Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Provocative Parables

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Provocative Parables

Article excerpt

Years ago, in a literature course that I taught at a community college, I opened a discussion of the short story chapter with the first reading in the classic anthology Structure. Sound, and Sense, "The Prodigal Son.- My night class of primanly middle-aged, working-class women was normally very engaged and participatory which gave me great satisfaction, because I knew that at least half of the students would go directly from class to their jobs cleaning offices and tending to

patients at local nursing homes. But before I could raise such formal issues as plot, characterization, structure and irony, a student said, "This isn't fiction; it's the truth."

Stunned to awkward silence, I recognized that I was forcing my students to abandon their customary, reverential reading of sacred Scripture, and rediscover "The Prodigal Son" as a mere story

As provocative as this secularized reading was to my students, the discussion eventually reached the key lesson: that this, like all of Jesus' parables, is an allegory--a symbolic narrative--in which, in my reading, at least, the father stands for the ever merciful and forgiving God, and the two sons represent ways in which God's children go astray. Initially alarmed, my students were ultimately comforted by the direction of the discussion: The story had been tamed, and their original interpretation validated.

But I hadn't considered an even more challenging way of reading: What happens when we read this parable literally, forsaking the traditional effort to allegorize? What if the father and the sons are merely that, and the father, who appears to overdo it in his effort to supply the younger son with a lavish reception, is truly the prodigal? What if this parable, and all such stories that Jesus tells to his disciples, is not meant to confirm our preconceptions and reinforce traditional Christian doctrine, but rather to provoke, disturb and force us to question our assumptions?

These are the questions that Amy-Jill Levine poses in Short Stories by Jesus. Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University challenges us to reread the parables and to resist the traditional interpretations (including the contextualizations of the evangelists themselves) that "domesticate" these stories and blunt their intended impact. Only by opening these texts to reinterpretation can we recover Jesus' difficult, sometimes disturbing, yet keenly relevant lessons.

Levine, s painstaking analysis not only frees the parables from their customary readings, but also convincingly argues that the parables are gloriously open-ended, impossible to pin down, and therefore living, vibrant texts.

If most Christian readers have accepted parables as comforting allegories, Jesus' Jewish listeners certainly did not. Levine's argument rests on her contention that we can embrace the challenge of the parables only if we see them in their original context, and Levine strives to recover that context and thereby enable us to read the parables, and Jesus and his mission, in nontraditional ways. Jesus' Jewish listeners did not hold shepherds in high esteem, nor did they necessarily disrespect merchants, judges and Pharisees. Jesus and his Jewish listeners were concerned not about the afterlife as much as they were concerned with their daily lives, and the parables, read in their context, reveal a pragmatic rabbi conveying practical lessons. …

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