Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (New York, HarperCollins, 2014), 320pp.
In Short Stories by Jesus, renowned Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine offers fresh and insightful readings of Jesus's most famous parables. Working against the centuries of Christian interpretation that have domesticated Jesus's stories, Levine argues that the power of parable lies in its capacity to challenge and disturb us. In her words: "Parables bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge. Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, 'I really like that' or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough."
Levine's interpretations of popular parables like "The Good Samaritan," "The Pearl of Great Price," and "The Mustard Seed" draw on rabbinical texts, the works of Philo, modern historical scholarship, and wise spiritual analysis. Levine refuses to flatten parables into allegories, which require outside keys for interpretation. So, for example, where Christian preachers often read the parable of the Lost Sheep as a story about human sin and divine forgiveness, Levine correctly points out that a first-century audience would have heard something quite different in Jesus's depiction of a shepherd perceptive enough to notice absence in the midst of abundance. Levine also challenges the rampant anti-Judaism that runs through much of our contemporary teaching about the parables — for example, the teaching about the Good Samaritan parable that pits a loveless Jewish obsession with purity against a charitable Christian concern for neighbor and enemy. In fact, Levine argues, the more literate we are in the richness of Second Temple Jewish scripture and thought, the more we'll appreciate the complexity of the parables. A Jewish listener would not, for example, hear Jesus say, "A man had two sons," without immediately hearing rich echoes of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, Manasseh and Ephraim.
Levine's educational and worthwhile book returns Jesus's parables to their original context of first-century economics, agriculture, morality, and social ethics, while simultaneously offering the contemporary reader ample opportunity for reflection and self-examination. It's a must-read for anyone interested in engaging Jesus's disturbing and open-ended "short stories" with fresh courage and honesty.