by Amy-Jill Levine
HarperOne, San Francisco. 313 pages
Conventional interpretations have domesticated the parables of Jesus. Nowadays when the parable of the Good Samaritan is read in worship, eyes glaze and minds wander, anticipating the standard bashing of passersby while lifting up the heroic Samaritan outsider for listeners to emulate. It’s obvious. Heads nod, slightly bored. Similarly, listeners know the “point” of the parable of the Prodigal Son before it’s launched. More troubling than the implicit supersessionism that permeates conventional preaching of the parables (which we will get to later), is how they have been stripped of their provocative nature.
Originally the stories of Jesus troubled listeners with their enigmatic endings and puzzling characters; often they compelled self-recognition, anger and occasionally repentance. Their original capacity to provoke has been replaced with facile caricatures of Jews and banal moral lessons suitable for the “Chicken Soup” genre. That is the central argument of this book. Amy-Jill Levine, an Orthodox Jew who teaches Jewish Studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt University, is a provocateur with a wry sense of humor. She brilliantly restores the shocking nature of the original stories of Jesus. As in her previous book, “The Misunderstood Jew,” Levine is most helpful to Christians who have grown complacent with all Scriptures and carry unquestioned biases into every reading. A biblical scholar, her range of historical knowledge is astonishing along with the precision of her exegetical skills. Moreover, and importantly for those who may be most challenged by her argument, her attention to facts rather than conventional opinions evokes confidence in the reader.
However much you may be provoked by her interpretations, you cannot deny the evidence she brings to her argument. Here she 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?” She then proceeds to bring those questions to parable after parable with a relentless intention to discover the original provocation of Jesus.
If the interpretation of the parable provokes no internal shift, no disturbance of some kind, it may be a clever bit in a sermon but is unlikely to be the truth that Jesus offered to his original audience. “Most interpretations are obvious and uninteresting.” This is the challenge. “Rather than catch in the throat — a matter that really is something of life and death–bland interpretations slide easily down the gullet and pass quickly through the body.” Commenting on the parable of the banquet in Luke 14: “The parable should disturb. If we hear it and are not disturbed, there is something seriously amiss with our moral compass. It would be better if we perhaps started by seeing the parable as not about heaven or hell or final judgment, but about kings, politics, violence and the absence of justice. If we do we may be getting closer to Jesus.”
Ironically, getting closer to Jesus is Amy-Jill Levine’s intent for her readers, especially Christian readers shaped by centuries of anti-Judaism bias built into standard interpretations. One can be richly edified by these parables without such bias, because as she confesses, “they are at the heart of my own Judaism.” This is a pearl of great price.
ROY W. HOWARD is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland, and the book review editor of the Presbyterian Outlook.