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
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable:
Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.
Excerpted from The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
Which person among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one out of them,
will not leave behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until he finds it?
And finding, he puts it up on his shoulders; rejoicing.
And coming into the house he calls together the friends and the neighbors, saying to them,
"Rejoice together with me,
because I have found my sheep,
the lost one."
What do you think?
If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?
And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.
The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine sheep and looked for that one until he found it.
When he had gone to such trouble, he said to the sheep, 'I care for you more than the ninety-nine.'
Which person among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one out of them,
will not leave behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until he finds it?
And finding, he puts it up on his shoulders; rejoicing.
And coming into the house he calls together the friends and the neighbors, saying to them,
"Rejoice together with me,
because I have found my sheep,
the lost one."
Or what woman, having ten drachmas, if she would lose one drachma,
does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek resolutely until she finds?
And when she finds,
she calls together (female) friends and (female) neighbors, saying,
"Rejoice with me,
because I have found the drachma,
the one I had lost."
Some man had two sons.
And said the younger of them to the father, "Father, give to me the portion of the property that is falling to me." And he divided between them the life. And after not many days, gathering together all, the younger son took a journey into a far region, and there he scattered the property through excessive living.
And having spent all, there was a strong famine in that region, and he himself began to be in need. And going, he became joined to one of the citizens of that region, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was desiring to be filled from the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one was giving to him.
And coming to himself, he said, "How many hired laborers of my father are abounding of bread, but I by famine here am lost? Getting up, I shall go to my father and I shall say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; not still am I worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired laborers.'"
And rising up, he went toward his father. And yet when he was far off , his father saw him, and had compassion, and running, fell upon his neck and continually kissed him. And said the son to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; not still am I worthy to be called your son."
And said the father to his slaves, "Quickly carry out a robe, the first, and put it on him, and give the ring to his hand and sandals to the feet. And bring the calf, the grain-fed one, sacrifice and, eating, we may rejoice. Because this, my son, was dead, and he came back to life; he had been lost, and was found." And they began to rejoice.
And his son, the elder, was in the field, and as he, coming, drew near to the house, he heard symphony and chorus. And calling over one of the servants he inquired what these things might be. And he said to him, "Your brother has come, and your father has sacrificed the grain-fed calf, because he received him healthy."
And he became angry, and he did not want to go in. And his father, going out, comforted/urged him.
And answering, he said to his father, "Look, all these years I am slaving for you, and not one commandment of yours have I passed by, and for me not one young goat did you give so that with my friends I might rejoice. But when your son, this one, the one who ate up your life with whores came, you sacrificed for him the grain-fed calf.
And he said to him, "Child, you always with me are, and everything that is mine is yours. But it remains necessary to cheer and to rejoice, because your brother, this one, was dead, and lived to life, and being lost, even he was found."
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
Excerpted from Short Stories by Jesus.
In the question of what this parable actually means, I'm not sure I can do better than Dr. Amy-Jill Levine's reading in Short Stories by Jesus, although I do have a few things to add. I primarily focus on problems with traditional Christian readings before talking about some additional nuances to her conclusions.
Those who do not need to repent
Pure and impure; saved and unsaved
As I said above, I can't really do better than Dr. Amy-Jill Levine's reading of this trilogy of parables (although I do have things to add to it), so first I want to summarize her discussion of them in Short Stories by Jesus. In addition to her book, I highly recommend Dr. Levine's Chautauqua lectures on the parables, which I'll link in the Additional Reading section.
According to Luke, these three parables are about sinners repenting and God forgiving them. Yet this allegorization is nonsensical without the third parable, as neither sheep nor coins are capable of repenting, and neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin choose to repent. Instead, the sheep owner and the coin owner lose their possessions, and then go seek them. Rather than reading the first two stories in the light of the third, their order suggests we should read the last story in light of the first two, and ask ourselves whether the father, in some way, might have contributed to or caused the loss of his son(s).
That framing immediately undermines the common allegorical reading of the father as representing God, who presumably doesn't actively lose us.
Levine jumps right into identifying a major problem with common Christian readings:
[T]hey also see the parables as correcting an artificially constructed, pernicious Judaism—and at this point a harmless allegory becomes a dangerous stereotype. Common is the claim that the parables, especially the third, reveal an extravagant, earth-shattering image of a God the Father who forgives, as if Jews had no notion of a divinity who seeks relationship and reconciliation. Common is the view that the older son is an allegorical representation of the Jews, who slavishly serve God the Father in order to earn a reward, while Jesus proclaims salvation by grace. And common is the interpretation that the prodigal, given his connection to pig farming, represents gentile Christians, whereas the older brother, the stereotypical Jew, resents God the Father’s outreach beyond the so-called chosen people, with their elitist, nationalistic attitudes. In these readings and more, the younger son is the repentant Christian, the older son is the Pharisee or the Jewish people, and the father is God. Such interpretations not only yank the parable out of its historical context; they lessen the message of Jesus and bear false witness against Jews and Judaism.
We'll dig into those common Christian interpretations later.
Levine also notes the opening of the first story ("Which person among you, having one hundred sheep—") would prompt an immediate response of "Not I," from most of Jesus's listeners, who wouldn't have been wealthy enough to own a hundred sheep. It's also quite hard to notice one missing sheep out of a hundred milling about. And yet, a sheep watcher who leaves 99 sheep behind to seek one missing will, when he returns, have one sheep, because sheep stray. If the average person in the crowd is neither rich enough to have 100 sheep, nor hyperaware enough to notice the difference between 99 and 100 moving animals, is that opening question intended to be ironic?
A focus of the story is the owner's joy in having reobtained his lost sheep, and his desire to throw a party to share that joy with his friends. Levine notes drily:
It would not surprise me to learn that at the reception the joyful finder served mutton.
Likewise, one wonders whether the woman who throws a party to celebrate finding her lost coin doesn't spend more than its value in doing so. There is a subtle evolution between the first and second parables: in the first, the sheep owner with 100 sheep designates the missing sheep passively as "my lost one," while in the second, the coin owner with only 10 coins takes active responsibility for losing her coin: "the one I had lost." As Levine observes, "Perhaps it is those who 'have' who are more likely to fail to notice what is missing." (One is reminded of a wealthy man in another parable who fails to notice what he is missing: company.)
In the third parable, however, the father with only two sons doesn't take responsibility for losing either of his sons. He does not search for the one who runs off to a distant land, and when that son returns, he does not even bother to inform his other son that his brother is back and there's a party. The sheep and coin owners in the first two parables invite their friends to celebrate the finding of their possessions; the father fails to invite his own family to celebrate the return of a beloved human being.
Levine also notes that Jewish listeners of the time would have been trained by the Tanakh to identify with the younger son. The twist is that the younger son turns out not to be an Isaac or a Jacob or a Joseph or a Moses, but self-indulgent, spoiled, and puerile failure. (Levine observes tartly that while he may be Jewish, she would not be happy if her daughter were to date him.)
The point of the parable, for Levine, is far more complex than reassurance that God welcomes back the repentant sinner. It's an open-ended story about messy family dynamics, in which no one has expressed regret at having hurt anyone else, and no one has offered forgiveness.
The parables form a wake-up call asking us to consider whom we might have neglected, whom we haven't counted, whom we have made to feel as if they don't count. Levine concludes:
We need to take count not only of our blessings, but also of those in our families, and in our communities. And once we count, we need to act. Finding the lost, whether they are sheep, coins, or people, takes work. It also requires our efforts, and from those efforts, there is the potential for wholeness and joy.
Levine does not read these stories as being about forgiveness or repentance, about passively welcoming back sinners who are sorry. She reads them about actively trying to heal fractured families and communities.
It's unclear whether the man who owns a hundred sheep is wealthy, but the father with ample hired laborers (even after having given his son half his property) certainly seems to be well off. Levine suggests that a woman with a nest egg of ten coins is also upper-class, but it's not clear whether that's actually the case.
Certainly, if all these people are wealthy, it lends credence to the idea that the parables are actually addressed to the wealthy listeners and not the crowd at large, but I think the focus is rather on the decreasing number of what the protagonist must keep track of: a hundred sheep, ten coins, only two sons.
On one hand, the woman's freedom to control and spend her own money as she pleases raises questions about her social position. Is she a widow? Is she married, but from a powerful enough family that she need not bother asking her husband about whether or not to throw a party? Is she an unmarried woman who runs her own business or has inherited money or is supported by her family? We know from numerous passages in the New Testament that women served as financial patrons for Jesus (as they did for various Pharisees), that they owned their own homes, had freedom of travel, and chose how to use their money. However, the text doesn't mention husbands in connection with any of these women, so such freedom may usually only have been possible in the absence of men in the household. (As in medieval and Renaissance Europe and other patriarchal societies, there are always exceptions, of course.)
That said, while having ten coins handy and being able to throw a party at a whim implies that she has a bit of disposable income, it's not clear that ten coins are indicative of the sort of wealth necessary to have sufficient land to graze a hundred sheep, or to employ numerous hired hands and own slaves.
The Greek term used for the woman's coin is drachma. A drachma was roughly equivalent to a Roman denarius, a day's wages for a typical manual laborer. (The annual Temple tax paid by Jewish men was two drachmas.) It's hard to grasp the purchasing power of ancient coins, since the relative costs of goods and services have changed. Televisions in the 1950s cost between $100 and $1300 dollars (about $1000-$14000 in 2021 money) and now range from about $100-$6000, while the median home price was $7400 (about $82,000 in today's money) compared to a 2020 median of $260,000. In other words, homes have become far less affordable while televisions have plummeted in cost, so simply understanding what a 1950s dollar equates to in today's money doesn't necessarily help you understand what the money could buy. And that's indicative of how much the relative value of various things you can buy has changed in less than a century, not 2000 years.
That said, if we know a denarius or drachma was roughly equivalent to a day's pay for manual labor, that probably puts it at somewhere from $50-100 in modern money. So our coin owner had a nest egg of about $500-$1000, and was so happy to have found her lost coin that she threw a party. Now, I'd be bummed if I misplaced $50, but I spend considerably more than that every time I have people over for dinner.
So our protagonist from the second parable is not necessarily rich. Having two weeks' wages liquid and on hand is more than a lot of millennials can manage, but one paycheck in our savings account doesn't exactly make us upper-class.
In case you're wondering why I'm drilling down on the idea that all three characters (the sheep owner, the coin owner, and the father) are relatively wealthy, it's because it's used to support the argument that this parable was intended to call out wealthy scribes/Pharisees/elders rather than being addressed to the crowd as a whole.
I think that argument is weak. Gender might be a factor here; perhaps the coin lady is married and her ten coins are her fun money (over which she has complete control), as opposed to the household funds, and not her savings, but I'm not convinced.
Instead, I think that the point isn't the economic status of each character, but rather what portion of their total they've lost, whether they notice, and what they do to regain it. One sheep out of a hundred is hard to notice, although it doesn't represent a huge financial hit. One coin out of ten, on the other hand, is a significant reduction of the total and a lot more noticeable. One lost child out of two, let alone both, should be immediately obvious and provoke desperate measures.
Implicitly Anti-Jewish Readings
Anti-Jewish readings of the parable trilogy, but especially the father and sons, whether explicit or implicit, have been common since the beginning of Christian exegesis. They start with Luke's setting of the trilogy of parables as a response to Pharisaic criticism of Jesus's willingness to eat with sinners and tax collectors and continue from there.
I've talked in other sections (especially in the article on the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, the one on purity, and the one on Pharisees) about why the Christian reading of the Pharisees' objection to this is not about purity, it's not about contempt for sinners, and it's not about unwillingness to forgive or a desire to keep people from returning to the fold. To the contrary, the Pharisees were highly concerned with getting people to repent and were very clear that God is always willing to welcome back those who wish to repair their relationship or draw closer to God.
However, being willing to welcome back those who want to engage in teshuvah is not the same as blanket forgiveness. For Jews, forgiveness is the end of a process that involves public acknowledgment of wrongdoing and reparation to parties who were harmed by it, among other steps. The responsibility lies not just on the person who has committed the wrong, but on the entire community in getting the wrongdoer to understand and change their behavior. We all bear the responsibility of tochechah, rebuke. Leviticus 19:17 makes this clear (the excerpts in this section are from Everett Fox's translation:
You are not to hate your brother in your heart;
rebuke, yes, rebuke your fellow,
that you not bear sin because of him!
As with everything in Torah, the context is crucial to understanding the intent of the rule. The text immediately preceding this instruction is:
You are not to insult the deaf,
before the blind you are not to place a stumbling-block:
rather, you are to hold your God in awe;
I am YHWH!
You are not to commit corruption in justice;
you are not to lift-up-in-favor the face of the poor,
you are not to overly-honor the face of the great;
with equity you are to judge your fellow!
You are not to traffic in slander among your kinspeople.
You are not to stand by the blood of your neighbor,
I am YHWH!
And immediately after the text on rebuke is this instruction:
You are not to take-vengeance,
you are not to retain-anger against the sons of your kinspeople—
but be-loving to your neighbor (as one) like yourself,
I am YHWH!
Again, remember that this is not merely religious instruction for Jews; it's also the criminal and civil code for the children of Israel as they form a new nation. The exhortation to rebuke your neighbor is both a warning not to let resentment fester (or worse, talk about people but not to them) and a legal obligation to avoid being complicit in crime. It also comes after a litany of ways to be equitable in justice, including favoring neither the rich nor the poor, not bearing false witness, and not profiting from harm to your neighbor or allowing the harm to go unaddressed. The insistence that one not insult the deaf or place a stumbling-block before the blind is understood in Jewish law to extend beyond the literal: one cannot do anything to take advantage of or increase a disability (such as offering alcohol to an alcoholic), or even take advantage of ignorance. Witnesses to a crime are obligated to inform the perpetrator that what they are doing is wrong.
In other words, the community is obligated to let each of its members know when they are screwing up and to attempt to get them to stop. It's obligated to encourage and support members in doing teshuvah. And a key part of teshuvah is that when one is presented with the opportunity to repeat the wrongdoing, one chooses not to.
So while the Pharisees encouraged other Jews to both do teshuvah themselves and to be forgiving to others who did it, there's a difference between being willing to forgive those who have changed and forgiving people who are still committing the harm. It's possible that the Pharisees saw Jesus's willingness to dine with tax collectors—who were engaged in doing serious harm to their neighbors—as a failure to engage in tochechah and as support for their continued wrongdoing rather than as encouragement to do teshuvah.
In any case, however, we don't know what the original context of the story was, because Matthew's alternate setting suggests that Luke chose a context that would support his own interpretations of the parables. The context changes what likely would have been stories meant for all the listeners into a passive-aggressive, indirect callout of the Pharisees in front of an audience.
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 completely incompatible with his own. Those who were largely on the same page but differed on details, on the other hand, might be swayed. Luke is stacking the deck by not allowing the Pharisees a response; most likely, they responded to Jesus's parables with their own.
But many 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.
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 an exploitative pharmaceutical exec to one's dinner table, especially if one has family members who've died because they couldn't afford medication. Christian commentators regularly assume such objections came from snobbishness or religious hangups about ritual purity, rather than from genuine pain and anger in a community in which many members had lost loved ones to a brutal occupation.
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 prudishness 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 having a problem with that claim.
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 with 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.)
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, the position Blomberg holds in the second paragraph is exactly the position of the Pharisees: those who wish to be forgiven must take substantive steps toward changing their behavior. 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 repentance is exactly the "cheap grace" Beavis is worried about.
It takes, as we might say, a certain amount of chutzpah for Blomberg to turn around and endorse the same position that he claims puts the Pharisees 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.
Christian backtracking on this particular issue is, in that light, actually understandable:
The traditional Christian interpretation of this parable as representing radical forgiveness, even in the absence of repentance (the prodigal returns not because he's sorry, but because he's starving), let alone recompense—let alone the potential privileging of the returning 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. 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.
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, there's no proof that these are groups with whom 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.) And "half-breeds"? Where, exactly, are they mentioned in the gospels? There is no such thing as a "half-breed" in Jewish law. After the tragic story of the "half-Israelite" who uses the Divine Name in an impermissible manner in Deuteronomy 24:10, we never see the designation again. Having the community place their hands on the head of the man before he is executed appears to represent a claiming. After that, while a person's ancestry might be half-Jewish, that person is either fully a Jew, or they are fully not a Jew. Wilson's "half-breed" claim appears to be an attempt to retroject some sort of racism or idea of racial "purity" onto first-century Jews.
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.
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." 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). Yet 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 the Pharisees.
Christian theology seems to be self-contradictory as to 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 the Pharisees cut people off for 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. (Paul's 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.)
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.
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 not to boil a kid in its mother's milk, the rabbis said not to 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 may have been less 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 among the common folk, which they hardly would have attained 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 also 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 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.
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 to 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 gurneys out of their cars 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 forgiveness 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 for rational and good-faith reasons, 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 across geography, time, and culture—were teaching.
If you truly want to claim Jesus's teachings as radical and hard to accept, let them be radical and hard to accept, 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, were 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 believes about the ultimate goal of Jesus's ministry, he seems to have been focused on talking to other Jews, not 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 one can cause to a Jewish community (weddings being the other favored target).
It's hard, as a Jew, not to experience a shadow of dread when Christians evoke the image of Jews huddled around the Torah as the image of people who are farther than any other from God, echoing centuries of blood libel and decide slander that have resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews.
Ethical vs. Ritual
Christian commentators also seem 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 Jewish law. 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 rules about what food is kosher). 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.
Impurity and Outcasts
Most of these commentators also seem 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. It's very nice that he "dries up" the hemorrhaging woman so she can return to the Temple, but is he going to be around if she gets some other condition? 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.) Christian exegesis often uses 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 thousands of times 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.
Pure and Impure; Saved and Unsaved; White and Racialized
(This section is, admittedly, something of a tangent, and you can skip it for now, although a lot of this is is going to come back in discussion of Christian identification of the younger son with gentiles.)
I suspect that this Christian obsession with the idea that Jews divided human beings into The Pure and The Impure is a case of projection.
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). A full treatment of the relationship between Christianity and whiteness is certainly beyond the scope of this site, but I have included recommendations for further reading in the Learn More section.
It may seem like quite a leap to associate the binary between the saved and the unsaved with racism, but they are intimately related. 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 Anidjar 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.”
Anidjar's writing can take some effort to unpack, but what he's saying here is that during the Middle Ages, blood became the metaphor by which people traced genealogical connection—that is, biological descent. The concept of kinship, once more ambiguous, focused on that biological descent. The understanding of kinship as ties of biological descent became an understanding of peoplehood as common biological descent: that is, the modern conception of "race."
As the understanding of Christians as a people met the understanding of peoplehood as biological, as based on blood, Christian "blood" became pure, leaving non-Christian blood to become impure.
(Anidjar contrasts Jewish peoplehood in the Tanakh, figured as being as much about names and memory as biological relationships. After all, there are many descendants of Abraham who aren't included in the covenant community, just as there are members of other peoples who left Egypt with the Israelites and became part of the community, converts like Ruth, people who married in, and more.)
For Anidjar, Christianity becomes a biological division between those who do and don't possess the right blood, a distinction that takes on both overt and deadly form in the Spanish limpieza de sangre ("cleanness of blood") statutes barring Christians with Jewish or Muslim ancestry from full participation in society.
Denise Buell, a religious studies professor at Williams College, and J. Kameron Carter, a religious studies professor at Indiana University, have written books (Why This New Race? and Race: A Theological Account, respectively) that form a mutually reinforcing reexamination of the relationship between Christianity and race. Carter argues that rather than Christianity being a tool of whiteness, whiteness is instead a product of Christianity. Buell argues that early Christianity already used racial/ethnic reasoning as a division between Christians and non-Christians.
Background: Are Race and Racism "Modern"?
Buell explains how contemporary scholarship almost universally accepts the idea that early Christians offered a universally accessible salvation that was free of ethnic/racial particularity:
The almost unanimous view that early Christians defined themselves over and against ethnic or racial specificity (that is, as a movement open to all humans regardless of ethnicity and race) relies on an understanding of race/ethnicity as ascribed or fixed. Race and ethnicity are positioned as irrelevant to early Christian self-definition because they seem to contrast with universalism. In this way of thinking, racially or ethnically specific forms of Christianity may exist, but these variations are viewed either as incidental (not affecting a perceived underlying essence of Christianity) or as problematic (obstructing the achievement of a Christian ideal to dissolve racially or ethnically linked forms of religion and society). This interpretation of the relationship of race/ethnicity to Christianity was especially elaborated in modern historical contexts in light of arguments that race/ethnicity are natural, biological traits.
This combines with the idea, which has also been almost universal for some time, that race and racism as we understand them today are products of modernity, so much so that stalwart cultural institutions like PBS can state it as fact:
Race is a modern idea. Ancient societies, like the Greeks, did not divide people according to physical distinctions, but according to religion, status, class, even language. The English language didn't even have the word 'race' until it turns up in 1508 in a poem by William Dunbar referring to a line of kings.
The association of race and modernity has probably been stated most famously and starkly by Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989):
As a conception of the world, and even more importantly as an effective instrument of political practice, racism is unthinkable without the advancement of modern science, modern technology and modern forms of state power. As such, racism is strictly a modern product. Modernity made racism possible.
Even earlier, in 1944, Eric Williams, who would become the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, wrote in his doctoral dissertation (later published in 1968 as Capitalism and Slavery):
Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.
Devin Vartija, a history professor at Utrecht University, in a 2019 review of a collection of recent books on racism and modernity, concludes:
Although it is likely untenable to limit racism, even narrowly defined, to the modern period alone, these studies demonstrate that a number of trends central to modernity created the conditions in which racism arguably became more systematic and widespread. The egalitarian claims of modern liberal democracies necessitated new and modern justifications of inequality, and the idea of a racial hierarchy served this purpose in many places around the world. The strong racial component of the transatlantic slave trade and the establishment of New World slave societies meant that discriminatory practices and extreme exploitation in the modern world have shaped processes of racialization.
Even if we assume that a modern conception of race (generally classified as "scientific racism" based on the idea of genetic, or blood, inheritance, and dividing humanity up into a discrete number of races) is distinct from any attitudes that existed before modernity, it's hardly a stable concept, as Omar H. Ali notes on the Oxford University Press blog:
Race, being a social and political construct, and therefore unstable and inconsistent across time and location, has changed repeatedly. In the United States alone racial groupings as they appear in the US Census have changed over one dozen times since 1790. Moreover, what constituted “black” in one state changed when entering another state. Along these lines, someone considered “black” in the United States might be considered “white” in Brazil. Such racial distinctions—whether in North America, South America, Africa, Western Europe, South Asia, or East Asia—have had a profound, and often limiting, if not destructive impact on people’s lives.
Among the consequences of what may be called scientific racism (including theories of monogenesis and polygenesis) has been the justification of violence against certain identifiable groups of people for economic exploitation—most notably, sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants in the Americas—centered on notions of “natural” inferiority. The “science” was expressed in medical terminology: during the nineteenth century enslaved African Americans were diagnosed, for instance, with “drapetomania,” a term coined by Virginian physician Samuel Cartwright (the “disease” of black slaves wanting to run away from captivity, with the prescription being whipping).
To be clear, the reason the construct is unstable is because it's false: "scientific" racism is a disproven concept. Race is socially, not biologically, constructed, but even disproven, the concept continues to do deadly harm.
However, despite prior consensus, the question of whether modern racism is actually modern is anything but settled. We may have not understood and articulated heritability in the genetic terminology we now use for it until the 1700s, let alone discovered genes until the 20th century, but that doesn't mean that nothing similar to our modern idea of "race" existed until then.
This position has been undergoing a reevaluation, and many scholars (including Anidjar, above) now consider it to have originated in the Middle Ages. As I noted above, the Spanish attitude toward Jews and Muslims and their Christian descendants, and even their name for it, evoking blood "purity", seems to align well with modern racism.
Adam Hochman, a philosophy lecturer at Macquarie University, outlines the transition:
In the late Middle Ages, ‘races’ were understood to be biological lineages formed through reproductive isolation. This sounds so similar to modern scientific conceptions of race that we might be tempted to conclude that later scientific approaches to race were not uniquely modern – that ‘race’ science just gave the existing race concept a scientific gloss. But there were some radical changes in how ‘race’ was understood during modernity. In medieval Spain, the Jews and the Moors were understood to be ‘races’, but nobody else appears to have been given this label. This changes with modernity.
He concludes (noting in more detail, in a paper, that his titular question is actually six different questions with different answers):
We can already see why race scholars have trouble locating the race concept historically. We tend to confuse scientific concepts of race with the concept of race itself. The concept of race is late-medieval, but race as a scientific concept – which brought the idea into contact with taxonomy and physical anthropology – is modern.
To understand modern conceptions of race, and the argument that it is a modern phenomenon, we have to understand the concept of whiteness, which is generally conceived as the absence of race, as Trechter and Bucholtz explain in White Noise: Bringing Language into Whiteness Studies (2001):
As a cultural sign, whiteness works much like a linguistic sign, taking its meaning from those surrounding categories to which it is structurally opposed, such as blackness, indigenousness, and foreignness. As an element in each of these binaries, however, whiteness is not opposite and equal, but opposite and unequal. It is in its unmarked status that the power of whiteness lies. Ideologically, whiteness is usually absence, not presence: the absence of culture and color.
One we focus on whiteness, we start to see where the distinction between modernity and everything before it comes from. In a Guardian article on the history of whiteness, Robert P. Baird begins with the following lead-in:
Before the 17th century, people did not think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race. But once the idea was invented, it quickly began to reshape the modern world.
That's true. But in understanding whiteness as the unmarked racial case, rather than focusing on whether the word "whiteness" is used, we can find it earlier. In Spain, the unmarked race was the Old Christians, with their purity of blood (the origin, in fact, of the idea of "blue blood"), as opposed to the racialized New Christians with their Muslim and Jewish ancestry, as in the Hochman quote above.
Prior to that, the unmarked case was, simply, "Christian."
The usual argument is that what existed prior to modernity was xenophobia, in which everyone thought they and their city-state were normal and everyone else was weird and not to be trusted, as opposed to racism, which views race as the primary determinant of human capabilities and a source of inherent superiority or inferiority. Ali catalogues a few examples:
Ancient and other pre-modern societies took difference in tribal affiliation, place of origin, language, class, religion, and foods eaten, as distinguishing factors among people: Egyptians during the New Kingdom depict four “races” in the Book of Gates, but presented these as geographic in origin, with each figure holding similar status; in China, distinctions were made between “raw” and “cooked” peoples; meanwhile, Aristotle in Politics argues that colder climates produced socially and politically inferior kinds of people in comparison to those who lived in temperate climates, such as his own Aegean. Centuries later, Muslims divided people into “believers” (People of the Book) and “nonbelievers” (kaffir), the latter implicitly viewed as morally inferior (now used as a racial slur in southeastern Africa); and in the Deccan, paintings from the early modern era depict dark-skinned Abyssinian elites in India being attended to by lighter-skinned pages, with class being the overriding distinction in that case.
And it's worth noting that gnosticism, a powerful strain in early Christianity, posited the sort of inherent racial hierarchy we might recognize from modernity:
For example, Clement of Alexandria claims that a rival teacher, Theodotos, holds the view that humans come in three types—the “naturally” saved (the “pneumatics,” named for their pneuma or spiritual element); those that have the free will to choose salvation or damnation (the “psychics,” named for their psychē or souls); and those that are “naturally” excluded from salvation (the “hylics,” named for their hylē or materiality).
If these examples show anything, it's that ancient world racism/xenophobia wasn't monolithic. I think the main difference between this and modernity isn't the idea of racial characteristics as inherent, but rather the lack of whiteness or an analogue, both in the sense of hegemonic global power (Egyptians might think the Greeks were strange and not as good as Egyptians, and the Greeks were free to think the reverse right back, and they didn't operate in a global society that all agreed on the superiority of one or the other, let alone had power to enforce that hierarchy) and in the sense of being an unmarked self versus a racialized Other.
Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity
Buell argues that early Christians did indeed see themselves as an ethnicity, or even what today we'd call a "race."
Christians also referred to themselves using other language that their contemporaries would have understood as positioning Christians as comparable to groups such as Jews, Greeks, and Romans: the terms ethnos, laos, politeia (Greek), and genus and natio (Latin) pepper early Christian texts.
She observes that one of the barriers to recognizing this and dealing with it is a failure to understand the dynamic nature of the concept of race/ethnicity/peoplehood at the time:
Instead of presuming that ethnicity and race are fixed aspects of identity, I approach these concepts as dynamic and characterized by an interaction of appeals to fluidity and fixity...
We can avoid the tendency to strangle a definition of ancient race/ethnicity if we imagine a spectrum running between two poles: fixity and fluidity. Genealogical claims function to support assertions of identity as fixed, inherent, primordial, and ascribed. This is the case even when genealogies are patently fabricated. It is not a genealogical argument or an appeal to “shared blood” that is the point, but an appeal to the “essence” of ethnicity or race. When skin color is invoked in the present, it functions analogously, to reinforce the perception that ethnoracial differences are “fixed.”
Understanding that movement between fixity and fuildity can help us understand how early Christianity could position itself both as open to all and as involving common descent.
Like Romans, early Christians do not view descent as a bar to (or a precondition of) becoming Christian; nonetheless, Christians also develop and ritually elaborate claims of primordial descent as a basis for defining the Christian community.
From a Jewish perspective—a Jewish perspective that ancient Christians may have shared—the combination of these two things is not automatically paradoxical. Jews understand ourselves first and foremost as members of an extended family or tribe. We can take pride in descent from famous figures in our history and also recognize adoption as a legitimate way for people with whom we don't share common ancestry to become part of the family and claim that ancestry.
But biological descent, while it might be the primary or only determiner of race as it's understood in modernity, wasn't the only criterion in the ancient world.
Another one is religion:
Ethnic reasoning is a valuable rhetorical strategy for early Christian authors in part because religiosity and race were already conceivable as interrelated in Roman-period texts, institutional practices, and policies, as well as in earlier texts used by Roman-period authors. While not omnipresent, religion serves as a persistent feature of ethnoracial and civic discourse and practices. Traditional definitions of Christianity as a religion of belief detached from the notion of an ethnoracial group need to be radically revised.
And yet another one is citizenship:
What can we make of this? This text initially links Christians with a race (genos), but when we ask what this means, we find the notion of citizenship at the center. For the Epistle to Diognetus, this defining feature makes it possible to portray Christianness in at least partially universalizing terms—as an identity that, like other forms of citizenship, is potentially accessible to all free male people, something that sets Christians apart yet allows them to otherwise “fit” into the status quo.
Membership as citizenship is, in fact, one of the ways Jews understand Jewishness.
These texts presume a correlation between religious practices and participation in a civic whole.109 As such, they preserve and perpetuate a long tradition of Jewish thought—both in terms of imagining a peoplehood that ultimately embraces all and in terms of articulating this vision of universal citizenship still in terms of a people.
If the main difference in "universalism" between Judaism and Christianity, however, is simply a matter of the degree of difficulty in joining either group (and, perhaps, the perceived difficulty in meeting the continuing demands of participation), if it is only a difference of degree and not of kind, there may not be a satisfactory answer to the crucial question for early Christians:
Within this line of questioning, the relationship between Christianity and Judaism becomes especially pressing: if Jesus was a Jew and his first followers were Jews—that is, if Christianity is itself traceable to Judaism—then what is the essence of Christianness that is not Jewishness?
As Frances Young ("Greek Apologists of the Second Century" in Apologetics in the Roman Empire) notes:
[T]he problem for Christians was that they were not assimilated into the Jewish ethnos, while apparently abandoning their own ethnic cultures.
The solution to that question for early Christians was to understand Christians as a distinct people, a people one could join through conversion as ethnic/racial transformation. The solution for many modern Christians is to understand Christianity as transcending race or ethnicity, and thus superior to "ethnic" religions.
Universal Christianity and Ethnic Judaism
The solution to the question is often of what truly separates Christianity from the Judaism out of which it arose has been to contrast Christian universalism with Jewish particularism—its ethnic particularism.
That is, Christianness is often defined by ethnoracial contrast with Judaism—Judaism has “ethnic links” but Christianity does not. This statement implies that what is meant by “ethnic links” is transparent and agreed upon. But unspoken assumptions that “ethnic links” are ones of biological kinship obscure the ways that reckoning race or ethnicity even by descent is a social process, for individuals and for groups.
And in fact, the idea of Jewish ethnic particularism might be a necessary component of Christian universalism. It almost seems that Christianity can't be universal unless Judaism is ethnically particular.
What has remained strikingly consistent in the last century of mainstream scholarship is the assertion that Christianity’s success (as well as its “break” with Judaism) correlates with its “going universal.” But when we inquire about this universalism, it turns out that it is measured by the extent to which Christianity becomes a gentile movement that has transcended its particular roots in Judaism. This is an odd measure of universality, since it depends on ancient dichotomies of self-other (Jew/gentile), adapted loosely so that “gentile” becomes “self” and the Jew becomes the “other” by which the self is defined.
One might even note that this positioning of Jewishness has a great deal of commonality with racialization. Jewishness gains an inherent, fixed, immutable character in addition to its ethnic particularity in contrast to Christianity's infinite, fluid receptiveness, although both of these characteristics only move in one direction. This appears to be consistent with early Christian attitudes: one can leave Judaism and enter into Christianity, but the idea of leaving Christianity to enter into Judaism is unthinkable: once one has shucked one's ethnic particularity, it can't be regained.
[Clement] does not encourage the reader to ask whether it is possible to imagine a Christian becoming a Hellene or a Jew, nor does it address whether Greekness (“Helleneness”) and Judeanness might be equally accessible through transformation of one’s mode of practice and attitudes. The universalizing potential of the category “Christian” instead implicitly positions Hellene and Jew as finite and inferior.
Yet conversion to Judaism—that is, joining the Jewish people, our ethnos—appears to have been possible as soon as Jews began to conceive of ourselves as a people (as opposed to one nuclear family). Exodus speaks of a "mixed multitude" that left Egypt with the Israelites, and while most of those non-Jewish travel companions appear to have gone off on their own at some point, the text does record the existence of Israelites with Egyptian parents. While both Christian laws and social prejudice made it difficult, if not downright dangerous for Christians to convert to Judaism for much of our mutual history—both for the formerly Christian convert and for the Jewish community who accepted them—Christians have been converting to Judaism for that entire history. To treat Christian identity as fluid and open to all while Jewish identity is fixed, ethnically particular, and thus presumably unobtainable is to ignore most of Jewish history.
It should be obvious, at this point, why positioning Judaism and Jewishness as a negative foil to Christianity is a problem:
If Christianness gets defined as ideally nonracial or nonethnic, in contrast to Jewishness, then even critiques within Christianity about the tradition’s failure to realize this ideal may unintentionally reinforce a form of racially inflected Christian anti-Judaism. In other words, definitions of Christianity’s racially inclusive ideal will perpetuate a racially loaded form of anti-Judaism if the implied point of contrast to Christianity’s inclusiveness is Jewishness. Furthermore, this model risks sustaining white privilege by positioning Christianity as intrinsically separate from ethnicity/race and by offering a problematic loophole for whites to avoid examining the ways that racism has infused dominant forms of Christian theology and practice.
The very framework of Christianity as above race or ethnicity—while, as Buell notes, it may have been important to anti-racism work in Christian communities—is derivative of modern ideas about race and contributes to anti-Jewish assumptions even in Christian discourse that is trying to rid itself of anti-Judaism.
There is an irony here. Naturalized ideas about race help to structure the very classifications of religions despite the insistence on defining Christianity as not-race. This racially linked notion of what religion is helps to explain why anti-Judaism persists in the face of reconstructions of Christian origins that are quite explicit about seeking to avoid this implication. By distinguishing Christianity as universal and racially unmarked, Judaism is constructed as its constitutive other—the racially marked particular. Furthermore, when these two complexes are located in a historical sequence, first Judaism, then Christianity, an evolutionary progression from particular to universal is implied.
That idea of "evolutionary progression" between religions is itself reminiscent of attempts to apply Darwin's theory of evolution of species to human societies, which should be a red flag. Neither human societies nor human ideologies follow the rules of biological evolution, and attempts to force a biological framework onto them resulted in Victorian "scientific racism" and a hierarchy of cultures, peoples, or races.
"Nonethnic" and "universal" often substitute for one another in this discourse, and there's a clear line from ancient Christian assertions that Christians represented a superior ethnicity to Judaism to modern implications that Christianity represents a superior non-ethnicity to Judaism's ethnicity.
It is precisely because Eusebius defines Christians as an ethnos that his argument is coherent. This example suggests that one difference between ancient and modern Christian anti-Judaism turns on the presence or absence of Christian self-comparison to a people. Eusebius makes Christians a superior people to the Jews, whereas modern Christians have sometimes argued that Christians are superior to Jews because Jews are a people while Christians exceed these boundaries.
Of course, as we know from 2000 years of Christian history, Christianity's supposed universalism has not been extended fully to all. Christians in Spain were suspicious of whether Muslims and Jews could ever truly become Christian, and European and American colonialism have been intertwined with a Christianity that justifies rather than abolishes racial hierarchies.
Kant refers to this perfected race type, in allusion to the Pauline language of Romans 9–11, as a ‘‘remnant race,’’ a kind of new or different Israel or people of chosenness. This is the basis for Kant’s emergent political-cultural nationalism of whiteness. In this chapter, I outline how Kant’s new configuration of man as homo racialis and his new, ‘‘enlightened’’ configuration of homo politicus are based on a new conception of homo religiosus as it is articulated within his vision of modernity as a great drama of religion. Specifically, I am interested in how whiteness became a theological problem that camouflages itself as just such a problem, how this theological problem continues to mark modernity, and how Kant’s thought can help me articulate the problem.
In contrast to his lengthy account of the origins of Negroes, Huns, and Hindustanis in which he is clear that they are races, Kant refers to whites with terms ranging from Gestalt (form) to Abartung (deviation) to Schlag (kind). As he sees it, whites are a group apart. They are a “race” that is not quite a race, the race that transcends race precisely because of its “developmental progress” (Fortgang) toward perfection.
Thus whiteness is both “now and not yet.” It is a present reality, and yet it is also still moving toward and awaiting its perfection… it is through these white people and culture that the full reality of whiteness will globally expand to “eschatalogically” encompass all things and bring the world to perfection.
[In Kant’s view, whites] are not a race in the same way that the other human races have become races. The other races have become races in such a way as to be held hostage to their own particularity.
Given this, what white folks must most fear, because of the close racial and cultural contact their racial development entails, according to Kant, is the potential for and the deleterious effects of miscegenation, or racial intermixing.
Indeed, the stamping out of the nonwhite races, from Kant’s perspective, coincides with their being brought into the global advance and cosmopolitical maturing of whiteness as the revolutionary social-political process and arrangement of Enlightenment in the 1784 essay bearing this title.
Christians conceptualized themselves not only as a group formed out of members of other peoples, but also as a people themselves.
Christians [are defined] as a distinct people constituted out of former members of the Hellenes and Jews. Christians are the genos of the saved. Members of the first two peoples remain distinct because of their religious practices but are eligible through “training” in a different covenant to become members of the third people, “the one genos” saved by faith. Thus what we might conceive of as a religious process, conversion, could be simultaneously imagined as a process of ethnic transformation.
Christianness is potentially universal not because Christians do not constitute a people, but rather because Clement attributes to the Christian people two key attributes: superiority as the “one saved genos” and accessibility via “faith.”
Christians, according to Clement, are not just the oldest people but are in fact the only human race.
This logic implies that Christians are the true form of humanity, while all other ethnic/racial differences correlate with degrees of imperfect knowledge of the logos.
Conversion is not only framed as the activation and perfection of the logos seed already in one’s soul; it also transforms people from their imperfect, particular ethnicity to the one unifying, universal one—Christian.
That is, one way to assert universalism on behalf of one’s particular preferred version of Christianity is to “racialize” rival forms, construing them as exclusive and limited. The presence of this logic in early Christian texts indicates a kind of prehistory to modern racial thinking, where particularity and “race” appear to be linked even while the racialized logic embedded in universal claims is masked.
Christians rely on metaphors of sexual reproduction. Moreover, these metaphors encode organic notions of racial and sexual difference that appear in preoccupations with what we might call miscegenation. Three concepts in particular signal this concern with early Christianity’s sexual/racial purity: “syncretism,” “Judaizing,” and “heresy.” All three are used to explain differences within Christianity in terms of improper “mixing” of some original essence of Christianity with allegedly external elements.
By viewing ethnicity or race as subject to change, Christians could also assert that if anyone can change to become a member of the Christian race, then all ought to.
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"
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
I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.
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.
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
Stained glass windows depicting the parables of the lost sheep and lost son. Designed by Percy Bacon (1860-1935). Lady St. Mary Church, Dorset, England. Photo from Alamy.
Window by James Powell and Sons. In memory of Margaret Ada Mather of Sidegarth, Nether Staveley (1868-1930). Photo from Wikipedia.
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.