Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi

by Amy-Jill Levine (2014), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish studies in Vanderbilt Divinity school and a self described ‘Yankee Jewish feminist’, brings a Jewish interpretation to Jesus’ parables.  The parables challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives.

Through the centuries ‘the parables have been allegorized, moralized, christologized and otherwise tamed into either platitudes such as ‘G-d loves us’ or ‘Be nice’ (p 3).  Jesus’ first followers would have understood more of them; ‘they knew that parables and the tellers of parables were there to prompt them to see the world in a different way’ (p 4).  Levine points out that just as rabbis held that parables were a means for understanding Torah (scripture), so Jesus the Jew uses parables to help his followers understand the kingdom of heaven (p 8).

She points out that  we need to see them in Jesus’ own context, flowing out of his stories and conversations, not reduced to one-line zingers (‘what would the parables have sounded like to people who have no idea that Jesus will be proclaimed Son of G-d by millions, no idea even that he will be crucified by Rome’ (p 3)).  She emphasizes the temptation to tame the parables into screeds against Jewish practice, ethics or theology (p 278).  ‘The people who first heard him did not, at first, worship him, yet they paid attention’ (282).  She details rabbinic (Jewish) perspectives on the implication of Torah (scripture) on the central perspectives of the parables.  I found her work on the prodigals (Luke 15) and Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16) the most compelling.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.