Short Stories by Jesus is an unsettling, innovative reading of some of Jesus’ most-beloved parables. I absolutely loved Amy Jill Levine’s book Misunderstood Jew and have been waiting with baited breath to read her latest book. As a Jewish New Testament scholar, Levin’s perspective is always a bit against the grain, and this book is no exception.
She devotes chapters to several of Jesus parables, including The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son; The Good Samaritan; The Pearl of Great Price; The Pharisee and the Tax Collector; The Laborers in the Vineyard; and The Rich Man and Lazarus.
Levin seizes Jesus’ parables and tears off the trappings of centuries of Christian domestication. She discards standard assumptions about Jesus, his message, and his Judaism. Levin offers a fresh, provocative reading of Jesus’ parables, in which they are no longer soft admonishments or mere allegorical stories about God and his love.
It’s easy to forget that Jesus’ parables must be read in their biblical context. When Jesus tells the story of the “prodigal son,” his audience would have immediately been thinking in terms of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and other favored young sons in Scripture. But as Levin points out, this younger son is startling because he is no Jacob. Instead, he deprives his father of half his estate, squanders his money frivolously, and then returns home to leech off his father’s mercy. That is the shocking element. Who is truly lost here? The hearer actually sympathizes with the older brother, who it turns out is the real “lost” son.
The Gospel writers, in their wisdom, left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them. Each reader will hear a distinct message and may find that the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time… The parable of the Lost Son will convey different nuances to parents than to children, to the irresponsible and indulged (if such children pay attention at all) than to the faithful and overlooked. Reducing parables to a single meaning destroys their aesthetic as well as ethical potential. This surplus of meaning is how poetry and storytelling work, and it is all to the good.
Jesus’ parables must be read in their Jewish, historical context- but not in order to force Jesus into a foil for the scribes and Pharisees or even Judaism. For Jesus’ audience, these parables were about recognizing things they should already know but framing them in such a way as to get their attention and inspire action. Jesus, like the prophets before him, was seeking a dramatic response from his audience.
These are not tame parables; they are radical, uncomfortable stories, designed to inspire action. For example, Levine critiques Christian interpreters of the “Good Samaritan,” who brandish about obscure passages from the Mishnah and stereotype Jewish practice of Jesus’ day. Often for these interpreters, the priest and Levite were more concerned about purity laws then saving life or perhaps burying the dead. However, the parable says nothing about purity; the priest and Levite were leaving Jerusalem not going up to it; and taking care of a corpse is one of Judaism’s highest commandments because it is a mitzvah with no chance at reciprocation. Levine remarks that Martin Luther King Jr. got it right when he imagined that the first two men asked “what will happen to me if I stop?” while the Samaritan asked “what will happen to him if I don’t stop?” The Levite and the priest asked the wrong question.
The Samaritan didn’t represent a marginalized minority in the first century. They were the faces of the enemy, today’s equivalent of terrorists, the community arsonist, prison inmates, or perhaps that dark person in your past who forever changed you or a loved one. That’s a much different ball game.
Jesus’ message wasn’t merely “lend a helping hand to the Jones family” or “give a few bucks to that homeless guy,” but rather Muslims can save Jews and Christians can save Muslims. We walk by our worst enemies all the time (I know I do), while running organizations with names like The Samaritan. By reading Jesus’ parables in their Jewish context, Amy Jill Levine gives parables like The Good Samaritan back their fire. These are not safe, domestic parables. Jesus wanted his audience—both then and now—to respond, re-examine, and react. These are short stories with a long reach.