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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.

Introduction
Shepherds and Sheep
Women and Coins
Fathers and Sons

The Father

The Hypothetical Villagers

The Younger Son

The Elder Son

BETTER READINGS

The Text

Context
Luke 15:1-3

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:

Matthew 18:10-11

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.

Parables
Sheep (Luke)

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." 

Sheep (Matthew)

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.

Sheep (Thomas)

 

 

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.'

Sheep (Luke)

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." 

Coin (LUKE)

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." 

Sons

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."

Postscript
Sheep (Luke)

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.

Sheep (Matthew)

So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

Coin (Luke)

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

 
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Introduction

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.

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Levine's Reading

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 to compare the behavior of the father to that of the sheep owner and the woman.

 

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.

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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. Moreover, a sheep watcher who leaves 99 sheep behind to seek one missing sheep 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, and leaving the flock behind to seek out a missing sheep is irresponsible sheep herding, 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.

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Class Concerns

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. 

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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, 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 he is 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.

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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.

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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 treats as putting 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 in the face of the potential privileging of the returning wrongdoer over the steadfast 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.

 

Undesirables

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, demoniacs, 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 Leviticus 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.)

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Painful Restrictions

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

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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

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. Some of this is going to come back in discussions of identification of the younger son with gentiles, and I hope to treat it in more detail eventually.

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, something approaching 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.

The point of all of this is that Christians often posit a Christianity that transcends race/ethnicity against an ethnically particular Judaism, and use this as proof of Christianity's superiority. This reasoning ends up racializing Jews—after all, while it might be harder to convert to Judaism than Christianity, Judaism is no less open to converts of any ethnicity, and it's questionable whether Christian-ness is actually less heritable in many parts of the world than Jewishness—and implying a hierarchy of religions in which religion associated too closely with "ethnicity" is inferior. Jewishness becomes associated not only with ethnic particularity, but with carnality and the weakness of the flesh, in opposition to Christian spirituality and transcendent enlightenment. This line of thought eventually flowers noxiously in Kant's insistence that just as Jesus's crucifixion represented the dying away of his bodily nature to free his divine transcendence, the elimination of Judaism and Jewishness from the world would free humanity from what was holding it back from reaching its true, transcendent nature.

Moreover, the idea that universalism is necessarily better than particularism itself often goes unexamined among Christians, even though, as Buell notes:

Universal claims are neither intrinsically liberating nor oppressive, but can serve both possible ends, depending upon who is making them, in what contexts, and to what ends. Regina Schwartz has sagely noted that “Universalism comes in different shapes, as an ideal of genuine toleration, as an effort to protect universal human rights, and as a kind of imperialism that insists that we are all one and that demands an obliteration of difference.” Universalism can easily entail idealization of certain aspects of humanity over and against an “other” defined as separate or less than human; racism lurks “both on the side of the universal and the particular.”

All too often, the demand of the "melting pot" is that the "ethnic particularity" of non-white, non-Christian, non-European peoples be relinquished in exchange for a supposedly neutral monoculture that is actually a WASP culture to which everyone is supposed to aspire, but racialized people can never full attain.

In claiming that Christians were part of a "new race" that transcended and was defined over against ethnic particularity, especially in the form of a racialized Judaism, early Christians prefigured whiteness (often positioned as an absence of race). Modern Christians tend to ignore or be ignorant of the ways in which early Christians described themselves in ethnic terms, and seem determined to make Judaism not just racialized but racist in ways more characteristic of European and American Christian divisions between those who have the right salvation status—and the right blood—and those who do not.

The Christian misuse of the concepts of taharah and tumah ("purity" and "impurity") to claim that Jews of Jesus's time saw the world in terms of inherently "pure" Jews and inherently "impure" gentiles, or even inherently pure Jews-in-good-standing and inherently impure "outcasts" and "undesirables" strikes me as a case of telling on oneself. 

The idea that Jews divide up the world into Jews and non-Jews is true as far as it goes, just as any group makes distinctions between members and non-members. Doing so is necessary to define a community in the first place. But drawing borders doesn't inherently make them impermeable. There are no human beings who are inherently impure, just as there are no human beings who are inherently ineligible to convert to Judaism. 

Similarly, the Torah doesn't have categories of "sinners" and "non-sinners." The idea that everyone "sins" (the term in English has a very different sense from any of the Hebrew terms from which it is translated) is hardly revolutionary.

All of these supposed fixed divisions in Judaism posited in Christian commentary strike me as begging the question: that is, they seem to treat Christianity as a solution for which they need to generate a problem. That setup might feel satisfying for Christians, it might make for a pat sermon or book chapter, but it doesn't actually lead to greater understanding of either why early Christians chose Christianity or why their Jewish contemporaries didn't.

 

Good Ethics, Bad Ritual

Something similar to the projected Jewish divisions between people seems to be going on with culture in Christian commentators' need to carve up Judaism 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 Judaism.

 

"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 ritual law.

Parceling 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 lists 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 some practices which are 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 the "good" ethical practices Christians adopted and the "bad" ritual ones they didn't 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 Jews have 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

As described in several of the preceding sections, there's a strong undercurrent in many Christian commentaries of the idea that Jews of Jesus's time, and the Pharisees especially, didn't want to see their kinspeople forgiven, that they didn't want to see estranged members of the community return to the fold, that they didn't want the community to be whole. Barclay, in addition to his general antisemitism, is probably the worst I've read in this regard, but similar implications lurk in many commentaries. Barclay is simply saying the quiet part out loud:

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 nothing to do with the sinner; the second and gentler is that God will accept the sinner if he comes beseeching 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. 

 

I could answer this exegesis of Jesus's parables with several different rabbinic parables, but since they provide close parallels to the parable of the lost sons, I'm going to discuss them when I get into more detail about that specific story.

Instead, I'm going to talk about how reconciliation with God is understood as working in Jewish thought.

 

At its most positive, the assumption I see among both Christians and Jews seems to be that it is more difficult to gain God's forgiveness in Judaism than it is in Christianity. 

 

That, I think, is true. 

 

I occasionally hear contempt among Jews for Christian understandings of repentance and forgiveness; we are apt, at our worst, to assume that Christianity is all cheap grace. Say you're sorry and Jesus will forgive you, the end. 

 

I've read enough Christian theologians on the subject to know that that's an oversimplification, and an uncharitable one at that.

 

The key distinction, I think, is that in Judaism, God can't forgive on behalf of those harmed by our wrongdoings. Only the victim can forgive the harm done to them. That's why murder is such a serious crime: all the other people harmed by the loss may be able to forgive, but there will always be one victim who can't, because they're dead. 

 

At the same time, Judaism doesn't hold that any and every sin cuts one off completely from God, that it results in damnation (without some sort of divine intervention), etc. 

 

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. When the Temple stood, 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. 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. 

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. 

As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explains:

On a human, ethical level, there is always a path toward repentance, toward understanding the harm we have caused and toward doing the work of repair and restitution, to whatever degree that is possible. People can always grow and become better. 

That doesn't mean that closing the distance created by wrongdoing comes automatically or is easy, any more than it does in relationships between humans. 

While different Jewish thinkers have put forth different descriptions of the path to repentance, most of them contain the following elements:

  • Recognition of one’s sins as sins

  • Desisting from sin

  • Restitution where possible

  • Confession 

The process of atonement is known as teshuvah ("return"). Rabbi Ruttenberg describes it as follows:

According to Jewish law, though, the most critical factor is repentance, tshuvah — the work that a person who has done harm must undertake. There are specific steps: The bad actor must own the harm perpetrated, ideally publicly. Then they must do the hard internal work to become the kind of person who does not harm in this way — which is a massive undertaking, demanding tremendous introspection and confrontation of unpleasant aspects of the self. Then they must make restitution for harm done, in whatever way that might be possible. Then — and only then — they must apologize sincerely to the victim. Lastly, the next time they are confronted with the opportunity to commit a similar misdeed, they must make a different, better choice. 

It's not easy. But it's also worth remembering that in Judaism, "sin" and "crime" are essentially the same thing. Unlike the Christian concept of the seven deadly sins, most of which are described as feelings (lust, greed, wrath, etc.), most Jewish thinkers don't classify thoughts or feelings as the sort of sins that require teshuvah. Jews are concerned with actions. 

And most of those sins/crimes are things that are understood to cause harm not just to God or to individual victims, but to the community. They're things that were part of a code of laws for setting up a nation, not simply religious sins. It might be enough, in a society that has a separate legal code, to confess one's "religious" sins and say prayers in penance, because the civil and criminal justice systems handle ensuring that the community can continue to function and people have recourse if they're harmed. But that distinction between the sacred and the secular doesn't exist in Jewish law.

So on one hand, atonement for us definitely seems harder than it is in Christianity, but on the other hand, the frequency with which we do things that require atonement seems to be less than in a system where thoughts and feelings can be sins.

We understand God as standing behind both the wrongdoer and the victim. On one hand, you should remember that the person you harm is made in the divine image, and is a child of God, so the wrong is not against them alone. And on the other, you should understand that God loves you and is ready to support you in repairing the harm you've done. Should you attempt to return, you will not walk alone on that journey.

 

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Learn More

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.

Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race? Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity

J. Cameron Karter, Race: A Theological Account

Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity

Rabbi David J. Blumenthal, "Spiraling Towards Repentance" (My Jewish Learning)

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, "Famous abusers seek easy forgiveness. Rosh Hashanah teaches us repentance is hard." (Washington Post)

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, "We still have time to repent for American racism" (Washington Post)

Robert P. Baird, "The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea" (The Guardian)

Art Notes

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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.

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Window by James Powell and Sons. In memory of Margaret Ada Mather of Sidegarth, Nether Staveley (1868-1930). Photo from Wikipedia.

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Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1485). Thought to be an idealized portrait of noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci. Image from Wikipedia

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Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707-1762), A peasant girl in profile wearing a white scarf. Image from ArtNet

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Child Jesus Preaching in the Temple Memorial Window, Gelman Stained Glass Museum.

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A stained glass window depicting Mary Magdalene holding a jar of ointment, All Saints Church, Ladbroke, Warwickshire. Photo from Alamy.

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Good Shepherdess stained glass window from Pelletier Hall. Image from Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

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Mosaic from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna (Italy). Image source: Wikipedia.