The renowned Jewish scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine tells us the truth about the parables associated with Jesus in her “Short Stories by Jesus.” It is an excellent, eye-opening, and thought-provoking easy to read book. She is a University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Department of Jewish Studies.
In “Short Stories by Jesus,” she reveals that many, if not most people misunderstand them. She offers six among many misuses of the parables. (1) There are churches that treat them as children’s stories and over simplify them. (2) Clergy who treat them as having adult messages do not take the time to study them and develop their deep challenges. (3) Lots of congregants believe that the sermons they hear are monologues designed for entertainment, not motivations to change. (4) Clergy give their congregants who have no understanding of the time of Jesus a stereotype that Judaism was bad and Jesus came to reform and improve it. (5) The ministers read their own concerns in the parables such as race relations. (6) They ignore history in trying to make the story relevant and modern, and thereby misrepresent the messages.
She discusses more than a dozen parable. These include, “The Good Samaritan,” “The Mustard Seed,” “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” and “The Prodigal Son.” She shows how many even well-meaning interpretations changes the story’s intention.
She explains the true meaning of each story by first giving them a literal translation, without words that translators from their original Greek inserted to have the story give the message the translators desire, not the original lesson. She then “locates that story in its historical and literary context and sweeps away the interpretation that distorts Jesus’ own context.” She “concludes by offering fresh readings of what the parable might have suggested to its earliest and original listeners and then what we might do with that impression today.”
What one must keep in mind is that we are assuming Jesus lived despite there being no evidence other than New Testament documents, the first written by people who lived more than a decade after his supposed death, in Greek, a language this Aramaic speaker did not speak, writers who never met Jesus. We need to recognize that stories change when repeated orally, when people with different agendas tell them, that even a single person who tells a tale orally, one not written down, will change it in minor and/or major ways with each telling. Simply put, “[W]e do not know if Jesus himself told this or any other parable.” So what we have are what people supposed Jesus said, even though when a story is told in more than one gospel, it is not exactly the same. Also, we must keep in mind, that even if people heard Jesus narrate his stories, they had no idea “that Jesus will be proclaimed Son of God by millions, no idea even that he will be crucified by Rome.” Also, readers must remember that Jesus was a Jew who was speaking to Jews.
She writes, “The more I study the parables, the more challenged I am by them. One need not have to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior in order to realize that he had some extraordinary things to say.” She concludes, “I do not worship Jesus as Lord and Savior, but I return to these stories, because they are at the heart of my Judaism. They challenge, they provoke, they convict, and at the same time, they amuse….Thy are pearls of Jewish wisdom. If we hear them in their original contexts, if we avoid the anti-Jewish interpretations that frequently deform them, they gleam with a shine that cannot be hidden.”
In essence, Professor Amy-Jill Levine shows us that the Jesus parables are not Christian at all.