A Radical Reading of Yeshua’s Parables

Book Review: Short Stories by Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine thinks we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to Yeshua’s parables, and she has the credentials to make such a claim. Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and co-editor of the Jewish Annotated New Testament, published by Oxford University Press. In her 2014 publication, Short Stories by Jesus, Levine identifies two major reasons why we—or most Bible students and scholars—get the parables wrong.Levine book

First, the parables have been domesticated. It’s axiomatic for Levine that parables are provocative. They’re meant to challenge the status quo, but in the Christian world, whether parish or academy, the parables are usually interpreted not to provoke, but to confirm what the readers already believed before they heard them. Levine believes that the parables are often read as allegories, rather than as the freer and more imaginative stories that Yeshua intended them to be. The allegorical readings lock in one specific message, or moral to the story, rather than allowing the story to breathe with its own ambiguities and multiple implications. But, Levine claims, “If we stop with the easy lessons, good though they may be, we lose the way Jesus’s first followers would have heard the parables, and we lose the genius of Jesus’s teachings.”[1]

The second problem identified by Levine is that the parables are usually interpreted through the lens of supersessionism, or replacement theology. Second-temple Judaism and Jewish people are portrayed as the other, the bad guy in these interpretations. So, for example, the priest and Levite who walk past the wounded traveler in the tale of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) become stereotyped representatives of institutional Judaism. The elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) represents the Pharisees and scribes, and commentators pile up this brother’s negatives, which happen to be stereotypically Jewish: “he epitomizes works-righteousness; he follows the father’s wishes in order to earn the father’s love; he is obedient as a slave rather than as a son and so shows the terrible yoke of Torah; he remains faithful because he wants the reward and not because he finds value in the family; he perceives his relationship with his father to be based on ‘law, merit, and reward’ rather than on ‘love and graciousness.’”[2]

These two distortions of Yeshua’s parables tend to reinforce each other. The parables get domesticated to reinforce what the hearers already believed before they heard them—and this includes anti-Jewish prejudices and presuppositions.

In such supersessionist readings, Christian interpreters repeatedly cast the Jews in the adversarial role, with Christians as the positive foil. In their reading of the story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14),

the Pharisee—the one who in his own context would be seen as righteous and respected—is a negative figure wallowing in hypocritical sanctimoniousness. . . .  The message of the parable then becomes that it is better to be a repentant tax collector than a sanctimonious Pharisee, and better to be a Christian saved by grace than a Jew who despises others and teaches salvation by works.[3]

Levine offers a different take. The story opens, in her hyper-literal translation, “And he [Yeshua] even said to some of those believing in themselves that they are righteous and despising the rest this parable.” For Levine, the real issue here isn’t so much “believing in ourselves that we are righteous,” as it is “despising the rest”—in other words, a zero-sum, comparison-based approach to God’s favor: I’m righteous, you’re not; I win, you lose. Levine notes that the Pharisee’s prayer begins in a positive way, with gratitude toward God and a sense of dependency on him for the good fruit in his life. In this sense, claims Levine, the prayer reflects the sort of declaration of obedience that a faithful Israelite is instructed to make in Deuteronomy 26:12–15. Therefore, the Pharisee’s prayer isn’t necessarily problematic, until it points the finger at “this tax collector” praying nearby; “because it negatively judges the tax collector rather than attempts to bring him into a better religious purview.”[4]

Yeshua concludes this story, “ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 18:14 NRSV). But the Greek phrase translated, “rather than the other,” could just as plausibly read, “alongside the other,” according to Levine. In a brilliant insight, Levine says the problem with the either-or interpretation of a saved tax collector and a lost Pharisee “is that it prompts exactly the same type of dualistic, judgmental system that Jesus speaks against, for it suggests the response, ‘Thank you, God, that I am not like that Pharisee.’” In contrast, she claims,

Jesus and his fellow Jews were not bound in their thinking by the social-science insistence upon limited good; they knew that the God of Israel was generous. In their view, there is enough grace for Pharisee and tax collector both.[5]

Levine goes beyond this claim to explore another provocative idea, that the merit of the Pharisee actually helps justify the tax collector, with Yeshua saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified because of the other.” This is another plausible translation, and it reflects the ancient Jewish idea “that the good deeds of one person can have a positive impact on the lives of others.”[6] The Pharisee, according to his self-description, has more good deeds than he could need. He’s performed mitzvot above and beyond the call of duty, and they can get credited to the humble tax collector, who knows he is lacking in mitzvot.

Just as one person’s sin can create a stain on the entire community, so one person’s righteousness can save it. It is precisely by this transfer of good deeds that, in one way of understanding Jesus’s death, the cross works for salvation: Jesus’s faithfulness . . . is what allows others to be justified.[7]

If more traditionally oriented readers are getting nervous here, they need to remember, first, parables provoke, and, second, we need to read them without the usual supersessionist lenses which can only see a Pharisee as self-righteous and hypocritical. Dropping the domesticated reading with its anti-Jewish perspective shifts the focus on to us. Do we judge between those worthy and those unworthy of God’s gift? Do we judge ourselves worthy at the expense of the unworthy others? Do we serve a stingy God?

If such questions make us nervous, then the parable is accomplishing its purpose. But there might be another, and more substantive, reason to get nervous over Levine’s interpretation. In her view the two errors of domestication and supersessionism aren’t applied to Yeshua’s parables only by later Christian interpreters, but in some cases by the gospel writers themselves. In other words, Yeshua told the original story, but Luke (or Matthew or Mark) gave it his own setting, which redefined its meaning according to his own purposes. Thus Luke introduces the Tax Collector and the Pharisee story with these words, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Lk. 18:9 NRSV). Levine claims this introduction skews Yeshua’s original story and makes it into a morality tale.

This claim is obviously problematic to those of us who hold to a high view of the inspiration of Scripture. Luke, the inspired chronicler of the life and teachings of Messiah, isn’t going to distort Messiah’s message. Even more problematic is Levine’s treatment of the final verse in the parable: “ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 18:14 NRSV). According to Levine, Yeshua himself wrapped up the story with “This man went down to his home justified alongside [or even because of] the other.” It was Luke who supplied the final line, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” which, claims Levine, is “a floating statement, easily tacked onto any story.”[8] Luke has added it here to “control the meaning of the story,” so that it’s about “good” tax collectors who are justified by faith and “bad” Pharisees trying to justify themselves by works. According to Levine, Luke misses Yeshua’s portrayal of God’s generosity, and replaces it with a religious morality tale.

In fairness, it should be noted that, despite Levine’s higher-critical view of Scripture, she takes as much umbrage with theological liberals as she does with conservatives. Like the conservatives, the progressives also tend to interpret the parables as morality tales, but now directed against the (supposedly) oppressive religious-political regime of the Jewish authorities instead of against the (supposedly) works-oriented Jewish religion. This liberal construal keeps the Jews in an adversarial role, with Judaism as a domineering and obsolete system. So, for example, after tracing older anti-Jewish readings of the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10), Levine writes,

Finally, with the rise of postcolonial and liberation-theological readings, negative stereotypes of Jewish-Samaritan relations coupled with negative stereotypes of Jewish purity laws combine. . . .  The Samaritan is the “outcast,” although the only person cast out in the Gospel in relation to Samaritan issues is Jesus, who was refused lodging in a Samaritan village (Luke 9:53); the Samaritan is “oppressed,” although according to the parable he has freedom of travel and economic resources.[9]

As for the purity laws, both liberal and conservative Christians tend to cite them to explain why the priest and Levite in the story don’t stop to help the wounded traveler. They’re part of the stereotype of first-century Judaism (and by implication Judaism per se) as, “xenophobic, promoting ritual purity over compassion, proclaiming self-interest over love of neighbor, and otherwise being something that needs to be rejected.”[10] In correcting such interpretations, Levine points out, first, that the priest is going “down” the road, away from the Temple, where the purity laws were relevant, to return home where they were not. Second, the traveler isn’t dead, so his wounded body wouldn’t defile. And if he were dead, the Jewish obligation to bury an untended corpse overrules the avoidance of impurity. So, why are the priest and Levite mentioned first? Because Yeshua, the master storyteller, is setting up his original Jewish audience. “The duo anticipate, in good folkloric fashion, the appearance of a third figure.”[11] Jewish ears would expect to hear this third figure named as an “Israelite,” and they’d expect this Israelite to show the compassion that priest and Levite failed to show. Instead, the parable provokes because it’s the Samaritan, the enemy, who does the right thing—and challenges us to follow suit.

Levine’s writing is always fresh, well-documented, and abundantly insightful. Her depth of background and alert reading of the nuances of the text make this book an essential resource. In addition it’s written in a lively and engaging style that almost invites those of us of a more conservative bent to disagree and articulate why we do (in a collegial way, of course). Although we might find aspects of her theology to be hugely problematic, it’s a measure of the quality of Levine’s imagination and scholarship that this book remains indispensable for anyone studying the parables. It’s an essential addition to the library of every serious Messianic Jewish student.

 

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus. New York: HarperOne, 2014, 4.

[2] Ibid, 70

[3] Ibid, 184

[4] Ibid, 202

[5] Ibid, 208

[6] Ibid, 209

[7] Ibid, 210

[8] Ibid, 207

[9] Ibid, 110

[10] Ibid, 80

[11] Ibid, 102

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