book short storiesAmy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, Harper One, 2014

Amy-Jill Levine’s new book might startle you and shake your view of Jesus’s parables.  You will certainly open your Bible to read them once more. She writes:

“… we should not be too hard on the disciples. They were looking for something within their comfort zone and, like many, resisted what the parables might convey. Moreover, Jesus was requiring that they do more than listen; he was asking them to think as well… What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives… They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge… Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. 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…” (Introduction, p 3, “How We Domesticate Jesus’s Provocative Stories”)

The author suggests many of us have “auditory atrophy” when it comes to the parables. She offers six reasons for our hearing problem but two struck home with me. First, we often think of the parables are cute, sweet, stories that even a child can understand. They are told in Sunday School as a way to entertain children with a good moral point. We hear them so often that we assume we know the story and stop listening!

A second, and far more serious issue, is the unintentional stereotyping of Judaism. “…If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of ‘Jesus came to fix Judaism, so therefore Judaism — whatever it is — must have been bad,’ then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way.” (p 20)

Ms. Levine asks two main questions:  “…How do we hear the parables through an imagined set of first century Jewish ears, and then how do we translate them so that they can be heard still speaking?” With those two questions underlying her writing, she examines nine parables.

  1. Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son
  2. The Good Samaritan
  3. The Kingdom of Heaven is like Yeast
  4. The Pearl of Great Price
  5. The Mustard Seed
  6. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
  7. The Laborers in the Vineyard
  8. The Widow and the Judge
  9. The Rich Man and Lazarus

Amy-Jill Levine is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee. She describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” Other books by the author are The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus; co-editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament and co-editor with Douglas Knight of The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scripture and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us.

Four other books on the parables are now available in St. Philip’s Renouf/Nelson Library:  Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, Klyne R. Snodgrass, 2008; The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, Brad H. Young, 1998; Interpreting the Parables, Second Edition, Craig L. Blomberg, 2012; Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus, Brad H. Young, 2007.

—Richard Kuns

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