Jesus’s Jewish parables

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it here on the blog, but I’ve recommended Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus to a number of people. In fact, I consider it almost a must-read for any Christian given how saturated our tradition is with anti-Judaism.

I’d recommend Levine’s newest book, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, almost as heartily. In the same scholarly yet accessible manner as her previous work, Levine deconstructs the negative stereotypes about Jews and Judaism that have pervaded much interpretation of Jesus’s parables. We see this, for example, in interpretations of the Good Samaritan that attribute the priest’s and the Levite’s passing by the robbed man to their horror of ritual impurity. Or readings of the Prodigal Son that say the elder son represents Jewish “works-righteousness.” And this is not confined to “conservative” churches and scholars; in fact, many of Levine’s targets are liberal scholars who like to contrast Jesus’s progressivism with a supposedly reactionary and oppressive 1st-century Judaism.

But Levine’s book isn’t just a polemic. Her goal is to try to recover the impression the parables–which by their very nature admit of multiple interpretations–may have made on the the people who first heard them. To this end, she reads them as dealing with very concrete issues of daily life, and not necessarily as allegories or Christological symbols. Her goal is to show that, when stripped of the more obvious messages people sometimes take away (like it’s good to be persistent in prayer, or you should help people in need), these stories can still move us to reexamine our priorities and how we live our lives. In particular, Levine shows that Jesus’s stories speak not only to our “spiritual” condition but also have implications for the very earthly (and still relevant) issues like economic injustice and violence. I personally found the chapters on the Good Samaritan, the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, and the Rich Man and Lazarus to be the most thought-provoking.

As a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, Levine doesn’t confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. But Christians can still benefit from the readings she offers, not only as a corrective to still-too-common anti-Jewish interpretations, but in the conviction that the there is more truth yet to break forth out of our Lord’s words.

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