulting, first-century Jews were producing a veritable explosion of literature starring women. Moreover, that literature offered diverse (and sometimes conflicting) views on what roles were appropriate for women, and what made a woman heroic, from prophetesses like Sarah the matriarch and pious damsels in distress like Sarah in the Book of Tobit to chieftain-generals like Deborah and rape-victims-turned-avengers like Tamar. Women triumph through seduction, like Esther; through wisdom and openness, like Asenath; through martyrdom, like the mother in Maccabees; and through violence, like Judith.
The Pharisee Queen
The Pharisees' greatest patron, and the individual who may have done the most to make both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity possible, was Shelomtzion, Queen Salome Alexandra. Shlomtzion's husband, Alexander Jannaeus, hated the Pharisees and massacred 6,000 of them in a fit of pique when they pelted him with fruit after he rmocked the Pharisees by performing a ceremony on Sukkot incorrectly, an incident which helped spark a civil war. After winning the civil war, Alexander slaughtered the wives and children of 800 of the surviving Pharisees in front of them as entertainment at a feast before crucifying them. The remaining Pharisees went into hiding.
Shelomtzion, whose brother was a Pharisee leader named Shimon ben Shetach, had little power while her husband was alive, but seems to have done what she could to hide and protect the surviving Pharisees.
Nevertheless, Alexander declared Shelomtzion his successor instead of any of his sons. He died while conducting a siege of Ragaba. Shelomtzion became queen on a battlefield, in the midst of hostilities. She concealed his death until she had won the day.
As soon as his death was made public, she reached out to the Pharisees to make peace with them, avoiding a potential uprising at his funeral. The funeral went off smoothly, and she immediately began settling various internal political disputes and enmities, which she accomplished peacefully.
Shelomtzion appears to have been an extraordinarily skilled military strategist, diplomat, and project manager. She fortified and provisioned border fortresses to such a degree that neighboring monarchs felt it would be folly to attack them, and gave the Sadducees (the party of her deceased husband) their own towns outside of Jerusalem so they'd stop feuding with the Pharisees. She also re-established the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court.
In the last years of her reign, her sons fought over the throne. One of them, Aristobulus, declared war on her in order to ensure he, and not his brother Hyrcanus, would hold the throne after her. Both brothers turned to the Romans for help, which opened the door for Rome's occupation of Judea. Salome Alexandra died as the last free Jewish ruler.
She was praised by contemporaries such as Josephus as having greater intelligence, political skill, and military acumen than the men around her (although Josephus, an ardent misogynist, later decided that it was inappropriate for her to rule), and the stories of Esther, Judith, and Susanna may have been written (or in the case of Esther, edited and codified) in her honor.
Rabbinic sources describe her as a figure of almost supernatural goodness whose presence on the throne ensured divine favor for Judea, claiming that during her reign, the rain fell only on Shabbat so people had good weather to work in, and the produce of the land was massive and abundant.
Women in First-Century Judea
As I noted above, the New Testament itself provides evidence that Jewish women at the time could have control of their own money, conduct lawsuits in their own name, own their own homes, travel freely, and that they provided patronage for rabbis. As Levine notes, somewhat tartly, in the New Testament, women appear in public, the Temple, synagogues, and court and nobody faints. The earliest evidence for a normative practice of separating men and women during worship is from the 6th century.
Jewish women are identified in inscriptions from the time as heads of synagogues, as "leaders," "elders," "mothers of the synagogue," and—most intriguingly—as "priestesses" (although this may simply be an indication that they were Levites, members of the priestly caste). As Brooten and Kraemer both note, the common claim that such titles merely reflected the status of the named women's husbands is not supported by anything in the inscriptions, and in some cases women are clearly identified as independent donors. Jewish women may also have numbered among the Zealots, resistance fighters primarily aligned with the Pharisees, who favored immediate armed resistance to Rome rather than waiting for an opportune time, as most of the Pharisees seem to have advocated. (Josephus, attempting to smear the Zealots, identifies them as men in women's clothing who engaged in feminine behavior and homosexual activity who transformed themselves into women to get close to their prey, but a simpler explanation is that they were actually women, as Tacitus claims.) Women were likely even participants in the supposedly all-male Qumran sect. New Testament indications of women leading early Christian congregations are not a departure from Jewish norms; they are a continuation of them.
An uncertainty as to who qualified as a "Pharisee" also helps obscure the likelihood of the existence of female Pharisees.
Queen Shelomtzion is not the only aristocratic woman who is recorded as acting to save the Pharisees from powerful opponents. Josephus records an incident in which a woman identified (as is customary for Josephus) only by the name of her husband rescued the Pharisees from the consequences of their refusal to swear loyalty to Rome:
At least when the whole Jewish people affirmed by an oath that it would be loyal to Caesar and to the king’s government, these men, over six thousand in number, refused to take this oath, and when the king punished them with a fine, Pheroras’ wife paid the fine for them. In return for her friendliness they foretold—for they were believed to have foreknowledge of things through God’s appearances to them—that by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendants, and the royal power would fall to her and to Pheroras and to any children they might have. (Ant . 17.42–43)
Shelomtzion was from a family of Pharisees; we don't know much about Pheroras's wife, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that she was too, given her defiance of both Rome and Rome's puppet kings, the Herodians. Josephus also observes:
There was moreover a gang of women at court, who created new disturbances. The wife of Pheroras, in league with her mother and sister, and the mother of Antipater, displayed constant effrontery in the palace and even ventured to insult two young daughters of the king. She became in consequence the object of Herod’s aversion; yet notwithstanding the king’s hatred, these women domineered over the rest. (BJ 1.568)
But who counted as a Pharisee?
The first problem with identifying who counted as a Pharisee is that the term seems to have been used somewhat like the term "Democrat" is used today. When one refers to a Democrat, one can be referring to someone who is an elected representative and member of the Democratic Party or a professional political operative employed by the Democratic Party (these are generally the people we're referring to when we say things like, "The Democrats completely caved on that bill"). Not just anyone can claim to be a Democrat in this regard: it is a formal association with processes to join. However, we can also use the term "Democrat" to refer to voters who are registered as Democrats. Again, there is a formal process for joining and recognition, although it's certainly a lower bar than obtaining employment with the Democratic Party or getting elected as a Democrat. There is a third major way in which we use the term: for people who largely agree with the Democratic Party's platform and tend to vote that way.
The term "Pharisee" seems to have a similar fuzziness. First, it tends to be a term that is applied by others. The Pharisees appear to have referred to themselves as chaverim, a Hebrew term that can be translated as "friends," "associates," or "companions." (Think of the Quakers, who referred to themselves as Friends; the term "Quaker" began as an insult leveled at them by outsiders and evolved into a normative term.) Second, in the Mishnah and Talmud, the rabbis are at pains to not self-identify as Pharisees, since the Pharisees were a sect of Judaism and the rabbis want to be seen as the experts in the only Judaism that there is. Therefore, they tend to identify people (or positions) as Pharisees (just as they do with the Sadducees) when they want to emphasize that they are not representing a majority opinion, and as "sages" when they are.
So it's unclear whether the term "Pharisee" was used only for a group of teachers and students that had formalized procedures for induction and recognition, for families that had members recognized as part of certain houses or academies (such as Hillel and Shammai), for any Jew that followed Pharisaic practices, or for any Jew that recognized the Pharisees' teachings as the "correct" form of Judaism.
This fuzziness has led to a myriad of scholarly debates about whether the Pharisees represented a relatively small Jewish sect (as the idea that there were only 6,000 of them to resist pledging allegiance to Caesar would suggest), the normative Judaism of the time (as suggested by Josephus), or something in between.
I think the truth of the matter is similar to the use of the term "Democrat" as outlined above. People probably did, depending on context, use the term "Pharisee" to refer to formally recognized members of Pharisaic houses or academies, to the families of those teachers and students, to anyone who followed their teachings, and even to any Jew that mostly agreed with them.
Tal Ilan argues (in my opinion, quite compellingly) that there were indeed female Pharisees in the sense of being initiated and recognized members of Pharisaic associations, both because of the use of the feminine form of the word for "Pharisee" in rabbinic literature, and because women from the families of chaverim were regarded as "trustworthy" or "reliable" (in a legal sense) even if they married into families outside the chavurah. In other words, having been raised in the chavurah seems to trump their married identity and they retain their status as part of it even though they should (by normative Jewish practice at the time) now be considered subject to their husband's authority.
In any case, the Pharisees rose to prominence under the protection of a sovereign queen. Powerful women sponsored them, advocated for them, and paid for their freedom when they ran into trouble with Rome. They taught women, they told stories about women, and they considered the women in their families to be members of their associations even when they married men who were not.
The only ways you arrive at the idea that the Pharisees would have objected to women as main characters in stories are:
By retrojecting later rabbinic attitudes, formed in exile, in the wake of genocide and trauma, and in contexts where they were living among gentiles and struggling to define themselves as different from the dominant culture, onto Jews living in their own lands in a different era.
By narrowly reading texts by non-Pharisaic Jews (specifically upper-class, highly Hellenized Jews living in non-Jewish lands, such as Josephus, or Jews from separatist, fringe ascetic communities such as the Qumran sect) as representative of Pharisaic attitudes.
By trying to reconcile Christian patriarchy and misogyny with the need to see Christianity and/or Jesus as fundamentally progressive by insisting that it must have been a step forward for women's freedom, and therefore normative Judaism must have been more misogynist than early Christianity.
The idea that the Pharisees would have been offended that one of the main characters in Jesus's trio of seekers is a woman is absurd.
Coins and Virtue
Not only do Christian commentators have difficulty identifying the woman in the lost coin parable with God (when they have no trouble doing so with the corresponding male figures in the lost sheep and lost sons parables), but unlike the loving shepherd and loving father, they want to identify her as a figure of questionable sexual virtue.
R.T. Kendall (a charismatic/evangelical pastor) starts out relatively innocently in The Parables of Jesus:
In this second parable, Jesus was almost certainly referring to this woman’s bridal headdress (Luke 15:8). Historians report that in ancient times it was a common custom for ten coins to be placed inside bridal headdresses. If a girl lost one of the coins from her headdress, no doubt she would be very concerned until she retrieved it.
No sources are cited, but other than the implied need to position the woman as a wife, it's not particularly objectionable.
J. Ellsworth Kalas (president of the Asbury Theological Seminary and United Methodist Church pastor), explains in Parables from the Back Side Volume 1:
Jesus also might have had in mind the headdress that married women wore. These bands were made up of ten silver coins, held together by a silver chain. Girls sometimes saved for years to collect their ten coins. To lose one was almost like losing your feminine honor.
Bekgaard has quite an elaborate explanation:
Many Judean women wore a headdress with silver or gold coins sewn onto it. These coins were not of the same lot as those she would carry in her purse. Any money in her purse might easily have been stolen or spent. The coins from her headdress were nearly sacred. No one but herself was allowed to even touch them. This included her husband, unless she cut one off of her own accord and placed it in his hands. These were her personal possessions. On the other hand, the coins in her purse would have belonged to the family, to be used for household purchases or expenses.
When a woman married, she carried with her a dowry, called a ketubah, which was exclusively hers. These personal valuables could be in coin or jewelry. The divorce customs at that time gave no protection to women. A husband could legally divorce his wife at any moment for the most trivial reason, such as burning his meal. All the man had to do was to declare the divorce, and the woman had to leave the house immediately. She did not have the right to pack or take anything from the house except what she was wearing. For this reason, her dowry was worn at all times. It was never removed from her person; even while sleeping she wore it. This would ensure that if she were separated from her home and material possessions, such as her clothes, she would not be destitute. So if the lost coin was from her headdress it was a much greater personal loss than if it had been lost from the family money. Still, in either case, a loss of 10 percent was significant. The measures she took in her search and the joy over finding the coin suggest that it was part of her dowry.
Again, no sources are cited.
No sources are cited because, as usual, Christians commentators are just making up things about Second Temple Judaism.
If it seems a little too pat that Jesus happens to tell a story about a woman with ten coins who loses one, and that bridal headdresses specifically had ten coins in them, that's because it is.
First, coin headdresses certainly exist, and are most closely associated with Palestinians. They're beautiful and intricate and specialized by region. Palestinian women from Hebron wear an araqiyyeh, those from Ramallah wear a smadeh, and those in Bethlehem and Jerusalem wear a shatweh. Palestinian bridal clothing is beautiful, and you should check out this exhibit on it. You'll note, however, that most of them don't have exactly 10 coins. In fact, most have considerably more.
They're also not Jewish.
It's understandable why people might assume that Jewish women of Jesus's time might have worn similar headdresses, since people in the region have been wearing them for a long time. And it's possible that Jewish women of the time might have, but we don't have any evidence that they did.
As Platt ("Jewelry in the Levant" in Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader) explains, the practice of putting coins in a woman's headdress appears to be an Arab custom that spread into the Levant after the Arab conquests:
In the Arab Periods (beginning in 640 C.E.), jewelry developed more toward styles familiar in bedouin tradition. It became the domain of women’s personal property, given to brides upon marriage, worn as a kind of bank account (not hoarded), and as amuletic protection from misfortune as well as to bring prosperity. Silver and iron were the metals prized most, and stones of reddish colors (carnelian and agate) and amber were associated with life, health, affection, and attractiveness. Chains with pendants, especially of discs and coins, were worn with textiles on the head and facial areas. Necklaces had crescents, stars, triangles, fish, lizards, toads, “cucumber amulets” (cylinder containers), pear-shaped pendants, and an array of smaller chains and coins. Religious phrases of praise, blessing, and protection, especially against the “evil eye” of envy, psychic and social negativity, were inscribed. Bangle bracelets were ornately decorated and widened to the clip and cuff styles, and rings were complimentary to them. The decorations were appropriate to the embroidery work on head and dress textiles. Silversmithing for this magnificent jewelry came virtually to an end in the 1960s (C.E.); it had been replaced by the mass-produced gold jewelry that developed in the 1940s and became popular in the second half of the 20th century.
Christian commentators seem to have started with "ten coins" and "woman" and attempted to find some sort of custom that they could fit to those parameters, but the headdresses don't have ten coins specifically and are an Arab custom, not a first-century Jewish one.
It's also unclear where they get the idea that a loss of a coin indicates a loss of sexual virtue. Coin headdresses do often serve as a sort of financial safety net for women: women throughout history have often literally worn their wealth, both as an indicator of status and, more crucially, as a highly portable savings account. But it would hardly be a safety net if the woman can't spend it. Bekgaard, predictably, throws around some Hebrew terminology while managing to get every detail wrong: a ketubah is not a dowry, it's a contract; and far from having no rights in the marriage, the wife has the rights outlined in the ketubah. It is not the case that the husband may not lay a hand on the wife's dowry; it is money that the wife brings into the marriage. And a dowry has nothing to do with sexual virtue.
Why do Christian commentators want to put the woman's virtue in question in a way they don't seem to do with the sheep owner and the father? Is it misogyny? Is it that she seeks and finds money instead of a living creature? In any case, a woman as the hero of a story seems to be far more troubling to Christian exegetes than it would have been to Jews of Jesus's time
Fathers and Sons
Another raft of anti-Jewish readings involves the idea that the father's willingness to forgive his son somehow violates normative Jewish practice. This rapidly expands into the idea that the expression of any affection is abnormal for Jewish fathers and then ripples outward until commentators are claiming that the son's life was in danger from his neighbors and that the father had to endure humiliation and perhaps risk his own life to save his son from other Jews.
Similarly, Christian commentators claim that the son's request for early inheritance was tantamount to wishing death upon his father and that his father, accordingly, would have disinherited him and treated him as dead.
It's rather astonishing how they can talk about "tight-knit Oriental communities" with one breath and posit a view of Jewish family and community relations that imagines Jews as unable to love even their own children or parents with the next.
And all of that is before we even get to interpretations that posit the older brother as unforgiving, unloving, and ultimately disinherited and then claim that he, in contrast to the "gentile" younger brother, represents the Jewish people.
So let's take a look at some of these claims:
The younger son's request for early inheritance was in essence wishing death on his father
In granting the younger son's request, the father disowned him
The early inheritance included a qetsatsah ceremony, a formal "cutting off" from the family, used by fathers to shame sons who married beneath their station or sold land to gentiles
The father was displaying behavior that violated Jewish norms by running to greet his son
The father was displaying behavior that violated Jewish norms by kissing his son
The father was attempting to protect his son from humiliation, physical abuse, or even death at the hands of his neighbors
We'll also take a look at how inheritance works in Jewish law, what both sons' legal status was (and whether the elder brother had a reason to be upset or worried), and the status of children in first-century Jewish culture.
The Running Father
The most common interpretation of the father's forgiveness as worthy of note insists that it violated normative Jewish child-rearing practices in every way by being "undignified." Blomberg, in Preaching the Parables, gives a fairly typical statement of this argument (for which he cites no sources):
Particularly striking is his defiance of the cultural norms that dictated that a well-to-do, male head-of-household, particularly an older man, was not to be seen running in public, for that was most undignified. This man is so overjoyed to see his son return home that he flouts convention, runs down the road, and hugs him tightly.
Bekgaard makes similar claims (and cites no sources):
The fact that the father saw him when he was a great way off suggests that he was watching for his son. His compassion caused him to run to him. This also would have been a much undignified act, against all propriety. The proper conduct would have been for the father to stand and let the son come to him. In that way, the respect of the elder and the proper posture would be maintained. The father's running, and hugging and kissing him, was a breach of tradition and unbecoming a man of his age and position. It has been noted, no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by this undignified action.
Michelle Lee Barnewall (professor at the evangelical Talbot School of Theology), in Surprised by the Parables, seems to be basing her assertions primarily on Blomberg:
The nature of the father's actions is more astounding considering that as the head of a Middle Eastern estate, running to greet the son would have been considered undignified and disgraceful. In his culture, a man demonstrated who he was by the way he carried himself in public. As the Jewish document Sirach says, "A man's manner of walking tells you what he is" (Sirach 19:30) But the father is no overcome with joy at his son's return that he cares more about being with his son than acting with proper decorum. The immediate commands for such an extravagant outpouring of affection and celebration would also have been startling. These details "illustrate God's amazing patience and love for his ungrateful children."
Alyce M. McKenzie (a professor at Southern Methodist University) gives a similar description of "expected" Jewish paternal behavior in The Parables for Today, and adds the detail that the father is behaving not only in a way that is undignified, but unmasculine:
His behavior is strange—fathers did not run to their children. This is more maternal behavior, as is the kiss. Here the father exposes himself to humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated. This strange behavior is not the way the patriarchal head of a household would act in Jesus' time. But this running to meet his son is an expression of a love strong enough to make one willing to put aside one's power and position for the good of another!
A father expressing loving joy and relief that his estranged, presumed-dead son has returned is a "stunning departure" from conventional Jewish practice? Unmasculine? Disgraceful? Astounding? This is another idea that makes Jews of the time seem almost inhumanly cold, incapable of love even for family members. So where is it coming from?
Luise Schottroff (The Parables of Jesus) traces the "a real Jewish father (unlike this allegory for God) would never run to greet his son" trope to Joachim Jeremias, but it's not that simple.
Blomberg cites two sources: Ruth Etchells (A Reading of the Parables of Jesus) and Robert H. Stein (Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture). I was not able to obtain a copy of Etchells, but the author was a poet and college principal, not a historian or archaeologist, so it's unlikely that it contains original research on child-rearing in the first-century near East. He cites a page number for Stein that contains nothing matching the subject for which it is cited as proof, but I think I found the passage he meant a few pages earlier.
Stein makes some assertions about expected behavior from Jewish fathers:
Throwing aside Oriental behavioral conventions, Jesus has the father run to his son in order to show God's love, joy, and eagerness to receive outcasts.
As proof that a Jewish father would never run to greet a child thought dead, Stein cites Ben Sira 19:30, which says simply:
The way a person dresses, the way he laughs, the way he walks, tell you what he is.
The idea that this passage somehow contains the idea that one should not express affection for an estranged child who wishes to reconcile is, to put it mildly, a stretch.
In Interpreting the Parables, Blomberg also does a survey of traditional interpretations, which includes this summary:
However inwardly glad he may have been to see his son again, no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by the undignified action of running to greet his son (Lk 15:20). Nor would he have interrupted the son's speech before a full display of repentance (cf. Lk 15:21 with 18-19) or instantly commanded such a luxurious outpouring of affection for him (Lk 19:22-23). All of these details strongly suggest that Jesus wanted to present his audience with more than a simple, realistic picture of family life. Rather he used an extraordinary story to illustrate God's amazing patience and love for his ungrateful children.
For this claim, he cites Kenneth E. Bailey's Poet and Peasant/Through Peasant Eyes. Bailey (who was ordained as a Presbyterian and eventually became the Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh) has a lot to say, so we'll come back to him.
An Oriental nobleman with flowing robes never runs anywhere. To do so is humiliating. Ben Sirach confirms this attitude. He says, "A man's manner of walking tells you what he is."' Weatherhead writes, "It is so very undignified in Eastern eyes for an elderly man to run. Aristotle says, 'Great men never run in public.'" The text says, "He had compassion."
Jewish landowners never run anywhere? According to whom? Ben Sirach doesn't say anything of the sort, Bailey notes in a footnote that Weatherhead doesn't actually provide any sources for his assertion or even for his Aristotle "quote," and Aristotle is a fourth-century BCE Greek, not a first-century CE Jew. He cites Jeremias (Parables of Jesus) as additional support, without acknowledging that Jeremias, as proof that running would be "most unusual and undignified for an aged Oriental," merely cites Weatherhead (who, again, provides no sources other than Aristotle). Bengel's Gnomon of the New Testament gets a citation too; it was published in 1742 and of course provides no sources for its claim that "parents are not ordinarily disposed to run and meet their children." So does a 1971 article by McLaurin that I was unable to obtain.
Finally, Bailey also cites as proof an anecdote about a pastor he knew whose congregation didn't accept him because they thought he walked too fast. I assume I don't need to explain why an anecdote about 20th-century Christian behavior is not useful for proving anything about the behavior of first-century Jews.
Levine cites even more members of the chorus insisting that the father's behavior was somehow un-Jewish.
Scott insists that Jewish fathers "were remote and figures of authority" and that "gentlemen of honor do not run except in cases of emergency."
Hultgren claims that it would have been "considered shameful in Semitic culture." (Perhaps one might remind him that "Semitic" is a language group, not a culture, and that the cultures of various Semitic language speakers in Malta, Eritrea, and Israel have no more in common than any other three randomly selected cultures.) This claim is echoed by Snodgrass.
David Buttrick (Presbyterian, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School) claims in Speaking Parables that, "The father in the parable is playing a role no proper Semitic patriarch would enact. He has left his honor behind, his position, his community standing.”
The idea that proper Jewish patriarchs never run anywhere would have come to a surprise to most Jewish listeners, given that running is a behavior that typifies Abraham, the Jewish patriarch par excellence, and other Jewish patriarchs and their family members in the Torah:
Abraham ran to do things considerably less world-shaking than seeing a long-lost son. When he's recovering from his circumcision, he notices three men standing nearby and runs to greet them.
When they agree to stay for lunch, he runs to his herd to fetch some protein.
Upon hearing that his nephew Jacob has come to visit, Laban runs to meet him.
Upon seeing his brother Jacob after years of estrangement, Esau runs to him and kisses him.
And even the dignified High Priest, Aharon, runs in certain circumstances.
Regardless of the opinions of ancient Greek gentiles of whose existence the majority of them were unaware, Jewish dads in the first century most likely ran to greet beloved family members just like their ancestors and role models.
The first detail most Christian exegetes comment on is the son's request to receive his inheritance early, which they are certain is a sin of some sort.
Alyce McKenzie hammers home the idea that this request is tantamount to wishing the father dead:
The essence of a man's inheritance at that time was land, and the only way it could be received was on the father's death. Thus, his request was essentially, "Father, I wish you would drop dead." Even though the father could divide the land before his death, he retained rights to the use of the land. The younger son, in selling his portion, left his father without rights to the land's use. A person's property was his until death, and the family's property was meant to maintain its oldest members until their death. So to demand his share early and then to dissipate it rather than to manage it responsibly for his parents' sake, is to say to his father, in effect, "You are already dead to me."
Paul Simpson Duke (a Baptist minister), in The Parables: A Preaching Commentary, makes a similar claim:
Since a man's property was his until his death, the son's request is disrespectful, even scandalous. For all practical purposes, he is pronouncing his father dead. Some scholars argue that the scandal does not lie so much in the request itself as in the son's liquidation of the property and squandering of it. A family's property had to maintain its oldest members for life. Whatever a son may have received before his parents' deaths would have to be managed responsibly for their sakes. Either in demanding his inheritance or in dissipating it, most likely in both, the younger son commits a kind of patricide.
(As usual, Christian commentators want to find something earth-shattering or "scandalous" in every utterance Jesus makes.)
There are numerous versions of this idea throughout Christian commentaries from almost every denomination. I won't bother quoting them all, since they all say pretty much the same thing and none of them are all that interesting.
What's troubling is that even Christian commentators who seem to have done some research into Jewish inheritance laws claim this same conclusion.
For example, Brad Young, a professor and graduate of Oral Roberts University, who I often see cited by Christians (along with Joachim Jeremias, who's problematic for a whole host of reasons), gives the following explanation in The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation:
Both Joachim Jeremias and David Daube have discussed the Jewish laws of inheritance that can clarify a number of points concerning the parable's setting in life. According to mishnaic law, a father could execute a will even before his death. This is what takes place in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The Jewish law of inheritance describes what happens in the parable. Even so, it would have been presumptuous for the younger son to initiate the execution of the will by the division of the estate while his father was still living. His request would have shocked the original audience of the parable. The provisions of the oral law, however, allowed a father to implement his will before his death. Hence, in accordance with the stipulations of the law, the father in the parable di-vided his estate between the heirs because of his younger son's request. In this parable, the dramatic shock effect of the story results from a son who takes the initiative and asks his father for the inheritance before his father dies. In essence the younger son was telling his father that he wanted him to die.
(Again, notice the emphasis on the idea that this is "shocking.")
If you genuinely want to understand the Jewish worldview(s) on a subject, please read actual Jewish sources rather than regurgitated Christian versions of them, because if you approach Jewish texts with the desire to "prove" that Jews think a certain way, you will absolutely find support for whatever you're trying to prove. We keep records of debates as our canon, and not just the conclusions of the winners. If you genuinely want to understand, however, you're better off not going in with a foregone conclusion. David Daube isn't a bad source, but Joachim Jeremias is a very suspect one, for reasons I'll address in a later section.
Luise Schottroff, always sensitive to anti-Jewish readings of the parables, and always interested first and foremost in treating human beings as human beings, whether they are characters in the parables or the gospel narratives or theoretical Jewish listeners, rightly scoffs at the idea that there was anything murderous about the younger son's request:
The younger son can expect a lesser inheritance than the firstborn. He asks, during his father's lifetime, for the share of the property that will come to him. "And he divided his property between them" (v. 12). The text gives no indication that the son's request is in any way reprehensible. The father fulfills his request. Thus it makes sense to him also.
Greg Carey (Stories Jesus Told), a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary (United Church of Christ) has one of the better takes I've seen from Christians, perhaps because he studied at Vanderbilt University while Dr. Amy-Jill Levine was a professor there:
Unfortunately, the sensationalism habit often expresses itself in contrasting Jesus’ behavior or his teachings with an imaginary and negative depiction of ancient Judaism. In the case of the Prodigal Son, some of us have heard that son would not expect a warm welcome from his father because of what he had done or that ancient fathers did not show affection to their children. Simply, hogwash. We have ample evidence of love and affection from ancient fathers, including Jewish fathers. Is it not enough simply to note that the father sees, feels compassion, runs, and hugs?
Bernard Jackson, a Jewish legal scholar, states flatly:
Jewish sources give no support to [the idea] that the prodigal, in seeking the advance, wishes his father dead... Here and elsewhere, Bailey works from a methodologically questionable premise: that one should interpret both the parable and near contemporary Jewish sources against a construct of “Middle Eastern” custom heavily informed by medieval Arab Christian interpretation and contemporary Arab custom. His argument, 1992:112–114, that the younger son’s request was so socially unacceptable as to evoke absolute horror (based on Sir. 33:19–23 (see n. 10, supra) and B.M. 75b) takes no account of the Mishnah’s regulation of such advances, M. B.B. 8:7(b), quoted infra, at 120. At 127f., he accepts that “the evil set forth in the story is primarily in terms of broken relationships, not broken laws. There is no specic legislation against a son requesting his inheritance from a relatively young healthy father.” Yet the degree of disparity Bailey’s argument implies between social acceptability and legal permissibility must prompt hesitation.
Bailey, who I'll cover in more detail below, wants to see the prodigal both as a sinner welcomed back into the divine embrace through grace, and as a parallel to Jacob. Yet the younger son's story bears very little resemblance to Jacob's: Jacob tricks his father and elder brother into granting him the elder's birthright and blessing at his mother's behest, yet leaves empty-handed, flees to his proto-Jewish uncle's holdings and there cleverly takes himself from poverty to wealth with the help of two wily women, meets his estranged brother and reconciles with him without any involvement from their father. He returns to his father a wealthy man with multiple wives and children, but their reunion is not described. Immediately after the text tells us he has returned, it describes the two brothers burying their father.
In contrast, the younger brother in the parable takes only what is his by right, and does so in a world without women. He leaves of his own accord and with a great deal of wealth, loses it among gentile strangers, returns out of desperation, is welcomed by his father, and does not reconcile with his brother.
Other than having a brother and leaving home, he has very little in common with Jacob.
Retrojected Christian theology, here, is both rewriting Jewish history and interfering with the ability to hear the parable as a story. The idea of a sinning child and a forgiving (Heavenly) Father preempts actually listening to and interpreting the story as a story and insists that the son must be committing a great wrong and the father must be behaving only with love, wisdom, and compassion. The idea that everything Jesus said must have been radical enough to scandalize listeners insists that the son's sin must have been shocking indeed.
But what was the younger son's "sin," exactly? It's not a sin—at least in Judaism—to ask for early inheritance; if it were, the Mishnah and Talmud would hardly provide instruction on how to do it legally. Neither is the son's choice of how to spend his money a wrong done to his father: once the inheritance is given, it is the son's to spend as he wishes.
Asking for an early inheritance is certainly inadvisable, as is squandering it in a foreign land, but foolishness is not automatically a crime (and in Judaism, there is no distinction between "sin" and "crime"). While rabbinic writings do not look kindly on such a situation, they save the bulk of their disapproval for the foolishness of the father who agrees to such a request. Young adults often want too much, too fast, too far away. This does not mean that it is compassionate, loving, or wise for their parents to indulge them.
Moreover, focusing on the son's behavior requires departing from the focus and structure of the two other parables in the trilogy. The clear point of these stories is not that the sheep or the coin somehow sinned in being lost; the focus is on the joy of the one who reclaims them.
If we are to assume that the point of telling these stories in a series of three is to have the first two set the pattern and the third make its point in departing from them, the first place to look to identify such a departure is at the structure itself. And the difference there is not that the first son is lost, but that the story continues after the finding and attendant celebration.
Between the youngest son supposedly wishing death on his father, the father who supposedly should (as a "normal" Jewish father) cut off his son from any further contact instead of being glad he's alive, hypothetical villagers (spoiler alert) eager to humiliate and even murder the younger son, and an elder brother whose sin is often positioned as worse than the younger son's supposed murderousness, it seems that Christian exegetes are unable to imagine Jewish family relationships as existing in a normal human context of familial love.
Christian exegetes are so busy trying to fill the white space in the parable with imagined Jewish bogeymen that they usually neglect the far more interesting questions the parable raises, many of which are raised by Jewish legal scholar Bernard Jackson in Essays on Halakhah in the New Testament (quoted but reformatted and reordered here for easier reading):
What was the nature of the original division of the estate?
What did each of the sons get and what did the father retain, if anything (so as to be able to organise a feast on the fatted calf on the prodigal’s return)?
[D]id the gift to the younger son exclude him from all future interest in his father’s estate[?]
[D]id the father (despite his attempted reassurance to the older son at the end of the parable) either restore the younger son to his original position in the family or at least reintegrate him into the family as a (dependent) member with a claim for support?
When the prodigal “came to himself”, does this indicate “repentance” or just economic realism?
When he decided to confess to his father, was he sincere, or was he calculating that he would be able to manipulate his father’s natural emotions?
Is the father interested in the genuineness of his son’s apparent repentance?
Is his use of the language of dead/alive, lost/found to be taken literally or metaphorically?
When the prodigal returns, and the older son complains “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends”, did he not have his own share of the original division?
Is he just jealous of the feast, or does he have other, material fears regarding the return of the prodigal?
When the father responds: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”, what kind of reassurance is he giving, and ought the older brother to be satisfied with it?
When the father justifies the feast by saying: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found”, is the older son being rebuked[?]
[W]hat are the implications regarding the future relations between both father and older son and the two brothers?
Does the prodigal take the place of the older brother in his father's affections? And who do the older and younger sons represent?
What is the relationship between the socio-legal content of the parable (concerning property relations within the family), its overt theological meaning (concerning forgiveness) and its figurative theological message (the referents of the figures of the father and his sons, and the message concerning their inter-relations)?
[S]hould we allow the theological message to control our reading of the socio-legal situation depicted in the narrative, or should we, rather, proceed in the opposite direction?
In particular, which (if any) should we privilege in interpreting the meaning of the parable?
[W]hose time and institutions are we talking about?
Is it (to simplify the matter) Jesus’ Jewish audience, to whom we may attribute knowledge of at least basic halakhic institutions, or is it Luke’s gentile audience, to whom we may attribute (apart from somewhat different social institutions) a greater concern with the theological issues?
Despite the apparent disinterest of most Christian exegetes in these questions (primarily, one suspects, because attending to them means attending to the objections of the older son as more than just bitterness or petulance), we will return to a number of them.
But first, let's look at the norms of Jewish inheritance.
All of the laws and customs around inheritance during Jesus's time need to be understood in the context of the principle that the land does not actually belong to people; it belongs to God. At the time that the Children of Israel settled in Canaan, the land was divided into tribal territories, and then subdivided into holdings for individual families.
And the land shall not be sold irreversibly, for Mine is the land, for you are sojourning settlers with me. (Leviticus 25:23)
The Torah provides instructions for how to redeem the land if it is sold to another Jew. It is not to be sold to those outside the Jewish people, since such a sale might not be available to be "redeemed" (it might be an irreversible sale).
Every 50 years, there is a redistribution of the land to the original families:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and call a release in the land to all its inhabitants. A jubilee it shall be for you, and you shall go back each man to his holding and each man to his clan, you shall go back. It is a jubilee, the fiftieth year it shall be for you. You shall not sow and you shall not reap its aftergrowths and you shall not pick its untrimmed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy for you. From the field you may eat its yield. In this jubilee year you shall go back, each man to his holding. (Leviticus 25:10-13)
So to a certain extent, inheritance is irrelevant for more than a few generations. Any "sale" to a fellow Israelite is temporary, since in 50 years (or less), the land will revert to the original holders.
The concern with preserving the tribal allotments also necessitates patrilineal inheritance, since tribal status is inherited through the father's line (membership in the Jewish people as a whole is matrilineal, but tribal/caste status—to the extent that it is preserved for Levites and kohanim—is patrilineal). Daughters may inherit if there are no sons, but such an inheritance requires them to marry within their tribe. A daughter's dowry functioned as her inheritance. For a relatively brief overview of the Torah's system of inheritance, see this resource. The oldest son usually became head of the household upon his father's death, and received a double share of the inheritance.
Under normal circumstances, then, the older brother in the parable would have inherited 2/3 of the estate, and the younger brother would have received 1/3. Against this background, we can understand Sarah's worry that Yishmael will inherit as the oldest son over Yitzhak, and Yaakov's trickery to obtain his elder twin's birthright.
However, there were also a number of ways to alter that standard. The first is a deathbed gift, a shekhiv mera, which is how both Avraham and Yaakov dictated the fate of their estates. The Mishnah (Bava Batra 8:7a) also provides rules for providing gifts when a property holder is still healthy, known as a matanat bari. Similar arrangements are attested in the Elephantine Papyri, which date back to about 500 years before the time of Jesus. The standard for this type of gift is that the giver retains an interest until his death, but once he has gifted the property, he cannot do anything that would harm the receiver's future interest in it. However, the giver can choose to simply gift it outright.
The gift to the younger son in the parable must have been an outright gift, otherwise the son would not have been able to sell it and leave.
As Bernard Jackson explains:
Here, then, we have a clue to the concern of the older son regarding the fatted calf. If this forms part of the property which the father had given to the older son as a matanat bari (rather than retained himself ) the father was entitled to the income from such animals, but not to dispose of them to the prejudice of his son’s future interest. He has acted, as regards the fatted calf, as if he is still absolute owner, rather than simply having a life interest. The converse of this is the complaint of the older son that the father “never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends”: this recognises that he could not unilaterally dispose of farm animals, to the prejudice of his father’s life interest.
The older son might rightfully resent such an absolute gift to his brother, not out of jealousy, but because it reduces the overall value of the estate, and thus the income and resources of both the father and the older brother during the father's lifetime. In addition, as the younger brother's nearest relative, the older brother is the kinsman upon whom the primary responsibility to redeem the land—that is, to buy it back and restore the familial holdings—falls. So the younger brother gets to leave his older brother holding the bag, so to speak, while he goes on his merry way with the profits.
But a greater concern for the older is brother is what it means when his brother returns. Given that the younger brother received an absolute gift during the father's lifetime, not a deathbed one, does this mean that upon the father's death, he will inherit as normal? According to the Mishnah, these sort of gifts are not considered in the final disposition of the estate. If this ends up being the case, the younger brother will have ended up receiving 5/9 of the original estate, while the older brother will receive a lesser total share, 4/9 of the original.
Such questions may be answered by the language of both the younger son upon his return and that of the father in reassuring the older son.
As Jackson explains:
In fact, the prodigal’s language on greeting his father (encouraged, no doubt, by the father’s affectionate embrace) may perhaps imply that he does retain a legal entitlement, which he is prepared to renounce on moral grounds: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”, v. 21. On the other hand, the father’s response to the older son, “all that is mine is yours”, appears (unless we take it as a disingenuous reassurance) to presuppose just such a disinheritance of the prodigal.
There is some support for the idea that the younger son is not expected to return, and that his receipt of a gift from his father and departure excludes him from future inheritance, in rabbinic commentaries on Avraham's disposal of his estate. Avraham gifts land to his sons by Keturah and sends them away; the whole of his remaining property appears to go to Yitzhak upon his death.
It should be noted, however, that contrary to the way Christian commentators describe such a disinheritance, nothing in it presupposes any diminution of affection or familial membership for the younger son; it is hardly unusual that the father should be glad to see his son return. It merely affects inheritance.
If there is any break in affection, it seems to be on the part of the younger son, who departs for a distant land in a way that makes his father believe he'll never see him again in his lifetime.
A number of interpreters insist that the father would have performed a ceremony known as ketsatsah to "cut off" his son, disowning him forever.
David Daube, in an offhand comment in his 1955 article "Inheritance in Two Lukan Pericopes" (reprinted in 2000), remarked that ketsatash's "precise import has never been investigated." Bailey takes this up and spends a considerable amount of time analyzing whether it applies in this case in Poet and Peasant/Through Peasant Eyes, and concludes that it does in Finding the Lost Cultural Keys.
From here, Christian exegetes begin to make all sorts of assumptions. Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables) proclaims that the father would normally have subjected the son to some sort of "probationary period" before accepting him back as a son:
What is significant, however, is that the father welcomes him home without his having to demonstrate the genuineness of his repentance over any probationary period, a stunning contrast from conventional Jewish practice.
In Preaching the Parables, Blomberg goes further:
In [the son's] desperate plight, his only hope is to return home, even though he recognizes that his father may well have performed the standard Jewish ceremony of "cutting off" his wayward son and disowning him, a disowning that might not be revoked.
In a world in which many people do not have even generally good experiences with their biological fathers, it is important to stress how God as father is different from even the best earthly fathers. The typical Jewish father would have forever "cut off" his son with a formal ceremony—recall Tevye with his youngest daughter in "Fiddler on the Roof." This father does the exact opposite with his "re-investiture."
I cannot emphasize enough that Fiddler on the Roof is not a reliable source for information on normative first-century Jewish practice. (Moreover, Tevye disowned his daughter for marrying a Christian, not for asking for her inheritance early. A Christian like the ones that were committing pogroms. Whether it's reasonable to disown a child who marries someone who's a member of a group that's trying to genocide her parents is a different discussion.)
Barbara Reid (Parables for Preachers) claims that "[a] more expected reaction would have been for the father to rend his garments and declare his son disowned.”
This idea is one of many similar assertions that make Jewish culture in the first century out to be alien and inhumanly cruel. To read these commentaries is to see an image of "typical" Jewish families as incapable of normal familial love. Jews hated shepherds, we're told, because of alien and incomprehensible purity laws. Jews would have considered a woman losing a coin as having lost her sexual virtue. Jewish sons normally wished their fathers dead; if they remained close to them, it was merely to get the maximum inheritance. A Jewish father would disown his son, treating him as dead, for asking for money to go and see the world. A Jewish father would never express open joy at discovering a son he assumed was dead still leaves.
So what was ketsatsah, and how was it applied?
Bailey takes a text from the Qumran sect, the Testament of Kahat, which warns sons against squandering their inheritance or letting it fall into gentile hands, because gentiles will oppress, conquer, and humiliate them.
The ceremony as Christians imagine it is drawn from Ruth Rabbah, a relatively late text (c. 500 CE), that describes a public ceremony in which a son who sells the family's land to a gentile is "cut off" from the family (a status which is reversed when the land is redeemed):
Rabbi Yose the son of Avin: "Everyone who sells his field to a gentile, his kinsmen would bring vessels full of beans and nuts and they broke them before the children and the children gathered them and said "so and so" is 'cut off' from his inheritance. If it was returned, they said that "so and so has returned to his inheritance". In this way anyone who takes a wife and she is not allowed to him, his kinsmen would bring vessels full of beans and nuts and they broke them before the children and the children gathered them and said "so and so" is removed from his family". If he divorced her, they said that "so and so has returned to his family".
As I described in the Inheritance section above, selling land to gentiles created potential problems for the entire Jewish people in the Jubilee year, and violated the principle that the land belonged to God and was only lent to the Children of Israel for their use. It's unclear when or how often the ketsatsah ceremony was actually practiced, but it is absolutely plausible that someone who violated the nation's collective covenant with God might be both shunned by their family and humiliated by their neighbors until they restored the land to wholeness.
However, there is no indication in the parable that the younger son sold the land to gentiles. The gentiles in the story are in a far-off land, and the younger son leaves with money to spend. The most likely buyers are his neighbors. So even if the ketsatsah ceremony existed in Jesus's time, the younger son has done nothing to warrant being targeted by it.
There is a difference between financially disinheriting a son—that is, saying, "Okay, you can have your inheritance early, but that's all you're getting"—and disowning him, in the sense of shunning him and declaring him no longer part of the family, ending the relationship and withdrawing affection. Jackson concludes:
In short, there is a possible argument, based primarily on the midrash in Sanh. 91a, for an earlier stage of the halakhah in which an advance to a son involved his disinheritance from any final distribution. The parable may, on this view, provide supporting evidence of such an earlier stage in the development of the halakhah—provided, at least, that such an interpretation is coherent with its theological meaning and figurative message.
What's not in the parable is any indication of a break in affection on the father's part. He grants his son's request, and his assumption that his son is dead is presumably because the son has decided to move far away and hasn't communicated since leaving, not because of some cutting-off ceremony.
The Hypothetical Villagers
[HONOR AND SHAME CULTURES]
Not content with portraying Jewish fathers as generally too inhuman and incapable of normal parental love to express joy at discovering that a presumed-dead child lives, Bailey insists that all Jews of the time were like this.
To begin with, he insists that the father knew that his son would squander his inheritance and probably die:
Most likely the father expects his son to fail. He is assumed dead. If he makes it back, it will be as a beggar.
It would be quite cruel for a father who expects his gift to doom his son to death, or at least penury, to enable it if all he has to do to prevent it is to refuse to grant the son's inheritance early. If this is true, this isn't a parable about a son who screws up and is forgiven; it's a parable about a really bad father.
The father also knows how the village (which certainly has told him he should not have granted the inheritance in the first place) will treat the boy on his arrival. The prodigal will be mocked by a crowd that will gather spontaneously as word flashes across the village telling of his return.
The idea that a village that most likely includes other relatives of the boy, his childhood friends, and adults who watched him grow up would gather to mock and harass him instead of being glad he's alive makes Jews out to be malicious, cruel, and alien.
What is the evidence for this characterization of Jewish village life in the first century? Where is Bailey getting his information? Bailey, like Blomberg, cites Sirach as evidence that this is standard Jewish practice:
Ben Sirach mentions four things that terrify him. Two of them are "slander by a whole town, the gathering of a mob." The prodigal son returns to face both of Ben Sirach's terrors, the slander of a whole town and certainly the gathering of a mob.
So what does Ben Sirach actually say?
There are three things that I dread, and a fourth which terrifies me: slander by a whole town, the gathering of a mob, and a false accusation—these are all worse than death.
One might note, if one were being pedantic, that Bailey actually misrepresents the quote. These things are included in the category of things that Ben Sirach dreads; the "terrifying" situation is the jealous wife in the next verse. One might also note that if receiving one's inheritance early and leaving home is enough to call forth mob justice, the son is not being slandered, since he did indeed do the thing in question.
But in any case, while we can all agree with Ben Sirach that the idea of being slandered by an entire town, being the target of a mob, and being the victim of a false accusation are truly awful situations, you'll note that nothing in this verse describes under what circumstances these things are likely to happen. He doesn't say "a kid who gets his inheritance early and squanders it is going to face a mob if he ever comes home."
Neither the parable itself nor the Ben Sirach quote cited as proof that this will be the son's reception provide any support for the idea of an angry mob, or that the son's neighbors wouldn't be glad to find out he's still alive. (My beloved great-aunt certainly grumbled a lot about my choice to move halfway across the continent after college, but that didn't stop her from welcoming me home when I visited.)
Bailey also cites as proof an unsourced assertion that "tight-knit Oriental villages" engage in mob justice—when a wife is caught in adultery. This is certainly plausible for Jewish villages in the first century, but it ignores that cheating on a spouse and going off to see the world when one reaches adulthood are not the same thing.
Bailey, warming to the idea of all Jewish villagers as spiteful ghouls who hate the children in their communities, continues:
As soon as the prodigal reaches the edge of the village and is identified, a crowd will begin to gather. He will be subject to taunt songs and many other types of verbal and perhaps even physical abuse.
No sources are cited for the idea that this is custom for sons who leave home.
By the time Bailey's done, the father is "running the gauntlet" on behalf of his son, risking humiliation and abuse himself.
This claim then spreads throughout other Christian commentaries, repeated uncritically by authors such as Barnewell:
The village would have been scandalized and offended by the son's behavior, and would likely have taunted and perhaps even physically harmed him for the way he treated his father. However, the father's actions would protect him from the town's hostility and enable him to be restored to fellowship among them.
A few interpretations go even farther:
The most extreme of these readings claims that the father ran to protect the son from the ire of the locals who, knowing of the son’s shameful behavior, would be likely to stone him and that the father holds a dinner party “as a gesture of reconciliation with the villagers.” We thus go from a loving father who desperately misses his son and, like his predecessors who find their sheep and coin, rejoices when he sees him to an intolerant Jewish father and his bloodthirsty Jewish neighbors who cannot wait to stone the son who shamed his father.
All of this ignores that there are no villagers in the parable itself; the only scenes in the story are set on the father's property and in the distant land. The only characters in the story are the father, the two sons, a slave, and a citizen of the far country.
One suspects that various Christian interpretations that see the younger son as an allegory for Jesus would like to further cement the allegory by imagining a bloodthirsty Jewish mob eager for his death.
Honor and Shame Cultures
It's common among the sources that claim the father was expected to cut the younger son off, or even that he was protecting the son from potential violence at the hands of the other villagers, to explain that first-century Jews had an "honor-shame culture."
This intrigued me, because honor isn't really a concept we talk about in contemporary Judaism, and we talk more about guilt than shame. The Torah uses a term, kavod, which literally means "weight," but usually gets translated as "honor" or "glory." However, most of the time when it's used, it's referring to the glory of God, not to humans' personal characteristics. And it doesn't really talk about shame at all. There's a single use of a term that could be translated as "shame," which means to be whispered about, in Exodus 32:35.
So if it's not there at the start of our written culture, and it's not there today, where does this "honor and shame culture" come from? And what does it even mean?
Defining an "honor-shame society" isn't quite as easy as you'd think it would be for something that's presented as an accepted anthropological concept. As I usually do when I want to explore a concept, I started out by simply googling it, which usually helps me find the names of foundational texts about it. Web results alone usually aren't going to teach me everything I need to know about a complex concept, but they will give me an overview and point me to more detailed sources.
The results for googling "honor-shame society" were not what I'd expect.
Generally, when you google a concept in anthropology or sociology, you get predictable first-page results.
If I google "kinship structure," the definition at the top of the page is from the Sociology Index. There are results from various encyclopedias, universities, libraries, and academic journals. The same thing happens if I google "material culture."
When I google "honor-shame culture," the results look pretty different. The top of the page gives me a definition from Wikipedia, which is normal. But then things get weird. The first result is from honorshame.com—the concept has its own website, apparently!—which turns out to be subtitled Resources for Global Ministry. The next link is to the "Bible Project" podcast. The next is from the "Lausanne Movement" ("Connecting influencers and ideas for global mission"), and then there's a link from thegospelcoalition.org. After that, at last, there's a journal article! It's from Missiology: A Global Review. After that, there's what looks like the website of a Christian motivational speaker ("communicating biblical truth with cultural awareness"), then a journal article from the Journal of Biblical Literature, and finally, an Amazon link to a book about evangelizing to members of honor-shame cultures.
In other words, while most anthropological concepts attempt to better understand different aspects of human cultures and different types of cultures simply to understand them, and attempt to do that from as neutral a framework as possible, the concept of honor-shame cultures appears to be primarily discussed in Christian circles, and exists as a framework for evangelism (that is, to market to certain cultures and ultimately change them, rather than to simply understand them).
That second journal article begins:
That honor and shame were (and for the most part) remain pivotal cultural values in the Mediterranean is really beyond question.
But is that true? It's unclear whether this is actually a widely accepted concept outside mission work. The Wikipedia article (not a source I'd rely on, but usually a good place to start looking for references) on the subject is filled with  notes and has a flag asking for help from an expert in sociology. The article downplays the heavily Christian basis of most writing on the subject, and instead cites Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), a now thoroughly debunked American treatise on Japanese culture, as the source.
Either way, it seems that the concept of "honor-shame cultures" is largely an attempt to exoticize non-Western, non-Christian cultures and to simplify and flatten differences between cultures into something that can be consumed by non-sociologists in an hour or two.
Much as with other aspects of this parable, attempts to understand first-century Judaism in this framework appear to be based on accounts of contemporary Palestinian Christians. While modern Palestinian Christians live in the same area that first-century Jews once lived in, any attempt to use their culture to understand first-century Judaism through their practices must reckon with the fact that they're 1) Arab, not Jewish, 2) Christian, not Jewish, and 3) 2000 years removed.
Finally, attempts to distinguish between so-called "shame cultures" and so-called "guilt cultures" claim that the former are characterized by concern over appearances and fear of ostracism, while the latter are characterized by concern for individual conscience and perhaps fear of punishment in the afterlife or via laws. In the most generous interpretation, this describes communal-focused versus individual-focused cultures, but the idea that individuals in shame cultures are motivated by appearance while individuals in guilt cultures are motivated by conscience suggests a moral hierarchy in which guilt cultures are more advanced (and lawful) than shame cultures.
(We see here yet another example of how Jews, in the Christian imagination, are incredibly protean—we're rigid and law-obsessed when that's what Christians need from a cultural foil, and primitively lawless with our Dionysian shame culture as opposed to enlightened Apollonian respect for the law when they need that from us.)
The truth of the matter is that humans are motivated by both shame and guilt (as defined in this framework). Human beings are social creatures—we care what other people think of us because we need other people. Human societies—regardless of where they reside—come up with rules and consequences for breaking them, and people are motivated by that as well. Our behavior is motivated by a mix of concern for how others will perceive us and individual conscience, and individual conscience itself is socially mediated.
In other words, all human cultures are both guilt and shame cultures, and that there isn't any distinction in the shame-guilt binary that can't be better explained via a communitarian-to-individualist spectrum.
Attempts to impose this structure on first-century Jewish communities leads to obfuscation, not clarity.
So far, everything about this story—the son's request for early inheritance, the father's grant of the request, and the father's joy at seeing his son again—is well within the everyday norms of Jewish life in the first century.
If Christian commentators want to find something remarkable in this family portrait, they might start with the conspicuous absence of any women.
If, as Bailey would have it, the younger son is supposed to be a parallel to Yaakov, where is the parallel to the all-important figure of Rivka? A better parallel might be that of Yosef, the youngest son spoiled and cosseted because of his father's grief over his dead, beloved mother. (Unlike the prodigal, however, Yosef and Yaakov find prosperity and success rather than disaster in a foreign land.)
Where is the mother when the younger son returns and receives a welcome home party?
To me, the ghosts of Rachel and Sarah haunt this story. The tension between Yitzhak and Yishmael, between Yosef and his brothers, derives at least in part from tension between their mothers. Perhaps the brothers in the parable are children of different women. Or perhaps they are both the sons of a deceased, beloved wife, and the indulged younger son is indulged because he is the last part of her left to his father.
The absence of women in the parable is echoed in the lack of feminine input into opinions on how the father would have been expected to behave. Bailey bases his claims about how "Oriental patriarchs" behave on his own assumptions, on the words of Ben Sirach, and on the claims of male Christians in the Middle East.
Levine notes drily:
As for what “typical oriental patriarchs” might do, today’s scholars sometimes derive their models not from ancient sources, but from contemporary Muslim and Christian informants in the Middle East. One major problem with such fieldwork approaches is that the questioners sometimes forget to ask the women. Biblical scholar Carol Shersten LaHurd, reading the parable with Yemenite women, posed the question: “What would your husband do if his son returned home after wasting all his money?” The women unanimously agreed that the father would lovingly welcome the son, especially if he were a child of his old age.
In a sort of bizarre tacit acknowledgment that there is a missing mother in this story, Christian commentators attempt to turn the father into both father and mother.
His behavior is strange—fathers did not run to their children. This is more maternal behavior, as is the kiss. Here the father exposes himself to humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated.
Levine offers even more extreme examples from Buttrick:
From the father’s concerns for food and clothes, several exegetes fatten up the view that the father with “bread enough to spare” is gender-bending or, to put the point directly, “In a way, he is behaving like a mother—kissing, dressing, feeding.” The next step is of course to claim, “This father abandons male honor for female shame.”
The idea that a father behaving like a mother is "shameful" could be an essay in itself, but we don't have time to unpack all that.
What's notable is that providing for a son's physical needs is hardly relegated to the realm of women in Jewish practice (in fact, a Jewish marriage contract specifies that a husband must provide these things for his wife), and kissing among men was a normal, unremarkable practice between kin. (See, for example, Yaakov and Esav's reunion.)
Rather than straining to find feminine traits in the father's behavior and to claim them as some sort of characteristic of radical divine love, it might be simpler to note the absence of a mother and ask what that means for the story.
We might also note that women aren't just missing from the story, they're largely missing from the commentary on it. This absence may account for some of the bizarre and extreme claims made about first-century Judaism, as Levine describes:
As for what “typical oriental patriarchs” might do, today’s scholars sometimes derive their models not from ancient sources, but from contemporary Muslim and Christian informants in the Middle East. One major problem with such fieldwork approaches is that the questioners sometimes forget to ask the women. Biblical scholar Carol Shersten LaHurd, reading the parable with Yemenite women, posed the question: “What would your husband do if his son returned home after wasting all his money?” The women unanimously agreed that the father would lovingly welcome the son, especially if he were a child of his old age.
Between the certainty that Jewish fathers would never run to greet a long-lost child, and that Jewish sons tended to wish their fathers dead, one gets the impression that Jewish families are incapable of normal familial love, that Jewish parents are inhumanly harsh, that they put strict adherence to arid custom above natural parental affection.
Ironically, modern Jewish parents regularly come under fire from the dominant Christian cultures in which they live for being too indulgent, too permissive, for raising spoiled, effete Jewish sons and demanding Jewish American Princess daughters. Unless, that is, Jewish parents are declaring their children dead to them for relatively mild offenses, like marrying a gentile, parental love dissipating beneath the weight of a Tradition. As usual, Jews appear to be protean figures, changing shape to serve as a foil for whatever Christian virtue is at issue, whether it's Christ-like parental forgiveness or Protestant discipline. We're damned if we do, damned if we don't—literally, since it's religion in question.
So, are contemporary Jewish parents unusually indulgent?
It seems to me that they're perceived to be by non-Jews. Anecdotally, I have ample experience both with overhearing non-Jewish mothers tut-tutting at parties about how the Jewish kids were spoiled and with Christians attending Jewish services and expressing dismay that the congregation doesn't shush children who talk or yell or cry during the service. The World Culture Encyclopedia claims, "Though Jewish families have fewer children, they are often described as child-oriented, with family resources freely expended on education for both boys and girls... Jewish parents are indulgent and permissive and rarely use physical punishment." While it may not be an accurate source for the reality of non-majority cultures, it probably is a good representation of common perceptions. Sometimes this perception involves admiration, especially for Jewish pedagogical techniques. It also characterizes the focus on children as extreme: mid-century writer A.I. Gordon (Jews in Transition) explains, "The financial burdens that Jewish parents in suburbia gladly bear for what they regard as the best interests of their children is often astonishing [and sometimes disturbing] to persons who are aware of the sacrifices these entail."
It's also clear that Jews perceive Jewish cultural norms to include permissive, indulgent parenting, and see the Jewish approach to child-rearing as child-centered rather than parent-centered. Sometimes this is a source of pride; sometimes it is a source of anxiety; either way, as with all things Jewish, it is a source of debate.
This extreme focus on children, whether real or imagined, is modern. As the Jewish Virtual Library notes: "While concern for the well-being and education of children is basic to Jewish tradition, the child-oriented behavior of American Jewish families is a more recent phenomenon." A common explanation for contemporary Jewish culture's focus on children is that it's a response to the Shoah: having only barely escaped extinction, contemporary Jews treat every Jewish child as a miracle.
However, perceptions of ancient Jewish child-rearing, as the previous sections on interpretations of the prodigal son parable demonstrate, tend to be in stark contrast.
It's hard to determine what attitudes toward children were two thousand years ago, since writers of the time rarely explicitly described normative cultural assumptions about everyday life, which has allowed Christians to fill the blank space with whichever assumptions best support their theology. Alfred Edersheim, a Victorian Christian biblical scholar, departs from the norm in his description of biblical Jewish child-rearing practice, perhaps because he was born to a Jewish family. Edersheim makes an argument for a biblical "tenderness of the bond which united Jewish parents to their children" rooted in language, in "the multiplicity and pictorialness of the expressions by which the various stages of child-life are designated in the Hebrew," claiming that "those who so keenly watched child-life as to give a pictorial designation to each advancing stage of its existence, must have been fondly attached to their children."
Certainly, the text and the self-conception of the Jewish nation that it shapes (or documents) suggest a focus on children: the relationship between the Eternal and the Jewish people is sealed by the promise of a child to an infertile couple, and each of the three founding families struggles with infertility. Indeed, the whole of Genesis is primarily occupied with family matters; God's importance seems to be expressed primarily through God's aid to Judaism's founding families in finding spouses, surviving sibling rivalries, and bearing and raising children. The Tanakh rings with the voices of women pleading for children, demanding them, praying for them, giving them powerful and significant names, and planning and scheming to give them every advantage in life. (This is curious, given that Jewish law considers procreation a commandment from which women are exempt.)
Archaeological data shows that the status of children in the ancient Middle East was not that different from the status of children today: children were both valued and vulnerable to violence from adults. Archaeology reveals that ancient Jewish parents sewed talismans into their children's clothing to protect them from harm, and crafted toys and games for them. Jewish parents kept an eye on children both indoors and outdoors. They played and made toys together, and parents kept their young children's clumsy attempts at art, much as modern parents hang drawings on refrigerators. Despite insistence that parents had children primarily as a source of free labor, Clark Nardinelli notes that the "consensus from the development literature, then, is that throughout history children have not been profitable investments in agricultural societies," yet unlike the Greek philosophers, Judaism unwaveringly condemned infanticide.
In other words, the idea that it was in any way radical, or even unusual, for the father in the parable to be overwhelmed with joy at seeing his son again is in contradiction to all the existing evidence about how ancient Jewish parents felt about their children.
Explicitly Anti-Jewish Readings
In addition to readings that implicitly set up first-century Judaism as a negative foil for Jesus's teachings, there are plenty of readings that explicitly position Judaism as the problem Jesus came to fix. Such readings generally focus on Luke's setting of the parable trio as a rebuke to the Pharisees, equate the older brother with the Pharisees or with Jews as a whole, and equate the younger son with gentiles.
A Rebuke to the Pharisees
The anti-Jewish reading starts with Luke, who sets the trio of parables as a response to the Pharisees questioning Jesus's choice to dine with tax collectors. One could easily read this as a discussion, rather than a war, in which the Pharisees issue a criticism, Jesus responds, and the conversation continues. There's little point, after all, in trying to have a conversation with people who are acting in bad faith, or hostile beyond reconciliation. Like other Pharisees, Jesus was unlikely to debate with people whose morals or ideology were incompatible with his own, but rather with those who were largely on the same page but differed on details. Luke, of course, is stacking the deck by not allowing the Pharisees a response; most likely, they responded to Jesus's parables with their own.
But most Christian commentators seem to want to read this exchange as being the height of hostility, and can't imagine the Pharisees as anything other than mustache-twirling villains.
THOSE WHO DO NOT NEED TO REPENT
Blomberg (Interpreting the Parables) gets stuck on his horror at the idea of Pharisees as people who aren't particularly sinful:
One controversial exegetical conclusion has been assumed in the foregoing analysis. The phrase "persons who do not need to repent" (Lk 15:7) has been taken at face value. But if Jesus had the Pharisees and scribes in mind as those who were not rejoicing at the salvation of sinners, how could he refer to them so positively? Many assume that Jesus' reference to those who do not need to repent reflects irony or sarcasm; by the "righteous" he really meant the "self-righteous."
As he notes, however, the term "righteous" isn't used sarcastically or ironically elsewhere in Luke, and there is nothing in the stories that suggests that either the 99 sheep who don't stray or nine coins that aren't lost are somehow less valuable than the lost ones, merely that the owner rejoices more over reclaiming a lost possession than in the continued ownership of the other possessions.
But Christian commentators remain both insistent that the parable trio was addressed to the Pharisees and indignant at the idea that Jesus could have been serious in characterizing them as those who need no repentance. David Wenham (The Parables of Jesus), an Anglican professor at Trinity College in Bristol, is almost incoherent:
There is ... no need to infer that Jesus' reference to "ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" means that he saw the Pharisees and their ilk as really righteous. It is obvious from other things he said, for example from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector ... that he did not. But Jesus' words are both an explanation of his ministry to those who saw themselves as the ninety-nine—which was logical on their own premises—and also an explanation of God's priorities as they truly are, since he really does rejoice more over the bringing back of the lost than over anything else.
Jared C. Wilson (The Storytelling God) tries to have it both ways, taking Jesus at his word while also insisting that he's somehow being sarcastic about the Pharisees:
[I]t is quite possible Jesus means for the ninety-nine persons who need no repentance to both positively refer to saved sinners already in the sheepfold (as the father assures the older brother that all he has is his) and negatively refer to the smug self-satisfaction of the grumbling Pharisees and scribes who believed they needed no repentance.
Wilson makes the common Christian move of associating the people with whom Jesus hung out and the marginalized in today's society, by using the term "undesirables" to characterize them (a term which I'm sure has never been used in good faith about other human beings, and not one which we have any record of Jews using to characterize collaborators).
The horror, the horror! Didn't Jesus's mama teach him any better? What possible good could come from consorting with these undesirables? Certainly no good to the self-righteous religious establishment.
It's worth noting, again, that the term "sinner" is rarely defined in the gospels, but on most occasions when we're given a sense of what someone's "sin" is, it's in reference to a wealthy person failing in their obligations to the poor. One could argue that wealthy tax collectors were "marginalized" in the sense of being pushed to the margins of Jewish society, having chosen to side with the Roman occupiers instead of their occupied kinspeople, but mob enforcers aren't exactly marginalized in the same way the disabled, LGBT people, racial and religious minorities, and other oppressed groups are marginalized. (And tax collectors were, in no sense, "the least of these," as Wilson suggests.) To pretend that social consequences for choosing to enrich yourself at the expense of already suffering people is the same as genuine persecution is disingenuous. One needn't be "self-righteous" to object to welcoming Pharma Bro to one's dinner table, especially if one has family members who've died because they couldn't afford medication.
Strangely, one of the few Christian commentaries I could find that at least made some effort to understand why Jesus's Jewish neighbors might have ostracized some of their kinspeople without simply dismissing it as snobbery or religious mania was in a book I would have assumed, from the title, was going to be an example of authoritarian, patriarchal, and bigoted Christianity, Osmond A. Lindo, Sr.'s Real Men Read Jesus' Parables:
The tax collectors were hated as traitors because they were Jewish men who collected taxes from their own people for the occupying Roman Empire. They paid taxes to Rome upfront and had to get their money back with a profit by charging more than was due and becoming rich in the process... they were in essence loan sharks (Leviticus 25:36-38)...
Tim Ware (The Parables of Jesus), at least, acknowledges that it's not like these people had stopped doing the harms that made their neighbors decline to socialize with them:
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that these so-called sinners Jesus was hanging around with had reformed. The Bible does not indicate that. This has enormous implications for how we view Jesus.
We do, however, run up against Jewish law when Wilson characterizes Jesus as advertising forgiveness from sins and approval from God and himself as a one-stop shop at which people could get both. In Jewish law, God can forgive offenses against God (generally, ritual failures), but God cannot forgive harm done to other people on behalf of the victims. Forgiveness for sins against other humans must come from those other humans. For Jesus to claim that one could receive it from him, instead of from those to whom the harm was actually done, was potentially something with which the other Pharisees might have taken issue.
One imagines that the victims of those harms might have joined them in taking issue with it.
WHAT ABOUT THE VICTIMS?
Blomberg addresses feminist criticism of this trio of parables, which he usually avoids acknowledging, when it touches on how the victims of serious harm might feel about their abusers being offered forgiveness on tap.
Beavis, from a feminist perspective, is again rightly concerned that victims of abuse who have continued to remain faithful to Christ could, on this interpretation, appropriately identify themselves with those who need no repentance but object that their perpetrators who sincerely repent are said to be more favored by God. For that matter, other faithful believers who have not been so abused could be similarly upset, without falling into the egocentric trap of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son...
Beavis correctly points out how well-meaning Christians have too quickly applied the model of welcoming back the prodigal to people in positions of power who deliberately sin against the vulnerable and claim cheap grace because they liken themselves to prodigals. The concern for such abuse of the parable is very legitimate but the better way to avoid it is to recognize that the father in the story is not the prodigal, and that abusive individuals who take no substantive steps toward changing their behavior have not even begun to "return home" and thus dare not be treated like the younger son in this story.
Ironically, this is exactly the position of the Pharisees: those who wish to be forgiven must take substantive steps toward changing their behavior, and the most likely root of disagreement between Jesus and other Pharisees. The tax collectors with whom Jesus dines have not ceased to be tax collectors. They have taken no substantive steps toward changing their behavior. Forgiveness without repentence is exactly the "cheap grace" Beavis is worried about.
It takes, as we might say, a certain amount of chutzpah to turn around and endorse the same position that you claim puts another group outside of divine approval.
One might note that for all the Christian claims that Jesus's teachings are difficult and radical, most Christian interpretations of them are relatively banal. It's hardly radical to suggest that one should have compassion for other human beings, or that one should be forgiving. Such banalization has the effect of positioning anyone who isn't an adherent as especially stupid, or especially evil. After all, who can reasonably argue against basic compassion? Yet, as Beavis's concerns demonstrate, the position is disingenuous.
The backtracking on this particular issue is, in that light, actually understandable: to take the traditional Christian interpretation of this parable as representing radical forgiveness, even in the absence of repentance, let alone recompense (the prodigal returns not because he's sorry, but because he's starving)—let alone the privileging of the returned wrongdoer over the never-straying wronged—is indeed difficult. That position might, unlike most of what Christians claim is radical about Jesus' teachings, be truly utopian. For to create a community that engages in that kind of radical forgiveness without devouring those who are harmed, a community that is safe for the powerless, Christians would have to create a society in which systemic harm isn't possible, and in which harms between individuals cannot be repeated. It's a noble dream, but one can presumably understand why in the absence of perfect justice, reasonable and compassionate people might prefer to pursue achievable accountability instead of an ideal.
Wilson then expands upon the supposed "undesirables" with whom Jesus was willing to associate:
When Jesus went around extending the right hand of fellowship to tax collectors, prostitutes, adulteresses, lepers, dernoniacs, and half-breeds, the Pharisees and scribes could sense that their monopoly on "God's favor" was in serious jeopardy. Jesus clearly taught with authority and clearly commanded serious power, and now he was tapping into a virtually untouched demographic.
With the exception of collaborators like tax collectors and potentially some sex workers with Roman clientele, these are not groups with which the Pharisees refused to work, so they're hardly a "virtually untouched demographic." (One might note the Torah's position on lepers is that, far from being untouchable, they merit the personal attention of the kohanim.) The Pharisees had no issue trying to help people find their way back to God; they did, however, require more than lip service as repentance. And "half-breeds"? Where, exactly, are they mentioned in the gospels?
J. Ellsworth Kalas (Parables from the Backside) comes close to acknowledging that there might have been a reason that most Jews didn't want to have a friendly dinner with tax collectors.
It's hard to know just how bad these sinners were. Some, like the tax collectors, were patently dishonest and were traitors to their own people. Others were women of the street. But most of the group that laid the strongest claim to Jesus were run-of-the-mill sinners: people who didn't fulfill the rather intricate requirements of the Jewish ceremonial and religious law, particularly as the meticulously religious interpreted it.
Oddly, even in acknowledging that sins may differ in magnitude, he seems to class "women of the street" with "traitors to their own people" rather than "run-of-the-mill sinners." While the implied association of the two in the gospels should make Christians curious about why two seemingly unrelated classes of wrongdoing seem to be related in the eyes of the Pharisees (an association which, again, I think can be explained by the fact that sex workers in Roman-occupied Judea served Roman clientele—placing them, like tax collectors, in the category of (suspected) collaborators), they seem content to accept that these two categories are equal in severity. That acceptance, I think, says more about Christian attitudes toward sex than it does about Pharisaic views.
Christian theology seems to be self-contradictory on whether all sin is equally bad, as exemplified in this article from the universal-sounding Christianity.com. On one hand, it acknowledges that sins may result in different degrees of harm, but it also declares that all sin cuts one off from God, and that all sin is equal on the cross. (In Judaism, by contrast, all wrongdoing may create degrees of distance between oneself and the Eternal, as harm or a breach of trust in any relationship does, but it's not a binary in which one is either cut off or whole.)
Most of these commentaries seem to be trying to make Judaism appear unreasonable, claiming that what the Pharisees cut people off for was minor failures to fulfill a labyrinthine and incomprehensible set of alien rules.
As Kalas describes it:
But most of them had lost the feeling for the commandments characterized by the psalmist when he sang, "How love I thy law!" Instead, they had come to see the Law as a set of painful restrictions which not only must be obeyed but also carefully scrutinized to determine if the restrictions could be made even more exact and demanding.
This attitude seems to come from Paul, who characterizes Jewish practice as impossible to follow and painfully demanding. (This attitude led at least one early Christian sect, the Ebionites, to claim that far from being a Pharisee, Paul was actually a failed convert to Judaism.)
However, this is not how most Jews—especially Jews who live in Jewish communities—experience Judaism. Keeping kosher in contemporary times, with pork belly on every fancy menu and bacon practically used as a spice instead of a meat, isn't particularly hard, even when one isn't living among other Jews, if one eats a vegetarian diet. It also wasn't likely very hard for first-century Jews living in exclusively Jewish communities. One can't easily eat pork when the nearest pig is several days' journey away. Contemporary Orthodox Judaism does, indeed, have a system of kashrut that is highly demanding, but most of those details were developed considerably later. Keeping kosher, for a first-century Jew living in Jerusalem or Bethlehem, likely wasn't any more difficult than following the dietary customs of ancient Athens was for Athenians. Nor were most other practices, like attaining a state of ritual purity before visiting the Temple, likely particularly difficult when one was living in a society centered around them.
And the point of restrictions beyond what is in the Torah isn't to "determine if the restrictions could be made even more exact and demanding." The difficulty wasn't the point. The point was to ensure one didn't accidentally transgress. Thus, if the Torah says don't boil a kid in its mother's milk, the rabbis said just don't eat meat and dairy together to ensure you're not combining the flesh of an animal with milk from its mother. Today, the likelihood of that happening might seem slim; in a time when people raised and bred their own animals, the chance that the fatted calf for dinner might have come from the same cow one milked this morning was anything but slim.
Yet Kalas insists that Jewish practice was so labyrinthine (and unpleasant!) that any ordinary person would inevitably screw it up, and that the Pharisees would have nothing to do with anyone who did so.
The Pharisees and scribes, who were considered the best people around (especially in their own eyes), wouldn't have anything to do with such people. These people were forbidden to eat in their homes or to be their guests.
Wm. F. Bekgaard (The Parables of Jesus Revisited) imagines the Pharisees as having complete "revulsion" for most human beings (no sources are cited, of course, for his claims about normal Pharisaic practice):
Within this group, it could be expected that along with the despised tax collectors there might well have been harlots, drunkards, and any of low morality or social standing, such as those of certain trades or disreputable callings... The Pharisees had a very strict code of conduct for themselves when they were in a position to be confronted by sinners. If they saw such persons while walking, they would cross to the other side, away from them, to utterly avoid any contact or speech with them. This practice by the Pharisees even extended to women walking on the street.
A theme we'll see a lot in these claims is, of course, that this revulsion had to do with ritual purity, as in Maxie Dunham's Twelve Parables of Jesus:
That is just the scandal of Jesus’ gospel that the Pharisees couldn't tolerate. Jesus was accepting sinners who had no understanding of the law or of what purity required, who made no attempt to conform to religious requirements, and—instead of first reforming them—Jesus ate with them.
Wilson expands on this idea:
It was in fact his primary demographic. Jesus was enjoying popularity among a great number of the common folk; now he was enlarging his constituency by treating outsiders like—gasp!—normal people. Which is to say, he treated all people like they needed forgiveness for sins and approval from God and like they could get both directly from him.
Yet the Pharisees also enjoyed popularity—and considerable affection—among the common folk, which they hardly would have obtained if they couldn't treat them like—gasp!—normal people. If Wilson's and Kalas's characterization of the Pharisees as unwilling to associate with anyone who failed to keep up with a nearly impossible-to-satisfy set of demands were accurate, the Pharisees would have been able to associate with no one, including each other, and would hardly have enjoyed the widespread popularity among the common people that Josephus and other Sadducees found so threatening.
A few commentators allow that there might have been a few Pharisees who weren't completely evil. John Zehring (Favorite Parables of Jesus of Nazareth), a United Church of Christ pastors, acknowledges that:
We must not presume all Pharisees were on the wrong track. There were Pharisees who attempted to live a life of faithfulness to God. Some of Jesus’ supporters were Pharisees, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
Bekgaard, while assuring us that most Pharisees were murderous enemies of God, is willing to salvage a handful:
To have such a view implies that he ignores the need these religious leaders had for the truth and also implies that they were beyond repentance or help. It is certainly true that some of these leaders hated him, plotted against him, and as a final rejection, orchestrated his death. But this was not the attitude of all of that company, for some did come to seek the truth and did believe (John 3:1, 2; the account of Nicodernus; and Acts 13:3). Christ's mission was not to provoke the Pharisees to jealousy and sin but to save.
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are, of course, two NT figures who are presumed by Christians to have converted to Christianity and are venerated as saints in Catholicism. In other words, the only good Jew is one who's stopped being Jewish.
That's an understandable attitude, however, given that they seem to be unable to imagine a Judaism that any sane person would want to practice. Here's R.T. Kendall (The Parables of Jesus):
The Pharisees had no appreciation of the Father's love and no sympathy for a profligate sinner... Did you ever think about the fact that it took courage for Jesus to do this? It must have taken a lot of courage to welcome people whose reputation and appearance offended the Pharisees.
Kalas goes even further:
Basically, as William Barclay has pointed out, the scribes and Pharisees didn't really want such persons to be converted; they would rather they be destroyed. They despised them for their failure to fulfill the Law as they interpreted it, they wanted nothing to do with them, and they wished that they would disappear from the face of the earth.
Brad Young (The Parables of Jesus: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation) departs from the norm here and actually offers a corrective to the Christian trope that the Pharisees opposed the idea of sinners repenting and being welcomed back into the divine embrace and that of the community:
[T]he fact that the Pharisees themselves highly valued the return of the sinner... In all events, Jesus' response to criticism is not unlike the major trends toward spirituality in the teachings of the Pharisees. The piety, spirituality, and welcome for the sinner who truly repents is the same for both Jesus and the Pharisees. The success of Jesus' energetic outreach to sinners such as Levi should be received with joy rather than skepticism. Skeptics, however, do emerge from every tradition. Joy over a person who repents is in perfect harmony with traditional Jewish values... The issue was Jesus' willingness to search diligently for the lost. He sought spiritual renewal for others through personal involvement with them. He did not wait for the undesirables of society to approach him as a religious leader for spiritual guidance. Rather, he sought them out and demonstrated love and compassion through his personal association with them.
David Flusser, a Jewish NT commentator, explains in Reflections of a Jew:
Many modern theologians increasingly attempt to define the message of Jesus over against Judaism. Jesus is said to have taught something quite different, something original, unacceptable to the other Jews. The strong Jewish opposition to Jesus' proclamation is emphasized. To deal with such views is not the task of New Testament scholarship but belongs to modern research of ideology; yet Jewish parallels to the words of Jesus and the manner in which he revised the inherited material clearly refute the above assumptions. Even though he gave his own personal bent to Jewish ideas, selected from among them, purged and reinterpreted them, I cannot honestly find a single word of Jesus that could seriously exasperate a well intentioned Jew.
However, most commentators seem to find it easier to position the Pharisees as a foil to Jesus's message of forgiveness by insisting that they hated sinners and didn't want them to seek repentance or gain forgiveness. It's amazing how, in Christian eyes, Jews are clannish and tribalistic one moment, and wishing death and destruction upon each other the next.
By the time we get to Lauri Thuren (Parables Unplugged), a Finnish theologian, the Pharisees aren't just muttering about or arguing with Jesus: they're potentially going to murder him in broad daylight:
He seeks to protect himself, at least in order ro save his reputation. Perhaps he speaks for his life, wanting to avoid being stoned. Simultaneously, the story is a verbal counterattack. By demeaning the Pharisees and scribes in the eyes of the audience Jesus (and Luke) seek to dissociate the audience from persons who are labeled as villains.
Despite bloodthirsty Christian imaginings of Jewish mobs stoning people at the drop of a hat, executions required a full trial and sentencing, and the rabbis made obtaining a capital sentence considerably more difficult than we make it in contemporary America. Moreover, it's not clear that Jewish courts actually had the authority to carry out capital sentences under Roman rule. To claim that the Pharisees might have stoned Jesus immediately for telling a story is akin to claiming judges in modern society haul a gurney out of their car and lethally inject anyone they think they see committing a crime. This appears to be yet another example of the protean nature of the Pharisees in Christian hands: obsessively legalistic one minute and lawless the next.
Young is exasperated at this line of thinking, dismissing it flatly:
No one crucified rabbis for telling parables.
He adds in a footnote:
When one considers the vast amount of parabolic teaching in talmudic literature and the identity of theological con-structs between Jesus and the Jewish sages, it is difficult to maintain a theology of hostility. The parables are a point of solidarity between Jesus and the Jewish people of his time.
He goes on to explain:
The community would rejoice when a wayward one was restored by repentance. In fact, as will be seen in the study of rabbinic parallel parables, the concept of God's mercy to receive a repentant sinner was a major doctrine in Jewish theology. God loves the wrongdoer and receives each one who repents. The necessity of forgiving one another, as a prerequisite for seeking forgive-ness from God, is also a major tenet in Jewish thought, one that appears already in Sirach.
He even calls out Bailey directly to refute him:
First-century Judaism viewed God as full of compassion for those who sought forgiveness and reconciliation.
He finishes off with a refreshingly clear-eyed, text-centered conclusion:
The sectarian polemic against the Pharisees emphasized by many commentators does not appear in the body of the parable itself. Jesus may have criticized the hypocritical practices of some Pharisees, but he did not attack Pharisaism as a religious movement. The profound message of this story is intimately related to the Jewish theological understanding of God and people. This worldview was the legacy of Pharisaic thought.
Christian commentators' imagined Pharisaic hostility toward most other Jews doesn't align with any of the major throughlines of Jewish history. Jewish culture is communitarian. Our covenant with the Eternal is a collective one, and we're exhorted again and again to remember that we're responsible for each other. Moreover, our very name for ourselves, the Children of Israel, emphasizes that we are all the descendants of one man. We're family. Rabbinic thought doesn't rejoice in the idea of the destruction of any Jewish souls—it insists that one must do anything one can to help a fellow Jew return to the community.
Even one of more egregiously anti-Jewish lines from the gospels, Matthew 23:15, acknowledges this: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves."
So which is it? Were the Pharisees against anyone "converting" to their form of Jewish practice because they hoped their fellow Jews would be destroyed, unwilling to have anything to do with other Jews, wishing they would disappear from the face of the earth? Or were they crossing land and sea to change one heart?
From Barclay, who (with Wilson) is one of the more openly antisemitic commentators I read, this hostility encompasses not just Jews who fail to uphold the law (Barclay imagines that punishment for breaking it was something in which Jews took "grim and sadistic joy"), but the rest of the world to an even greater degree:
There was the barrier between Jew and Gentile. At their most extreme and most arrogant the Jews believed that they were the only nation in the world for which God cared. They could and did say the most terrible things... The Jew looked with contempt on the man of any other race.
Needless to say, no sources are cited for any of this.
One wonders why Christian commentators are so afraid to let Jesus's stories stand on their own merits, as carrying a message that people found compelling even when there were other attractive alternatives out there, instead of attempting to construct a horrifically cruel Judaism as a foil for them.
Christians can't have it both ways: either Jesus's message is radical, in which case one must accept that reasonable, non-malicious people might disagree with it, or it's something as basic as "be nice to people," in which case they should stop claiming that it was any different from anything the Pharisees—not to mention members of communities the world over—were teaching.
If you truly want to claim Jesus's teachings as radical and hard to accept, let them be radical, instead of positioning anyone who didn't unquestioningly accept them as profoundly stupid or evil.
SHEEP FROM ANOTHER FOLD
One suspects that this insistence that the most Jewishly educated audience for Jesus's parables was unrelentingly hostile is because Christians want to read in a ministry to gentiles in passages where Jesus is speaking only to Jews, to imagine the parables as proof that the real good people out there, the real intended audience, was the gentiles who weren't even present. Jesus, in this framing, has to offer Jews his message as a sort of right of first refusal, but is just going through the motions until he can break free of his Jewish obligations and get to the people God really wants. There might even be an undertone of schadenfreude in these readings: look at Jesus casting these pearls of wisdom before those arrogant Jewish swine who spurn them, while the humble gentiles are waiting in the wings to scoop them up. Wilson offers a pretty textbook example of this reading:
This is another example of the way Jesus's parables confound and subvert those without the ears to hear. The more direct picture is this: the kingdom is for sinners from both sides of the tracks. It is for the Jew first, but also for the Gentile. "I have other sheep that are not of this fold," Jesus says. "I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."
That's nice, but sheep from outside the fold don't appear in the sheep parable, coins from outside sources don't appear in the coin parable, and the only place gentiles appear in the sons parable is as the callous employers who are willing to let the younger son starve to death.
Indeed, whatever one belives about the ultimate goal of Jesus's ministry, he seems to have been focused on talking to other Jews, not to expanding his project to gentiles, during his lifetime. He states baldly that he was sent only to the "lost sheep" of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24), and tells his disciples to avoid preaching in gentile communities (Matthew 10:5).
Wilson caps off his contempt with a sneering reference to an image that, chillingly, has far more to do with contemporary Jews than first-century Pharisees.
The promise of the gospel is for those near and for those far away. And ironically enough, in the economy of the kingdom, those farthest away turn out to be those "Hebrews of Hebrews" (see Phil. 3:5) huddled around the Torah.
When Jews still lived in a Jewish country, even one under Roman rule, Torah readings were most likely public and well-attended by people who were mostly farmers and craftspeople. It wasn't until most Jews had been enslaved and carted off to Europe that Jewish practice became centered around studying. In exile, the Torah became a sort of portable homeland that allowed our people to survive as a distinct and cohesive culture longer than any other group in similar circumstances. We huddle (and dance! and stand! and walk!) around the Torah in small synagogues and in study halls because that is how we have survived as Jews and kept our languages, history, traditions, stories, and peoplehood alive.
But as a negative descriptor, "you'll find them huddled around the Torah" has also been a directive for when to commit pogroms, vandalism, and massacres to maximize the amount of harm and death one can cause to a Jewish community (weddings being the other favored target).
To evoke the image of Jews huddled around the Torah as the image of people who are farther than any other from God is to echo centuries of blood libel and decide slander that have resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews.
Impurity and Outcasts
Most of these commentators are also convinced that the Jewish scorn for tax collectors and sex workers has something to do with ritual purity, Wilson provides a fairly representative example of how when Christians try to bring purity into parable interpretation, they get it completely wrong:
By personally restoring the ceremonially unclean and by establishing the ubiquity of sinfulness in every human heart, he was systematically dismantling the Rube Goldberg justification machine the religious leaders had made out of the law.
First, nothing about Jesus "personally restoring the ceremonially unclean" makes him any different from any other Jew with expertise in the law, and nothing about it would have put him at odds with the Pharisees. If one could help a fellow Jew who wanted to go to the Temple (the main reason for needing to achieve a state of taharah) or leave behind the quarantine required for some forms of diseased-based tumah, one should in fact do that. Far from flouting the rules around taharah and tumah, Jesus reinforces them by returning people in a state of ritual impurity to one of taharah.
If one is to characterize the system of ritual purity as a "Rube Goldberg justification machine," one should also note that Jesus does anything but dismantle it. His healings restore tamei people to ritual purity, but he doesn't give them further instruction about how to restore themselves in the future, he doesn't tell them can abandon the system, and he doesn't demystify it in any way. He doesn't share power, or obviate the need for it, he simply establishes himself as a person who possesses it.
Wilson's statement that Jesus was dismantling the system by restoring people to ritual purity and "establishing the ubiquity of sinfulness in every human heart" is nonsensical. (For starters, these two actions are unrelated in Judaism.) Christians often use the idea of ritual purity to divide humanity into discrete categories of pure and impure, but ritual purity and ritual impurity are both transient states through which the average Jew would pass hundreds or even thousands of time in their life. While gentiles had no reason to seek out a state of ritual purity, and thus were most likely ritually impure for their entire lives, no human is inherently ritually impure. Someone who has never shaved their head is no more inherently hairy than someone who has; they simply have never bothered to achieve a state of (temporary!) hairlessness.
Ethical versus Ritual
Christian commentators are also doggedly devoted to the idea of dividing up Judaism into the supposed ethical principles that Jesus supposedly followed versus "ritual" or "ceremonial" laws that he flouted.
Tim Ware (The Parables of Jesus) states it baldly:
Jesus did not observe the laws that they believed came straight from God Himself, so how could Jesus be from God?...
But let's look closer at those laws Jesus didn’t observe. They are the same kind of laws we encountered in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When we studied that parable we talked about the purity laws and said if the priest and Levite had touched the man lying on the side of the road, they would have been unclean. It’s the same situation with not eating with Gentiles and sinners. If you ate with Gentiles and sinners, you were considered unclean. It's important to remember those are what are called ritual observances. They are not laws that regulate moral or ethical behavior, they only have to do with religious rituals.
Let’s think more about the law. When the New Testament speaks of “the law,” it is, in general, talking about laws regarding ritual observances. If you look at the Old Testament law, you'll find that laws regarding ritual observances comprise a major portion of the law. The law is not so much do this and don’t do that in the sense of personal moral behavior. It outlines ritual observances like not touching dead or wounded bodies, not eating with Gentiles and sinners, etc. That is, in general, what the New Testament means when it talks about the law. It is talking about laws regarding ritual observances.
First of all, apparently Ware hasn't actually read the gospels, because they portray Jesus as a Torah-observant Jew. When it appears that he has broken a Jewish law, such as in the grain-picking incident in Luke 6, and other Jews challenge him on it, Jesus offers an explanation as to why his behavior actually complies with it. Nothing could be more Pharisaic: a rabbi stating that something doesn't comply with Jewish law and other rabbis pointing out ways in which it does, or vice versa, is most of the content of the Talmud.
The bigger point, however, is that Judaism does not make such a formal distinction. One of the eternal favorite "ritual" Jewish practices, along with ritual purity, for Christians to sneer at is kashrut (the kosher laws). Kashrut, however, has both "ritual" and ethical dimensions without some sort of bright line between them. 3500 years or so ago, when the system was instituted, it may also have protected the health of participants.
But regardless of whatever reasons about which we might speculate for its origins, the system also gives us explanations for some of its practices, such as the prohibition on eating blood. Blood is life, the Torah tells us, and life belongs to God. We are permitted to kill and eat in order to survive, but we are not allowed to think for a moment that other life exists purely for our consumption. It is life, of the same sort that animates us, it is sacred, and it is not to be taken lightly.
This is what we might call, in contemporary thought, mindfulness practice or gratitude practice. Now, does this mean that a Christian chowing down on a blood sausage is necessarily less respectful of the life of the animals he consumes than an Orthodox Jew kashering chicken in her kosher kitchen? Not necessarily, but one of those people is engaged in a practice that requires her to think about what she's eating, and one isn't.
Similarly, both the prohibition on boiling a kid in its mother's milk and the requirement to send a mother bird away from the nest before taking her eggs or young remind us that animals, like us, have maternal feelings for their young, and while we're allowed to eat eggs and baby animals, we must do what we can to minimize the mother's suffering and grief.
These rules aren't just "ritual" or "ceremonial." They're ethical. They may derive from an ethical system that Christians have chosen not to follow, but to attempt to claim that another culture's ethical system is merely a frivolous, arid "ceremonial" practice simply because it differs from one's own is, to put it simply, slander.
Pure and Impure; Saved and Unsaved
One suspects that this Christian obsession with the idea that Jews divided human beings into The Pure and The Impure is another case of projection, as Christian theology has, at times, posited that The Saved and The Unsaved are inherent, immutable categories that divide humanity (see, for example, Calvinism, the idea of predestination, the Elect, and so on). That division of humanity may have been the origin of modern conceptions of race and the idea that members of different races have inherent qualities so immutable that a single drop of blood can "corrupt" the purity of another.
In Blood: A Critique of Christianity, Gil Andjar traces the beginnings of this line of thinking:
Along with the spread of Galenic medicine and the rise of Aristotelian, hematocentric embryological conceptions, the so-called Middle Ages witnessed the conjunction of medical knowledge with genealogical claims made on the basis of blood lines (together with the sedimentation of perceptions of kinship as “blood” ties—as if blood was the natural locus of genealogy), and the seeds of what was to become “scientific” racial thinking. What was occurring was the unification of thinking.
What was occurring was the unification of the entire Christian community into an immanent, organic whole: the community of blood. More directly relevant here is the fact that Christian blood became completely distinct, completely good, and, more importantly, completely pure—if also vulnerable (“If thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood …”). Announcing a similar shift in Christian attitudes toward money, blood—Christian blood—was thus transvalued. Whereas along with flesh and blood (carnal as opposed to spiritual), along with kinship and money, blood had been the object of an explicit taboo, it now became the bearer of a new, positive valuation. Blood became, as it were, the liquid ground or underground upon which would be drawn drastic and radical distinctions between bloods. And “beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments continents of hard rock.”
Jews of Jesus's time might have had xenophobia characteristic of the ancient Mediterranean—the idea that others' customs were strange and inferior to one's own—but nothing suggests that they thought of those outside their extended family as inherently and permanently other. Far from it: as befits the Hebrews, whose name refers to crossing borders, they allowed outsiders to join the Jewish people, as the original Jewish families had done, as some of those who accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt had done, as Ruth had done, and as the "strangers" in their midst continued to do. The borders of identity could always be crossed, as could the borders of purity.
Similarly, the idea that everyone "sins" (the term in English has a very different sense from any of the Hebrew terms into which it is translated) was hardly revolutionary. Indeed, the entire sacrificial system in Leviticus was as much about normalizing both falling away from the way and finding it again as it was about anything else. Sacrifice was a way of signaling that one had completed the process of return: one had admitted one's wrongdoings, made amends, and now wished to close that chapter. The Torah doesn't have categories of "sinners" and "non-sinners." It has everyone, day after day, week after week, year after year, seeing their friends and neighbors publicly atoning for their screwups and doing the same themselves. It has a system that holds people accountable for their failings, but doesn't treat those failings as some kind of damnation, but rather as a normal part of life.
It's Christianity, not Judaism, that has claimed that any sin cuts one off from God so completely that no sacrifice but a god would be significant enough to allow the relationship to be restored. There are certainly types of wrongdoing in Judaism that are considered severe enough to shatter that relationship (although never irreparably; while acknowledging that some forms of harm break human relationships too completely to be restored, the Eternal is always willing to welcome back the truly repentant). But for the most part, just as most bumps in a marriage—let alone a parent-child relationship—don't warrant a severance of the bond, even when they weaken it or create distance in it, human relationships with the Eternal are both fluid and resilient.
"Neither Jew nor Greek": Christianity and Cultural Erasure
So what ultimately explains this Christian obsession with dividing Judaism up into the "good" ethical laws that Jesus supposedly followed and the "painfully restrictive," "Rube Goldberg" [how convenient that the name they're evoking so negatively is a distinctively Jewish one!] "justification machine" of ritual law, which has no connection to "personal moral behavior" that he supposedly didn't follow?
To boil it down, the good "ethical" laws are the ones that make sense to Christians, and that got carried over into Christianity, while the bad "ritual" laws are every other aspect of Christianity. "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18)? Good ethical law. "Don't cut the corners of your beard" from a few verses later (Leviticus 19:27)? Bad ethical law.
This Christian urge to parcel out Jewish tradition into profound ethical teaching versus arid legalism carries ugly undertones, and not only because it approvingly suggests that early Christians looted Judaism of everything of value before splitting off, and whatever was left was worthless.
Cultures aren't made up of a list of discrete practices. They're systems, and culture exists as much in the interactions between those practices, the spoken and unspoken principles behind them, the polish of meaning accreted over generations, and the way they both shape and are shaped by worldviews as it does in a particular practice. (That's why we usually treat appropriation—wresting a particular practice out of its cultural context to serve the needs of someone outside the culture in which it originates—as a bad thing.)
Most cultures have practices similar or even identical to those in other cultures; most also have principles or elements of a worldview that match those of cultures elsewhere in the world. Generally speaking, those universal or widespread practices or principles are not what we're talking about when we talk about a culture or tradition; what makes it recognizable is the ways in which it is distinct.
The underlying message of Christian commentators' division of Judaism up into "good" ethical practices and "bad" ritual ones is that anything distinctively Jewish is bad. If it doesn't make immediate sense to gentiles, there's something wrong with it. It's evidence that they've lost touch with the spirit of the Psalmist who sang "How I love thy law!" and that they have "no appreciation of [divine] love."
We have a word for the idea that anything another culture has that is good is ripe for the taking, and that everything else about it is inferior or worse: colonialism.
To divide others into the things we understand and want to take and the things that are "worthless" isn't to love them; it's to consume them.
The true challenge of loving one's neighbor, let alone the stranger (Leviticus 19:34), as oneself isn't to stamp out what's different. It's to learn to accept that others will always be Other to some degree, that we won't be able to fathom every last nook and cranny of their soul, that parts of them will remain intentionally private from us and others will remain unintentionally mysterious to us, that what they do or love may not be something that we want to do or love. Love is accepting that we don't need to make others just like us, or even fully understand them, to value them as we value ourselves, to see them as full human beings, and to see the divine in them.
Reconciliation with God In Judaism
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The Jews regarded God, we may put it, as a doctor who had no use for sick people and wished nothing but their elimination. Jesus regarded God as a doctor whose aim was to make well again all who were ill with the disease of sin. However bad men are God still wants them. The Jew to some extent would have agreed with that—on one condition. If the sinner repented and came crawling back on his hands and knees, God might accept him. They had lovely sayings, "Open thou for Me a gateway of penitence as big as a needle's eye and I will open for you gates wide enough for chariots and horses." "God's hand is stretched out under the wings of the heavenly chariot to snatch the penitent from the grasp of justice." But note this—the first Jewish reaction is that God wants noth-ing to do with the sinner; the second and gentler is that God will accept the sinner if he comes be-seeching to Him. Now here is the second utterly new thing Jesus says in these parables; He says that God goes out to seek the sinner, or, that He is actually waiting and watching for the sinner to come home. The Jew might in his gentler moments agree that God would accept a penitent sinner; but he never dreamed of a God who went out to look for sinners. The shepherd searched for the sheep; the woman searched for the coin; God searches for men.
The Younger Brother
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Greg Carey, Stories Jesus Told
The younger son reaches a moment of desperation. Jesus goes so far as to place him among the pigs, a clear sign that this Jewish young man has slipped below the line of degradation. I once inter-viewed an Israeli archeologist at the site thought to be the village of Cana, and I asked him how committed were Galileans in Jesus' time to observing the law of Moses. His response was immediate. "No pig bones. You won't find pig bones near a Galilean village." Here endeth the lesson. The younger son has reached desperate straits.
Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus
As all biblically literate people know, the beginning words of this parable, “There was a man who had two sons,” introduce a literary convention. As these readers also know, we do well to identify with the younger son. However, the story in Luke 15 is a parable, and parables usually do not do what we might expect. Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel. Granted, Abel, the younger, is dead for most of Genesis 4, but his is the sacrifice that is accepted. The elder, Cain, who committed fratricide, is driven from the soil, hidden from the face of the divine, and made a fugitive and a wanderer (4.14). Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. The younger, Isaac, the child of the promise (see Gal. 4.23, 28), inherits Abraham’s covenant and is revered as Israel’s second patriarch. The prediction for the older son, Ishmael, is: “He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin” (Gen. 16.12). Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, are exiled from Abraham’s camp. Isaac has twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The younger, Jacob, barters a bowl of lentil soup for the elder’s birthright and then tricks his father into giving him the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s. Jacob, the younger, becomes both the recipient of the vision of the ladder that extends between heaven and earth and the father of the twelve tribes that comprise the nation that bears his new name, Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, has two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When it comes time for Jacob to bless his grandchildren, Joseph positions the boys so that the elder, Manasseh, is by Jacob’s right hand; the younger, Ephraim, stands by Jacob’s left. The aged patriarch, in blessing Joseph’s children, crosses his hands, so that the younger receives the primary blessing. The pattern continues throughout Israel’s history. David is the youngest of seven; Solomon is the second child born to David and Bathsheba; and so on. All biblically literate listeners know to identify with the younger son. But those first-century biblically literate listeners were in for a surprise, when the younger son turns out not to be the righteous Abel, faithful Isaac, clever Jacob, strategic David, or wise Solomon. He turns out to be an irresponsible, self-indulgent, and probably indulged child, whom I would not, despite his being Jewish, be pleased to have my daughter date.
We might wonder if this generosity toward the prodigal is designed to remind us of Joseph, just as “the man who had two sons” reminds us of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph himself. According to Genesis, Jacob gave to Joseph a double portion by treating Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as equal to each of his other sons (see Gen. 48.13–20). Attentive readers may hear at this point and subsequently in the parable not only echoes of those numerous fathers with two sons, but also, particularly, the Joseph story. The younger son mirrors Joseph in his move to a foreign land, his increasing degradation, and then his elevation to an elite position. We might wonder if this indulged son is the child of the father’s beloved wife, as Joseph was Rachel’s son.
mistaken about early Judaism. That the prodigal finds himself in non-Jewish territory is evident from the reference to pigs. Archaeological digs in the lower Galilee reveal no pig bones; in the Decapolis, where Jesus exorcised the demon-possessed man by sending his tormentors into a herd of pigs, pig bones appear (see Matt. 8.30; Mark 5.12; Luke 8.32–33). The Mishnah, Baba Qamma 7.7, insists, “No Israelite may raise swine anywhere,” and this later ruling appears to have reflected Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, as archaeological studies suggest. The prodigal’s location does not, however, harp on Jewish obsessions regarding purity or xenophobia, two stereotypes that commentators typically import into the parables. For example, one commentator asserts, “Jews would immediately recognize that [the prodigal had gone into] unclean Gentile territory made up of unclean Gentile people.”39 The idea of being in gentile regions—which means everywhere outside Judea, Samaria, and lower Galilee—was not everywhere outside Judea, Samaria, and lower Galilee—was not anathema to most Jews, then or now. Jews in the Diaspora welcomed gentiles into their synagogues, worked with gentiles in the marketplaces, talked to gentiles in the public baths. At the time of Jesus, there were probably more Jews living outside Judea and lower Galilee than there were in the Jewish homeland; over a million were in Alexandria in Egypt. The prodigal’s problem is that he is hungry, not that he is “unclean” amid the “unclean.” Nor should we charge him, as some commentators do, with apostasy,40 despite the fact that Leviticus 11.8 states of pigs: “Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.” First, the son ate no ham hocks or pigs’ knuckles; if he did, he would not be starving. Second, he was sent to feed the pigs, not to butcher them. Third, the son hired himself out to a citizen; there is no indication that he knew his task would be to feed pigs.41 Finally, the son did what he did in order to live; Jewish Law is law by which one lives, not by which one dies. The prodigal is in an impossible situation, but the issue is not Jewish xenophobia or purity. The problem is starvation.
A proverb from the rabbinic commentary Leviticus Rabbah (13.4) notes, “When Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.” The son’s comments fall in line with this idea. Junior speaks of his sin and his desire for restoration to the household, albeit on lesser terms as a day laborer rather than a beloved son. His rehearsed lines sound contrite. Thus, for many readers who, influenced by Luke, see the parable as about repenting and forgiving, Junior is understood to have repented. And yet first-century listeners may have heard not contrition, but conniving. Junior recalls that Daddy still has money, and he might be able to get more. Unlike the sheep and the coin, he has not been “found.” Rather, he recovers his true nature—he is described as “coming to himself”—and that self is one who knows that Daddy will do anything he asks. In his planning, the prodigal and the narrator repeat the term “father”: “. . . laborers of my father . . . go to my father . . . Father, I have sinned . . . went toward his father.” Although Junior speaks of being treated as a hired hand, his repeated paternal language suggests that he still thinks of himself as his father’s “son.” He is not questioning the relationship. His phrasing “not still am I worthy” suggests that he still has the title “son.” Further suggesting Junior’s lack of remorse is his line, “I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Biblically literate listeners hear an echo of the empty words Pharaoh mouths in order to stop the plagues: “Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you’” (Exod. 10.16). The prodigal is no more repentant, has had no more change of heart, than Egypt’s ruler. Homiletician David Buttrick concisely summarizes the prodigal’s strategy: “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”42 In his thoughts, the prodigal also puts himself in the company of the self-absorbed figures in other parables. The “rich fool” of the same-named parable thinks to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” (Luke 12.17). His conclusion is to build more barns, not to distribute his food to the poor. The dishonest manager speculates, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg” (16.3). His conclusion is to draw others into his dishonesty. Even the judge who faces the tenacious widow eventually says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (18.4–5). All four parables use the device of interior monologue to let listeners know what the characters are thinking, and in all cases what they are thinking leads to at best morally ambiguous action.43
Deuteronomy Rabbah 2.24 recounts a parable that opens with a citation from Deuteronomy 4.30, “You will return to the LORD your God.” It continues: R. Meir said, “To what is the matter like? It is like the son of a king who took to evil ways. The king sent a tutor to him who appealed to him, saying, ‘Repent, my son.’ But the son sent him back to his father [saying], ‘How can I have the effrontery to return? I am ashamed to come before you.’ Thereupon his father sent back word: ‘My son, is a son ever ashamed to return to his father? And is it not to your father that you will be returning?’”57 Pesikta Rabbati 184–85 recounts: A king had a son who had gone astray from his father on a journey of a hundred days. His friends said to him, “Return to your father.” He said, “I cannot.” Then his father sent word, “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” So God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you.”58 For the rabbis, the challenge is not in seeing God’s love in a new way; the challenge—an inevitable challenge in every religious system—is to get the wayward to return. wayward to return.
Maxie Dunham, Twelve Parables of Jesus
Whatever the far country, remember this truth: God is also in that far country. How do we know? First, the prodigal realized that he was in want. Cod's grace awakens us to our need and that awak-ening is the first step toward our repentance and recovery. Second, the prodigal found a way to
R.T. Kendall, The Parables of Jesus
If you see a little bit of the older brother in yourself, remember that you need to repent just as much as the younger brother. Your sin is as heinous in God's sight as the younger brother's sin.
Craig Blomberg, Preaching the Parables
The first lesson is that repentance is always possible for those who want to return to God. The tradi-tional title that this parable has come to have is "The Prodigal Son." The prodigal is the character we naturally tend to focus on the most. In the context of Luke 15, he corresponds to the tax collec-tors and "sinners," who Luke tells us in verse 1 "were all gathering around to hear" Jesus. The plot of the story forms about as dramatic a picture as could have been drawn in Jesus' world of the abandonment of godly living. Family formed one's ultimate human commitment. For the son to re-quest inheritance from his father while his dad was still alive was tantamount to a death wish. The petition of verse 12, recorded so matter-of-factly, amounted in essence to the boy's saying, "Dad, I wish you were dead." We're not told all the details of what happened when he received his portion of the inheritance and went away, but what we are told makes it clear that Jesus is painting a worst-case scenario. The younger son leaves everyone behind, takes all his money with him, and sets off for a distant country. Jews would immediately recognize that this would be unclean Gentile territory made up of unclean Gentile people. There the young man squanders his wealth in wild or riotous living and loses it all. Exacerbating the situation is a severe famine, and so the prodigal needs some kind of job in order to feed himself, but apparently all he can find is a man of that country who sends him to his field to feed pigs, the most unclean of all animals from an orthodox Jewish per-spective. These are the depths of degradation. He is so desperate that he wishes he could eat even some of the pig food, the unclean food of unclean animals of an unclean farmer in an unclean land, but even that is forbidden. Of course, his fate is largely his own fault, but circumstances outside his control have overwhelmed him further. In his desperate plight, his only hope is to return home, even though he recognizes that his father may well have performed the standard Jewish ceremony
Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables
When his only recourse is to hire himself out to a pig farmer (Lk 15:15), Jesus' Jewish audience likely reacted with a mixture of laughter and revulsion, because swine were the most unclean of animals for them. That he could not even eat the pig food, presumably because there would have been just barely enough for the pigs, brings his desperate situation to its climax (Lk 15:16).
Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation
making himself valuable to a wealthy person of the land, the boy hopes to receive food. He tries to ingratiate himself to this Gentile by doing him favors and begging for a gratuity. The situation is most desperate. Jesus is artistically drawing a picture of life with a broken relationship. In exile and at the mercy of a heartless Gentile, the poor Jewish boy tries to alleviate his hunger. By placing him-self in the service of the Gentile, he hopes to receive some benevolence. The non-Jew obviously wants to get rid of the boy. Perhaps the anti-Semitism of the Greco-Roman world is portrayed in this illustration of the boy's deprivation. The Gentile sends him to feed the pigs, apparently know-ing how offensive swine would be to a Jew. The parable teller builds upon the Jewish audience's repugnance for eating pork. The privileged son of a landowner from the land of Israel is reduced to feeding pigs. In the end, the Jewish boy is completely rejected. The text says that no one gave the young man anything. While the citizen of the land has fodder for the pigs, he does not give food to the young Jewish boy. It is more important to care for the pigs than to feed a son of Abraham. Not only is he reduced to feeding the swine; he would gladly have "filled his belly" with the pigs' fodder.1371 This fodder, X2(1621011, is usually identified as the pod of a carob tree.[3E The pods of the carob tree are sometimes described as the food of the poor. The parable seems to illustrate graphically the great poverty of the young man. In fact, as has often been noted, in later Jewish literature the rabbis made a play on words between the Hebrew terms for sword, chareb p-in), in Isa. 1:21 and carob pod, charob (ann), the food of the poor. When times are prosperous, it is difficult for the people to remember God. But when they are in need and want food, they repent and seek him. When the people are desperate, they will seek to eat carob to survive.
When he comes to himself, out of desperation the boy realizes his responsibility for the wrong. He wants to make matters right. His repentance is based more on his own need than a theological revelation. Indeed, he seems to view his father more as a bank manager than as a loving parent, but this attitude is rooted in his sense of shame for the wrongs he has committed against God and his father. Crucial for proper understanding is the expression "he came to himself" The Greek words, sic gauzgiv Sg gathv, form a dynamic equivalent to the Hebrew phrase irn 11. In Hebrew and Aramaic such terminology was often used to describe repentance. It refers to a coming home. The issue has been debated among scholars whether the phrase has a Greek back-ground, such as in Epictetus, or the force of a Semitic idiom for repentance.k.gi Epictetus describes the young man Polmeo, who sought the vanity of a wayward life's pleasures until he had a radical transformation by coming to himself and discovering the essence of life's meaning. While strong similarities between the young man who "comes to his senses" in Epictetus and the prodigal of the Gospel parable emerge from a comparative study, the story of Jesus is much nearer to the Jewish world of repentance. In the Gospel parable, the wayward son returns home. In fact, numerous rab-binic parables use the same imagery and language in describing repentance. In the same way that a loving father will receive a rebellious child who returns home, God in his mercy will receive the one who has done wrong. The Hebrew phrase 11 ten is the exact equivalent of the parable's Greek sic gavrox DiOthv. It means that the young man repents of his wrong. He is ready to come home. He desires to pay back what he has wasted.
[[pun on chazir]]?
The father will do the rest. In "The Compassionate Father and the Obstinate Son," Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Chalafta dramatizes the breakup of a relationship between father and son in a heated argument. The son wants to ship out. The father believes it is too dangerous. The willful boy is determined to break his father's word and disobey. The father vehemently pleads with his rebellious son that no matter what happens, he must always remember that he is welcome to come home. No distance is too great and no disobedience is too rebellious. Like a parent who loves his or her child, God has compassion for the sinner who returns home from a far country. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father is not so intent on calling his wayward sons. The listener senses his helplessness, which is related to the silence of the elder brother. Unlike the rab-binic parallel, the father in the Gospel story does not argue and try to convince his two lost sons of their wrongs.[5a] He is, however, ready to receive them when they repent. His compassion is strong, but he does not try to persuade his sons until the conclusion of the drama. At the end of the parable, the compassionate father pleads vehemently with the elder brother to receive his brother, who was lost but has been found. The father takes a more prominent role in dialogue and inter-action with the older boy, who refuses to forgive the younger. In the rabbinic parables, the wayward son is always called upon to return home to his compas-sionate father, who will not allow the serious transgression to break the relationship. All the para-bles view sin more as a broken line of fellowship that results from misunderstanding the divine character than as merely violating a religious precept. The Prodigal Son has a miniparable attached to it. The man had two sons, and the elder has conflict both with his father and his brother. The story illustrates the need for each person to forgive and to accept the outcast. The rabbinic parables do not contain this second motif, but it should be remembered that the concept of forgiveness for the outcast and for one's fellow who has given offense is deeply embedded in ancient Jewish thought. The idea itself is clearly articulated in the text of Sirach, and the theme is greatly empha-sized during the day of Atonement in the Mishnah. No one can approach the Almighty and re-quest forgiveness for his transgressions unless first he has forgiven his neighbor for every wrong.
The impact this high ideology had upon subsequent Jewish thought is considerable. S. Safrai's study of R. Akiva has demonstrated the results of this concept. In Mot 3:16, according to the supe-rior reading of the text, Akiva teaches, "All is foreseen, but freedom of will is given, the world is judged by grace and everything is not according to the excess of works [either good or evil]." It is not according to the wages earned but according to divine grace (i.e., ram), goodness) that people will be judged. The compassionate father of Jesus' parable had two wayward sons, each of whom had gone his own way. Both of these sons had a distorted view of their father's love and parental concern. When the sayings of Antigonus and Akiva are studied in the context of the Second Temple period, it becomes clear that the Gospel parable is closely associated with the thought that was part and parcel of early judaism.[56J The emphasis of the parable is on the younger son's recognition of his need and his decision to return to his father. The terminology of the parable, Ucumov SU UkOthv, "when he came to himself' (v. 17), and avacrukc russehoopm nuLoc 7ov ncutUga pou, "I will arise and go to my father" (v.)8), reflect the high Jewish concept of repentance. He recognizes his need and desires to return to his fathen[571 The theme of repentance was an important part of Israel's worship and the liturgy of the synagogue. The artistry of the story is seen in the fact that the elder brother is left in the courtyard with his father pleading with him.
- The younger son and the gentiles
- The older brother
The Moral of the Story
It seems to be taken as a given—Simon gives his answer to Jesus’s question as if it was obvious—that someone who owed more money is going to be more loving—not just grateful, but loving—toward a moneylender who forgives their debt than someone who owed less.
My knee-jerk reaction as a 21st-century millennial with student loans is Who the hell loves moneylenders?, but I recognize that this is presentism.
The idea that we should love God because God is willing to forgive us, that the love results from forgiveness, rather than that the forgiveness results from love, is a pretty utilitarian approach to relationships. I don’t want my relationships to be about how many times a loved one will forgive me—I want a relationship, not a Giving Tree. It's even stranger that it's supposedly the magnitude of forgiveness—resulting from the magnitude of sin—that determines love for the Eternal.
As a Jew, I find it odd to set up however much you sin, and then however much you get forgiven, as all happening before your love for the Eternal even enters the picture. It makes love the end of the equation on the human side rather than the beginning.
In Judaism, we’re not following commandments to get saved from something, or to earn God’s love. We’ve already got that. We’re in covenant. We’re in a relationship. We try to fulfill those commandments (from a spiritual rather than just a cultural perspective) because:
We want to make God happy.
We believe that those practices are good for us, that they were given to us by someone who cares for us.
The concept of “debt” or “forgiveness” doesn’t really enter into it.
So I think to hear this parable as radical or challenging, you first have to understand that Simon’s having little to forgive isn’t something that Jewish listeners would see as having “little debt,” but as a sign of greater love for God.
To say that screwing up more ends up being associated with greater love skews really close to the sort of abuse theology that makes me deeply uncomfortable The idea that you love anyone—God included—based on how little they hold you accountable seems like a pretty broken model of relationships to me. Forgiveness can be a sign of love but it’s not a reason for love, especially if the alternative is punishment of some sort. “I love this person because they didn’t punish me” really seems like an abusive relationship to me.
Honestly, I wish I had more expansive insight into this one, but I find the entire thing—context and parable itself—pretty disturbing.
In addition to the sources mentioned and links in the text above and the other articles on this site, you may find the following resources helpful in understanding this parable and the other concepts I've been talking about.
Yehudah Mirsky, Feminine Images of God, Jewish Women's Archive
Irwin Keller, Marriage and Mysticism in a Less-Gendered World
The paintings on this page include a number of different renderings of the dinner party at Simon's house.
Pierre Subleyras, Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee, c. 1737. I especially love the serving boy in the center looking directly at the viewer and all the various women side-eyeing the woman attending to Jesus. The original is at the Louvre; see it in HD at the Web Gallery of Art.
Bernardo Strozzi, Banquet at the House of Simon, c. 1630. I love the standoff between a dog and a cat on the leftmost edge, as well as Jesus's "it's fine, bro," and Simon's "I've asked you to stop bringing your groupies here, Josh" expressions. The original is at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice; see it in HD at the Web Gallery of Art.
Paolo Veronese, The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, 1570. Another scuffle between a dog and a cat! This one is given pride of place in the very center of the painting. The presence of dogs in all these paintings is understandable, since Jesus mentions dogs eating scraps under the table (Mt. 15:26), but I am delighted by the cats. (Learn more about cats in Baroque paintings here and here.) The original is at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan; see it in HD at the Web Gallery of Art.
Luca Signorelli, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, c. 1490. No dogs or cats in this one, alas, and Jesus is looking extremely pouty about the lady's ministrations. The original is at the National Gallery of Ireland; see it in HD on Wikipedia.
Artus Wolffort, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, early 1600s. This lady is having a day; look at her face. There's so much personality here, from a Jesus who looks like he's been caught in sort of a defensive shrug, Simon's "I'm not angry, Josh, just disappointed" face, the guy next to him adjusting his glasses to peer clinically at the scene, and especially(!) the monk-like man behind Simon looking at the viewer like he's looking at the camera on The Office. The original was auctioned at Sotheby's; see it in HD on Wikipedia.
Maria Felice Tibaldi, Dinner at the House of the Pharisee, c. 1740. If this looks familiar, it's because it's a miniature based on the Subleyras painting above. Tibaldi married Subleyras, and her miniature version of her husband's painting may be the first work of art purchased from a living artist to be displayed in a museum. There's a little more info about her here. The original is at the Capitoline Museums; see it in HD at the Google Cultural Institute.
This subject was extremely popular for Renaissance and Baroque painters, and I highly recommend image searching on "painting house of simon" for many more great facial details, dog and cat portraits, and ladies in a state of deshabille.