After I introduced my series on A-J. Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, this week starts our journey through her insightful little work. She starts with a most beloved parable by Jesus, the story of the Prodigal Son. I have already dealt with this story in my book Right Texts, Wrong Meanings. She starts by problematizing the first two stories of sheep and coin. The problem is simple: both the shepherd and the poor woman were at fault for losing stuff. She then lays out the common interpretation by both preachers and commentators that the stories are about the unforgiving nature of Judaism and ultimately the younger son being the repentant Christian and the older son being the Pharisees. The father of course is God. As one who is sensitive to anti-Semitic use of the text, Levine is obviously uncomfortable with the common interpretation.
She then goes on to survey the different possible interpretations in the history of interpretation. One interpretation of interest to me is the more recent interpretation by Eduard Schweitzer who portrays Jesus’ ministry as correcting the notion of a stern God by Judaism. This of course presupposes that Judaism didn’t get God right. This is a common interpretation and misunderstanding by many Christians today as well. If I were pay a dime every time I hear someone say that the God of the Hebrew Bible was a God of justice in contrast to the God of love of the New Testament, I’d be very rich by now. This dichotomous view of God partly comes from common illiteracy with the Old Testament. Of course, without literacy with the OT, people certainly can’t understand Judaism both in its modern or ancient form.
In her reading, Levine points further to the impossibility of allegorizing the stories of sheep and coin as repentant sinners or outcasts. After all, the shepherd and the woman are at fault for losing their properties. The sheep or coin isn’t at fault. In pointing out this common but impossible move, Levine shows the subtlety of interpreting parables. Indeed, when looking at the details of the plot, many details just didn’t make common sense or fit the first century background. Thus, a anti-Semitic interpretation comes from this kind of carelessness.
One criticism Levine has for Luke is the way Luke warped the realities of these stories to fit the repentant sinner theme. Originally, the stories focus much more on finding something. Without defending Luke too hard against the charge of anti-Semitism, I would say that Levine should object to the way people read Luke in that warped way rather than Luke himself warping the stories.
Each story, in any parable, has a plotline. This plotline will have elements that fit the final moral lesson. The stories of sheep and coin typify this problem. Certainly, the shepherd and woman are at fault for losing stuff. Eventually the lost is found, much like the lost sinner is found. The idea of losing and finding that leads to joy should be the final moral teaching. In other words, the focus is in the joyful feeling of the owners in finding the lost possession. Thus, the comparison isn’t between all that is lost being exactly like the sinner who is surely at fault. The emphasis should fall on the feeling of joy.
In reading this part, I agree with Levine that we don’t have to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. Rather, we ought to read Jesus within Judaism and find the true emphasis of these stories.