In her new book, Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine analyzes a misunderstood and nearly forgotten literary form: the parable. Levine, University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, argues that Jesus’s parables have been domesticated into easy lessons, robbed of their power to surprise, subvert, and indict. Contemporary readers misunderstand the parables by simplifying their characters, ignoring their cultural context, and reading their meaning as a cipher for the spiritual life rather than as a reflection of a complex moral challenge. Like Plato, who posed paradoxes to his students, Jesus taught primarily through short narratives that defy simple interpretations.
For Levine, today’s listener is afflicted with “auditory atrophy” and a tendency by preachers to “turn parables into platitudes” in service of the idea that religion comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Seen in this light, the parables say, “God forgives us,” or “Be nice to other people.” But Levine sees Jesus’s parables not as simple stories used to make a point but as sharpened tools designed to pierce our complacency and to see the world and our agency with new eyes. “If we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough,” she writes. Levine is particularly concerned with the parables’ Jewish context, which centuries of Christian audiences have failed to hear. In fact, Jesus was a Jewish teacher instructing Jews in a form common among rabbis. This cultural deafness among Christians has allowed a long history of anti-Semitic interpretations, both outright and implicit, in the celebration of Jesus’s parables.
In Short Stories by Jesus, Levine considers, line by line, eleven of the parables attributed to Jesus to prove her point about their many interpretive possibilities. Consider this passage from the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “And look, some lawyer stood up; testing Jesus, he says, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” For Levine, this one verse opens up four pages of investigation: What Greek word, for lack of a better alternative, translates as “lawyer”? What connotation would this characterization have had in Jesus’s time? Is the lawyer asking the right question?
Jesus answers the question with a question, just as earlier rabbis—and as Socrates—would have done. When Jesus asks, “What is written?” the lawyer lifts up the commandment to love God and neighbor but admits he does not know what “neighbor” means. In response, Jesus tells a story full of contextual complexity about a man left in a ditch by robbers, ignored by two passersby, a priest and a Levite, and finally helped by a “good Samaritan.”
The man, the robbers, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan are all neighbors—people living in close proximity, though in a culture stratified by race, class, and creed—and the lawyer would understand that much without being told. Levine argues that Jesus includes these details not to teach the lawyer how to recognize his neighbor but how to see good in his enemy. The identity of today’s Good Samaritan, in other words, depends on the political fears of the listener: “the good terrorist,” “the good immigrant,” “the good gang member.” The story hinges on a roadside encounter not merely with the wounded but also with the one who may do us harm. Can we accept the humanity of an enemy, Levine asks, and “their potential to do good, rather than choose death?”
Thousands of years of telling the story of the Good Samaritan have reinforced a belief that the powerful (presumably “us”) have a moral duty to help the weak (presumably “them”). But in a story with multiple characters, Levine does not want readers to assume there are straightforward heroes nor that we are necessarily among them. What we should read into the narrative, she argues, is that we, too, are multidimensional and therefore capable of acting for many outcomes.
Levine’s analysis of how to read a parable provides a lesson in how to read in general, whether a forgotten genre or the newest literary trend: not just as plots and images and characters to analyze but as words that call us to action. We need to be better readers and listeners of texts, she argues, unafraid to be indicted by them when we look at how we really live. “We might be better off thinking less about what they ‘mean’ and more about what they can do,” she writes of the parables of Jesus. And what they can do is “remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb.” In Short Stories by Jesus Levine reveals that in seeking a single meaning from an open-ended form, we do more than confine the way we read—we also limit ourselves.
Beth Waltemath graduated with a degree in English from the University of Virginia and worked at both Random House and Hearst magazines before leaving publishing to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A Nashville native, she now lives in Decatur, Georgia.