Certain scholars explain the presence of women followers in Jesus’s retinue on the basis of Jesus’s teaching of the Kingdom of God: Jesus’s message would have been clearly understood as an explicit challenge to the patriarchal bias of his culture. Schüssler Fiorenza calls this aspect of his message a “critical feminist impulse that came to the fore in the vision and ministry of Jesus” (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1983, p. 107). Some see Jesus’s message of the Kingdom similarly and cite his “radical egalitarianism” in the midst of a culture that devalued both women and the poor peasant underclass. Yet, little in the sayings generally considered authentic merits such elaborate claims insofar as women are concerned. Although his teaching demonstrates a clear awareness of poverty and a critique of class inequity in ancient Palestine, it does not show an equivalent of a critique of patriarchy, nor a similar interest in gender concerns. Thus, Jesus’s teaching on social issues and the Kingdom of God does not extend to the concerns of women nor was it aimed at a clear social program geared toward major social change for women. As such, it should not be labeled “egalitarian.” In fact, Jesus’s parables have little interest in “gender” at all, focusing rather on the issues of class. Both women and men in the parables are portrayed as incompetent, but their actions do not challenge gender roles. An overview of Jesus’s most famous parables will suffice to make this point.

Women in the Parables of Jesus.

The parables of Jesus have long vexed New Testament scholars. Only recently freed from centuries of misleading allegorical interpretations, the parables continue to attract the attention of many serious commentators, and books on the subject have become legion. Most scholars now agree that the parables were not intended to be complex allegories containing several points of reference, but are stories that create their own narrative world. The allegorization of Jesus’s parables began early in Christian tradition, a tendency that can be seen in Mark’s version of the parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3–20) or Matthew’s version of the parable of the Banquet (Matt 22:1–14). Other parables went through a process of alteration either in oral retelling or in written redaction. In spite of this, the parables remain the bedrock of historical information concerning Jesus, as well as the defining center of his proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

Since the parables use images drawn from everyday Palestinian life, women and women’s activities occasionally figure as the point of comparison to the Kingdom of God. This leads certain scholars to posit an anti-patriarchal or egalitarian ethic for Jesus’s teachings overall. On closer analysis, however, the images and roles of women in Jesus’s parables are unexceptional. Stories involving women simply reflect the presence of women in Jesus’s social environment; they are told to make points about the Kingdom of God, not about the status of women. Activities such as kneading bread, carrying grain jars, sweeping floors, and grinding meal not only reflect traditional roles of women in ancient society but also their juxtaposition in the gospels over against typical male roles such as planting seeds, shepherding sheep, parenting sons, and reclining on couches for meals reinforces gender roles rather than challenging them (Levine, 1994, pp. 23–24). This arrangement of parables in gendered pairs is arguably secondary to the tradition and reflects either the legal interests of a document like Q or simply the tendency in that social environment toward a gendered division of labor among peasants and the lower classes. Such images reflect everyday situations from ancient Palestine and force the hearer to active thought concerning either the Kingdom of God or the situation described in the story itself.

Recent feminist analysis has drawn attention to the feminine imagery of Jesus’s parables, which can be viewed in either a positive or negative light (Durber, 1992, pp. 59–78; Levine, 1994, pp. 25–26; Schottroff, 1995, pp. 79–118; Waller, 1979, pp. 99–109). However, in spite of the tendency among certain feminist scholars to characterize Jesus’s overall teaching as anti-patriarchal, the evidence of the parables reveals that Jesus was part of the patriarchal society in which he lived and that he evinced similar patriarchal biases. For example, as Nicola Slee (1984) has pointed out, of the 104 parables and sayings of Jesus in Matthew, 47 involve human actors, with 85 characters in all. Of the 85, 73 are men and 12 are women—5 of whom are foolish maidens. In the 94 parables and sayings in Luke, 51 concern human actors, with 108 characters. Of those 108, 99 are men and 9 are women. Slee is right to caution that the predominance of male characters in Jesus’s parables and sayings alone suggests that Jesus, like other speakers and writers of his day, was by nature predisposed to reimagine in his narratives a world dominated by men and their concerns and shows little interest for women and women’s concerns (1984, pp. 20–31; Durber, 1992, p. 69). There are in fact only five parables now arguably considered authentic that utilize images of women: the Leaven (Matt 13:3/Luke 13:20–21/Gos. Thom. 96), the Lost Coin ((Luke 15:8–9)), the Empty Jar (Gos. Thom. 97), the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:2–8), and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).). And of these only four focus on actions of women, since in the last case women are mentioned only briefly as the prostitutes (pornai) upon whom the Prodigal Son squanders his money ((Luke 15:20). Indeed, the Empty Jar from the Gospel of Thomas has only recently been considered in these discussions—a fact that reflects the increasing tendency to include evidence for Jesus’s teachings from Thomas as equally significant for reconstructions of the historical Jesus.

In spite of the presence of images of women in these parables, it is difficult to argue that the first three demonstrate any subversion of gender roles. Rather, the parables of the Leaven, the Lost Coin, and the Empty Jar underscore common gendered roles from antiquity by creating images of women engaged in everyday activities. Further, the feminine activities described in these parables are not themselves referents for the Kingdom of God.

The Leaven.

The parable of the Leaven is assuredly an authentic parable of Jesus. Since Thomas has introduced a contrast of the small amount of the leaven with the large size of the leavened loaves (Gos. Thom. 96; Funk et al., 1988, p. 29; contra Waller, 1979, p. 10), the version found in Luke 13:20–21/Matt 13:33 (Q) is arguably the earliest. The original parable thus compares the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) to leaven (zyme), which a woman (gynē) takes and hides (egkryptō) in a very large amount of flour until the leaven spreads throughout. The use of “to hide” is surprising in combination with leaven. The verb phyraō (“to knead”) is more to be expected (cf. Hos 7:4, Septuagint). Scholars have suggested various interpretations of the parable by emphasizing the smallness of the beginnings of the Kingdom in contrast to its later size (Jeremias, 1972, p. 146; Perrin, 1967, pp. 157–158), the mysterious nature of the Kingdom’s growth (Jeremias, 1972, p. 146; Perrin, 1967, pp. 157–158), the reversal of expectations of the nature of God’s reign (Scott, 1989, pp. 321–329; Funk et al., 1988, p. 29), the culmination of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’s ministry (Dodd, 1961, pp. 154–155), or the domestic work of women as an example of the activity of God (Schottroff, 1995, pp. 79–90; Waller, 1979, p. 107).

The most current proponent of the popular pro-female interpretation is Barbara Reid, who in several articles and books has concluded that this parable gives us the “female face of God” (2002, p. 284; 1996, pp. 169–178). This reading of the parable leads to obvious feminist conclusions as God is not only thought of as a man: “Jesus’ teaching and praxis contradicts such a notion and invites believers to envision God in such a way that women and men are both seen to reflect God’s image equally” (Reid, 1996, p. 176). Further, Reid argues that the woman’s working in the leaven is “a metaphor for women exercising roles and ministry that have been traditionally closed to them, especially leadership and decision making” (1996, p. 176). Thus, the corruption of the yeast represents what some will consider a corruptive influence in the church. However, this common reading of the parable is most certainly wrong. Decades ago Amos Wilder pointed out the essentially secular nature of Jesus’s parables. The persons, scenes and images are not necessarily “religious” in character (1964, p. 81). Thus, the woman in the parable of the leaven should not be considered an image of God as Reid and others have contended, but simply an ordinary woman, doing an ordinary, everyday activity. The power of the image is its realism.

In any case, however, the parable clearly highlights the images of the leaven and the meal—rather than the woman herself—as the point of comparison for the reign of God. Thus, even though the image is one of women’s domestic work, the focus is still the leavening, not the woman. Since leaven was regarded in Judaism as a symbol of corruption (Exod 12:15; Mark 8:15; 1 Cor 5:7), Jesus’s comparison of leaven to God’s Kingdom is very provocative (Funk et al., 1988, p. 29). Indeed he quite reverses the expectations of his hearers. What appears to be the activity of corruption—the overproduction of leavened bread (Levine, 1994, p. 25, contra Schottroff, 1995, pp. 79–90; Waller, 1979, p. 107)—is essential and characteristic of the reign of God. Thus, the parable turns not on the fact that this is a woman’s activity, or on the unexpected comparison of leaven to divine activity, but to the makeup of the kingdom itself, which includes lower classes and outcasts in Jesus’s close circle of followers (Scott, 1989, pp. 321–329). Reid too sees this connotation of the parable, seeing in it an allusion to the kingdom’s inclusion of “sinners” and the unclean (Reid, 1996, p. 173; 2002, p. 286). The parable thus highlights Jesus’s inclusion of those rejected by the wider society within his group, coming close to the significance of the Feast parable, which also emphasizes the inclusion of outcasts in the kingdom.

The Lost Coin.

The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8–10)) contains what may be a similar story of domestic incompetence followed by the surprising joy of rediscovery. A woman loses (apollymi) one drachma of the ten she has, searches for it, and upon its rediscovery rejoices with her women neighbors. This parable is coupled in Luke with the parable of the Lost Sheep and followed by the parable of the Prodigal Son. In Luke the parable concerns the joy in heaven over human repentance, an interpretation that is widely considered secondary (Crossan, 1992, p. 38). The image is again unexpected. A woman searches diligently for something that on the face of it is of limited intrinsic value. A drachma was a Greek silver coin equal in worth to a denarius, which was a day’s pay for a male fieldhand (Schottroff, 1995, p. 92; Scott, 1989, p. 311). Of course the drachma may be worth considerably more to her, since women workers made barely half as much as men for the same amount of manual labor. The single drachma is thus enough for roughly two days of subsistence level support for one person (Schottroff, 1995, p. 94). Some interpreters have proposed that the money was part of the woman’s dowry, but nothing in the text suggests this (popularized by Jeremias, 1972, p. 134; rejected by Schottroff, 1995, pp. 95–96; Scott, 1989, p. 311).

Given Luke’s context and interpretation, it is difficult to consider the woman a feminine image for God or Jesus. As John Dominic Crossan has said, there is no tradition comparable to John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd,” declaring “I am the good housewife” (1992, p. 38). Still, such a reading remains popular, essentially following the Lukan interpretation in which the shepherd, the woman, and the father all represent images of insistent divine activity (Durber, 1992, p. 71; LaHurd, 2002, pp. 66–67, 72; Schottroff, 1995, p. 100). Reid has gone so far as to call the woman “Sophia Incarnate” (Reid, 2002, p. 287; 1996, pp. 179–189). However, it is interesting that even rural women in Yemen showed little interest in the use of the image of the woman as an image for God. Rather they were interested in the act of searching and “reasons for the intensity of the search” (LaHurd, 2002, pp. 66–67). Thus, again, it is best not to assume the woman’s activity represents God’s activity. The power of the story is its realism, not its religious connotations. This parable rather further associates the reign of God with the unexpected. What appears to be of little value is highly prized, and the kingdom is again associated with the poor, and one might add, the incompetent, but probably not with the unclean (contra Scott, 1989, p. 313; cf. Crossan, 1992, p. 72).

The Empty Jar.

The parable of the Empty Jar contains yet another image of womanly inattention or incompetence (Gos. Thom. 97): the Kingdom of “the Father” is compared to a woman carrying a full jar of meal. In the Gospel of Thomas the Empty Jar is set between the parables of the Leaven (96) and the Assassin (98). The image of the woman is also one of domesticity and failure. Although hardly a clear image of uncleanness simply due to her femaleness, the woman does not notice when her jar is broken and thus loses all of her grain, the basic means of subsistence for the poor in antiquity (Levine, 1994, p. 25). The tension inherent in this story is underscored by a well-known parallel in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:8–16; Waller, 1979, p. 103). In a time of famine Elijah is told to go to the widow of Zarephath who has been commanded to feed him. When Elijah finds her, she tells him that she has nothing prepared and only a small amount of meal and oil. Miraculously, the grain in her jar does not run out and she, her child, and Elijah subsist on cakes baked from her supplies for many days. The Empty Jar parable reverses the story of Elijah and the widow Zarephath: no prophet comes to the woman’s aid; her jar remains empty. Once again, expectations for the reign of God are reversed (Scott, 1989, p. 79). The images of women in these three parables are hardly complimentary. One loses a coin worth two days’ sustenance, another spills her grain without noticing it, another overproduces bread; the point of each parable is made at a woman’s expense.

The Unjust Judge.

The final authentic parable that employs the image of a woman is usually called the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:2–8).). Although occasionally named after the widow in the story, the main character in the story is the man (Schottroff titles this parable the Stubborn Widow; 1995, p. 101). In this story, a woman receives justice at court, not because her cause is just nor because the judge she approaches is just but because she is persistent to the point of threatening the judge with a black eye (“she will wear me out,” literally “give me a black eye” or “bruise” [hypopiazō]). The image is striking to the point of being humorous. The contrast between the social and economic circumstances of the two characters in the story is stark: the judge would be a member of the urban elite, the woman of the urban poor (Scott, 1989, pp. 180–181). In a long history of Jewish tradition, widows belonged to a category of persons who needed special protection from God: “widows, orphans, and foreigners.” Israelites were commanded to protect these classes. Just as God protected the Israelites while they were in bondage in Egypt, so he is the patron of the most needy of the Israelite community ((Ps 68:5; 146:9; Deut 10:18).

Indeed, the treatment of widows, orphans and foreigners amounted to a gauge for determining the faithfulness of the Jewish people (Deut 24:17–18; Exod 22:21–24; Ezek 22:7; cf. Zech 7:10; Ps 94:6; Isa 1:23; 10:1–2; Jer 5:28).

Many commentators see the parable in terms of the analogy between the judge and God: If a widow can get justice from an unjust judge, how much more likely will God respond to persistent prayer? Luke’s appended interpretation encourages this reading (18:6–8; Jeremias, 1972, p. 156) but is probably secondary (Jeremias, 1972, p. 156). Reid also rejects this interpretation, as the judge does not have the right characteristics to represent God, as he is unjust and dishonest (1996, p. 192; 2000, p. 31; 2002, p. 291). Still, she assumes that one of the characters must represent God, and so she decides the figure of God in the story is the woman (Reid, 1996, p. 192; 2000, pp. 31–32; 2002, pp. 292–293). Thus, God as a woman is relentlessly pursuing justice. However, such a pushing of the story in such a theological direction weakens the force of the image, which has its power in its realism and ordinariness. The parable tells us something about the kingdom, not God.

Read without this interpretation, the parable takes on a quite different meaning. The emphasis falls on the woman’s unflagging insistence for vindication, not on the action of the judge whose motive is self-interest. The parable portrays a disadvantaged widow gaining justice by her own means, without reliance upon God (Scott, 1989, pp. 186–187). It might fittingly be likened to Luke’s parable of the Unjust Steward (16:1–8), in that the overwhelmingly aggressive and even insubordinate behavior of the widow achieves her intended result. Jesus’s description of this woman, although hardly complimentary, is in marked contrast to the images of domestic failure in the parables of the Leaven, the Lost Coin, and the Empty Jar. Such a story surely reinforces shrewd, calculated, and resistant behavior on the part of the oppressed and is not merely a metaphor for the continuation of the kingdom (Scott, 1989, pp. 186–187). Still, since the internal monologue is that of the judge, the story reflects not the woman’s perspective but the man’s.

Men in the Parables of Jesus.

The bulk of Jesus’s parables focus on male characters. However, little in the representation of men in the parables deviates from ordinary, expected male roles, with the exception, perhaps, of the father in the parable of the Lost Son. The parables with men are similar to the parables with women in that the men are not portrayed in complimentary ways but are often fools. Although the parables using male characters do not necessarily subvert gender roles, there is a balance between the male characters and female characters in that all fail in some way and therefore surprise the audience with their actions.

The Lost Sheep.

The parable of the Lost Sheep reflects images common in the heritage of the Hebrew Bible. In the scriptures, the image of the Shepherd is a positive one and occasionally represents the loving care of God, who is likened to a shepherd (Ps 23:1).). Shepherds and sheep were no doubt common in a nomadic and agricultural society. However, during the first century, shepherds were marginalized in the culture and to be a shepherd was to be one of the outcasts of society (Bailey, 1983, p. 147; Scott, 1989, p. 405). Thus, in rabbinic literature shepherds are among the forbidden occupations and equated with robbers, as they allow sheep to graze on others’ land and essentially steal from them (m. Qidd. 4:14; Scott, 1989, p. 413). The image of the Shepherd would thus have not aroused sympathy on the part of Jesus’s hearers. No doubt they would have objected to being likened to one.

The parable is found in three versions: Matthew 18:12, Luke 15:4–6, and Gospel of Thomas 107. In Matthew, the Shepherd is likened to the leaders of the church, who are not to allow the “little ones” (probably those excommunicated from the congregation; Scott, 1989, p. 406) to perish. This context is so connected to the concerns of the early church that Matthew’s version is unlikely to be the most original (Bailey, 1983, pp. 151–153; Scott, 1989, p. 406; contra Linnemann 1982, pp. 65–66). In Luke, the Shepherd represents Jesus, or God, who seeks after the “sinners,” especially the “tax collectors and sinners” with whom Jesus seeks to eat. In Luke, the parable is paired with the parable of the Lost Coin, and both parables are told to encourage the Pharisees to join Jesus in his table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners” (Scott, 1989, p. 407). Luke’s context is so convincing that many interpreters have assumed that it reflects the situation of Jesus. Here interpreters follow Dodd, who sees that the setting is Lukan but thinks Luke has hit upon the right context from the life of Jesus (Dodd, 1961, p. 92; Jeremias, 1972, p. 40; Linnemann, 1982, p. 69). The Thomas version is slightly different and contrasts the size of the lost sheep to the other smaller 99. The lost sheep is therefore loved because it is bigger (Gos. Thom. 107). This version is certainly secondary and foreign to the interests of Jesus (Funk et al., 1988, p. 38; Scott, 1989, pp. 408–410). The Lukan version, although in a redactional context that is no doubt secondary, is therefore probably the earlier version.

In the Lukan version, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep and goes in search of one that he has lost. In the other versions the sheep goes astray on its own, but in the Lukan version it is the shepherd who has lost the sheep. He is therefore at fault (Bailey, 1983, p. 149; Scott, 1989, pp. 410–411). Like the woman who loses her coin, the woman who spills her grain, and the woman who overproduces bread, the shepherd is portrayed as incompetent. In Matthew the other sheep are left on the mountains (Matt 18:13), whereas in Luke, they disperse to the desert (Luke 15:4). Thomas does not give any location for the other sheep (Gos. Thom. 107); the difference in location, however, makes little difference to the interpretation of the parable (Scott, 1989, p. 411). Although interpreters have suggested that the shepherd hands control of the other sheep over to another shepherd or members of the extended family, there is nothing in the extant versions to suggest this (contra Bailey, 1983, p. 149; Jeremias, 1972, p. 133; Linnemann, 1982, p. 65; Scott, 1989, p. 415). That the shepherd has left the rest of the sheep to wander off by themselves in danger from wolves or other predators increases the portrayal of the shepherd as being incompetent in his duties. In Luke the shepherd returns home with the sheep on his shoulders ((Luke 15:5). Some interpreters consider this to be normal practice (Jeremias, 1972, p. 134), whereas others consider this to be a secondary trait of the parable (Linnemann, 1982, p. 67). The common representation of a shepherd carrying a sheep in pagan and Christian art may have influenced Luke’s performance of the parable (Scott, 1989, p. 411).

The shepherd, given his marginal status in Israel’s society of the time, does not represent God. The shepherd is a shepherd (Wilder, 1964, p. 81) and an incompetent one at that. In contrast to God as the shepherd of Israel, this one has attention only for the one, rather than the many, once the sheep are abandoned in a dangerous place (Ezek 34:6; 1 Kgs 22:17; Scott, 1989, pp. 415–416). Further, in Ezekiel 34, God eventually gathers together the flock and vindicates the sheep (34:22–31). In the Gospels, the shepherd does no such thing. He takes a great risk in abandoning the other sheep in search of the one. Thus, the shepherd is a fool and the outcome of the situation is unknown (Bailey, 1983, p. 150; Scott, 1989, p. 417). We do not know what happens to the other sheep. The Gospel versions have made the story come out well, with the “little ones” not perishing and the rejoicing over the sinners who are found. Once taken from its Gospel contexts, however, the parable is more ambiguous. One is left to ponder the significance of the parable, as to whether the kingdom is like gathering the flock together or finding the one that was lost (Scott, 1989, p. 417). Again, the kingdom is not what is expected (the gathering and vindication of all the sheep) but likened to a marginal outcast who loses one sheep and responds by risking the other 99. In any case, the parable does not challenge the gendered role of the man as shepherd, but as with the women characters portrays him as incompetent.

The Lost Son.

The parable of the Lost Son is actually a parable about two sons, a younger and an elder. This parable is probably among the most famous of Jesus’s parables and has been argued to encapsulate the entire gospel of Jesus in one short story (Bailey, 1983, pp. 188–190; Jeremias, 1972, p. 131). The younger son becomes a figure of repentance, the father the figure of God welcoming an errant “sinner” into the Kingdom (Bailey, 1983, p. 190). Of all the parables, it is the most commonly viewed as having a clear theological meaning. Most scholars agree that the parable was originally addressed to the Pharisees during the life of Jesus (Dodd, 1961, p. 93; Jeremias, 1972, p. 124). Thus, again, the Pharisees, who are identified with the elder son, are invited to join in the open table fellowship of the Kingdom of God with “tax collectors and sinners” (Linnemann, 1982, p. 73). This reading, however, has been clearly influenced by the Lukan setting for the parable, which is fiction (Scott, 1989, p. 101).

In Luke, the Gospel narrative centers on Jesus, sinners, and scribes and Pharisees. Jesus and the sinners are on one side with Jesus as the hero, and the scribes and Pharisees are on the other. The entire chapter (15) is geared toward vindicating Jesus’s association with “tax collectors and sinners,” especially his practice of eating with them. The other two parables in Luke 15, the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep, are also interpreted by Luke to vindicate Jesus’s association with “sinners” who are lost and then found. The setting of the parable is thus clearly Lukan and should not be assumed to be the setting of the original parable or a clue to its original audience and meaning.

The first part of the parable focuses on the younger son. Here he requests that his father give him his portion of inheritance. The father agrees, and the son takes his inheritance, sells it, and then leaves town for the city. Some suggest such a situation would have been common (Jeremias, 1972, p. 129; Linnemann, 1982, pp. 74–75), but such a request would have shown that the son wished the father dead, as the dispersal of his property assumes that the father is dead (Bailey, 1983, p. 161; Scott, 1989, p. 111). Popular wisdom argued against such early dispersal of a father’s wealth (Sir 33:19–23; Scott, 1989, pp. 109–110; contra Bailey, 1983, p. 163), and thus any father who agreed to such a thing was a fool. He was threatening his own livelihood in the future (Scott, 1989, pp. 110–113; cf. Bailey, 1983, p. 166). Like the shepherd in the previous parable, the father is not a sympathetic character. He is disrupting the family honor and threatening the family’s relationship to the entire community (Rohrbaugh, 1998, pp. 151–153; Scott, 1989, p. 110). Like the other characters in the story the father is dysfunctional and does not fulfill his obligations to himself, his family, or his community (Rohrbaugh, 1998, p. 151).

However, the younger son is also foolish because by selling his property and leaving for the city, he is cutting himself off from his entire familial and community support network and opening himself up for potential economic disaster (Rohrbaugh, 1998, pp. 151–152). The elder son, who also receives a portion, is equally culpable in the dispersal (Bailey, 1983, p. 168; Rohrbaugh, 1998, p. 151). Following his departure, the younger son is said to squander all his money (15:13) and ends up in poverty. He is forced to work for a city citizen feeding pigs. Although he is tempted, he does not eat the pigs’ food (Jeremias, 1972, p. 129; Linnemann, 1982, p. 152, n. 11; Scott, 1989, p. 114; contra Bailey, 1983, p. 170). Thus, his situation is desperate: in a time of famine, he is forced to work for a foreigner in a despised occupation. The objection to such a job by Jews, for whom pigs were unclean animals, is clear (Rohrbaugh, 1998, p. 153; Scott, 1989, p. 114). The son is clearly degraded and dehumanized (Scott, 1989, p. 115).

To reverse this situation the son decides to come home and be a worker on his father’s estate. He does not, however, repent. It is his stomach that urges him home, not his conscience (Bailey, 1983, pp. 173–180; Rohrbaugh, 1998, p. 145). His father’s response, to him, however, cuts off his complete request and restores the younger son to his place in the family (Scott, 1989, p. 118; Rohrbaugh, 1998, pp. 156–157). Here the father runs to meet his son and treats him like an honored guest. This surely protects the son from the anger of the rest of the community, who might have gotten to him first (Bailey, 1983, p. 181; Rohrbaugh, 1998, pp. 156–157). For a patriarch to run, although not unheard of, was unusual, and beneath his dignity (Bailey, 1983, p. 181; LaHurd, 2002, p. 70; Rohrbaugh, 1998, p. 156; Scott, 1989, p. 117). The scene is caricature and burlesque. The father even kisses the son with an affection usually expressed by women (contra Bailey, 1983, p. 183; Scott, 1989, p. 117). The scene is using hyperbole, however, and should not be taken as a literal challenge to the gendered role of the father. The scene is supposed to elicit laughter in the audience, not a serious reconsideration of gender roles in the family and community. The father’s actions reinstate the son into the honor of the father (Scott, 1989, p. 118), and the subsequent feast, which would have been shared by the rest of the community, shows his reinstatement into the larger community as well (Bailey, 1983, p. 186; Rohrbaugh, 1998, pp. 157–158).

In a contrived opening to the next section of the parable, the elder son is reintroduced (Bailey, 1983, p. 192; Linnemann, 1982, p. 10; Scott, 1989, p. 119). The elder son comes in from the field, learns of the celebration from a servant, and becomes angry. He refuses to come into the house. Such a refusal on his part would have been unusual, since elder sons usually would have helped play the host in a party given by the father. The elder son thus wrongs the father’s honor and shames him (Bailey, 1983, p. 195; Rohrbaugh, 1998, p. 160; Scott, 1989, p. 120). As the younger son is separated from his father in the first part of the parable, so now is the elder son estranged (Scott, 1989, p. 120). The elder son complains that he has slaved for his father and yet never has been given even a lesser celebration (15:29). Yet, the response of the father to the elder son is similar to his response to his younger son and is further uncharacteristic and unexpected. He pleads with him and addresses him affectionately as “child” (Bailey, 1983, p. 196; LaHurd, 2002, p. 70; Rohrbaugh, 1998, p. 160; Scott, 1989, pp. 121–122). Again, the story is filled with hyperbole, and this should not be taken as a sign that the father is taking on a maternal role rather than a masculine one (contra Scott, 1989, p. 122). Further, the father affirms the place of his elder son and declares him his heir (15:31). Thus, both sons are affirmed in the story. Neither is rejected; both have their place in the family.

Rather than being an encapsulation of the entire Gospel and a heavily theological story about the actions of God, this story reflects a reversal of a common theme of the Hebrew Bible, that of the two sons. In these stories, there is a younger son and an elder son, and the younger son is a rogue and favored while the older son is denied his inheritance (Scott, 1989, p. 112). Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob are all sets of brothers whose stories follow this theme. Both brothers in the Lost Son parable thus play stereotypical roles: the younger son is a rogue and favored, and the elder one is dutiful (Scott, 1989, p. 123). This theme also functions to show why God favors Israel over other nations. Israel is always the heir of the younger son (Scott, 1989, p. 124). Here, however, the expected story is not followed. Both younger and elder sons are accepted; both have a share in the father’s honor. In fact, the elder son, according to the parable, inherits everything. Thus, the point of the story is that the Kingdom is universal; no one is chosen (Scott, 1989, p. 125). The parable thus has nothing to do with gender or gender roles. The actions of the father, while outlandish for a patriarch, are meant to be hyperbole and comic and do not constitute a challenge to patriarchal family roles.

The Good Samaritan.

The Good Samaritan parable is likewise one of the most famous of Jesus’s parables. It is only attested by Luke (10:30–35). Luke places the parable within a discussion between Jesus and a lawyer about inheriting eternal life. It falls within the context of Luke’s travel narrative, which begins with Jesus sending messengers to a Samaritan village (9:51). When the messengers are rejected and Jesus does not pass judgment on the village, the way is prepared for Jesus’s telling of the Good Samaritan parable, which has a Samaritan hero (Scott, 1989, p. 190). In Luke the parable demonstrates neighborliness. Many scholars have assumed that this was the original parable’s point (Bailey, 1983, p. 33; Jeremias, 1972, pp. 202–203; Linnemann, 1982, p. 51). However, as the lawyer’s question is found also in Mark and Matthew separate from the parable and as the Lukan context shows evidence of Lukan redaction, the parable and the lawyer’s question about eternal life no doubt circulated separately in oral tradition (Crossan, 1992, pp. 57–61; Funk et al., 1988, p. 31; Hedrick, 1994, pp. 93–95; Scott, 1989, p. 191). Further, as there are parallels between the first part (the question about eternal life) and the second part (the question about who is my neighbor), the question about neighborliness is also Lukan construction (Crossan, 1992, pp. 57–61; Funk et al., 1988, p. 31; Hedrick, 1994, pp. 93–95; Scott, 1989, pp. 191–192). Thus, the parable also was transmitted apart from the question about neighborliness (Crossan, 1992, pp. 57–61; Funk et al., 1988, p. 31; Hedrick, 1994, pp. 93–95; Scott, 1989, pp. 191–192). From the Lukan perspective, the parable is an example story, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) (Crossan, 1992, p. 56; Hedrick, 1994, p. 93; Scott, 1989, p. 192). However, the original story does not have this meaning nor demonstrate neighborliness. It is rather a parable of reversal (Crossan, 1992, pp. 63–64; Oakman, 1992, p. 123).

In the story a man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is about seventeen miles. It was known for its rough and rocky terrain and as a hideout for bandits. Thus the robbery of the man on the road is not a surprise to the hearer of the parable (Bailey, 1983, pp. 41–42; Hedrick, 1994, p. 104; Scott, 1989, p. 194). The man is anonymous throughout the parable, although the hearers would have probably thought he was Jewish (Bailey, 1983, p. 42; Scott, 1989, p. 194; contra Hedrick, 1994, p. 103). This makes the contrast with the Samaritan who appears later more pronounced. The bandits strip the man and leave him naked, which would have left the man without identifying clues to his class, village, or ethnicity (Bailey, 1983, p. 42; Hedrick, 1994, p. 104; Scott, 1989, p. 194). He is left “half dead” (Luke 10:30). Peasant hearers of the parable probably did not identify with the half-dead man but with the bandits (Oakman, 1992, p. 121) or an awaited hero (Scott, 1989, p. 194). The secularity of the parable is underscored by the fact that those who travel by the man are only on the road by coincidence. There is no divine plan in the works (Hedrick, 1994, p. 105; Scott, 1989, p. 195). Two men travel by, a priest and a Levite. They are probably on their way home to Jericho from their temple duties in Jerusalem (Hedrick, 1994, p. 105; Scott, 1989, p. 195). Both approach the half dead man and pass by to the other side of the road. They may fear robbers and bandits (Bailey, 1983, p. 47; Hedrick, 1994, p. 106; Scott, 1989, p. 195), or they may have concerns about preserving their ritual purity (Bailey, 1983, pp. 44–45; Hedrick, 1994, pp. 105–106; Scott, 1989, p. 195). However, such prohibitions against touching a corpse were not absolute. The need to care for an abandoned corpse took precedence over concerns for ritual purity (Hedrick, 1994, p. 106; Scott, 1989, pp. 195–196). The priest and the Levite should therefore stop and care for the man (Scott, 1989, p. 197). As priests were from the upper classes and urban elites, rural peasants would have been critical of their behavior in the parable (Scott, 1989, p. 197).

Following the priest and a Levite, a Samaritan comes along the road. Hearers of the parable would have had a negative reaction to his appearance in the story, as the hatred of Jews for Samaritans was proverbial (Bailey, 1983, p. 48; Hedrick, 1994, p. 107; Scott, 1989, p. 197). Further, as it appears the Samaritan is a tradesman, he would have been seen as having a despised occupation by a peasant audience (Oakman, 1992, pp. 121–122). The expected triad would have been a priest, a Levite, and then a Jewish layman. The appearance of the Samaritan is therefore a real surprise (Bailey, 1983, p. 47; Jeremias, 1972, p. 204; Scott, 1989, p. 198). The Samaritan binds the man’s wounds, gives him medical attention with wine and oil, and placing him on his own mount takes him to an inn where he gives the innkeeper additional funds for the man’s care. Further, he tells the innkeeper that he will return and pay the man’s debts (Luke 10:34–35). These actions are usually seen as a sign of the Samaritan’s great generosity and compassion and are assessed positively (Bailey, 1983, pp. 49–56; Hedrick, 1994, pp. 113–116; Scott, 1989, pp. 200–201). However, from a peasant’s perspective, giving aid to those not next of kin was pure folly (Oakman, 1992, pp. 122–123). Further, innkeepers were known for their unsavory reputations (Oakman, 1992, p. 122; Scott, 1989, p. 200, n. 53) and inns were no place to leave a wounded man as they were dirty, noisy, and smelly (Oakman, 1992, p. 122). Finally, giving the innkeeper what amounts to a blank check is also problematic, since the man will be kept hostage until the Samaritan returns (Oakman, 1992, p. 122). Thus the man is left worse off than he started. Thus, for the hearers of the parable, the Samaritan is not only an enemy but he is a fool (Oakman, 1992, p. 123). The story, like other parables, would have evinced laughter (Oakman, 1992, p. 123) and the narrative is caricature. God’s kingdom, then, is compared to the actions of a foolish man of hated ethnicity and a despised social occupation. This reverses the expectations of the hearers and locates the kingdom in an unlikely, immoral place (Crossan, 1992, pp. 63–64; Oakman, 1992, p. 123). Further, the parable indicates that the kingdom is about crossing religious boundaries. There are no insiders and outsiders in God’s kingdom (Scott, 1989, p. 202). Clearly, the parable has nothing to do with the gender of the character but with his ethnicity and occupation. The point of the parable is that God’s kingdom is not what is expected but is located among socio-religious outcasts. Again, as in other parables, the main character of the story is also a fool.


The parables of Jesus are remarkably difficult to interpret once they are taken from their Gospel contexts. However, the readings offered here strongly suggest that Jesus had little interest in challenging gender stereotypes in his culture (Levine, 2014). The women characters in his parables serve traditional roles associated with the household: women bake bread, do housework, and carry grain in jars. Men are shepherds and fathers. Both men and women characters, however, are portrayed in negative ways: the women are incompetent and the men are often fools. In this regard, Jesus treats the male and female characters in his stories equally as caricatures. Apart from gender, Jesus did have interest in class and class inequity in his culture. He favors the resistant attitude of the lower classes, imagines a kingdom of God where even the poor gather for a feast, and represents the results of the economic injustices of his society in sometimes shockingly realistic ways. There is no evidence, however, that Jesus transferred this interest in class inequities to an interest in gender inequities. That transference was left to a later generation that declared that in Christ there was “neither slave nor free” and “not male and female” (Gal 3:28). For Jesus, who primarily spoke to peasants, demonstrating the social and economic injustices of first-century Palestine was probably enough. Therefore the reconstruction of Jesus as a gender egalitarian or having a revolutionary feminist vision cannot be sustained on the basis of his most famous parables. Such an egalitarian reading is misguided, in light of the evidence presented in the Gospels and in light of the social and religious environment of Jesus’s day. Why so many scholars are so loath to recognize this reality and face an image of Jesus foreign to their own remains a question for further consideration.

Another outstanding question concerns the function of such popular reconstructions of Jesus in scholarly discourse. These readings require a reconstruction of a “gender non-egalitarian” Judaism in order to make its point. Such a reading thus reinforces an anti-Judaic reconstruction of history, objections of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and others to the contrary notwithstanding. Jesus, rather than blending into his social and religious environment, stands out as extraordinary in terms of his gender critique of his culture. For a truly liberative gender-critical reading of Jesus to emerge, it would seem that scholars must come to terms with the outdated and biased nature of this particular reading of Jesus and his teaching and abandon it for a reading that does not bear false witness against Judaism.




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Kathleen E. Corley