Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus is simultaneously a provocative, frustrating, beautiful, tedious, and compelling work.
This analysis of the parables of Jesus by a Bible scholar takes a fresh look at these tales through the minds of those who first heard them. How would Jesus’s first audience react to his narratives about lost sheep, a pearl of great value, a prodigal son and a good Samaritan? What was their understanding of the world and of the people Jesus talks about? Did they see things differently than we do now? Spoiler alert: Yes.
This is why the book is so provocative and beautiful. Levine painstakingly defines words and how they were used throughout the Bible, where similar stories appeared, how certain storytelling devices were common (so many involved two sons, a rich man, vineyards, etc.) in order to help you feel you are there with those first listeners, hearing the stories for the first time with your understanding of what they knew.
Her impressive scholarship leaves you in awe as well as frustrated. As she went through example after example of mentions of the word “merchant” or “pearl” in ancient history and the Bible, I was impatient to move on. A summary would have sufficed for general audiences.
Where Levine shines is in provoking you to consider new looks at these well-worn tales. Her analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan still has me mulling it, seeing it afresh, understanding that the answer to Jesus’s question– Who is your neighbor?– in that story is much deeper than you might think.
Similarly, her pulling apart of the “lost” parables (lost sheep, lost coins, lost son) forces you to view yourself not just as among the lost but as the seekers — what, she forces you to confront, are you seeking, what have you lost, that you would tear up the world to find?
In the parable of the pearl of great value, you’re left to ponder what is it you want so badly that you’d happily give up all your fortune to own?
Her other great accomplishment in this book is alerting Christian readers to the sad history of parable interpretations that have more than a whiff of anti-Semitism to them by ignoring the rich Old Testament history of messages of love and acting as if Jesus’s parables teaching the “way of love” were explicit rebukes to Jewish law.
“If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of ‘Jesus came to fix Judaism, so therefore Judaism–whatever it was–must have been bad,’ then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way.”Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus
At times, it feels as if Levine strains to look beyond obvious interpretations of the stories as she seeks to find some new view that will turn the parable on its head. That seemed particularly true in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee and the widow and the judge. Her journey to find something different in these tales had me wondering if Jesus would go to such lengths to obscure a text’s plain meaning. Sometimes the obvious understanding might be the right one.
The merits of this book far outweigh the faults, however, and I heartily recommend it to those interested in Jesus, the Bible, and life in general. The book is available at all major etailers, including Amazon.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her books can be found here.