Levine: ‘Prodigal son’ forces reassessment of Bible’s other brother pairs


Amy-Jill Levine speaks Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. She closes her weeklong lecture series at 2 p.m. Friday. Photo by Megan Tan.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

“I should admit right up front: I don’t like this kid,” Amy-Jill Levine said.

The kid in question was the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable.

Levine, a New Testament and Jewish studies professor at Vanderbilt University, continued her weeklong study of Jesus’ parables at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. In Wednesday’s lecture, “The Provocation of the Prodigal,” Levine examined the parable of the prodigal son. The parable comes from Luke 15:11-32.

Before choosing to interpret the parable allegorically, Levine encouraged the audience to think of “kids as kids and dads as dads.” She also cautioned the audience to pay attention to the parable’s different titles.

“I don’t think Jesus called it ‘the parable of the prodigal son,’” Levine said. The term “prodigal,” which means wasteful, didn’t appear until the Latin translation of the Bible.

Labeling the parable after the prodigal son shifts the focus of the story to the prodigal son.

“But the parable begins, ‘There was a father who had two sons,’” Levine said.

As such, modern scholars have started to call the story “the parable of the prodigal son and his brother.” Levine suggested “the parable of the faithful older brother and his sibling.” Egyptian women call the parable “The Lost Son.”

“That’s good, because then you’ve got to wonder which (brother is) lost,” Levine said.

Levine herself is inclined to call the story “the parable of the prodigal father” or “the parable of the absent mother.”

She explained that Christians of antiquity identified with the prodigal son.

“It becomes the story of a sinner who has been forgiven and a loving father who forgives,” she said.

Hence, the parable’s popular title reflects this.

Though popular opinion would suggest otherwise, the focus of this parable is not repentance or forgiveness, Levine emphasized. In fact, she doesn’t believe the prodigal son repents at the end of the parable.

It is Luke, in whose book this parable is found, who decides this parable is about repentance. The parable is prefaced with two other parables about lost things — lost sheep and lost coins — both of which also conclude with statements about the importance of repentance.

“I’m just not sure that’s what’s going on,” Levine said. “Why? Because sheep don’t repent — they’re too stupid — and coins don’t repent.”

The parable of the lost sheep, found in Luke 15:4-6, most likely was presented to an audience that didn’t own any sheep, Levine said, and the prospect of abandoning 99 sheep to search for one was a surreal proposition.

“What the parable is doing is talking about the incredible importance of searching for the one who gets lost,” Levine said.

The parable concludes with the shepherd calling his friends and inviting them to celebrate with him.

“The important thing here is the party and the sense of wholeness,” Levine said.

The parable of the lost coin, in Luke 15:8-9, tells of a woman who has 10 coins, loses one and devotes time to finding it, calling her friends to rejoice with her afterward.

“If lost sheep and lost coin are about the coming together of a group that had been separated and is now whole, perhaps that should be the model by which we understand (the parable of) the prodigal son,” Levine said.

The two-son archetype of the parable of the prodigal son would have been familiar to Jesus’ audience, Levine explained. Significant pairs of brothers dotted Jewish history, from Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Ishmael.

“Everybody knows, go with the younger son,” Levine said.

But this parable, like many others, challenges the status quo.

The younger son’s demand for his share of the property is rude — he is treating his father as though he already is dead and treating the land cavalierly. The father acquiesces.

“At this point, it’s Dad who’s prodigal,” Levine said.

The Jews in Jesus’ audience wouldn’t want to identify with the younger son at this point, especially as he spends his wealth and must become a servant.

“What happened to the kid that he’s in such dire straits?” Levine asked.

She said the answer to this question varies from culture to culture: financial irresponsibility, leaving home too early, famine and a lack of generosity on the part of the people the prodigal encountered while he was in trouble.

The son decides to return home, or as the text puts it, “he came to himself.”

“The point is desperation, not repentance,” Levine said.

But the father in the story doesn’t care. Once he sees his son, he runs to him, filled with compassion.

“That son may be no more repentant than a sheep and a coin,” she said. “The important thing is that dad feels that somehow the family has become whole again and wants to bring that wholeness together.”

The son’s rehearsed admittance of guilt and request for a job goes unheard as the father calls for a massive celebration of his arrival, just like the characters in the other two previous parables.

Now, the sympathies of the audience might shift toward the older son. The audience expected him to act violently in accordance with history, but he doesn’t.

“I feel some empathy for him,” Levine said, describing him as a nice guy who didn’t get invited to the party.

Between 18 and 20 years of resentment boils over: the older brother becomes angry. His father tries to convince him to join the party, and the older son accuses his father of working him like a slave with no reward. Levine took issue with this statement, especially the older brother’s appropriation of the role of slave.

The older son shifts his relation with his younger brother, calling him “this son of yours.” Later in their conversation, the father calls the younger son “this brother of yours,” bringing the relationship back.

The father addresses the older son with the Greek word for “child,” a term that demonstrates the father can see the older son slipping away and desperately wants to reclaim him, Levine explained. Mary and Joseph used the same term to address Jesus when he was missing in the Temple.

The father reassures the older son that he still will get his share of the wealth. Levine pointed out that even the slaughtered calf, beautiful robe and other accessories the younger son sports technically belong to the older son.

“(The older son is) one of those folks … who’s been given all the gifts in the world and can’t bring himself to use them, who has all the benefits possible and is afraid to take ownership of them … the sort of person who can’t claim his own maturity, as opposed to the younger son, who claims everything for himself,” Levine said.

The parable concludes with the father explaining to the older son why they are celebrating.

Nobody repented or said the word “forgiveness,” Levine pointed out.

She continued, “At the end of the parable, I am left discomforted … without allegory, the parable has no easy answers.”

If read allegorically, the father figure is God, the younger son is the forgiven Christian and the older son is the reluctant Pharisee.

“That’s too neat,” she said. “The parable won’t let me do that.”

The parable forces Jews to reconsider the two-son paradigm and reassess the role of each older brother.

“A father had two sons, and if we lose one, the family is not whole,” Levine said. “Can we recognize that perhaps they can reconcile — perhaps not from repentance, but perhaps because of expediency? There might be something here as well — do we have to wait for someone to say ‘I’m sorry’? Perhaps we can be generous enough to say, ‘You’re welcome. Welcome home. You’re part of the family.’”

Levine concluded, “I am the older son. I don’t know what he will do. I don’t know what I will do. But the parable tells me what I should do, because unless I make that move of reconciliation, there will be no wholeness, and if there’s no wholeness, there will be no peace.”