TO START a revolution, it helps to have a good story. Jesus has multiple good stories. To define the revolution, it helps to determine the target. Jesus was not unaware of politics and economics, of non-violent revolution, and a concern for forgiving debts. But he was also interested in preparing his followers to live as if they already had one foot in the Kingdom of heaven.
The parables prompt us to see the world otherwise: they help us to question our presuppositions; they activate not only imagination but response. The more I look at the parables, the better I am able to ask the right questions and to recognise the ambiguities of life.
The reception history of the parables repeats the act of domestication. The parables become children’s stories, and the parents and teachers do not find the children capable of deep moral reasoning. Thus, the parables become robbed of their provocation: the Prodigal Son means that God loves people who sin or make mistakes; the Good Samaritan means that we help people who are not part of our group, or that “those people” (the “other”) are nice, too.
For the church Fathers, the parables often become allegories, with the writer holding the key. They, like the entire “Old Testament”, are seen primarily as making Christological points. Ethics yields to doxa. The parables then become morality tales, a move already started by the Evangelists. For Luke, the parable of the widow and the judge is about praying always and not losing heart (Luke 18.1), and not about a very complex story of a widow who asks for vengeance and a judge who grants her desire not because it is just but because she threatens him with an uppercut.
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are, for Luke, about repenting and forgiving (Luke 15.4-10), despite the facts that the sheep-owner (never called a shepherd) and the woman lost, respectively, their sheep and coin, that sheep and coins do not repent, and that the owner and the woman do not forgive their lost objects. Praying always is fine advice (it couldn’t hurt), and, reading the parables of the lost sheep and coin, along with the third parable in the triptych of Luke 15, the “prodigal son”, as about repenting and forgiving is fine, too.
I’VE been teaching for more than two decades in a maximum-security prison in Nashville, and a number of my insider students who identify with the prodigal find solace in knowing that God (the father) will receive them. I would not take that reading away from them, and I think that Jesus would concur.
I do not think, however, that the idea of a forgiving God is either new (the Golden Calf was not one of Israel’s better moments, but the covenant continues; of course Jews believe in a God who forgives), or that, in fact, the father “forgave” the prodigal, for there was nothing technically to “forgive”.
Despite his interior monologue about claiming to have sinned, he did nothing more than engage in “dissolute living”: to be stupid is not the same thing as to be sinful. In the parable of the man who had two sons (Luke 15.11-32), traditionally the “parable of the Prodigal Son”, the opening line sends me back to similar stories of men with two sons in the antecedent texts: Adam, the father of Cain and Abel; Abraham, the father of Ishmael and Isaac; Isaac, the father of Esau and Jacob; and so on.
In all cases, the narrative favours the younger son, and, in all cases, the older brother was treated unfairly, whether by God or by his parents. In all cases, the fathers fail, either because they are absent or because they show favouritism. In Jesus’s parable, the father fails the older brother: he had enough time to arrange music and dancing, and invite the neighbours to celebrate the prodigal’s return, but he forgot to invite the older brother.
Finally, in this story, the father realises his mistake and goes out to plead with his elder. And so I return to reclaim Cain and Ishmael and Esau, who are also part of the family. In its narrative context in Luke 15, the parable does more. When we strip out the Lucan insistence on repenting and forgiving (again, nothing wrong with either), we get a better message, and one typically missed by Christian interpreters.
In the first parable, the man has 100 sheep and loses one. The only way to determine a missing sheep is to count them. In the second parable, the woman has ten coins and loses one. Again, the only way to know that one coin out of ten is lost is to count. In the third parable, we go from 100 to ten to two: there was a man who had two sons. His problem: he forgot to count the older brother.
And so we realise the importance of making everyone feel counted, especially those who are overlooked: the dutiful child who does everything right while the sibling (disabled, on drugs, a brilliant athlete, a musical genius) absorbs all of the father’s attention; the quiet student who neither shines nor demands remedial help. More, we realise that people are not sheep or coins: they are human beings who have emotional responses that must be addressed.
Once these lessons come to our consciousness, we become better parents, better teachers, better human beings. When we go back to the widow and the judge, we find how easy it is to slip from the desire for justice to the desire for vengeance; a desire already demonstrated by the majority of the translations of Luke 18.3: “In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’”
The Greek literally has her ask, “avenge me against my adversary”. The opening term is the same word that appears in the famous statement, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” As for the widow and her opponent, she is doing the opposite of what the Sermon on the Mount demands: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.”
Can we side with the widow, stereotyped along with the poor, the orphan, and the stranger, as vulnerable and in need of protection, or do we see her as rich, demanding, and bent on vengeance? Do we even notice the opponent, or do we pre-determine that his case is unjust? Does the judge, who grants the widow her request not for reasons of justice but for self-preservation, do the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for the right reason? What is the difference between justice and vengeance (a question several of my insider students, serving long or life sentences, have asked)?
TO ASK such questions is to refuse the stereotype, the status quo, and the uninformed opinion. For a third example of thinking otherwise, the parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13.45-46) raises, in Stoic fashion, the question of importance: “The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” The pearl need not have a single allegorical interpretation (the Cross, eternal life, the Church, discipleship), and most of the allegorical interpretations would not have made sense to a first-century Jewish audience.
The parable is ridiculous on the surface: the merchant, hardly the type of job that would be associated with godly rule, sells everything he has to buy a pearl. At this point, he is no longer a merchant: he is a fellow with a pearl, and nothing else.
And yet he has what he wants. He is no longer acquisitive; he has sold (no mention of “sacrifice”) everything else, and he is happy. He knows for him what matters, regardless of how ridiculous his choice is to anyone else. To consider this merchant is to consider what we need vs. what we want; what we choose rather than what has been chosen for us.
Finally, the parable of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16.1-8a) raises the question of morality. In this parable, no one behaves morally. The rich man (parables about rich men usually end badly for the rich man) believes the gossip, and does not give the steward the chance of explaining his situation; he also fails to collect the books from the steward.
The steward, who is too proud to beg, cheats his master out of some of the debts; the debtors would have known that something illegal was afoot in the steward’s initial question of how much they owed (he had the books, he would know the amount), and then his insistence that they quickly write down lower numbers. In the end, the master commends the steward. Why? Because, although no one behaved well, everyone benefited. The steward keeps his job; the master gets a reputation for generosity; the debtors owe less.
We are thus forced to think about means and ends, whether making the rich a bit less rich is a good thing, and at what point on the economic scale is cheating someone out of a debt appropriate: in all cases, since we are to “forgive debts” (Matthew 6.12b) and “give to anyone who begs” (Luke 6.30)?
The other parables pose the same type of important questions, if we would only listen to them without the allegorical or Christological frosting with which they today come packaged. Short stories that make us think, that make us question ethics and economics, need and desire, justice and vengeance, our ancestral texts and our present relations, can revolutionise the way we live. If we only had ears to hear.
This is an edited extract from “Jesus the storyteller: The revolutionary power of parables” by Amy-Jill Levine, an essay in Revolutionary: Who was Jesus? Why does he still matter?, edited by Tom Holland and published by SPCK at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £16.99).
Amy-Jill Levine is Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University (Divinity School and Department of Jewish Studies).
Listen to an interview with Tom Holland about the book on this week’s edition of the Church Times Podcast.