I just finished reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. I am a big fan of Levine and have benefitted greatly both from lectures she has given on the Old and New Testaments and from her essays in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and thus have been greatly looking forward to reading this book. It did not disappoint.
Levine’s starting point is that parables are intended to challenge us, to make us feel uncomfortable. Commenting on religion’s role “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” she observes that “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.” In fact, she suggests, if we hear a parable and are not disturbed, “there is something seriously amiss with our moral compass.”
Levine believes that, unfortunately, we too often ignore that challenge. That we take easy lessons form the parable that “lose the way Jesus’ first followers would have heard the parables,” and thus “lose the genius of Jesus’s teachings.” (The framing of the parables by the Gospel writers sometimes encourage our taking the easy way out, she suggests.)
Levine discusses nine well known-parables in her book, including the Prodigal Son (which she thinks is better called “The Lost Son”), the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Rather than trying to tell us what the parables mean, she encourages us to treat them as invitations for reflection and to be open to various interpretations – especially those that force us to ask hard questions of ourselves. She does so, in part, by helping us to understand how Jesus’ audience would have heard the parables. While she does not think historical context is all that matters, I think she is correct in her observation that “the more we know about the original contexts, the richer our understanding becomes.”
Reading this book caused me to think differently about a number of Jesus’ parables, including some I have prayed with with some frequency. That in itself is a sign of the success of the book.