I like to start a series of blog posts to interact with Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus. 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. 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.
 Short Stories by Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 2014).
 Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013)