Anyone interested in gaining a more vivid, authentic picture of Jesus and his Jewish environment in order to best understand his words and deeds should read the work of Amy-Jill Levine.
Levine has made valuable contributions to New Testament studies, but as a self-described “Yankee Jewish feminist” teaching in a predominantly Protestant divinity school, she reveals her ultimate goal through her work in church and synagogue: to provide sorely-needed instruction for Jews and Christians about both ancient religions in order to build bridges of understanding between us in our own time.
She does this for Christians by exposing and correcting Christian mischaracterizations of Judaism. These mischaracterizations commonly portray Christianity as the positive foil to Judaism. And so by doing they pit Jesus against his own religion.
For Jews, she helps them discover that the New Testament is itself a part of Jewish tradition. Reading the New Testament teaches us about Judaism.
Levine therefore helps both Jews and Christians arrive at a fresh comprehension of how the New Testament and Jesus himself are thoroughly Jewish—even as they form the very substance of Christianity.
In her book from several years ago, The Misunderstood Jew, Levine unveils Jesus as comprehensible only as an ancient Jew who is faithful in both word and deed. With her new book Short Stories By Jesus (HarperOne, 2014), Levine turns her attention specifically to his words, by expounding upon the meaning and effect of the most unique and characteristic form of his teaching—his parables.
Levine provides plenty of great material for properly interpreting the parables, and she critiques many of the current interpretations, but she remains well-aware throughout her book of the more crucial problem, which is how readers have handled these parables: We’ve been so concerned about what the parables mean that we have forgotten about what they do … “remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb …” (4)
“Thus this volume asks two main questions,” writes Levine. “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?” (17)
In her answers, Levine not only renews our understanding of what Jesus spoke in parables; she also brings to front and center the often ignored significance of the fact that Jesus spoke in parables. Levine helps us see that we cannot discard the parables once we have extracted meaning from them, otherwise the very reason why Jesus speaks to us in parables is lost.
Levine postures herself and her readers in a humble position before the parables to allow them to have their effect on us. While Levine practices precise exegesis throughout her discussion, she doesn’t let the reader simply explain a parable. If you do, as she shows us, you’ve failed to understand what the parable is meant to do in the first place.
It is in recovering our respect of the parables to let them do their work on us that we realize how our interpretations of them have so often contained them. If we believe, for example, that they’re only about the need for people to believe in Jesus for salvation, then we miss the urgent lessons the parables have to teach us about how we may respond to this world—in the economy, or in the needs of the poor, or in the opportunity for genuine forgiveness, etc.
Indeed, although she does not accept Jesus in the way that Christians do, Levine describes with enthusiasm her own experience of studying the parables of Jesus, emphasizing how much she is challenged by them and acknowledging what she gains from them.
Levine’s own participation with the subject matter of her book demonstrates firsthand that one can learn from Jesus’s parables what the kingdom of God is like apart from believing that the kingdom of God has uniquely come in Jesus himself. If this is the case, then the parables are about more—and doing more—than we so have so often realized.
By the end, one is indicted through a reading of Levine’s book just as one is indicted through a genuine hearing of the parables. Whereas the parables are meant to be provocative, we have dulled their effect and evaded their challenge by domesticating them. Whereas the parables call us to respond, we have been content at merely extracting theology from them. Modeling the teaching method of Jesus himself, Levine prods, questions, points to the ambiguities, always keeps our eyes on what is most important, causes us to reassess our own conclusions, leads us to “take [the parables] seriously not as ‘meaning’ but as soliciting our meaning making” (276), and invites us to take them ultimately “not as answers but as invitations” (275).
Levine’s book is a must-read. From the searing challenges it issues to prevailing interpretations of many of these parables, to the wake-up calls it sends about the effects the parables should have on us, I can’t imagine an informed discussion of parables in the academy or the church (or synagogue) that doesn’t take into consideration what Levine has written. Even if one doesn’t end up in agreement with everything she says, her book’s greatest value is found in how it helps us reshape how we respond to the short stories that Jesus told and thereby more faithfully respond to Jesus himself.