Jesus' parables are short stories with important moral lessons
But we must experience them as Jesus' own audience did to understand their full power
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2014. To learn more about the historical Jesus, watch the CNN Original Series ‘Finding Jesus,” Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.
It was once said, “religion is designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
Jesus’ parables – short stories with moral lessons – were likewise designed to afflict, to draw us in but leave us uncomfortable. These teachings can be read as being about divine love and salvation, sure. But, their first listeners – first century Jews in Galilee and Judea – heard much more challenging messages.
Only when we hear the parables as Jesus’ own audience did can we fully experience their power and find ourselves surprised and challenged today. Here are four examples of Jesus’ teachings that everybody gets wrong:
The ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’
This parable is usually seen as a story of how our “Father in heaven” loves us regardless of how despicable our actions. This is a lovely message, and I would not want to dismiss it.
It is not, however, what first-century Jews would have heard. Jesus’ Jewish audience already knew that their “Father in heaven” was loving, forgiving, and compassionate. It is Luke who sets up a message of repenting and forgiving. Luke prefaces our parable with two shorter ones: the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.
The evangelist concludes them with, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
But is this really what the parables are about? Jesus was not talking about ovine sin or coinage cupidity; sheep don’t feel guilty and coins don’t repent. Moreover, the man loses the sheep; the woman loses her coin. But God does not “lose us.”
The first two parables are not about repenting and forgiving. They are about counting: The shepherd noticed one sheep missing out of 100, and the woman noticed one coin missing from 10.
And they searched, found, rejoiced, and celebrated. In doing so, they set up the third parable. The Prodigal Son story begins: “There was a man who had two sons … “
If we focus on the one prodigal son, we mishear the opening. Every biblically literate Jew would know that if there are two sons, go with the younger: Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Ephraim over Manasseh.
But parables never go the way we want. We cannot identify with junior, who “squandered all he had in dissolute living.”
Next, if we see the father as surprising when he welcomes junior home, we mishear again. Dad is simply delighted that junior has returned: He rejoices and throws a party. If we stop here, we’ve failed to count. The older brother – remember him? – hears music and dancing. Dad had enough time to hire the band and the caterer, but he never searched for his older son. He had two sons, and he didn’t count.
Our parable is less about forgiving and more about counting, and making sure everyone counts. Whom have we lost? If we don’t count, it may be too late.
The ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’
Our usual understanding of this famous story goes astray in several ways. Here are two.
First, readers presume that a priest and Levite bypass the wounded man because they are attempting to avoid becoming “unclean.” Nonsense.
All this interpretation does is make Jewish Law look bad. The priest is not going up to Jerusalem where purity would be a concern – he is “going down” to Jericho. No law prevents Levites from touching corpses, and there are numerous other reasons why ritual purity is not relevant here.
Jesus mentions priest and Levite because they set up a third category: Israelite. To mention the first two is to invoke the third. If I say, “Larry, Moe …” you will say “Curly.” However, to go from priest to Levite to Samaritan is like going from Larry to Moe to Osama bin Laden.
That analogy leads us to the second misreading.
The parable is often seen as a story of how the oppressed minority – immigrants, gay people, people on parole – are “nice” and therefore we should check our prejudices. Samaritans, then, were not the oppressed minority: They were the enemy. We know this not only from the historian Josephus, but also from Luke the evangelist.
Just one chapter before our parable, Jesus seeks lodging in a Samaritan village, but they refuse him hospitality.
Moreover, Samaria had another name: Shechem. At Shechem, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped or seduced by the local prince. At Shechem, the murderous judge Abimelech is based. We are the person in the ditch, and we see the Samaritan. Our first thought: “He’s going to rape me. He’s going to murder me.”
Then we realize: Our enemy may be the very person who will save us. Indeed, if we simply ask “where is Samaria today?” we can see the import of this parable for the Israeli/Palestinian crisis.
The ‘Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard’
This parable tells the story of a series of workers who come in at different points of the day, but the owner pays them all the same amount. The parable is sometimes read with an anti-Jewish lens, so that the first-hired are the “Jews” who resent the gentiles or the sinners entering into God’s vineyard. Nonsense again.
Jesus’ first listeners heard not a parable about salvation in the afterlife but about economics in present. They heard a lesson about how the employed must speak on behalf of those who lack a daily wage.
They also discovered a prompt for people with resources: Attend to those who do not have jobs, and make sure everyone has what is needed.
Jesus does not invent this idea of advocating for the unemployed and sharing resources. The same concerns occur in Jewish tradition from King David onward. But, unless we know the biblical and historical sources, again we will mishear the parable.
The ‘Parable of the Pearl of Great Price’
This parable describes a man who sells everything in order to obtain his prized pearl. It is usually allegorized to tell us about the centrality of faith, or the church, or Jesus, or the Kingdom of Heaven. But commentators cannot conclude what the pearl represents. Perhaps they are looking in the wrong place.
We don’t recognize the parable’s initial absurdity today – the merchant (a wholesaler who sells us what we don’t need at a price we cannot afford) sells everything he has for a pearl.
He can’t eat it, or sit on it; it will not cover much if it’s all he wears. But, he thinks this pearl will fulfill him.
What if the parable challenges us to determine our own pearl of great price? If we know our ultimate concern, we should be less acquisitive. We won’t sweat the small stuff. More, we become better able to love our neighbors, because we will know what is most important to them.
Jesus’ short stories provoke us because they tell us what, somehow, we already know to be true, but don’t want to acknowledge.
I am not a Christian, but I hear profound messages in these parables. If I as an outsider can be so moved by Jesus’ stories, surely people who worship him as Lord and Savior can appreciate them even more.
Amy-Jill Levine is the author of “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” and a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and College of Arts and Sciences. The views expressed in this column belong to Levine.
Editor’s note: this article was originally published in 2014.