Turning the Parables Upside-Down image

Turning the Parables Upside-Down

I mentioned Amy-Jill Levine's book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi recently, and after reading the whole book, I wanted to give a brief summary of the highlights. Admittedly, a number of things are annoying or unhelpful about the book, not least her belief that the evangelists got the meanings of many of the parables wrong (which is especially odd when so much of her work is based on how first century Jews would have understood them - you'd think that Matthew, Mark and John, as first century Palestinian Jews, had a better shot at knowing than a twenty-first century American one). Levine is also unapologetically not reading the stories as a Christian, and seems to regard many attempts to do so as "allegory" rather than "parable", even though the examples she cites frequently blur her lines. But having said that, for all its quirks and oddities, I don't think I will ever preach or teach on the parables in the same way, having read it. It is chock-full of superb insights that turn standard ways of reading the parables on their heads.

Here are twenty of the many, many ways in which she challenges assumptions that modern readers bring to the parables. If you ever teach on the parables, or even read them, this list will not be uncontroversial, but it is worth reflecting on:

1. The first thing a peasant farmer would hear, when asked the question “Which of you, having 100 sheep ...?”, would be: “None of us have 100 sheep.” The shepherd is wealthy. So is the woman who has silver coins, and the guy who can kill fatted calves and hand out fine clothes willy-nilly.
2. The idea that female characters in parables and stories are countercultural, because the Jews in those days didn’t do that, is nonsense, and somewhat anti-Jewish. Consider Esther. Ruth. Judith. Susanna. 2 and 4 Maccabees. Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum. Even in the Gospels, we have women supporting Jesus with their funds, women who own extremely expensive ointment, women who spend all their money on physicians, women who appear alongside men in synagogues, women who appear in the Temple, women who appear in court, women who weep in public ... “I am not arguing that first-century Judaism was an egalitarian paradise; I am arguing that Jesus was by no means unusual in telling stories about women.”
3. If the shepherd is God, and the prodigal Father is God, surely the woman with the silver coins is God, too? So what?
4. Biblically literate readers would know to identify with the younger son - Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Ephraim, David, Solomon - so it would be a huge surprise to hear that the younger son was the rascal.
5. The older brother should have received two-thirds of the estate, so he was probably more than a little cheesed off when he received half.
6. If you teach the parable of the lost son in the West, nobody notices the famine; if you teach it in the East, everybody does. Interesting.
7. The only other person in Scripture who says “I have sinned against God/heaven, and against you” is ... Pharaoh (Ex 10:16). The phrase does not necessarily suggest repentance.
8. Where, O where, has the myth come from that respected Jewish men (like the prodigal father) never ran anywhere? If you run, you will not stumble. If you wait on the LORD, you will run and not grow weary. The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe. Let us run ahead of your wife and prepare the house. A disciple runs to Jesus. Zacchaeus runs. Peter runs. Paul is anxious not to run aimlessly. This meme needs a punch on the nose.
9. In the story of the good Samaritan, the idea that the priest and the Levite walk by on the other side because they have ritual duties, as you often hear, is completely ruled out by the statement that they are on the way down (katabaino) from Jerusalem to Jericho. Likewise, there is nothing impure about touching someone who is half-dead. Explanations like these imply that there is something wrong with Judaism, rather than something wrong with these two respected individuals.
10. The Samaritan, to a first century Jew, is not the oppressed, but the oppressor. Modern spins on this parable cast the Samaritan as a hated social outcast, but he is more like a member of Hamas. Samaria was the place Dinah was raped, the place Abimelech murdered his rivals, the place Jotham told his parable of the Trees, the place Ahab built an altar to Baal. So yes, the Samaritans and the Jews didn’t like each other, but in a Jewish context, the Samaritan would be the villain, not the helpless invalid.
11. The term “yeast” or “leaven” appears eleven times in the NT, and in each case it hints at something whose flavour is a bit off.
12. On the other hand, leaven is certainly not “impure”: if it were, Jewish families would not have to remove it from their homes at Passover, since it would never be there in the first place. Leviticus 7:13 commands worshippers to bring cakes with leavened bread. Jews say grace to the God who “brings forth bread from the earth” (ha-motzi lechem min ha’aretz). Leviticus 23:17 says bread shall be “baked with leaven.” And so on.
13. The ceremonial impurity of women through menstruation is overplayed, relative to men. “Given the late onset of menstruation, the early onset of menopause, frequent pregnancies, and the likely cessation of the menstrual cycle during lactation, it may well have been the case that men - who are impure after ejaculation - were more often impure than women. Somehow, this point never finds its way into sermons.”
14. Three measures of flour is somewhere between 40lb and 60lb. Yikes.
15. Merchants, like the one who looks for pearls, are generally not presented flatteringly in the scriptures. Emporoi sell Joseph, fill Solomon’s coffers, sell Israelites into slavery, epitomise wrongdoing, and of course weep and mourn when Babylon is destroyed. It is business (emporia) which keeps a man from the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, and doing business (emporeuomai) which James 4:13 and 2 Peter 2:3 practically equate with exploitation. Hosea and Ezekiel use emporeuomai to describe exploitative international trade. “Perhaps only in the wise hands of a supernatural woman is engaging in high-end trade a good thing.”
16. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, although we think the Pharisees are proud and the Tax Collector is humble, because we live in a culture so shaped by the Gospels, the original hearers would have thought the opposite. Pharisees were the good guys. And Tax Collectors, so often presented as outcasts with no social power that we should feel sorry for, were more like modern-day greedy bankers, with far too much social power, that we would resent. “When we read the Gospel, our sympathies are with the tax collector and not at all with the Pharisee. This is exactly the opposite stance from which a first-century Jewish audience would have heard the parable.”
17. Jewish men thanked God every day that they were not born as a gentile, uneducated or a woman, therefore obviously all Jewish men were misogynistic. Except that the prayer in question comes from two hundred years after Jesus (Berakhot 6.18), and it was prayed as a way of thanking God that men could know and follow the whole Torah, unlike Gentiles (who were not expected to), uneducated people (who would not know how to), and women (who were not always able to in the Rabbinic system). So no, Jewish men were not all misogynistic, and they certainly shouldn’t be used merely as the dark backdrop against which the egalitarian light of the gospel can shine.
18. No Pharisee would actually tithe his herbs. The character is a caricature.
19. When the judge says that the persistent widow might “wear him out,” he uses the regular verb for “give him a black eye.” This woman is fiery.
20. It is often noted that the only person to be given a name in Jesus’ parables is Lazarus in Luke 16. Why? Probably because a) it indicates that the rich man knows his name, and as such cannot plead ignorance of his plight, b) the name is translated “God helps” (Lazarus = Eliezer), and raises the question of whether God is present, and c) it tells us that Jesus, and even the evangelist, know the name of the poor man in the street.

As I say, there are all sorts of things about the book that I found exasperating, and many things I disagreed with. But if this post does nothing else, it might encourage you - as it has me - to question some of my assumptions, and require evidence before preaching Tom Wright, Craig Blomberg or Ken Bailey’s take on things. Good work.

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