Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi

By Howell, James C. | The Christian Century, March 18, 2015 | Go to article overview

Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi


Howell, James C., The Christian Century


Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi

By Amy-Jill Levine

HarperOne, 320 pp., $25.99

While I was reading Amy-Jill Levine's Short Stories by Jesus, I kept wishing she had published it ten or 20 years earlier because she could have spared me quite a few naive mistakes I've made in preaching and teaching the parables. We who talk about Jesus for a living have an understandable but lamentable habit of thumbing through a book or commentary, discovering some angle on the text we think will be productive, and then considering it settled forever. Levine has shown me ways I have relied on interpretations that were superficial or just plain wrong and that often the writers I read are themselves thoughtlessly repeating someone else's thin or faulty reading.

As a Jewish scholar and a clever raconteur, Levine is endowed with peculiar gifts to help us achieve her purpose: recovering "the art of hearing a parable," where context helps us "to determine what is normal and what is absurd." She deftly marshals history, the social sciences, rabbinic thought, Philo, and people from other cultures, including Merino sheep farmers in Australia (who point out that sheep resist valiantly if you attempt to carry them on your shoulders) and Yemenite women (who are certain their husbands would welcome home a wayward son).

Levine's best, most intriguing work is on the trio of parables on the lost in Luke 15. She helps us see what should be obvious: not only is the prodigal's father wealthy, the owner of one hundred sheep is relatively affluent, as is the woman with the coin. Precious few of Jesus' listeners owned as many as a hundred sheep, and the woman owns her home, has access to her own funds, and can throw a big party for her friends. Levine's deep insight? If you only have five sheep, you'll notice one missing, but if you have a hundred? "Perhaps it is those who 'have' who are more likely to fail to notice what is missing."

With the prodigal she overturns much that we repeatedly read and hear: that grown men didn't run in antiquity, for example, or that a son who squanders his inheritance is treating his father as dead. These pet notions don't stand up to scrutiny. Levine skewers dozens of scholars, from Jeremias to Scott to Buttrick to Hultgren, for passing along faulty readings--although in an analysis of her footnotes I detect that she takes on primarily books about the parables, and especially books on preaching the parables, rather than challenging commentaries. I am not surprised that books telling us how to make a parable work for a modern audience aren't up to snuff historically speaking.

What made me shudder as I worked through Short Stories by Jesus, though, was discovering that many of us have unwittingly been passing along anti-Jewish stereotypes. Haven't we heard that Jewish fathers were stern and would cut off a recalcitrant son? Or that the Pharisee's boastful prayer was typical of a works-righteousness Judaism? Or that the Good Samaritan portrays Jews as so fastidious about the law that they refused to help? The idea that Jews could not touch dead or half-dead people is ridiculous, for otherwise no dead people would get buried. According to Jewish law, Levine demonstrates, you could and should check on people who were injured, help them if possible, and bury if them if they had died. Maybe priests needed to keep distance for purity reasons, but the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan is "going down from" Jerusalem, away from the temple. …

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