[Those so inclined may view my bracha for interfaith study]
With this post, I am inaugurating a series on the New Testament Parable of the Prodigal Son. In future posts, we’ll read this parable together, and explore how to do this reading in an interfaith way. But our reading will commence in earnest in my next post. In this post, I want to raise a preliminary question: why am I doing this?
The Parable of the Prodigal Son might be the most beloved story in the Christian canon. For Christians, this parable shows that no matter how far we may wander from God, God still loves us, longs for our return, and is ready to accept us back and forgive us unconditionally. We might explore this beautiful message together in this interfaith space.
But the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story of two brothers. The younger one is the prodigal son from the title, the one who wasted his inheritance and eventually returns home to the father’s welcome in a way that gives us the warm fuzzies. But there’s another son in the story: he’s the older son, the son that’s not mentioned in the title of this parable, and he’s more difficult to deal with. While the younger son abandoned his family for the prodigal life in a distant land, the older son remained home to work on the family farm. In the Christian view the older son is the bad guy: he’s self-righteous, whiny and ultimately every bit as lost as his younger sibling, yet instead of seeking his father’s forgiveness, the older son acts like he’s earned his father’s love.
Here’s where we encounter an interfaith problem: historically, Christian interpretation sees the younger son as the personification of the repentant Christian, and the older son as the personification of the Jews who refused to accept the Christian message. Consider this sermon from Saint Peter Chrysologus from the 5th Century:
[T]he elder brother … hears the music in the Father’s house, and he hears the dancing, yet he does not wish to enter. Every day we gaze upon this occurrence with our own eyes. For the Jewish people comes to the house of its Father, that is, to the Church. Because of its jealousy it stands outside…. Through jealousy it remains without. In horror it judges its Gentile brother by its own ancient customs, and meanwhile it is depriving itself of its Father’s goods, and excluding himself from His joys.
Now for a few words about the elder son. What a terrible attitude and personality he had. How unlikeable. The elder brother represented the Pharisees and religious leaders who were incensed with Jesus giving so much attention to sinners and associating with them…. What happened a few weeks later, when Jesus was tried and crucified by the Jewish leaders and what happened forty years later when the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the city burned to the ground and untold thousands of Jews put to death – that tells us what subsequently happened to the elder son of this parable.
Admittedly, it’s rare today to encounter a Christian who sees this parable in an anti-Jewish way. Instead, the parable is understood (with good reason) as a rebuke to the Pharisees in the New Testament who opposed Jesus’ ministering to sinners and tax collectors. But does that mean that the parable is no longer viewed in terms of Good Christians and Bad Jews? Certainly, many Christians today distinguish “Jews” from “Pharisees”, and you can find many examples of preaching against so-called “Christian Pharisees” (see also here, here and here). Many Christians appear to view “Pharisee” not as a first century Jewish sect, but as a personality disorder, one that afflicted Christians should seek to recover from.
But this is not the Jewish view. Jews identify with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day as our spiritual ancestors. Rabbi Hillel, one of the most beloved figures in Judaism, was a Pharisee. Rabbi Gamaliel I, who received a favorable citation in the New Testament, was a Pharisee. (Significantly, there are at least two other Pharisees mentioned favorably in the New Testament. One was Nicodemus, the fellow who aided Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. The other was a guy from Turkey named Saul, better known to the world as the apostle Paul.) In the Jewish mind, being a Pharisee is a good thing.
So even if the parable is about Good Christians and Bad Pharisees, Jews like me might identify more with the Pharisees and less with the Christians. This could be a shock to Christian sensibilities. Moreover, I suspect that the Christian association between Jews and Pharisees has not disappeared entirely. The prevailing image of the Pharisee is Jewish – just look at the photo used at the top of this site’s criticism of Pharisaic Christians, and consider the site’s portrayal of Pharisees with “phylacteries flailing” – who is this site picturing (and picturing negatively), if not the observant Jew? For that matter, google the word “Pharisee” and click on the Images link – do any of those images look Christian to you? No. They all look Jewish. Also check out this images link for “Jesus and the Pharisees”, and notice how the Pharisees look more Jewish (or at least, more Asiatic) than Jesus does.
If you’re not persuaded by Google images, consider instead the traditional critique of the older son: he sought his father’s love as a reward earned for his faithful works. This critique, the critique of “works righteousness”, is the same as that brought by Martin Luther against Judaism.
We can’t escape it. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, a beautiful piece of scripture when read in a purely Christian context, becomes problematic when read in an interfaith setting. Why would I want to perform such a reading, when Christians will identify with Jesus and Jews may identify with his opponents? How, for heaven’s sake, could such a reading be a good idea?
First, the parable is a terrific story. It is rich and nuanced. People like to talk about it. I want to talk about it, too.
Second, the parable is important. It is often referred to as “the gospel within the gospel” (in my next post, we’ll look at a couple more examples of “the X within the X”). We should talk about the important things.
Third, depending on how we read the parable, we may have a story here of two religions in conflict. We can examine the conflict, and deconstruct it, and perhaps come to a mutual understanding.
Fourth, this is a parable whose meaning is in transition. For one thing, no one seems to like the parable’s traditional title. Focusing on the younger son, some have suggested that we use the title The Parable of the Lost Son (though Amy-Jill Levine asks which of the two sons is lost, and others have suggested that both sons are lost). Other potential titles focus on the father in the story: The Parable of the Compassionate Father, The Parable of the Waiting Father, The Parable of the Loving Father, even The Parable of the Running Father. I plan to take advantage of the parable having so many titles. I plan to suggest a few titles of my own.
Fifth, Jesus’ parables as a group occupy a crucial space within the Jewish-Christian intersection. As we’ll discuss, the parable is a Jewish form of story. Jesus’ parables address New Testament themes, but often with an Old Testament flavor. For example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son harkens back to Old Testament stories about fathers with two sons in conflict (think Jacob and Esau).
In short, there are good reasons for us to read this parable together. But we should be careful. We Jews will bring our own understanding to this parable, but let’s strive to do so in a way that’s sensitive to the beloved status this parable enjoys within Christianity. As for my Christian readers: while holding on to your interpretation of the parable, please try to view the parable with fresh eyes and an open heart. We need not agree with the other, but let’s listen carefully, share enthusiastically and see what happens!
In part 2 of this series, we’ll begin a close reading of the parable, to look for elements in the story that suggest new avenues of interpretation and understanding.