SHORT STORIES BY JESUS
THE ENIGMATIC PARABLES OF A CONTROVERSIAL RABBI
by Amy-Jill Levine
Review ~ Cindy Elliott
Amy-Jill Levine is not only very active in Jewish Christian dialogue but she is an author who gathers a lot of exposure. Most reviewers either love or hate her books. For myself – I felt a bit of both. In honesty, I put the book down after the first chapter to pray about my attitude and to consider tossing the book or reading it to the end. After a much needed attitude adjustment I moved into the second chapter, The Good Samaritan, and how glad I am that I did!
In the introduction Amy-Jill Levine highlights some very important points, one being that Yeshua’s parables invite us to engage. The parables aren’t just nice stories but are meant to challenge us, to make us uncomfortable. Another important point – In listening to parables and appreciating them within their initial context, we do well to listen for echoes of Israel’s Scriptures since the parables evoke earlier stories and then comment on them. Take for instance Luke 15:11 when we read, “There was a man who had two sons…” To Yeshua’s Jewish listeners, this would bring to mind Abel and Cain, the sons of Adam; Ishmael and Isaac, the sons of Abraham; Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac… and reading the parables in light of the previous narratives creates both surprise and challenge.
One of the objectives of Amy-Jill Levine’s writing of this book was to unmask Anti-Semitism in parable interpretation. She offers up traditional Christian interpretations for each parable, most of which I have never heard of or, if I had, I would have quickly dismissed. It is important to note that Amy-Jill Levine often quotes [the questionable sources as regards Anti-Semitic and Anti-Torah attitudes, of] Robert Funk of The Jesus Seminar and the early Church fathers. If you do read this book, take time to read her footnotes to understand the voices she is listening to and responding to; because, at times, it seems that Amy-Jill Levine does a bit of stretching to tie in Anti-Semitism to each particular interpretation of a parable.
It saddened me to read some of Amy-Jill Levine’s characterizations of the Christian belief, but that only emphasizes the essential need for open and honest Jewish-Christian dialogue that will encourage clearer understanding of both spheres. It also acts as a stark reminder for those of us who have a deep and abiding love for Israel that not all who call themselves Christians have the same love for God’s chosen people, including major mainstream denominations.
Amy-Jill Levine states in the introduction that she is not writing the book to extrapolate on already well known interpretations. But at times she goes to great lengths to dismiss the clear meaning of text. For example – she dismisses repentance as a focus of Yeshua’s parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and The Good Father whereas He points out that the clear meaning is about repentance – “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
Amy-Jill Levine does ask provocative and profound questions. She brings in some very interesting explanations that help to better understand the first-century Judean context of the parables. If you, like me, have enjoyed and benefited from scholars such as Brad Young and Kenneth Bailey, you will find she does not always stand in accord with their conclusions. She can be a bit hard-hitting but, again, it is not a bad thing to have your understandings challenged.
Amy-Jill Levine does not believe in Yeshua as her risen Lord and Messiah but she speaks of Him with great respect. One of my favorite pictures she paints of Yeshua is when she tells the reader, “What is infectiously appealing about Jesus is that he likes to celebrate. He is constantly meeting people not at the altar but at the table…”
It is impossible to read this book and remain passive. The author will push you at times to examine what you believe. As I said at the beginning of this review – I both love – very much love – and dislike this book – but, maybe that’s not such a bad thing – to read Short Stories by Jesus with two hands. There were times I felt Scripture was misused or misrepresented,* which reminds me of a little story that Rabbi Sacks shared:
…In yeshiva the highest accolade is to ask a good question: Du fregst a gutte kashe. Rabbi Abraham Twersky, a deeply religious psychiatrist, tells of how when he was young, his teacher would relish challenges to his arguments. In his broken English, he would say, “You right! You 100 prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong.”**
What a freedom indeed to be able to be right and wrong!
You, as I, may not agree with all of Amy-Jill Levine’s conclusions but I hazard to suggest that you will walk away from Short Stories by Jesus with much to ponder and, if read with a chaver, chances are you’ll have some amazing discussions!
*I am giving just a couple of examples with the hope that anyone planning to read this book will read with discernment. At times Amy-Jill Levine is so very insightful, indeed I had moments when I read something and thought, “I would have bought the book for this one insight!” But as a good and wise friend reminded me — in Acts 17:11 the Bereans who listened to Paul (one who trained under Gamliel, was a rabbi of note, and a very significant leader in the early Messianic community) searched the Hebrew Scriptures (the only Scriptures at the time) to see whether or not what he said was true. We need to do likewise.
In the chapter on The Pearl of Great Price she pulls on James 4:13 to support her opinion of the negative view of high-end trade – doing business and making money:
“Even the doing of high-end business is suspect. James 4:13 condemns those “who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business (emporeuomai) and making money.”
To me the context of James 4:13 isn’t on a negative view of doing business but is a caution against an attitude that is prideful and independent from G-d.
In the chapter on The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like Yeast, Amy-Jill Levine writes:
“In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5.14). Whether the Gospel of John sought to correct this association of the disciples with light or to complement it by having Jesus claim, twice (John 8.12; 9.5), that he is the light of the world, remains an open question.”
I don’t see this as an open question at all. Yeshua is the light of the world and He calls us, His disciples, to be lights also – to illumine the darkness of the world with the knowledge of our Father G-d and the truth of His Kingdom. I believe this reflects a very Jewish understanding that G-d is the Source of all Light and He has chosen His people to be a light, His light to the nations.
** Rabbi Sacks, Judaism: The Need To Ask Questions