This evening I went to a public lecture by Amy-Jill Levine on parables, focusing particularly on that of the Prodigal Son.
Just today in exegesis class I had spoken to the class about both the promise and the hazards of foregrounding one’s reading context. The promise of bringing a particular reading situation to the fore is that it can open up resonances, questions, and thoughtworlds that suggest fresh perspectives or readings of the text. A hazard of bringing one’s reading context into the foreground is that it might flatten or skew elements of the text or its first century contexts.
I found both of these things happening in today’s lecture. Levine intentionally aims to read the parables of Jesus as a Jewish reader who seeks solidarity with the first century Jewish hearers of Jesus’ ministry.
One of the great things about this is that it means that her resistance to casting Jesus’ Jewish audience in a bad light enables her to ask fresh questions: would first century Jews really have been surprised at a father who welcomed back a runaway son? Would they really have perceived repentance in the prodigal’s actions? Would they really have been shocked at the idea of mercy? Would they really have perceived the breaking of a taboo in hearing parables about women? These sorts of questions, driven by Levine’s reading strategy, are excellent, and refreshing. They drive the reader to read again, re-think the context, and listen for new insights.
On the negative side, I find that her desire to present the initial hearers in a good light means that Jesus comes across as making fairly non-provocative and banal points in his parables. The parable of the Prodigal Son is no longer about astonishing grace in the face of resistance to the repentance of prodigals, and becomes instead a fairly routine exhortation to family unity.
Levine doesn’t dispute that these parables became stories of repentance and grace, but she sees this as the creative work of the Evangelists: it was Luke who turned the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son into stories of repentance and joyful forgiveness, by framing them with the Pharisees’ astonishment at Jesus’ acceptance of sinners. But… is it really the case that the Christian movement began with a banal storyteller? Is it any easier to believe that the Evangelists were creative geniuses who turned his simple stories into illustrations of grace?