The Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18: A Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We shall continue to explore Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. Levine turns to the topic from Luke 18 in chapter six where the Pharisee and tax collector appear in the parable. In her typical sensitive fashion, she denounced the typical model of interpreting the Pharisee as being just a horrible hypocrite. She’s right in her caution because in reality, the Pharisee was a righteous person who followed the Torah. In fact, we must do well to notice that Jesus never said that following the Torah was a bad thing in this parable. Certainly, the tax collector was a sinner. There’s no denial of the sin of the tax collector in a stereotypical fashion. The Pharisee was stating the obvious. In arguing her case, Levine makes a thorough investigation of the tax collectors in Luke’s Gospel. Even at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the tax collectors were trying to do better. Now, were these typical tax collectors? Probably not. Thus, we simply must assume that Jesus was talking about an unusual case here.

 

 

Based on what she said and what we know, the Pharisees were accomplished in righteous deeds, and the tax collectors were despised and wealthy traitors the Jews. The Pharisees had every right to be proud of what they did. They were after all, the caretaker of God’s law and lived exemplary lives. The tax collectors though were unrepentant sinners who made a living off ripping off fellow Jews.

 

 

What then was the parable about? Based on the beginning in Luke 18.9, we must ask that hard question instead of working off our stereotypical understanding of the hypocritical Pharisee and the horrible tax collector.

 

 

In reading this story, we can be sure of its ethical relevance. Jesus was addressing those who were confident of their righteousness while stepping on others. If we were to reflect on the current state of Christianity, both conservatives and progressives were equally guilty at time of committing the same trespass. Many think that their job is to be prophetic against the society and in so doing, feeling satisfied with our own righteousness. Levine lays out a very convicting scenario that these days, we could well thank God that we aren’t the Pharisees. Well, that’s a blind spot! To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being righteous and doing a lot of good. We must note what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say that good works were bad in the parable. The problem is when we feel superior to others in our denouncement, and we celebrate how we aren’t like our inferiors before God. Surely, all things we do as believers are before God. This, above all, was the problem Jesus was addressing.

 

Mustard Seed and the Kingdom in Matthew 13: a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We have come to chapter 5 of A-J. Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. She starts with the hilarious statement, “the parable … has put forth so many branches of interpretation that the birds of heaven could build multiple nests and still have room for expansion.”   She then elaborates on the two major branches to interpretive tendencies: the contrast between the small (seed) and large (other plants) and the allegorical symbolic value of seed, tree, birds etc. These are obviously unacceptable tendencies with the first one being not necessarily the point of comparison and the second not necessarily symbolic of everything in our lives. After all, Jesus didn’t point out the symbolism.

 

The first interpretive tendency of comparing smallness to greatness can be a comparison between the smallness of Israel to the greatness of gentile incorporation; the smallness of ministry in Israel to the greatness of the church; or smallness of this life to the greatness of eternal life. The second interpretive tendency of allegory can create all sorts of wild symbolism from the dangerous seed causing the demise of the great garden (i.e. the empire or Judaism); the upper class causing the demise of the poor and other similarly negative interpretation of the seed.

 

Levine points out that the seed in later rabbinic literature does point to fertility. This is a good place to start when we talk about growth. It is probably not wise, according to Levine, to see the seed as the cause for a weed as the shrub which the seed produces is a vegetable fit for human consumption. She then sees the seed and its growth as being part of the good world God gave to humans. God through Jesus gave an invitation to partake in this goodness.

 

 

When reading this little parable, I agree with Levine that just because mustard seeds grow easily, it doesn’t make them weeds. These are vegetables. Even less does it have to do with impurity in Judaism. Like the yeast parable, it lines up well with the emphasis on smallness growing into a comparatively big size plant. She also points out that the birds are often allegorized for no good reason. I admire her patience in dealing with all sorts of allegorical interpretations about the birds. Unfortunately, patience is not one virtue I possess. I usually just dismiss such fantasy to the realm of fairy tales. I think the birds are there to show the size of the plant, but they themselves shouldn’t occupy our attention too much.

 

Here’re some areas where I explore in my Right Kingdom Wrong Stories book that Levine has only started exploring. There’re good reasons for people to see the plant as weed not because it isn’t fit for human consumption but because of its common growth. Such a small seed gets carried everywhere, often without an intention from an owner. Yet, it benefits those who eat the plant. In this parable however, the planting of the seed is intentional by a sower. In other words, if this is compared to the kingdom, Jesus was talking about the strangeness of the kingdom starting from its smallness but also from its undiscovered purpose. No one who saw the plant would think, “Someone just have taken the time and care to plant this.” In the same way, the kingdom has its undiscovered aspect that grows to bigger benefits. Even when these results look accidental, they are intentional. Bigger isn’t always better. Smallness also has potential.

 

In the light of our love for bigness, Jesus’ story about the kingdom being intentional and small has so much to teach modern believers.  We live in an age where “bigger is better”.  Let’s think about the last time you want to go to a church because it lacks the facility, the large size congregation and the empty building.  Not very likely!  We measure success in terms of size.  Only the book sells the most is considered book of the year here in the US.  Only the church with the most members are considered successful.  Jesus’ parable goes directly against our pragmatic and short-sighted worldview.  Smallness has potential.  Its impact may not be immediate. In fact, Jesus only had twelve disciples on top of his seventy two others in his lifetime.  He had huge crowds but at the cross, he only had a few women and one disciple.  Such is the outworking of the kingdom.  Bigness isn’t always best.

The Pearl of Great Price: a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We have come to chapter 4 of A-J. Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. She now talks about the pearl of great price parable in Matthew 13.45-46. It is a very small saying. She first points out the common consensus of interpretation: the pearl of great price as an allegory of discipleship. The pearl is the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, or Jesus, the savior of humankind. The merchant is sacrificing everything for the good news. The other interpretation she points out is the merchant representing God or Jesus seeking out the lost sinner like a precious pearl.

She then points out that the merchant originally was not only a merchant but also a man (based on the Greek language of Matthew 13). The man surely can’t be Jesus or God. Levine sees the merchant as a type of negative character in view of first century readers. Citing Rev. 18.3, she connects merchant as one who sometimes had dubious connections with questionable people. In other words, according to Levine, a merchant parable casts the whole parable into a questionable scenario. Her further objection to the popular interpretation is that if the kingdom is the pearl, it ought to be proclaimed other than withheld. So, she wishes to connect pearl with something negative much like the way the merchant is negative. In proving her point, she cites 1 Tim. 2.9 where the author told Timothy to tell his people not to wear jewelry. She also cites Rev. 18.12-13 where pearls were signs of extravagant corruption. While jewels were good to look at, they had very little practical value other than being put up to be looked at. Only the richest of the rich had the luxury of having such jewels while still having enough to live off. Apparently, this merchant wouldn’t after he sold everything. Levine sees the picture as the merchant redefining himself as being no longer a merchant but someone who could afford the luxury of a great pearl.

Levine’s proposal has a lot to commend it. I’m unsure whether we should read merchant positively or negatively. I think Jesus was using merchant class as an illustration of how crazy this story is. A merchant who tried his best to gain a useless pearl so that he had nothing to live on but an admirable pearl pretended to change his status. He acted like he had much more to live on. When people saw him, they also saw that he was no longer a merchant but an aristocrat now. How was the kingdom like this whole story? First, the kingdom isn’t like a pearl. Second, the kingdom is no longer about selling and buying much like the fact that the merchant had bought but didn’t resell even though it seemed good to resell.

While I agree with Levine in the above two implications, I think we need to read the parable in light of the parable of the hidden treasure. While hidden treasure was acquired as a matter of luck, the pearl was acquired as a matter of circumspection. The merchant had looked and looked. This is something I think Levine could have developed. Furthermore, the search for pearls would cause comparison with other types and options. I believe Levine is strong here when she insists that the parable was about priorities. Certainly, there’re other valuable things the merchant could’ve bought, but didn’t. Others besides himself have bought instead. So, the merchant had considered what was the ultimate priority by comparing the pearl with other options. Thus, the kingdom was about choosing the right priority that Jesus had presented throughout Matthew instead of other good but not best options.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18: a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

We shall continue to explore Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. Levine turns to the topic from Luke 18 in chapter six where the Pharisee and tax collector appear in the parable.

In her typical sensitive fashion, she denounced the typical model of interpreting the Pharisee as being just a horrible hypocrite. She’s right in her caution because in reality, the Pharisee was a righteous person who followed the Torah. In fact, we must do well to notice that Jesus never said that following the Torah was a bad thing in this parable. Certainly, the tax collector was a sinner. There’s no denial of the sin of the tax collector in a stereotypical fashion. The Pharisee was stating the obvious.

In arguing her case, Levine makes a thorough investigation of tax collectors in Luke’s Gospel. Even at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, tax collectors were trying to do better. Now, were these typical tax collectors? Probably not. Thus, we simply must assume that Jesus was talking about an unusual case here.   Based on what she said and what we know, the Pharisees were accomplished in righteous deeds, and the tax collectors were despised and wealthy traitors to the Jews. The Pharisees had every right to be proud of what they did. They were after all, the caretaker of God’s law and lived exemplary lives. The tax collectors though were unrepentant sinners who made a living off ripping off fellow Jews.

What then was the parable about? Based on the beginning in Luke 18.9, we must ask that hard question instead of working off our stereotypical understanding of the hypocritical Pharisee and the horrible tax collector.   In reading this story, we can be sure of its ethical relevance. Jesus was addressing those who were confident of their righteousness while stepping on others. If we were to reflect on the current state of Christianity, both conservatives and progressives were equally guilty at time of committing the same trespass. Many think that their job is to be prophetic against the society and in so doing, feeling satisfied with our own righteousness. Levine lays out a very convicting scenario that these days, we could well thank God that we aren’t the Pharisees. Well, that’s a blind spot! To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being righteous and doing a lot of good. We must note what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say that good works were bad in the parable. The problem is when we feel superior to others in our denouncement, and we celebrate how we aren’t like our inferiors before God. Surely, all things we do as believers are before God. This, above all, was the problem Jesus was addressing.

Yeast and Kingdom of Matthew 13: a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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This week brings me the good publication news.  My version of Right Kingdom on Luke will be published also by Wipf and Stock soon. I’m in the process of copyediting the work at the moment.  We must now go to the more relevant matter of talking about A-J. Levine’s work Short Stories by Jesus.

 

We have come to chapter 3. She starts by pointing out the highly likely authenticity of the parable of the yeast in Mathew 13.33 in the view of the Jesus Seminar.

 

She goes on to point out the erroneous interpretations which include seeing yeasts as invisible. Yeast is small but it’s visible. I think her insistence that yeast parables are in fact bread type scenes is interestingly insightful. She basically asks the broader cultural question of what yeast is for. Levine is correct in seeing these as horribly misreading of Jesus simply because the influence of their reading come from wrong presuppositions of reading the Bible as “one book”. I think her concern is total legitimate. I’m thankful that in my own reading of this parable that I insist on the immediate context as the best definition of meaning.

 

Although the yeast was visible, Levine points out that the yeast was hidden in the dough. The function of its hiddenness was to bring forth the impact of the kingdom. Her conclusion is that a most insignificant thing such as yeast could represent something so significant as the kingdom. She also connects yeast to many of the OT texts that talk about yeast. At this point, I’m unsure whether we can connect yeast with Gideon or Abraham the way Levine did. Perhaps we can’t control the imagination of Jesus’ original Jewish audience, but the parable hardly seems to connect to those OT stories.

 

While in general, I do agree with Levine, I wish to add an element of importance to the yeast parable. Whether we’re reading Matthew 13 or Luke 13, the amount of dough was very large and the “hiding” of the yeast through mixing consists of hard work. The woman then shows that the insignificant yeast certainly required hard work nevertheless.

The Good Samaritan: A Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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In US immigration reform as well as the controversial Chinese policy in Hong Kong in allowing mainlanders to flood the already overcrowded city, many would find the story in Luke 10 to be a reflection point, but what kind of reflection can result?

 

In A-J. Levine’s second chapter on the Good Samaritan, she talks about the impossibly upside down world of Jesus. In a discussion about the lawyer, she suggests that the lawyer in Jesus’ world would be considered a good guy. He was, in fact, a cultural gatekeeper who would prevent the Jews from sliding into gentile assimilation. Yet, Luke’s portrait was consistently negative.

 

Levine then points out the importance of the main issue Jesus was dealing with “How do you read it?” in looking at the question of eternal life and the Torah. The assumption of the privileged position of the lawyer who could read as opposed to the largely illiterate population comes in sharp focus in this story. In many ways, Levine agrees with Jesus on the importance of loving in view of the Jewish law.

 

In this book, Levine brings out many excellent points. The following are the ones I strongly agree with. First, she sees the victim as any person. Certainly, Jesus didn’t focus on the ethnicity, even though the victim looked most likely to be Jewish. Second, she denies that ritual purity is the issue with the religious characters. She’s totally right because they were getting off works, so to speak. They weren’t heading towards Jerusalem. Why did they have to worry about the man being dead? Third, and most significantly, she cites Martin Luther King Jr.’s interpretation of the two religious leaders being afraid of what would happen to them as they traveled on the dangerous road. The Samaritan however thought in reverse, “What would happen to this man if I don’t stop?” This is a most reasonable interpretation based on the geography and the Torah stipulation of love.

 

The significance of the Samaritan’s ethnicity deserves mention, and Levine surely focuses on that ethnicity. I think she’s right to see the radical nature of seeing someone who’s very much the despised enemy of Israel being the good person in the parable. I agree with her assessment. The Samaritan wasn’t “good”. He’s despised. Here’s where I disagree with her. At the beginning of her chapter, she writes that the whole story isn’t answering “Who’s my neighbor?” Now, I believe Jesus did answer the question using the ethnicity of the Samaritan to do so. I’ve given my readers a key to interpret this story anew. I hope this conversation with Levine helps stimulate further reflection on not only the neighbor being the Samaritan, but also the question of “Who’s my neighbor?”

Luke 15 Part 2: A Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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Two weeks ago, I talked about Levine’s interpretation of the lost sheep and lost coin stories. This week, I will talk about the main story of the lost son.

 

Levine starts out by pointing to the younger son as someone whom the biblically literate reader can identify with. This is a valuable insight from a Jewish point of view because Hebrew Scripture is full of adventurous and mischievous younger sons (e.g. Isaac, Jacob, etc.). Whether Jesus’ listeners could sense this is quite another story, but this insight does fit a Jewish paradigm of reading this story.

 

 

One interpretive problem with the story is the temptation to make it an allegory. What would happen if we see the father as God? The kind of father who lets this son go away, knowing how foolish and indulgent his son is, is a foolish man. Levine points out this difficulty. If her claim is correct about the last two stories as being about the joy of finding, then this story only challenges the attitude of finding something lost. The father illustrates that attitude. He isn’t God. He was never meant to represent God. On the opposite end, we need to treat the older son and the younger son the same way. Sure, the older son might exhibit some of the attitudes the Pharisees had, but overall, he only serves to condemn such attitudes, whether those possessing those attitudes are Jewish or gentile. I realize that the distinction I make is very subtle, but it’s a necessary subtlety for the sake of methodological consistency.

 

 

One area of disagreement I have with Levine is her reading the three stories as separate parables. Although the form of Luke 15 permits reading the stories as three parables, Jesus already said very clearly that there’s only one parable. In saying that, the first two stories introduce the third. Luke forced these stories to work together to create a greater whole.

 

As we have said before, the focal point of joy after finding the lost drives the storyline of the two previous stories. This joyful attitude points to the attitude people have towards the things lost. This certainly adds to the ending of the lost son story where Luke left both the father and the older son in the field. The story points to the contrasting attitudes between the father and the son. The younger son, contrary to popular imagination is only a foil to play out the differences of attitudes between the father and the son.   In so doing, it addresses the attitude of the Pharisees who didn’t like the sinners gathering around Jesus. People would only rejoice if they think of the younger son as valuable member of the community. Would they take the attitude of the father or continue in their attitude of the older son?

When Praying the “Our Father” Becomes Subversive

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If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters … yes, even their own life … such a person cannot be my disciple. Luke 14.26

 

This week, a  matter more urgent than reading A-J. Levine’s book deserves my attention.  China’s influence in Hong Kong continues as one prestigious school begins to teach its very young children that “China is my mother”.  This has caused great alarm simply because the said school is a Catholic school.  St. Cyprian of Carthage, the great martyr in 258 AD famously said, “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.”   Lest anyone thinks that only Roman Catholics think in this way, even no less a Reformer than John Calvin had indicated a general agreement with this statement.

 

Let me put aside my Christian faith and make comments about this phenomenon and the potential harm it will do to the entire Chinese culture.  Many with colonial phobia in China had already denounced that Christianity is a white man’s religion that will harm the family due to a misreading of verses like Luke 14.26.  This is idiotically dishonest because in both Old and New Testaments, there’re also commands to honor parents.  What Jesus said in exaggerative metaphors, China had already turned the metaphor into a reality in recent history.  What is infinitely more harmful than the perceived harm Christianity is doing to the Chinese family is the communist attempt to replace the family with its dangerous family metaphors that result in literal destruction of the family.  By saying that the mother is the country, we have a semblance of prioritization of the government over our biological family.  As a result, many children had put parents to death in the Cultural Revolution.  This is a historically undeniable fact.  This present ethos seeks to continue its destruction of one of the base virtues of Chinese culture, filial piety.  Let’s look at this in broader cultural history of the world in my harsh critique of this dangerous movement. In recent memory, how often were Germans encouraged to see Germany as the fatherland?  The blind patriotism turned into fascism in many of the cases.  How about even a more recent memory of abusive HK police with their batons being compared to “a kind mother” by pro-China HK police chief, drawing the ire of most sensible Hong Kong citizens?   Even to an unbeliever, these dangerous ideas are worth denouncing.

 

Let’s now turn our attention to a more faith-based critique of this situation.  This attempt is a dire affront both to biblical and historic Christianity (and here, I include Roman Catholic Christianity that would reach back to the tradition of the fathers). If God is the Father and the Church is the Mother, where does China fit in?  Nowhere!  No government fits in there, however just the government may be.  Whenever the state takes on the metaphorical role of the parent in history, things usually don’t go well.  For a Christian, such metaphors are an affront to our faith because we don’t serve Caesar; we serve God.  Our metaphorical Mother is the Church from which we draw our birth, gospel and nourishment.  What’s the Church’s voice in this?  Nowhere!  It’s time for all church leaders to speak up, instead of seeing the opposition as just one of the opinions among the many opinions in the Body of Christ.  Anyone who says that there’re many options to how we respond to such matters is lying to us.  Neither the Bible nor the church tradition would allow us more options other than an active denouncement.  Leaders who aren’t ready to weigh in on similar matters aren’t ready to lead.  If we are the people of God, we must live like the people of God.

 

At the end, I leave you this subversive prayer as our Lord has taught us to remind us of what kind of people we are.

 

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
  your kingdom come,
  your will be done,
  on earth as it is in heaven.


Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one… amen.

 

 

Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son in Luke 15

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After I introduced my series on A-J. Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, this week starts our journey through her insightful little work. She starts with a most beloved parable by Jesus, the story of the Prodigal Son. I have already dealt with this story in my book Right Texts, Wrong Meanings.  She starts by problematizing the first two stories of sheep and coin. The problem is simple: both the shepherd and the poor woman were at fault for losing stuff. She then lays out the common interpretation by both preachers and commentators that the stories are about the unforgiving nature of Judaism and ultimately the younger son being the repentant Christian and the older son being the Pharisees. The father of course is God. As one who is sensitive to anti-Semitic use of the text, Levine is obviously uncomfortable with the common interpretation.

 

 

She then goes on to survey the different possible interpretations in the history of interpretation. One interpretation of interest to me is the more recent interpretation by Eduard Schweitzer who portrays Jesus’ ministry as correcting the notion of a stern God by Judaism. This of course presupposes that Judaism didn’t get God right. This is a common interpretation and misunderstanding by many Christians today as well. If I were pay a dime every time I hear someone say that the God of the Hebrew Bible was a God of justice in contrast to the God of love of the New Testament, I’d be very rich by now. This dichotomous view of God partly comes from common illiteracy with the Old Testament. Of course, without literacy with the OT, people certainly can’t understand Judaism both in its modern or ancient form.

 

 

In her reading, Levine points further to the impossibility of allegorizing the stories of sheep and coin as repentant sinners or outcasts. After all, the shepherd and the woman are at fault for losing their properties. The sheep or coin isn’t at fault. In pointing out this common but impossible move, Levine shows the subtlety of interpreting parables. Indeed, when looking at the details of the plot, many details just didn’t make common sense or fit the first century background. Thus, a anti-Semitic interpretation comes from this kind of carelessness.

 

 

One criticism Levine has for Luke is the way Luke warped the realities of these stories to fit the repentant sinner theme. Originally, the stories focus much more on finding something. Without defending Luke too hard against the charge of anti-Semitism, I would say that Levine should object to the way people read Luke in that warped way rather than Luke himself warping the stories.

 

 

Each story, in any parable, has a plotline. This plotline will have elements that fit the final moral lesson. The stories of sheep and coin typify this problem. Certainly, the shepherd and woman are at fault for losing stuff. Eventually the lost is found, much like the lost sinner is found. The idea of losing and finding that leads to joy should be the final moral teaching. In other words, the focus is in the joyful feeling of the owners in finding the lost possession. Thus, the comparison isn’t between all that is lost being exactly like the sinner who is surely at fault. The emphasis should fall on the feeling of joy.

 

 

In reading this part, I agree with Levine that we don’t have to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. Rather, we ought to read Jesus within Judaism and find the true emphasis of these stories.

An Introduction to a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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I like to start a series of blog posts to interact with Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus.[1] I do this as a part of the preparation to go to Hong Kong’s Faith in Practice Lectureship in HK Baptist University this year. I hope my readers can benefit from my own reflections. These reflections are contextualized to our time both in the US and in Asia, the two realms of my work. In addition, this reflection also allows me to unpack for my readers (both English and Chinese) of the book Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories what some of the presuppositions and limitations are in reading Jesus’ parables.[2] The Chinese version of Right Kingdom will debut in the Faith in Practice Lectureship as well. My blog posts will prepare my readers to see where I’m coming from. These blog posts will hopefully demonstrate the relevance of reading Jesus’ parables. Levines’s excellent book will become my conversation partner. I hope my readers will also enjoy reading her work to see a Jewish point of view in reading Jesus.   I feel that in doing this, we can have a much more meaningful conversation during the Q and A time of the lecture series in those few days. I’m very much looking forward to meeting all my listeners and readers when I finally arrive. I hope everyone is ready to edify each other in our conversation. Although I’m coming as an invited speaker, I also hope to learn from my readers and listeners when I arrive.

 

The introduction of Levine’s work points to the usual domestication of Jesus’ parable by churches. She points out that parable as a genre fits very well within Israel’s history. They’re part of Israel’s writings (2 Sam 12.1-7). Jesus’ choice of using parables wasn’t unusual. It would fit the norm of his time. Yet, she points out that Jesus’ parables have historical contexts. Today, the risk of the church is to interpret the parables without that context, thus domesticating the parables. Some of the fallouts include anti-Semitism. How often do we hear that Pharisees were bad guys? Levine’s concern is real and ethical.

 

When interpreting parables, I think Levine is right on the money as far as reading them in contextual perspectives. I think it’s also important to understand whom Jesus was speaking to and speaking against. Quite often, we only get information but what we do with the information determines the result we reap. For instance, a Sunday school teacher may say, “The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism that … , and they were always Jesus’ opponents. The Jews respected them. Yet, they’re the bad guys.” These statements above are as straightforward as they’re popular. History however was more complicated.

 

We normally read parables into our own context immediately when we do Bible study, but Levine suggests rightly that we need to view parables from cultural lens to understand what they meant.

 

My reflection besides agreeing with Levine’s concern is that methodologically we really need a polyphonic reading of parables. There’re many possible voices and narratives Jesus could use in telling the parables. To gain historical insight, we don’t only need to know the background of Pharisees, we also need to understand why Jesus talked to the Pharisees and why the Gospel writers used Pharisees to inform their readers about how they should live their faith. In other words, in order to see what Jesus was doing with the parables and what the Gospel authors were doing with the parables, we must understand both Jesus’ audience and original audience.

 

Another simpler issue we need to reflect on is the way we look at Scriptures. We normally think of Scriptures as “the word of God.” Based on just this model of parables, we must say that Scriptures shouldn’t only be considered “the word of God” but the channel of the biblical author through which “God” speaks. The simple and traditional model of the Scriptures in all their plain sense are the word of God is oversimplification that doesn’t reflect reality. In fact, even confession to and adherence to that doctrine of “the word of God” does nothing in the interpretive process. If we understand Scriptures as the “message of God”, then we’re getting somewhere. When a message is delivered, the messenger is “doing something” with the words. The messenger isn’t just saying that the message is the sum of the words. The message goes beyond the sum of the words. This has nothing to do with me not having faith in the Bible. This has everything to do with how the Bible functions and how WE use the Bible. This leads to my next point.

 

 

I’ve heard from more than one colleague that the only difference between ISIS and fundamentalist Christianity that professes its Scripture being the word of God is by degree and method but not in mentality. Whether we think such a saying is overstatement, I think it has huge merit. What I’m saying is, what we do with the Bible matters. Interpretation is ethical, evident in the way interpretation happened during the HK Umbrella Movement. The same thing happens in immigration reform debates or gun ownership in the US. All this has to do with our view of Scripture, whether this Scripture is the Quran or the Bible. We must think about this when reading Jesus’ parable or we’ll “domesticate” them. Levine’s concerns are real.

[1] Short Stories by Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 2014).

[2] Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013)

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