The Spiritual Art of Counting
I am still one of the people who read a variety of news accounts every day. I even buy a hard copy of my local newspaper, but I may be the last generation doing that. Neither of my kids ever buys a newspaper and I seldom see a student reading a hard copy paper. I also read a fair amount of news online. Obviously that is more planet-friendly. And it gives me a wide variety of sources to consult. Clearly, that is a huge upside of our electronic age. In the early days of my life, I would never had read the London Times or an English version of a Chinese paper. Now it is very easy.
I was surprised when I went online yesterday to see a story with an arresting title: 4 Teachings From Jesus That Everybody Gets Wrong. It should not be surprising that I immediately clicked that site. I was interested that the opinion was by a well-known New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine. She and I are not friends, but I do know about her. She teaches at Vanderbilt University, where she is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies. She is a very reputable scholar, but in religion no one would enjoy universal accolades. I am sure there are Christian fundamentalists who would not appreciate her at all.
I was intrigued that she was offering a look at four different parables of Jesus. For most Christians these parables are fairly well known. And there probably is general consensus on what these parables mean today. And that is the issue Levine takes on in order to give contemporary meaning her own twist. She does not dispute that most contemporary Christians would interpret the parables in a similar way. What she does suggest, however, is that our contemporary interpretation may well not be what the first century audience of Jesus would have thought.
Let’s look at one of the parables, namely, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I am enough of a New Testament person to know that parable only appears in Luke’s Gospel. The story is about a father and his two sons. The elder son is the quintessential hard-working boy who deserves his father’s respect, etc. The younger son asks for his part of the heritage and, then, proceeds to leave home and blow the whole wad of money. At some point, the younger guy comes home. The father welcomes him back by throwing a party.
In contemporary interpretations most people think the father in the parable portrays God and that the story is about repentance, grace, forgiveness and paternal love. This is the point at which Levine begins her work. She says that it is the Gospel writer, Luke, who shapes the reading of the story in this way. She thinks the original Jewish audience would have “heard” the parable in a different way. I was intrigued.
Levine reminds us who know Luke 15, that the parable of the Prodigal Son is prefaced by two other smaller parables: the lost sheep and lost coin. Clearly these two are about the “lost.” Levine says it simply: “the man loses the sheep; the woman loses her coin. But God does not ‘lose us.’” She adds, “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.”
I like how Levine finishes her comments about the first two parables before turning to the Prodigal Son. “And they searched, found, rejoiced, and celebrated. In doing so, they set up the third parable.” Then Levine adds an important point that comes from the fact that she is Jewish and, hence, looks at things with a different eye than I do. She says, in effect, the parable is about counting---just as the lost coin and lost sheep parables were about counting. She drives home the point when she notes, “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.”
I find this “original” interpretation fascinating. It points to an inclusive God. I like the God who is always on the lookout for the missing ones. God is one who counts and can be counted on. Even if we stray or become lost, we can count on God to notice. The story is never over, even if we are lost. God counts and will include. I find that to be good news.
If God is this way, those of us who call ourselves followers need to be the same way. We want to be driven by the same compassion as the Holy One. We also need to learn the spiritual art of counting. It is as Levine says: “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.”