Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.
In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in terms of Christianity and its developing theology. The narrative frame added by the anonymous authors of the Gospels changes the meaning and purpose of the parable from what it may have originally meant. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.
“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)
Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)
Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.
Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.
“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).
There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?
Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.
Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.