The Pharisaic Jesus and His Gospel Parables

by Philip Culbertson

Dr. Culbertson is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Oberlin, Ohio.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 23, 1985, pp. 74-77. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The earliest church was barely, if at all, removed from Judaism. But now, 20 centuries later, the Christian faith is far removed from it. In the process of that widening estrangement, Christianity has lost its understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus.

The new Christology proceeding out of the Christian-Jewish dialogue, expressed by such theologians as Catholic John Pawlikowski and Anglican Paul van Buren, challenges traditional Christian assumptions in a manner that can seem threatening, yet captures an important strain of our faith too long suppressed. The earliest church was barely, if at all, removed from Judaism; 20 centuries later, the Christian faith is far removed from it. In the process of that widening estrangement, Christianity has lost its understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus; has lost touch with the culture out of which the message of Jesus was spoken, thus bringing a Gentile definition to Jewish words; and has lost its sense of the immediacy of God’s working through scandalous particulars in human history in order to affirm the universal goodness of his creation.

The method increasingly chosen by theologians who wish to understand anew the interdependence of Christianity and Judaism is to focus on the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Judaism of his day, and then to extrapolate some contemporary theological challenges for modern Christians and Jews. Examining this relationship leaves little doubt that Jesus had some significant identification with Pharisaism. Scholars agree that the New Testament portrait of Jews, and especially of Pharisees, is in large part distorted and inaccurate. The specific relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, however, remains a subject of debate. Some argue that Jesus was himself a Pharisee, calling from within for the charismatic renewal of that popular form of Second Temple Judaism; others argue that he was a prophetic itinerant evangelist, heavily influenced by Pharisaism but not specifically allied with it. The arguments that Jesus was himself a Pharisee appear to be more convincing, for there is little in his uncontested words to suggest that he stood at all outside that movement.

Like the Pharisees, Jesus held himself apart from non-Jews, referring to them variously as swine or dogs. His manner of dress was consistent with that of the Pharisees, as was his way of calling disciples. His devotion to the Torah exhibits a knowledge of both written and oral law (a basic definition of Pharisaism as opposed to Sadducism and Essenism), and he repeatedly affirmed the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the eternal life of the soul. Above all, we find normative Pharisaic teachings echoed again and again in his words. Phrases such as "No one can serve two masters," "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s," and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" are all directly traceable to Pharisaism in the Second Temple period. The Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer exhibit a typically Pharisaic theology. For these and many other reasons, it would seem not unreasonable to think of Jesus as a Pharisee calling for the renewal of that movement which was itself already a movement of renewal within Judaism.

But if Jesus was a Pharisee, then he must have thought and taught as a Jew of his time. To understand his parables, one must read them through Jewish eyes, assuming Jewish values and symbolism and the Jewish religious heritage. Non-Jews 20 centuries removed from the life and ministry of the historical Jesus do not find this approach easy or comfortable, for it necessitates dropping the assumption that Christianity has displaced or fulfilled Judaism; it means refusing to spiritualize the literal meanings of the texts; and it requires familiarization with the first-century meaning of symbols. The difficulty and challenges of rereading the parables through Jesus’ Judaism, may be illustrated by examining three: the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard.

The parable of the prodigal son has long been interpreted by those involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue as concerning the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. This reading holds that God the Father has two sons: the Jewish elder brother and the Gentile younger. The Gentile, having squandered his inheritance and learned the ways of the world, is welcomed home by the Father God, while the Jew is assured, "Son, you are always with me. and all that is mine is yours (Luke 15:31). Would Jesus’ Jewish listeners have heard this parable as a plea for a more universal understanding of God’s relationship to human beings, in that God welcomes home both Jew and non-Jew? Certainly the reference to God as Father, Abba, was common to Pharisaism, and thus to Jesus -- hence the beginning words of the Lords Prayer. Avinu sh’ba ’Shamayim, "Our Father in Heaven." Jewish thought by the time of Jesus held that Adam and Eve were created as one male and one female, rather than as several, in order that all men and women might understand that they are brothers and sisters, descendants of the same set of divinely created parents. Furthermore, Palestine’s Jewish population was not isolated from mixing with Gentiles, as we know from Galilee’s demographics and from the example of the "God-fearers" who attached themselves to synagogues. The "brotherhood" interpretation of the parable is therefore possible.

The universality of Gods love appears to be a predictable theme in Jesus’ teachings. Perhaps this is one sort of renewal to which he was calling Pharisaism from within. Yet there remains the nagging problem of how to reconcile this theme with Jesus’ obvious indifference to, or even dislike for, those non-Jews with whom he came into personal contact, as exemplified by the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 and the "dogs and swine" reference in Matthew 7. One must also question the significance of swine-tending in the parable: is this detail a confirmation that the younger son is meant to symbolize the Gentiles, or does it suggest the shocking depravity into which the Jewish boy has sunk’? These details stand in need of reconciliation. If the message of the parable is the universality of God’s love, an idea not widely focused upon in Second Temple Judaism, then it is understandable that Jesus Jewish listeners would need the clear assurance of the continuing validity of Gods unique relationship with Israel: "You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." It is equally possible that the message of the parable is that God does not break covenant with Jews, even with those who wander far into Gentile culture.

As Matthew 25 records the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, it would have been total gibberish to Jesus’ Jewish audience. Even in our liberal age, bridesmaids do not attend the groom at a wedding. They would certainly not have done so in traditional Judaism. Nor would a bridegroom have entered a room alone with five wise, and presumably attractive, young maidens on the night of his wedding. The story as we have it makes no sense because the bride is entirely omitted. Whom would the Jews have understood to be the unmentioned bride, and whom would they have identified as the bridegroom?

Isaiah 54:5-6 states: "For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name. . . . For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off," Hosea 2:16-19 states: "And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me ‘My husband’ . . . and I will betroth you to me forever." Israel as bride would have been a familiar image to Jesus Jewish listeners, the Torah being the marriage contract between God the bridegroom and Israel the bride. What then would they have heard in the parable? Israel the bride is awaiting God the bridegroom; many others, uninitiated and virgin, are called to attend her. Only those of the uninitiated, or non-Jews, who are fully prepared to assist Israel in her calling to be Yahweh’s bride will be invited to enter the heavenly banquet chamber at the eschaton.

Certainly Christian tradition has identified the wise and foolish virgins with the Gentiles. But in ignoring what the bride symbolized. Christianity has removed altogether this parable’s specific Jewishness, giving it a meaning contrary to the one Jesus surely intended. For him, Judaism’s renewal was paramount, and it is consistent with his disinterest in Gentiles that they should be assigned the position of facilitators of Israel’s right relationship with God. The ramifications for Christian clergy who try to preach the parable in this fashion are yet to be fully explored and few Christians are theologically prepared to humble themselves by considering themselves as servants to Israel, the bride of God. Yet Paul himself proclaimed that "Christ became a servant to the Jewish people in the cause of God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs. . ." (Romans 15:8-9).

A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants, and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, that they should give him some of the fruit of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant; him also they beat and treated shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. . . . Then the owner of the vineyard said, "What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; it may be they will respect him." But when the tenants saw him they said to themselves, "This is the heir; let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.". . . What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.

It is, of course, questionable whether this parable is original to Jesus at all: it has been preached for so long as a story condemning the Jews for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah that the possibility that Luke had an anti-Jewish intent must be conceded. The standard Christian homiletical interpretation has been that the owner of the vineyard is God, the vineyard is the world, the tenants are the Jews, the various messengers are the prophets preaching the shortcomings of Judaism, and the beloved son is Jesus. In retribution for his murder by the wicked Jewish tenants, God takes the world away from the Jews and gives it into the hands of the Christians.

But would Jesus’ Jewish listeners have heard the parable that way? The answer is clearly negative. There is no precedent anywhere in Judaism for the prediction that God would replace Jew with Gentile; even all of Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecies must be interpreted as affecting Jews only. More important is the interpretation of the vineyard symbol. Hosea 9:10 states, "Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel;’’ Isaiah 5:7 reads. "For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting."

Because Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with the vineyard as a symbol for the people Israel, not for creation, they would have given an altogether different meaning to the story than the one traditionally preached by Christians. They might have heard it this way: God chose Israel as the vineyard and entrusted it to various tenants: Babylonians, Persians, Greeks. From time to time God would send someone to collect the fruits of Israel’s faithfulness -- that is, God would inspire some sort of covenant renewal with Israel -- but each time, the overlords’ oppression became stronger; they beat and treated shamefully those in covenant relationship with God. Finally God inspired the long-expected new covenant, an incredible vitality in Judaism that produced the Pharisees’ wisdom and charity, the Sadducees’ liturgical enthusiasm, the Zealots’ deep commitment to social action and the Essenes’ mystical purity. But this charismatic renewal was treated most harshly of all, for the Roman overlords at the time of Jesus persecuted Judaism with vehemence, putting to death anyone who challenged the state’s control over Jewish expression. In the face of this horrible oppression, Jesus holds out a message of hope to his people Israel: God will liberate Israel from oppression, placing the vineyard into the hands of tenants who know how to care for it lovingly, and who will enable it to fulfill its mission; only non-Jews who are willing to protect Israel and encourage it to bear fruit will be given control over it.

These are but three examples of the ways in which Christians misunderstand the meaning of the parables through their estrangement from the Jewish setting in which they were told. Not only the Gospels, but many of Paul’s sayings have a very different meaning when read in the context of Judaism. Christians have only begun to understand the import of the scandalous particularity of Jesus’ Jewishness, and this material remains extremely difficult to preach in local congregations. But if the church is to proclaim its understanding of God’s revelation In Christ, the Prince of Peace, in a manner which does not promote bitterness and hatred, persecution and pogrom, then it must learn to let Scripture speak for itself as a Jewish document. God humbled himself in Christ, taking the form of a Pharisaic Jew, teaching an exciting renewal of the covenant between God and his bride, his vineyard Israel. The Christian tradition and anti-Jewish motif perpetuates violence against the choices God made in the Incarnation. We can begin to change this by looking anew at Jesus’ cherishing of his Jewish faith and his own people Israel in the Gospel parables.