The Parables of Jesus, with Amy-Jill Levine
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar with a deep love for the New Testament. Her latest book is called Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. This book focuses directly on Jesus’s parables. Levine exposes ways that they’ve been misinterpreted over the years and shows that they’re as relevant today as they were when they were first recorded centuries ago. Levine joined us in a previous episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast to talk about her work on the Jewish Annotated New Testament, and I’m so glad to have her back to talk about Short Stories by Jesus.
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BLAIR HODGES: Amy-Jill Levine joins me on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Thank you for being on the show again.
AMY-JILL LEVINE: It’s my pleasure.
INTRODUCTION TO PARABLES
HODGES: Today we’re going to talk about your new book that you just put out this year. It’s called Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. This is a book where you look at the parables of Jesus in the New Testament and as a Jewish scholar you talk about the context and the background and talk about how interpreters have read the parables, and try to make the parables challenging again to modern readers. So how did you decide to do this particular book?
LEVINE: I’ve always been fascinated by the parables. I like stories, and I like provocative stories. I like stories where after I hear them, then a group of people can get together and say, “Here’s what I thought,” “No, here’s what I thought.” “I liked this person.” “I didn’t like him at all.” Parables, I already knew because of the parables that show up in the scriptures of Israel, what the church calls the Old Testament. I knew that parables were designed not to be banal statements of the obvious, but to shock and to indict, from Jotham’s parable of the trees in the book of Judges to that fabulous parable of the ewe lamb that Nathan tells King David following that incident with Bathsheba and then arranging the death of Uriah. Why don’t we look at the parables not as sweet stories, which is typically how they’re presented in churches, but rather try to recover that provocation or that punch that I think Jesus’s original audience would have expected and indeed would have heard?
HODGES: So, parables, they’re frequently seen as a hallmark of Jesus’s teaching. I think most people if they even hear the word “parable” today, they automatically associate it with Jesus in the New Testament. But as you mentioned, this wasn’t something that was unique to Jesus. This was Jesus making use of something that existed far before his life and after.
LEVINE: Oh, sure. We have them in the scriptures of Israel, wisdom literature is filled with parables, and they’re not unique to the Jewish tradition either. Aesop’s Fables function much like parables. Buddhist koans can function like parables. Human beings, I think, are just hardwired to tell stories, and I also think that sages, the wise people, are more apt to use stories to inculcate moral values or to indict people for not behaving the way they should be, because a story can be a whole lot more effective than somebody just saying do this, or don’t do that.
HODGES: So the word “parable” itself. Is it as simple as saying “parable” means story? Or how would you really dissect the term itself?
LEVINE: It’s a type of story, as mysteries are a type of stories or science fiction is a type of stories. Parables as they function in the Jewish tradition and in the Jesus tradition, I don’t think they tell us something that we don’t already know. I think they tell us something that we already know deep down inside, but we don’t want to acknowledge it or if we do know it we don’t want to act on it. In that sense they’re like storytelling heart surgery. They cut away all that junk that prevents us from behaving in the way that God wants us to behave.
EXPLANATIONS OF PARABLES
HODGES: In Mark chapter four, this is a chapter that shows Jesus speaking parables publicly, so he’s telling them publicly. Then Mark shows him explaining them privately to his disciples. You note that the few of these direct explanations from Jesus’s lips, according to the writer, have survived. You say that’s a very good thing.
LEVINE: Absolutely it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for a couple of reasons. The most obvious reason is because by withholding the interpretation it is as if the Gospel is saying to us okay, here’s your invitation. Jesus spoke to the crowds. You’re part of that crowd. You go figure this out, so that no one meaning is constrained and people can react to the text as individuals.
I think the other reason that it’s a good thing is because clearly if anybody’s ever read the Gospel of Mark, the apostles are not the brightest students in the seminar. They continually misunderstand Jesus. He’s continually frustrated with them. So if they’re the ones who are entrusted to do the recollecting, probably just as well we don’t have that information.
HODGES: You say these parables have what you call a surplus of meaning. This is the idea that I think, I guess if we had an explanation for all of them, the risk would be that we would just stop with that and that the parables, it seems they’d have a shorter shelf life.
LEVINE: Exactly so. It’s somewhat like when Christians will look at the scriptures of Israel and say oh, here’s a prediction of Jesus, a virgin birth, or the reclamation of Psalm twenty-two. Then they’d say okay, Jesus took care of that, now we put that stuff on the shelf. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. All these texts should continue to have meaning in the Christian tradition from the beginning of Genesis onto the end of the Christian scripture, because the text always has to have meaning to the believing community.
So in looking at the parables I don’t want to stop with any sort of single meaning, and what I find in teaching these parables is every time I teach them students come up with stuff that I had never considered before. From international students who read from their own cultural location, to teaching in a prison where my insider students with obviously different experiences see things that would never have occurred to me. So the parables continually open up challenges, and at the same time they catch me up short just when I think I’ve got it all put together, you know, somebody comes up with an alternative reading.
HODGES: Right. That comes across in the book too, there. There are some parables that you talk about that you seem more undecided on, or that you leave it quite open ended yourself, which is a refreshing thing to find in a book, someone who is trying to provoke thought more than make decisions for the reader.
LEVINE: I’m a biblical scholar. I’m not God. I’m not going to tell people what to do.
HODGES: Well, you’d be surprised, right? You’ve read biblical stuff. One of the things that you point out in the book about parables, you’ve mentioned briefly already, is that parables above all should cause some kind of discomfort or should challenge the person who hears this. Some people think that Jesus told parables in order to protect himself, that he didn’t want to come out and say what he was teaching. This view of parables rather is that Jesus was using stories so that he could really provoke the audience.
LEVINE: Oh, absolutely. Look, if Jesus didn’t want to draw any attention to himself then the first thing he should have done was shut down the healing business. Feeding five thousand people? Not a good way to avoid attention from other people who were there. So, no, I don’t think the parables are done for self-protection. Indeed, if you look at something like the parable of the vineyard it’s very clear that the political leadership in Jerusalem knows exactly that he’s speaking about them. So he’s not really shy about this.
We know that parables are designed to provoke because that’s what they do in the scriptures of Israel, and that’s what they do in Rabbinic sources, and that’s Aesop’s Fables do. So if Jews before Jesus and Jews after Jesus are teaching in parables in order to provoke or indict or correct or challenge the status quo, then I see no reason for Jesus to be an outlier here. When I try to imagine what these parables would have sounded like to the people who first heard them, in other words other Jews within Jesus’s audience, then all sorts of things versed forward that I did not find in most of the commentaries.
HODGES: A lot of those commentaries, and we’ll talk about this a little bit later on, but they seem geared more to the contemporary audience, so they’ll kind of make a modern day application that overlooks that original context. We’ll talk about that.
But I wanted to also ask in this idea of parables being afflicting is what sort of things would they afflict about? I guess that’s a strange way to put it. But what types of things were they focused on that people would be troubled about?
LEVINE: It’s not so much that people are troubled about things. It’s that people are insufficiently troubled. We’re insufficiently troubled about people who don’t have enough money to get through the day. We’re insufficiently troubled to make everybody in our family or in our institutions or in our communities feel like they count. We’re insufficiently troubled to recognize that everybody is in the image or likeness or God, and not just he people who look like us or worship like us, or speak our language. We’re insufficiently troubled by stereotype. We want widows to be poor and lowly and shy. We want women to be silent and not going for what they really need. So what the parables do is they indict us for our own complacency, for our own failure to be troubled.
HODGES: One of the things that people will find throughout the book is the way you call attention to different moral quandaries the parables raise, sometimes personal issues that the parables raise, sometimes social matters that they’ll raise—you mentioned wealth and inequality, and that sort of thing. It seems like some parables can speak to a range of those issues. Some of them seem to be more directed to specific ones. So parables seem a very flexible story devise.
LEVINE: They are flexible. While the book does try to hear what those parables would have sounded like in their own context, what I find is that those two thousand years between then and now melt away because the messages that Jesus is conveying in these parables are fully timeless. The social problems, the familial problems, the economic problems that people had in the first century are not dissimilar to the social, familial, and economic problems that we have today. We still don’t pay attention when we should. We are still complacent. We still overlook. We still judge, and we still stereotype.
PARABLES IN HEBREW SCRIPTURES
HODGES: Yeah. Not only that first century, but also going way back. We mentioned already Israel’s scriptures making use of this genre. You trace parables back through the scriptures of Israel. What would you say maybe the early, early example of the parable would be in Hebrew Scriptures?
LEVINE: We can look at the book of Judges. There’s a wonderful parable that most people don’t know unless they’ve actually read Judges very closely. It’s told by a fellow named Jotham. It’s called the parable of the trees. He tells it about a fellow named Abimelech, whose name in Hebrew actually means “my father.” “Abi” is “king”, melech. It’s a great name if you want to start a dynasty, which is sort of what this fellow wants to do. He explains that the trees wanted a king to rule over them, and just to adapt this to a modern audience, they went to the oak and said, “Rule over us.” And the oak says, “Look, I’m too busy making furniture. I’ve got a day job. Find somebody else.” And they go to the elm and the elm says, “I’m too busy providing shade. So go find somebody else.” They go to the eucalyptus, who says, “I’m too busy housing these bizarre marsupials in Australia. I’ve got a day job.” They finally go to the bramble, which is good for absolutely nothing else. They say, “You be king over us.” The bramble says, “Sure will.” Which says something about people who are unqualified for political office and how dangerous it is when we put such people in power.
This is edgy and it’s provocative, and the very fact that you’re smiling and you’re laughing tells us something about parables. At the same time that they indict us and they challenge us, they make us smile. This is part of the genius of telling parables and the genius of Jesus’s own storytelling, is that he can indict somebody and you can be laughing and feeling a little nervous all at the same time.
HODGES: What’s an example of a funny one? Because I think a lot of people when they read the parables, humor is probably the last thing that would come to mind. So what’s a parable that has some of that humor in the New Testament?
LEVINE: I think a lot of them are funny. I think the parable of the mustard seed is a little odd. Mustard does not grow into a giant tree so the birds of heaven nest into its branches. It grows into, at best, this five-foot tall bramble. So the idea of something that little becoming something so great, that’s fabulous. When we think of greatness and world domination we tend to think of mighty oaks and not little mustard seed.
Or the parable of the leaven. Leaven is fabulous stuff. Leaven is yeast. In antiquity this would be like sourdough starter. So if I want to think of the kingdom of heaven I might think of pearly gates, or streets paved with gold, or giant banquets. I’m not going to think of leaven because actually in the New Testament leaven has a bit of a negative connotation. Jesus says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Herodians.” In First Corinthians Paul says a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Then suddenly Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to leaven. That, frankly, ought to have gotten a rise out of the audience.
HODGES: Gotten a rise out of the audience. I see what you did there. Okay, so that was a great example that the tree parable is humorous.
Did parables continue after the time of Christ? Like rabbinic examples of parables that you can think of.
LEVINE: There are lots of rabbinic parables. I did not want this book to be a “here’s what the rabbi said, here’s what Jesus said, let’s parallel them up.” I just wanted to look at the Jesus parables in and of themselves. But I do give a couple of examples of rabbinic parables to show how closely the parable genres arrange. I mean, rabbis tell parables about kings and about shepherds and lost sheep and lost kids and whatnot, but the rabbinic parables also have this element of humor in them.
There’s this one fabulous rabbinic parable that comes from a text called Shir Hashirim, a commentary on Song of Songs. It says do not let the parable, the Hebrew term here is “Mashal,” do not let the parable appear of little worth to you because through a parable a person can have the words of Torah. In other words, these little stories, some only a verse or two long, can open up the world of God, can open up the meaning of existence. Then it tells a parable. It says, “Consider a king who has lost a gold coin or precious pearl,” and you can hear an echo of Jesus’s peal of great price, “May he not find it by the light of the wick, worth no more than a penny. Therefore, do not let the parable appear of little worth to you because by its light a person can have the words of Torah.”
Okay, so we think as we usually do with the New Testament parables, oh, this story simply tells me that parables are important, or parables are enlightening. But then I want to think about this literally. If I’m a king and I lose a gold coin of which I must have thousands or precious pearl, of which I have at least hundreds, I’m not going to get off my throne, light a candle, and go into the corners of my castle looking for the coin. I have staff to do that. In fact, I have slaves to do that. So the parable gives me this idea of somebody who’s in a great position of authority having to get off his throne and get down on his knees in the dirt and the dust with the rest of us. That opens up to ways of thinking about how do we understand political authority? Can we make fun of the king? Sure. That’s a nice way of locating ourselves. We realize that even kings have to get down off their throne at some point, so this is an important thing and sometimes we have to do the job ourselves.
But I like the idea of, say, Queen Elizabeth getting off her throne in Buckingham Palace going, “I’ve lost my pearl!” and then taking a flashlight and going to look for it. It’s a wonderful image.
HODGES: Parables are powerful in part because they can be employed in many different ways, like you just did. But you also caution people in the book that parables aren’t necessarily infinitely malleable. You quote an old saying, “A text without a context is just a pretext for making it say anything one wants.” So that’s why you want to look at the original context of parables, right?
LEVINE: I don’t want to let the historical context go. From a theological perspective the incarnation, the birth of the Christ for Christians, took place in a real time and a real place. I think we ought to take that seriously theologically. Judaism and Christianity are both historical religions, so we should pay attention to the history that our scriptures give us.
As a storyteller, I recognize that stories can be adapted and changed and they will take on new meanings for every generation that reads them, but the Bible stories are different because now I’m talking about sacred scripture. I’m not talking about Aesop’s Fables or Shakespeare or Hemingway. I’m talking about scripture, and I want to honor that historical context.
I also find that when I take the history seriously, I can help preclude some of the anti-Jewish interpretations that have frequently found their way into Christian explanation of parables. I think, as I’ve often said, the Gospels and Jesus stand very well on their own without having to make Judaism into a negative foil. History helps us with that.
WHAT MAKES SCRIPTURE DIFFERENT FROM OTHER TEXTS
HODGES: You mentioned other books that you differentiate scripture from things like Hemingway or someone else. The question some people have is this idea of a scripture being something that a community gathers around. So could a community gather around some story by Charles Dickens or something and make that into a scripture? What differentiates scripture from any well-written book that could stand ongoing scrutiny? What makes scripture different?
LEVINE: Actually there are communities that gather around Dickens. They meet at the Modern Language Association. They gather around Shakespeare and they meet at the Globe Theater. They are as passionate about how they interpret their text as people who interpret the Bible. But most of them don’t say, “My salvation is dependent upon this story,” or, “This story comes from God,” or, “This story conveys theological truth,” or, “This story changed my life such that I understand my purpose in the world,” or, “This story gives me hope.”
I’m not a Christian, but I understand fully how the Christian Bible impacts those who hold is sacred, and therefore I will treat that text with infinite respect because I respect the people who hold it sacred. The Bible is a book different than books on which religion is not based.
JESUS’S TEACHING THROUGH THE AGES
HODGES: Okay. Good. So back to that question about kind of uncovering the parable’s original setting. You say part of your goal was to recover the original provocation. This raises the problem of imperfect records, because many Christians understand that the very nature of the New Testament writings complicates the interpretation we can do on the text. You identify a few leaps of faith that readers have to take when they’re reading these records. So let’s mention some of those.
First off, whether Jesus really said what was attributed to him. Talk about that issue a little bit and how New Testament scholars approach that question.
LEVINE: There’s a whole industry known as historical Jesus research, and I have written books within that industry. We don’t have anything directly from Jesus himself, we have the records of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who themselves are not eyewitnesses. Luke’s very clear about this. He got stuff from eyewitnesses, but he wasn’t there. We have a few recollections from Paul. We have a little bit in non-canonical sources. The Gospel of Thomas, for example.
So we’re already recollecting our material from eyewitnesses, but eyewitness memories are highly imperfect. It’s not as if they’ve got tape recorders back then. The Gospels tell stories differently, with different orders, with different words. Jesus spoke in Aramaic. The New Testament is written in Greek. Any time a story goes from one language to another certain elements will drop out and certain elements will drop in. I can talk about, say, yeast getting a rise out of the audience. That’s a pun that works in English. I’m not sure it actually works in Greek. So I have to worry about language slippage.
The Gospel writers have to figure out where to put the parables. I don’t think Jesus told this parables just once. He’s got good stories and he’s going from town to town, so they have to figure out here’s where he said it, here’s how he said it. Every once in a while, for example, the parable of the great banquet, they come out differently with different audiences. Nor do I know if Jesus told them all. There might have been some lady named Francis who told a bunch of parables and Jesus said, gosh, I think I can use that one. And it drops into the tradition.
HODGES: Or even his mother or something.
LEVINE: Oh, absolutely. I think Mary must have been a fabulous storyteller. So we can’t be sure. Again, what I’m trying to do is an act of historical imagination. I think generally from looking at the history of stories as they come through the centuries, for the most part, elements and stories tend to stay the same.
So if we look at the Cinderella story, for example, which has been around for hundreds of years, the Brothers of Grimm did ethnological research on this, and we go from what the Brothers Grimm discovered to what Disney gave us to what most recently Hollywood gave us, to Rodgers and Hammerstein, but the basic elements of the story remain the same. The details may change. I think the skeletal outlines of these parables remain the same, as they went from Aramaic to Greek, to English. As they went from upper Galilee to Jerusalem to Corinth to Rome to Nashville. But it’s a guess.
THE WIDOW AND THE JUDGE
HODGES: One of the things you do is occasionally you’ll point out that according to your reading the Gospel writer seems to be putting a different spin on a parable than perhaps what Jesus was putting on it in his original context. Can you think of any examples of that where you’d see a Gospel writer taking a parable and giving maybe his own spin on it?
LEVINE: I think Luke does that all the time. That does not make the interpretation wrong, any more than anybody reading the Bible today and saying, “Here’s what I get from that text” is wrong. If the text means something to you, you’ve already got a partially correct answer. But I think Luke in particular has domesticated the parables. Luke has tamed them and taken away the shock value. There’s this fabulous parable about a widow who’s got a law case, and she’s trying to the get the judge to adjudicate in her favor. The Greek for what she wants is problematic. She may be asking for justice, but what the Greek term actually suggests is she’s asking for vengeance, and that already raises for us to question if we sue somebody what exactly do we want.
Finally, she keeps bothering him and the judge finally says, “Look, I don’t really care what people think about me. I don’t even care what God thinks about me. But this widow’s about to give me a black eye, so I might as well give her what she wants.” I love this idea of some widow threatening a judge with a black. Then Luke, as they say in the south, bless his heart, comes in and says, “And basically this parable tells us we should pray always and not lose heart.” Well, that’s something nice, but I don’t think the parable is about praying always and not losing heart. I think the parable is about charging into the court system and trying to get what you want.
For those of us who are readers, we have to figure out in this parable on whose side are we? This widow, does she want justice or does she want vengeance? What about her opponent? Why isn’t she talking with him, particularly since Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, if you’ve got a problem don’t go to the court, go make peace with the person against whom you’ve got a problem, lest you get tangled up in the court system. Paul basically says the same thing. Is the judge doing the right thing by granting her what she wants? Or is he becoming complicit in something that might not be so good in the first place?
At the end of this parable I don’t know whose side I’m on. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I find myself asking really good questions. Do I want justice or vengeance? How do I become complicit in other people’s concerns? What would I do if I had an opponent? How do I make peace? What actually is justice?
HODGES: That’s in chapter eight on the widow and the judge, and the way that you structure these chapters is you offer your own translation of the parable, and then you give some background about it, or some interpretation. You talk about how different interpreters have interpreted it over the years, and then you break it down line-by-line and talk about each individual element.
This was a particularly strange, I will say, a particularly strange chapter in perhaps one of the chapters where you offer the least amount of resolution for the reader. You end by saying with this story Jesus forces us to find a moral compass, and we learn that to do so we need to interrogate our stereotypes and then ask the right questions.
So this is a parable that you conclude ultimately doesn’t just have this clear-cut resolution that Luke places on it. The thing that was really helpful to me was the way you differentiated between the parable proper, so just the bare bones of the story, the frame, which the Gospel writer often gives to it, and sometimes Jesus does, and then the reception, so that’s what all the people that read it after that and the kind of uses they put to it. If you separate out those parts, you can really start to open up the interpretative possibilities. As soon as you realize that that Gospel writer has presented a frame that you can switch out and try a different frame and see what comes up. That kind of analysis is really helpful throughout this whole book.
LEVINE: But don’t we always do that when we read the Gospels? The frame of Jesus that Mark gives us, the suffering servant, the enigmatic figure who says, “Don’t tell anybody what I’m doing,” is very different than the quite pedantic Matthew who speaks in long discourses, or the somewhat mystical John who uses “I am” statements. It’s the same Jesus, but the narrative frames of the four gospels are very, very different. So if we can have Jesus presented to us in different ways, why shouldn’t we be able to look at the parables as presented in different ways? Then each Gospel writer, just as the Gospel writers frame Jesus differently, may well frame the parables differently as well. That makes perfect sense to me.
HODGES: It does. But I think you underestimate the extent to which most Christians are harmonizers and try to flatten the New Testament and have a very monolithic picture of Jesus. Myself for years overlooked the different types of frames that the Gospel writers gave, so it’s especially helpful when I see it happening on the level of a parable, that helps prepare me to see it on the level of a Gospel. Because like you said, it’s kind of that same principle.
As you’re teaching Christian students, have you sensed any consternation on their part when they start to see these types of differences? Especially perhaps more fundamentalist or literalist-minded readers that want to harmonize the Gospels.
LEVINE: I don’t want to take away the particular theological beliefs of any of my students, as I said, I believe one treats religious faith with the utmost respect. So what I do in the classroom is say look, here is some ways that the Bible has been understood, here are some ways that the public has become increasingly aware of how Jesus is understood. Here’s what you’re going to see on the arts and entertainment network, or the history channel, or various magazines available to the public, or the PBS Easter program, or the PBS Christmas program, and when people in your congregation say to you gee, are there four different portraits of Jesus or how come Jesus says one thing here but something else somewhere else? You need to have various ways of explaining this material. If someone in your church comes up to you and says, “Oh, I heard somebody on TV say Jesus didn’t really say this, this was invented by the Gospel writer,” how are you going to respond to that? Well, here are some ways that people have, and then the fundamentalist students can say I can take a fundamentalist reading on this, or I can take a more liberal reading on this.
My job is to provide them the options not to tell them what to believe. That’s between them and God.
HODGES: I think in today’s context we really do have a lot of options, and your book spends a good deal of time looking at some of those, especially in casting light on Jewish stereotypes that Christian readers draw from the parables.
If it’s so important to get to the historical context of a parable in order to understand it, what can we say about applying a parable today in a way that runs counter to how an audience a millennia ago would have applied it? Because a few of them probably wouldn’t, they’re not going to mean the same thing to us. We can find the historical context and go okay, that’s irrelevant to me. What do you think about creative reusage?
LEVINE: I’m more than happy with creative reusage as long as it doesn’t do any harm in the reusing. What I find too often is that when the parables get detached from their history they wind up doing harm because they wind up stereotyping early Jews and then setting Jesus over against Judaism or Jews in general.
If the parable is used to provide hope to indict where indictment is needed, to criticize where criticizing is needed, I think that’s a good thing. The Bible should not be only an historical document. As I said, it needs to speak to each generation anew. I just don’t want to lose that historical anchor because I think it helps keep us honest. One of the really cool things about the parables is you can take that imagined historical meaning and most of them translate quite nicely into what we have today in our contemporary society.
THE PRODIGAL SON
HODGES: Let’s talk about a parable that often receives an anti-Jewish reading today, or a reading that casts Jews in an unfavorable light. Can you think of an example of one? A parable that’s frequently read in an anti-Jewish light that you overturn in your analysis.
LEVINE: The most common one is the parable that’s usually called the parable of the prodigal son, where when the younger brother comes home and Dad runs out to greet him and the commentators say, “Oh, Dad represents God and the Jewish God would have been vengeful and wrathful and would not have been forgiving,” and then Jesus invents grace and forgiveness so that the surprise of the parable is that Dad welcomes the younger son home. I don’t see any surprise there whatsoever. Dad’s got his kid back. Dad’s happy.
What they miss is the pathos of the older brother who’s out in the field and, as Jesus puts it, he heard the music and the dancing and he has to call a slave to ask what’s going on. They had enough time to call the band and the caterer and nobody bothers to call the older brother. Then commentators come in and they say the older brother represents the Pharisees or the Jews who don’t want to welcome sinners back, which is something that Luke’s frame already suggests, as if Jews have no concern for welcoming back sinners and Jews have no interest in the completion of the community. These are unhelpful readings. They’re ugly stereotypes. They’re not what the parable says, and they take away the meaning of the parable itself.
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
HODGES: One of the things that kept recurring I noticed was issues of purity. The parable that comes to mind where you dissect this a little bit is the parable of the Good Samaritan and how when the Good Samaritan, the people who pass him by, there’s stereotypes there. Talk about that, because I think a lot of LDS listeners will probably be surprised about this one.
LEVINE: Sure. So in the Good Samaritan, the guy in the ditch who is half naked and half dead, he’s basically us and we’re waiting. Who is going to rescue me? So the first person who comes by is a priest, the Hebrew would be “Kohen,” and he sees him and he goes around, about, over, against him, he’s not coming near this guy. A little bit later a Levite who’s a second-order priest comes by, and he goes by as well. Then countless commentators come in and explain that the reason the priest and the Levite walk by the fellow in the ditch is because they’re afraid that if they touch him and he’s dead, or he dies while they are attending him, then they will become ritually impure because they have touched a corpse. So what they’re doing is actually following Jewish law by walking by this guy in the ditch. All that does is make Jewish law look disgusting. Toxic.
First of all, although priests—and in Judaism to be a priest is an inherited position, you’re a priest if your father’s a priest, and you’re a Levite if your father is, it’s not a vocation, although priests are not supposed to come into contact with corpses unless it’s the corpse of an immediate relative. Some laws trump other laws, and saving a life trumps all laws. So the priest is not doing what he should have done in the first place. Second, if the priest were going up to Jerusalem where in the temple ritual purity would have been essential, he might have maybe had a second thought, but the Greek is very clear here. The priest is actually going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Next, there’s no such purity law incumbent on a Levite, so if it were just a priest you could make the argument, but the Levite says no, no, no, this has nothing to do with corpse impurity. If you touch a corpse are you in a ritually impure state? Yes. So what? It means you can’t go to the temple. So what? They’re not going to Jerusalem.
Taking care of a corpse is one of the major commandments, the highest commandments in Judaism, because it’s one of the few commandments that God says we have to do on behalf of someone else where there’s no possibility of reciprocation. If I love my neighbor has myself, I might get that love back. If I love the stranger who dwells among us because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, the stranger might love me. If I do something for a corpse, I’m not going to recoup. So you have to do it because it is the right thing to do, and I think Jesus’s Jewish audience would have been horrified that the priest and the Levite walked by the guy in the ditch and would not have brought impurity concerns at all.
Indeed, in the New Testament when Jesus wants to talk about purity, he doesn’t talk about priests and Levites, he talks about Pharisees and there are no Pharisees in this story. Take out this bad purity stuff and then we can see the parable for what its worth.
DIVIDING INTO THREE
HODGES: The other point that you raise, and this has to do with this kind of folkloric element of the three, you bring up the notion of the audience expecting a threesome. So when Jesus says a priest and a Levite, they would then expect the next one to be an Israelite, right?
LEVINE: Absolutely. Jews divide into three. We still do. You’re a priest, or you’re a Levite, or you’re an Israelite. In the synagogue today we still hold those roles so that when the Torah is read on the Sabbath, on Saturday morning, people have the honor of coming up and saying the blessing before and after each portion of the Torah that’s read. Traditionally the first person called up to say the before and after blessings is a priest, a Kohen, and the second one is a Levite, and it’s sort of up for grabs for the rest of them.
I’m a Levite. you can usually tell by last name. Levine is a bit of a give away. So we still recollect those roles. When I’ve read this parable in synagogues, because every once in a while people in synagogues will say well tell me about this Jesus fellow, because we’ve heard but who’s going to talk to us? I’ll tell them the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’ll start out with a priest and a Levite and all the Jews are going oh, the next person’s going to be an Israelite. We know. But people in the churches don’t. They miss the shock then as the Samaritan comes in.
HODGES: This is the idea that, so this is one of the challenges perhaps to Jesus’s original audience then would have been that this Samaritan was the one to come along and did what the priest and Levite should have done. That would have set people’s teeth on edge, to know that it was a Samaritan that did that.
LEVINE: Absolutely. Here’s another place where a lot of sermons go wrong, because the Samaritan in the modern retellings is the poor, the marginalized, the person without a green card, the new minority on the block, the person who might be HIV positive. Somebody who we good people would think of as an outsider and the message is let’s not be a bigot or they’re nice too. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what the Samaritan would be like.
For the first century audience if I’m the fellow in the ditch and I see the Samaritan coming toward me, I’m going to think he’s going to kill me, this is the last person in the world who is going to be nice to me because Jews and Samaritans were enemies. They hated each other. We know that not only from the scriptures of Israel, which talk about the Samaritans. We know that from Josephus, a first century historian, and we also know it from the Gospel of Luke, because Luke here is actually quite a good storyteller. Our parable is in Luke chapter ten. In Luke chapter nine Jesus and the entourage are heading from Galilee to Jerusalem and they stop off at a Samaritan village to seek hospitality, and the Samaritans refuse them hospitality because they’re Jews and their face is set towards Jerusalem. Refusing people hospitality is a terrible thing, particularly in the ancient Near East.
At this point James and John, two of the apostles at their apostolic best, say, “Lord shall we call down fire from heaven and destroy this village?” It’s actually an allusion to the prophet Elijah, who was working up in what eventually became Samaria, and Jesus has to explain that dropping a bomb is not an appropriate response to lack of hospitality. They hate each other.
HODGES: They went a little overboard on that suggestion, right? That’s also interesting too. There’s no problems there depicting the apostles there as imperfect people. I think the same kind of goes for the priest and Levite who pass by. This wasn’t a critique of Judaism. This was a critique of Jews who weren’t living up to Judaism.
LEVINE: Exactly so. Exactly. They were not doing what God would have us do.
DOMESTICATION OF THE PARABLES
HODGES: That makes a really big difference when Christians come to the text, especially because there are a lot of places in the New Testament where there is a division set up between the Pharisees and Christians in all of that. We sort of talked a little about that in our previous interview. I’m speaking today with Amy-Jill Levine. She’s the author of Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.
We talked about this at the outset a little bit, but the book’s written on the premise that a lot of readers of Jesus’s parables today have domesticated them, or taken away their edge, made them a little more safe. We didn’t talk about some of the reasons that you suggest for this auditory atrophy, is the phrase you use. So before we go on let’s talk about some of those. What are some of the reasons why some of the people are prone to domesticate the parables?
LEVINE: There are several. The first is part of general Christian education. Little kids in churches get introduced to parables very early because they can kind of get a basic message out of them, like the prodigal son means God loves us even if we screw up. Or the Good Samaritan means you help people by the side of the road. Or the mustard seed means God can do great things. All that’s fine. But it’s childish. But if children are taught parables as children’s stories then it’s very hard to make a shift over to say wait a minute, these may be adult stories speaking to adults. If we continue to look at them as children’s stories we will take the simplistic lesson, and we will not take the challenge. That’s part of the problem.
Another part of the problem is I think that generally people in probably good measure really don’t want to be challenged, we just want to be comforted. We want to walk into a house of worship and be told that everything is okay and that God loves us and we should be inspired and we should be hopeful. That’s all well and good, but I think it’s insufficient. I think if we leave the house of worship feeling complacent and self-satisfied, congratulated for being good people, then that worship has not done its job. I think we should feel invigorated to be better than we already are. The Jewish scripture tells us that we’re made just a little lower than the angels. We ought to live up to that.
THE PHARISEE AND THE TAX COLLECTOR
HODGES: So on that point, though, there’s a parable that you talk about, the tax collector and the Pharisee, that the typical reading of that parable would support the point you just made, that we go to worship to be comforted and to feel good about ourselves, and that’s the typical reading of the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee and the tax collector go to the temple to pray, and the Pharisee says, “I thank you that I’m not a sinner and a terrible person, or even like this here tax collector.” And then the tax collector says, “God have mercy on me, I’m a sinner,” and hits his breast and then it says that one of them returned home justified. But you challenge that reading. I want you to talk about that because that’s one of my favorite excerpts of the New Testament and you really sweep the leg.
LEVINE: Well good. I’m not sure I would want to date that Pharisee. He does seem intense like Demonius. But I have no reason to think that he’s lying to God. That would be inopportune for him to do. He’s really a super Pharisee. He does more than any Pharisee would be expected to do. Fasting as a form of self-discipline, tithing, everything. He’s really over the top. He’s comparing himself to this tax collector, who I think is really quite humble and quite sincere himself. So the normal message we get in most sermons is let’s not be sanctimonious like that Pharisee, let’s be humble like the tax collector.
HODGES: That’s a real problem. It happens.
LEVINE: Sure. But as soon as we do that what are we doing? We’re saying oh thank you God, I’m not like that Pharisee over there. Wait a minute. Am I a rogue and a sinner? As soon as we do that the parable immediately traps us.
HODGES: Yeah. That’s what got me. That’s when you swept the leg. I was like oh no.
LEVINE: Then it’s more than that. Because Jews have this sense of being part of a community rather than just being individuals. Everybody’s responsible for everybody else. If one person sins, that sin impacts the entire community, if one person does something really fabulous the entire community can benefit from that. Jews will talk about what is sometimes called the merits of the fathers. In other words, we may be messing up, but remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? They were really terrific. So for their sake.
Well, the Pharisee has more merit than he knows what to do with. He’s got good deeds over the top. The tax collector’s got nothing. So maybe first century Jews might have thought if the tax collector can go home justified, maybe he tapped into that Pharisee’s merit. If I’m a righteous person I don’t want to think that my righteousness somehow benefits somebody else, but that’s the generosity of God who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike. Then, gosh, just when you think you’ve got that rug swept underneath you right at the end, the last line in all English translations I was able to find is, “Therefore, I tell you this man,” referring to the tax collector, “went back to his home justified rather than the other.”
HODGES: Rather than. In the King James, “rather” is italicized.
LEVINE: Yeah. The Greek term for “rather” is “para,” like parallel or paradox, and it can mean over against, but what it also means is side by side.
HODGES: That’s parable.
LEVINE: Or paradox or parable. You cast two things side by side. I’m wondering if that last line might be they both went down justified, side-by-side. I’m distressed by those readers that think that somehow God’s mercy is a zero sum game such that if the tax collector can be justified the Pharisee isn’t. Why wouldn’t God be merciful to somebody who’s doing all the right things? Who goes to the temple and doesn’t ask for a thing, but thanks God that he’s been put in a position where he can do all that stuff.
HODGES: He does diss the… I wrote this in the margin for you. He does diss the tax collector, though, right?
LEVINE: That’s right. It turns out at the end the tax collector may well be justified because of the Pharisee’s good deeds, and that’s the last thing the Pharisee wants to know.
HODGES: So joke’s on him.
LEVINE: The joke’s on you. He gets justified because of your good deeds, too bad.
HODGES: I also thought a Christian reading could be the Pharisee might also be a type of Christ in that Christ’s merit is said to cover for the sinner as well. I hadn’t thought of that before I had read this book. So I thought that was an interesting possibility.
LEVINE: That’s how the cross works in part. It’s the fidelity of the Christ that allows the rest of us to tap into that merit, to tap into his good deed. That’s exactly how that works. Why wouldn’t it work for the Pharisee as well? It’s just Jesus wanted it, and the Pharisee didn’t.
ACADEMIC APPROACHES TO PARABLES
HODGES: Right. And Jesus didn’t diss the tax collector. That’s just such a good story for many different reasons. Okay.
A couple of other reasons you mention about domestication include the perpetuation of anti-Jewish stereotypes, so this is the idea that Christian readers especially in differentiating themselves from Jews tend to play up the anti-Jewish angles. You also talk about academic approaches that favor contemporary application, or homiletics. Talk about that for a minute, about how academic approaches can actually domesticate parables.
LEVINE: Sometimes the academy will use whatever tools we can find in order to bring closure to the parables or to say, here’s what they must have meant. I don’t think it’s bad, in fact I think it’s quite good for academics to use whatever is available in our treasure boxes. By the way, the word for treasure box in Greek is “thesaurus.” So you pull out whatever vocabulary you can. You can use literary criticism or sociological criticism or liberation theology or Marxist criticism or materialist criticism or whatnot.
Sometimes when we try to use cultural anthropology and we say oh, well, if we can talk to a Bedouin today, that will somehow get us what first century Jews were doing. Cultures don’t quite stay the same, and a contemporary Muslim Bedouin who has a cell phone is not quite the same thing as a first century Jewish tenant farmer. So sometimes I think we go a little bit overboard in some of the methods that we use.
HODGES: So as far as your methodology then, your book tries to overturn some of that domestication or resist it by employing historical investigation. Also things that people might not associate with scholarship, which include imagination and playful speculation. We forget the role that these types of things play. Like you couldn’t do it without, I mean you’re being playful here and there, you’re speculating. You’re using your imagination in a book of scholarship.
LEVINE: Well, yeah. I don’t think that scholarship and imagination are mutually exclusive. History is always a bit of an imaginary game because we don’t have all the data in front of us. Indeed, even if we did, even if we had every single minute of everything that was done, when a historian recounts we have to choose what to say, what to leave behind, how to say it, how to frame it, how to contextualize it.
So any time a historian writes we’re already using some part of imagination because we’re saying here’s what we think is important, and here’s how we think this material should be understood. In terms of playfulness, oh gosh, I think the parables are playful. I mean they’re dead serious in terms of their intent, but I think they’re delivered in a playful manner. It’s that old spoonful of sugar model. I like the idea of using imagination. I like the idea of using playfulness. I like the idea of making the biblical text come alive, and I find that when I use my own imagination, and I admit to it, I tell people when I’m making stuff up, or when I’m guessing or when I’m speculating, that then becomes an invitation to them that they can exactly the same thing. I’m just maybe a little informed than they might be.
HODGES: Yeah, you’ve got a little bit more of the historical background to it. Like we said earlier, that serves as an anchor too that you can kind of maybe resist the most crazy readings, or if you’re doing a crazy reading you can at least be aware that that’s what you’re doing.
LEVINE: Or because I know the genre. If the genre of the parable is, I should feel a little bit of discomfort, this should make me interrogate my own values or my own stereotypes because I know that’s what parables are supposed to do. I’m also worried that if I come up with a reading that tucks everything neatly together and makes me feel very good about myself, or very good about the world, then I’m probably miscuing the genre. So we read mystery stories in order to be entertained or to tease out the problem. We read recipe books to figure out how to cook. We read parables to be challenged.
HODGES: And in a second we’ll talk about, I’ll ask you about what parable challenged you most. This is the Maxwell Institute Podcast with Amy-Jill Levine. She’s the author of Short Stories by Jesus. We’ll take a break and be right back with the conclusion of this episode.
HODGES: Now that you’ve already read all of the scripture commentaries that promise to make your scripture study easier, it’s time to dig a little bit deeper. Latter-day Saint philosopher James E. Faulconer has written the “Made Harder” scripture study series on the premise that our scripture study is only as good as the questions we bring to the table. The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University has already published The Book of Mormon Made Harder, The Doctrine and Covenants Made Harder, and The Old Testament Made Harder. Now The New Testament Made Harder is finally available. Each book is filled with challenging questions with occasional commentary to make reading harder, or rather more fresh and surprising and demanding. These “Made Harder” books are an excellent tool to improve your personal or family scripture study, sacrament meeting talks, or Sunday school lessons.
The New Testament Made Harder by James E. Faulconer is now available at Amazon in digital and print formats. So much of modern life is geared to finding faster and easier ways to do the same old things. The “Made Harder” series is proof that making things easier does not always make them better.
THE LABORERS IN THE VINEYARD
HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. I’m speaking today with Amy-Jill Levine. She’s the author of Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.
Okay, so, as you’re doing this project were there any parables that stung you particularly? That you maybe felt indicted by, or that kind of struck at your heart?
LEVINE: Yeah. They all do and every time I was working on a different chapter I felt indicted, and then I felt challenged to go out and do something decent in the world. That was a good thing. I find the one that gets the most resistance, sometimes from me, and sometimes from others, is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. This is the one where it’s typically interpreted, and Luke and Matthew give us this nice kind of frame about it, that oh, it doesn’t really matter when you converted, it just matters that you convert and the people who come along later in life get the same benefits as the people who’ve been toiling in the vineyard since early morning. Then the typical interpretation is the Jews are the ones who started and were working like slaves in the heat of the day and they resented the Gentiles coming in the last minute getting the benefits of salvation. It’s nonsense.
The first provocation that parable is the vineyard owner who keeps going to the marketplace like he doesn’t know how many people he needs in terms of a labor force, that’s very odd business practices. It’s not as if he goes out once or twice, it’s three times, four times, five times, and every time he’s finding people there who don’t have a job. So what does this tell me? It means that every group that got hired left people behind. And they’re thinking, “Thank heavens I was the one who was picked. I now have a job.” And everybody else who’s just waiting is waiting still. We rejoice when we get a lift, but do we look at the people who are part of our labor pool, part of our group, who do not have the same benefits, who don’t have the same luck that we had? And do we turn around and say, “Therefore I should pay attention to you as well”? From little kids on the playground where people are choosing up sides, I always hated this, and you always wanted to get picked and you didn’t want to be the last one, and if you’re the next to last one it’s “Hooray! I’m picked” rather than wait a minute, my friends need to come along too. So when I get lucky, when I have a benefit, do I think about the other people in my cohort who have not been so lucky and say, “Can we bring along so and so, and so and so?” If I get invited to a party and someone else is really looking for that invitation can I say, “Would it be okay if Joe and Mary can come along?” Am I paying attention to people who don’t have the same benefits that I do?
Then at the end, I love it when the vineyard owner starts by paying the last hired first, and then the people who did the work but they also knew at the end of the day they were going to have enough money to feed their families, they expected to get more which is not what they contracted for, then they start to grumble. And he says look, is your eye evil because my eye is good? That’s the idiom. Basically he says, “Pick your money and get the hell out.” “I’m generous and you’re grumbling?” Even at the end of the parable there’s nothing these guys can do, because all they can do is go back, and what are they going to grumble about? That he was generous to everybody else? It’s a wonderful parable, but it’s one that indicts.
HODGES: Sometimes in the book you talk a little bit about work you do in a prison group where you meet with prisoners and talk about the New Testament. In your experiences doing that what kind of responses have you gotten from parables, reading the parables? What kinds of things have you learned from that? What kind of reactions do you get from people you meet with in prison? Maybe just a second about what you do in general with prisoners.
LEVINE: Starting this August when the fall semester begins I will be in my thirteenth year at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison, which is where Tennessee’s death row is located, because Tennessee still kills people, I work with insider students and divinity students so I can have a maximum of twelve insider students and a maximum of twelve divinity students. So these are regular divinity school classes. We meet just in a room—there’s a guard right outside the door, but we don’t have a guard in the room. We talk about biblical materials. We’ve done all four Gospels, we’ve done introduction to the New Testament, we’ve done two semesters on the book of Acts, we’ve read the book of Genesis, and this coming fall we’ll be reading the parables. If you interview me again in December I could tell you more.
But even going through the Gospels, because there are parables in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, no parables in John, they will come up with readings that never would have occurred to me because we all read from our own subject position, we all read from our own social location. They’re very interested, some of them for example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans in ancient Israel had an earlier name. The location of Samaria used to be called Shechem. It was at Shechem where Jacob’s daughter Dinah is either raped or seduced by the prince of the land. It’s at Shechem where Abimelech, to whom by the way the parable of the trees is told, winds up murdering a bunch of his political rivals. So if we think about Samaritans we might think about people who rape or people who murder, and then we have to realize that people who rape and people who murder may in fact be people just like us, in the image and likeness of God.
So when I think of my friends at Riverbend who are in prison because they have committed murder or they have committed rape, they are not simply their crime. That’s one thing that they did, but it is by no means the sum total of who they are. They are human beings, just like me and just like you, who have hearts and souls and brains and need to be engaged.
So when I read the parable as best I can through their lenses, I will see different things. Or if I think about the parable of the yeast and one of the fellows mentioned yeast is just something you throw away. You toss out, like people have done with us who have put us in prison and basically thrown away the key. This is a maximum-security prison. Then you realize that what this yeast can contribute, can be so wonderful, so leavening, so enlightening, that they have something to contribute as well. It’s extraordinary.
LAZARUS AND THE RICH MAN
HODGES: It’s extraordinary. I imagine it’s difficult to do.
Just so we get the chance before we go to buzz market a few more parables, this is kind of a cheesy question, but this’ll give us a chance to mention a few more. If you had to pick your favorite parable currently, or during the process of writing the book, and your least favorite, what would you say and why?
LEVINE: My least favorite parables I didn’t write on. There is a law of limited return and I’m not covering all the parables. There are other books that do it and do it very, very well. So I wrote on the ones where I thought I actually had something to say, where people who have been studying parables all their lives might say “I never thought about that.” That’s what I was trying to get. I don’t have, for the book I don’t have a least parable.
So I can’t answer your question. I have parables that I think I understand better than others, but that doesn’t make them more favorite or less favorite. Sometimes I’m contented by saying I think I sort of have this, and sometimes I’m so intrigued by saying I can’t bring this one to closure.
HODGES: How about story-wise? Are there any stories you like the best? Like I love that scene of the Pharisee and the tax collector, just because they’re both pretty stereotypical, it’s this very stark scene, and there’s the line where he’s like, “I’m not like this guy.” I love the scene and setup. It might not be the message I need or that indicts me the most or maybe it does, but what about just story-wise? Are there any stories that just grab your imagination? Like, “Oh that’s just a great story”?
LEVINE: I think the story of the rich man and Lazarus is just a great story. Well, it’s more than that, but it is a great story because of the way the characters come through. Just a few words. Here’s Lazarus, this poor guy in terrible shape, who winds up, he dies. He’s in the bosom of Abraham which is heaven.
Then the rich man lands in hell, which is really, really hot, and there’s a chasm, which is actually the Greek word, in between heaven and where the rich man is suffering in the flames. He calls out to father Abraham, “Look, have Lazarus dip his finger in cool water because it’s a little hot here.” It’s just great. “Bring me some iced tea.” He hasn’t quite realized that Lazarus is in a blessed position and Lazarus is not there at his beck and call. Things have sort of reversed.
HODGES: Yeah, he’s still looking at him as a servant.
LEVINE: He still hasn’t quite got it. Then he’s like, “Oh, if you could have Lazarus go tell my brothers.” He’s not worried about the rest of the world, he’s just worried about his own family. He’s still completely self-invested. Then Abraham says they’ve got the law and prophets. They’ve got all they need. “Well, if somebody comes back from the dead maybe that’ll make a difference.”
Yes, you could take that as a Christological reading, and yes you can say it’s got something to do with Jesus coming back, it’s an echo of what we have in John eleven where a fellow named Lazarus actually does come back from the dead. Does that make any difference? No, not really.
THE LOST SHEEP
HODGES: There’s a parable where you overturn a Christological reading. It’s the lost sheep. This one surprised me. You pointed out things about the lost sheep parable that I had never noticed before, and that as soon as you said it I was like, “Oh, yeah.” Talk about that for a second. And the name of the parable. You say depending on what you call a parable it can totally change your interpretation of it. So this parable of the lost sheep, you suggest you could call something like, the parable of the really careless shepherd.
LEVINE: He’s never even called a shepherd. If he were called a shepherd then you might say, well, the Lord is my shepherd. The parable starts out, “Which of you owning a hundred sheep,” so now we’re talking about a high-end sheep owner, “upon losing one.” So the standard interpretation is that the sheep owner is the good shepherd who is either Jesus or God, and we are the lost sheep, and that God will come find us. We’re like the prodigal son, that we went astray and God forgives us and brings us home, and then everything is nice and tidy and lovely. No.
At least for that first century audience, “which of you having one hundred sheep,” they’re not thinking the sheep owner is God. They’re thinking the sheep owner is one of them. Moreover, the sheep owner lost the sheep. If the sheep had gone astray, fine you can move into the sin, repentance thing, but the sheep owner lost the sheep, just like the women in the immediately following parable lost her coin. The coin didn’t lost itself, it didn’t go astray. So I’ve got a problem.
What we miss in that parable at the beginning of Luke fifteen is, if you have one hundred sheep, and one goes missing how do you know? You have to count. It’s not like you could look over at the flock and say, oh it’s the one with the beret or the one with the spots or the one with the little barrette. You have to count. What happens? So he leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness, which is not a smart move with sheep, because if you leave sheep by themselves they stray.
Oh, I have a friend who’s been teaching in Tanzania and she said when she told this parable to her friend in Tanzania, many of whom are sheep farmers, they said if you have a sheep who goes astray, you shoot it because you don’t want a dangerous sheep.
HODGES: Or if you left, the ninety and nine are going to go off.
LEVINE: That’s right. If you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and you find the one that’s lost at the end of the day, you’ve only got one sheep because the ninety-nine have gone.
So he finds the sheep and puts it on his shoulders, the small alone would kill you because sheep smell, and he brings it home and he calls up all of his friends and neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me because my sheep that was lost is found.” They don’t care. You’ve got ninety-nine other. What we miss is we turn the parable into an allegory. We are the lost sheep. The sheep owner is God. There’s no reason to do that.
HODGES: If you want it for a basic reading sure, that’s fine, but you’re missing something more.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COUNTING
LEVINE: You’re missing the importance of counting. What woman who had ten silver coins upon losing does not light her lamp and sweep her house and search until she finds it? Then she calls up all of her female friends and neighbors, it’s a women’s party, and says, “Rejoice with me because my coin the was lost is now found.” They don’t care. But the other thing that we miss is she lost the coin. Now, if we want to make the sheep owner in Parable One God, then we have to make the woman in Parable Two God. I think that’s only fair.
HODGES: Yeah. So you’ve got a woman as a symbol of God here. It’s really a cool thing.
LEVINE: Yeah. But I don’t think she’s God. But if we’re going to, it’s only fair.
HODGES: Right. If the shepherd’s a symbol of God, then the woman’s a symbol of God.
LEVINE: Or the father in the third parable is God, then the woman’s God too. It’s only fair. Anyway, so what we miss again is the counting. If you have ten silver coins and one goes missing how do you know? You have to count. The third parable begins, there was a man who had two sons. His problem is he didn’t count, because he recognized the younger one who had come home and he gave him the party and he forgot to count the older one.
Thus the parable says to us, whom did we forget to count? Is it the person who’s been under our nose who’s been doing all the work? Who has been faithful? Who has not been a problem? Have we made that person feel as if she didn’t count for anything, as if his opinion didn’t count? Have we failed to make somebody feel counted? Do we count? People in my classroom. People in the congregation. People in the community. Whom have we forgotten to count? It’s brilliant.
HODGES: That’s Amy-Jill Levine. She’s the author of Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. Do you have any projects that you’re working on right now? I know that we mentioned before there’s another edition of the Jewish Annotated New Testament that’s coming out. Do you have anything else you’re cooking up?
LEVINE: I’m trying to finish a commentary on the Gospel of Luke, which I’m reading with my Methodist evangelic friend, Ben Witherington III. Ben and I agree on very little. What we’re doing in this commentary is showing that you can have disagreements over what the text means, but you can be very, very close friends with the person with whom you have disagreements, and you can disagree theologically and maintain a civil concern because your disagreements are, as the rabbis would put it, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
Marc and I are planning to do a book on those materials in Israel’s scriptures, in the Jewish Tanakh, the Jewish Old Testament, that get picked up in the New Testament and reinterpreted. So the so-called virgin birth material, the corner-stone that the builders rejected that is become the head, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, the suffering servant in Isaiah, and the Zachariah predictions about the king coming into Jerusalem. What we want to do is look at how the Jewish tradition has understood exactly those same passages.
Here’s this idea, again, of the surplus of meaning. For the church they will have a particular meaning that the New Testament provides them, but those passages will also have had a meaning to the people who first heard them, Isaiah’s audience, the audience of Genesis, and they’ve also had an ongoing meaning in the synagogue. So what we thought we’d do is show Christians what more these texts means, without erasing any of the Christian interpretations, but saying here’s how else these texts might be understood. Here’s what more you can do. The Christians are in a lovely position here because the Christian can double-dip. You can take the New Testament interpretations and you can say here’s how else these texts might have been understood, and indeed the invitation then becomes open. Here’s how I might understand these texts in my own circumstance today.
HODGES: Well I hope if it comes down to it, we’ll be able to talk to you again when some of these projects come out again, because it’s a real pleasure to have you on the show, AJ.
LEVINE: What a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.