Two weeks ago, I talked about Levine’s interpretation of the lost sheep and lost coin stories. This week, I will talk about the main story of the lost son.
Levine starts out by pointing to the younger son as someone whom the biblically literate reader can identify with. This is a valuable insight from a Jewish point of view because Hebrew Scripture is full of adventurous and mischievous younger sons (e.g. Isaac, Jacob, etc.). Whether Jesus’ listeners could sense this is quite another story, but this insight does fit a Jewish paradigm of reading this story.
One interpretive problem with the story is the temptation to make it an allegory. What would happen if we see the father as God? The kind of father who lets this son go away, knowing how foolish and indulgent his son is, is a foolish man. Levine points out this difficulty. If her claim is correct about the last two stories as being about the joy of finding, then this story only challenges the attitude of finding something lost. The father illustrates that attitude. He isn’t God. He was never meant to represent God. On the opposite end, we need to treat the older son and the younger son the same way. Sure, the older son might exhibit some of the attitudes the Pharisees had, but overall, he only serves to condemn such attitudes, whether those possessing those attitudes are Jewish or gentile. I realize that the distinction I make is very subtle, but it’s a necessary subtlety for the sake of methodological consistency.
One area of disagreement I have with Levine is her reading the three stories as separate parables. Although the form of Luke 15 permits reading the stories as three parables, Jesus already said very clearly that there’s only one parable. In saying that, the first two stories introduce the third. Luke forced these stories to work together to create a greater whole.
As we have said before, the focal point of joy after finding the lost drives the storyline of the two previous stories. This joyful attitude points to the attitude people have towards the things lost. This certainly adds to the ending of the lost son story where Luke left both the father and the older son in the field. The story points to the contrasting attitudes between the father and the son. The younger son, contrary to popular imagination is only a foil to play out the differences of attitudes between the father and the son. In so doing, it addresses the attitude of the Pharisees who didn’t like the sinners gathering around Jesus. People would only rejoice if they think of the younger son as valuable member of the community. Would they take the attitude of the father or continue in their attitude of the older son?