The parables of Jesus have always been used as a foundation for Christian ethical teaching. Perhaps the most obvious example would be the story of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25: 31-46) in which judgment is passed based on how people treated "the least of these who are members of my family." The stories of Jesus have popular interpretations, many of which have been challenged in recent years based on more accurate historical interpretation of the context in which they were told.
In her recent book Short Stories by Jesus , Amy-Jill Levine presents interpretations of familiar parables in ways that challenge some traditional ethical and theological views. She emphasizes the way Jewish parents of the time would have been impressed and surprised by the messages. In a recent lecture series given at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, Levine highlighted the way that counting and inclusion have been overlooked in presentations of three familiar parables. Ethical implications stand out in those three parables because traditional views overlook failures of counting that exclude those Jesus would include. Re-examining these parables leads to surprise for contemporary readers.
The story of a lost sheep in Luke 15: 4-7 seems to make a clear point about counting. Someone had one hundred sheep and, noticing one was missing, went all out to find it. Often we assume this is a shepherd because we think the person who does the rescuing is God or Jesus "the good shepherd" – but the story does not say that. In the story it is the owner who realizes the loss, leaves the sheep, and searches for the missing one. It would not have been responsible behavior then or now for a shepherd to ignore the welfare of an entire flock as this owner did. In real life people in responsibility have to look out for the larger group.
In the story it is the owner – not necessarily the shepherd – who is careful enough about counting to notice that among a large number of sheep only one is missing. In Jesus' time, having that kind of inventory control would be extremely rare. Someone rich enough to have that many sheep usually would not have cared about just one. But this owner cares enough to know and to personally go all out to include everyone that belongs to him – and to celebrate when he rescues even one of them. This is not usual behavior and would be seen then as now as very exaggerated, but then parables specialize in exaggeration.
Next comes a surprise. Levine sees the Prodigal Son story as about counting. We usually focus on the return of the younger son whose repentance is blessed with forgiveness and love. Levine, on the other hand, suspects the young son is a spoiled brat out to manipulate daddy once again. The father commands his servants to throw a party and neglects to let the faithful son, working in the fields, know about it. I always heard that the older son refused to come, but a closer look shows that he was overlooked when invitations were sent and that that is why he refused to attend when a slave told him about the party.
The older son lived an ethical and responsible life, yet we have seen him as a villain in the story rather than a victim. Levine ends by seeing the importance of counting and including the correcteous as well as the wayward as an important point of the story. No doubt this will come as a shock to many Christians today who have wanted to equate the older brother with negative forms of Judaism, as Augustine did.
A third story of inclusion is still more surprising. The Pharisee praying in the temple (Luke 18: 9-14) is normally seen as bragging about good works while the lowly tax collector becomes the model of repentance that pleases God. A comparable situation today might have Billy Graham and a drug dealer praying in church at the same time. We may agree or disagree with Graham on many things, but in our time he has been a respected symbol of integrity and piety as Pharisees were in Jesus' time. A drug dealer would not be promising to avoid committing future evil acts – just as the tax collector did not promise to stop doing what his contemporaries thought offensive.
Levine's translation of the parable overturns the traditional interpretation that the tax collector was preferred over the Pharisee. Rather, she suggests both were justified and that the mercy shown the tax collector was related to the correctness of the Pharisee. Here we see Luther's view of the opposition of works righteousness and grace overturned as the achievements of the more religious help out the less religious. The Pharisee, although unintentionally, helps include someone contemporaries thought did not count. In Jesus' day that sounded like a demotion for the Pharisee but today we are surprised to learn the Pharisee was not denounced in favor of the tax collector.
After the lectures, I discussed them over lunch with my classmate Sam Oni, the man from Ghana who integrated Mercer University in the 1960s. As Sam discussed his days studying Zen Buddhism under Alan Watts at Berkeley, it occurred to us that Levine's interpretation makes the Pharisee and tax collector a sort of Yin and Yang – as two seemingly contradictory forces that become a harmony when seen together.
The history of Christianity has been marked by many conflicts over what views should have been included or excluded from the true people of God. Levine's reinterpretation of these three well-known parables suggests that Jesus stood for ethics of inclusion that counted lots of those who had been excluded – including shares associated with Pharisees usually vilified by Christianity. The words of Jesus continue to surprise and challenge the ethical standards of every age.