Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy Jill Levine
Amy Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar of the New Testament and, should you ever have a chance to hear her speak, you will know that she is a marvelous storyteller. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that she would write about Jesus’ story-telling as recorded in the Gospels.
In the introduction to Short Stories by Jesus, Dr. Levine addresses a big problem with our reading of the parables, namely, our tendency to domesticate them, to be content with being entertained by them, rather than to directly engage them and allow ourselves to be troubled about their meaning. To counter this tendency, she situates Jesus’ parables within the long tradition of Jewish storytellers who used them to challenge their hearers’ behavior or ways of thinking. Part of what makes parables so controversial is that they are comparison stories, usually beginning with the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like….,” but without revealing their intended meaning. In fact, parables can have multiple meanings, depending on the life situation of the hearer.
Dr. Levine also notes the importance of understanding the historical and literary setting of Jesus’ parables. She argues that these parables had to have been fully understood by the initial hearers of the Gospels or else they would not have been preserved for today’s readers. Thus, it behooves us to learn about the history and culture of the early Jesus followers—e.g., farming, sheep herding, social class, wealth management and family relations—if we want to fully understand the parables of Jesus. She also warns against turning parables into allegories. A parable is a short story that uses comparison and surprise to point to a single message. An allegory is an interpretation of a short story that assigns symbolic meanings to each of its characters and events to convey a generalized message about abstract ideas. In short, allegory allows us to sidestep a personal encounter with the absurdity of Jesus’ parables.
Following this very important introduction to Short Stories by Jesus, Dr. Levine offers an analysis of 11 of Jesus’ lesser known parables. She begins each chapter with her own fresh translation of the story followed by information about the story in its historical and literary context. She debunks some misinterpretations of the parable and then offers some thoughts about how the parable might have been understood by its initial hearers and how that same parable can have meaning for today’s hearers of the Gospel. These chapters are rich with references to Jewish literature that help us understand the cultural significance of Jesus’ parables, and they are delightful to read because of her wit and insight into the human condition. Having studied the parables in this way with Dr. Levine, you will never hear them the same way again.
Dr. Levine concludes Short Stories by Jesus with comments about “the power of disturbing stories.” She urges us to resist the temptation to domesticate the Gospel parables and, instead, allow them to provoke and challenge us and inspire us to action in the face of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. She reminds us that “God does not play by our rules” (278) and that “God wants us to be better than we are” (278). But my most important takeaway from her book is this statement: “The parable should disturb. If we hear it and are not disturbed, there is something amiss with our moral compass” (282). I hope Amy Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus will open your eyes to the wisdom of the parables and profoundly disturb you with their meanings.