While many of the world’s citizens are observing Passover, Ramadan, and Easter, it seemed an appropriate time to consider the work of a self-described “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” *
Short Stories by Jesus: The enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (2014) by Amy-Jill Levine ** is the highly praised study of the parables of Jesus. I’ve been reading this insightful book during this particular time of spiritual convergence.
Levine writes in an easy-to-read style spiced with humor. But she is serious in wanting all her readers — Christians, Jews, and anyone who cares about what ultimately matters — to understand the parables in the same way their original audiences heard and understood them. Too many of the parables have been turned into Christian allegories (or “domesticated” as she terms it), beginning with the evangelists (Luke comes in for special criticism here) and continuing through present-day commentators. In her mind, these interpretations smooth out the parts that may be difficult to hear and recasts them in ways that Jesus and other first century Jews would not recognize.
We look for these easy interpretations, Levine asserts, for many reasons. Among them:
- in many churches, parables function as children’s stories,
- many priests and pastors are not comfortable challenging their congregations with the real message of the parables, and
- it is safer to assure the faithful “that our souls are saved through divine grace rather than to suggest that our societies are saved through personal and corporate aid to the poor.”
Parables should reframe our vision. Levine notes that these stories are less about revealing something new and more about tapping into “our memories, our values, and our deepest longings, and so they resurrect what is very old, and very wise, and very precious. And often, very unsettling.”
Religion has been described as being “designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting.” Driving home the point, Levine continues. “Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”
Levine also sets out to correct current-day misunderstandings about Jews and Jewish customs and religious thought at the time of Jesus. Much of what is misconstrued comes from a perspective of antisemitism, and more than one reviewer has read her thoughtful — but not chiding — criticism and seen themselves reflected in the mirror. Along the way Levine also takes aim at sexist and homophobic theologies.
She begins the book with a very effective examination of the triple parables about “The Lost” from the Gospel of Luke. Lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. She explores the way in which the evangelists — in this case specifically Matthew and Luke — treat the same stories in different fashions and have different interpretations. To my mind this bolsters her overall point that parables are meant to be understood and interpreted in different ways. She helps us see what or who is the main point of the parable, noting that titles matter. We often get that wrong. (Nowhere in the parable does Jesus mention a prodigal son, for instance.) But she also repeatedly notes that we must understand the historical context before we can truly consider the parables for our time. She quotes New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, III, to make this point. “A text without a context is just a pretext for making it say anything one wants.”
After all of her examinations of context, Jewish life in the first century, historical and current misinterpretations, and more, Levine then closes each chapter with her short but powerful perspective on one or more possible interpretations. She asks in the parable of the lost sheep when was the last time we took stock, or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence. Do we follow the example of the woman who lost the coin and take responsibility for the loss? In the case of the father who had two sons, Levine suggests that the scriptures of Israel (the context) can give us hope for our own reconciliations, from the personal to the international. As is true in each of these parables, finding and acting on what ultimately matters requires an effort on our part.
How does a writer come to this perspective? Levine notes that she was raised in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood in Massachusetts and grew up knowing and loving many aspects of the Christian tradition — although she is herself an Orthodox Jew. She completed her undergraduate work at Smith College and earned her doctorate at Duke University. According to one profile, Levine accepts the Orthodox Jewish tenet of the afterlife but “is often quite unorthodox” overall.
In looking at these eleven parables, Levine asserts that Jesus told parables because they serve…
…as keys that can unlock the mysteries we face by helping us ask the right questions: how to live in community; how to determine what ultimately matters; how to live the life God wants us to live.
The best teaching comes not from “spoon-fed data” but from narratives — the all-powerful stories — that remind us of what we already know but are resistant to recall. The best teaching comes from “stories that community members can share with each other, with each of us assessing the conclusions others draw, and so reassessing our own.”
A powerful — and recommended — book.
More to come…
*On Friday, April 15th, Jews began the celebration of Passover to mark the exodus of Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. On the same day, Christians observed Good Friday to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus before celebrating Easter Sunday when he rose from the dead. Over the weekend, Muslims continued observing Ramadan, a month of prayers and fasting to memorialize the transmission of the Koran. The rare overlap on the calendar of the three observances occurs about every 33 years.
**Levine’s official title is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Whew — what a mouthful! I can see why she developed her own moniker.