Category Archives: books

Trials and Tribulations

If God is good, why does He allow us to suffer trials and tribulations?

This question ceased to be just an interesting intellectual puzzle for me after the tragic death of my son a few years ago.  In the aftermath of his death, a good friend recommended that I read a one of C.S. Lewis’ books.  C.S. Lewis, as you may know, was a well known Anglican layman and Christian apologist of the 20th century.  His most well known book on the problem of suffering was called “The Problem of Pain“, but my friend recommended another book, “A Grief Observed,” a very short work written in the month or two following his wife’s death from cancer.  It’s a very personal, poignant book, and its rawness cuts to the heart.  He shares many good insights in it, but one that riveted me was his discussion of suffering as a test:

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality.  He knew it already.  It was I who didn’t…He always knew my temple was a house of cards.  His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

As I was coming  face to face with my own inadequacy in the aftermath of my son’s death, I was learning, or rather, re-learning, some important truths:  He is big, I am small, and I am inadequate without His grace.

Suffering has the potential to reveal to me the truth about myself.  It has the power to clear away the pretenses and self-delusion that are only boulders in the road of Christian discipleship.  I cannot walk very far down the road with Jesus Christ, or even start down that road, without beginning to learn that truth.

 “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  2 Cor. 12:9a

 

 

 

Book Review: Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi

Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, by Amy-Jill Levine, HarperCollins, New York, 2014, 313 pages.


“Religion has been defined to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting.  Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.” p. 3

In “Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi“, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, seeks to determine the “original challenge” of eleven parables told by Jesus in the Gospels.    Levine bases her presentation on three premises:

  1. When Jesus originally told it, each parable had an “original provocation” or challenge for its original first century listeners.
  2. The Gospel authors were the among the first interpreters of the parables, and in the process “domesticated” the parables, diminishing the “original provocation.”
  3. Jesus’s parables each can have multiple meanings.

Levine, a Jew, also counters any unjustified vilifying of Judaism in contemporary interpretations of the parables she considers in her book.  The parables she considers include: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, The 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.

Some Problems

Discerning Christians will quickly realize a problem with the second premise, that the Gospel authors have “domesticated” the parables, or have watered down their original challenge.  Levine says that Luke “tames the parables” [p. 277] and that “Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor than how we get to heaven” [p. 199].  When considering the parable of the Lost Son [Luke 15:11-32], for example, she dismisses Luke’s interpretation through Jesus’s words, that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”[Luke 15:7] and says the first century Jews who heard this story first would have heard another challenge.

My response to this claim of “domestication” is this:  I’ve realized that if ever I’ve failed to find sufficient challenge in the Gospels, it’s because I’ve failed to fully and sufficiently reflect on my own desperate situation, not because the Gospel has “domesticated” the words of Jesus.  Moreover, I cannot pit Jesus’s concern for our temporal well-being against his concern for our eternal well-being.  As a Christian, I believe that his concerned spanned the temporal and eternal and that there is no reason to suspect that his parables were limited to his temporal concerns.

The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son

While I dispute Levine’s contention that Luke, Matthew, and Mark have domesticated the parables, I do agree that those stories might have multiple meanings.  Levine’s treatment of the parable of the Lost Son is intriguing, and while she ignores Luke’s interpretation, her own does not contradict his, and in fact, complements it.

The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c1669
The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c1669

She does not consider the parable of the Lost Son separate from the two shorter parables that precede it, the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin.  Her contention is that the stories are about “counting and searching for the lost”, she notes that “the owner spots the missing sheep among the hundred, and the woman spots the missing coin among the ten.  The father, with only two sons, was unable to count correctly.” [p. 45].

We also learn from Levine the following details:

  • When the original listeners first heard Jesus say, “There was a man who had two sons“, they would have probably remembered the many famous biblical stories of two sons, Adam’s Cain and Abel; Abraham’s Ishmael and Isaac; Isaac’s Esau and Jacob; and Joseph’s Manasseh and Ephraim.  They would certainly have wanted to identify with the younger of the sons, but in this story, the older son is faithful, while the younger son is profligate.  This is a  provocation, since “the idea that an elder brother – Cain, Ishmael, Esau, the second lost son- is sympathetic again prompts a challenge to our expectations.”
  • The younger son never expressed contrition for his sins.  Oh, he does say, ” I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you“, but he never actually says that “I have sinned”, only that this what he will say to his father, and he never actually does.  Moreover the phrase “I have sinned against heaven and against you” was famously told to Moses by Pharaoh in the Exodus story [Exodus 10:16], and we all know how sincere that apology was…
  • The story of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin both end with a party, but the story of the Lost Son does not.  Look closely.  While there is a big party, the story ends with an inconclusive and heartbreaking conversation in a field between a father and son.
  • The story of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, the shepherd and woman both search diligently for what they lost.  The father of the Lost Son does not search for his younger son, and does not even search out his older son to tell him the good news of the return of the younger son.  Remember that the older son returned  from the fields quite surprised by the party.  The father had not shared the good news with the older son – he had to ask [Luke 15:25].  The father only searches for the older son when he belatedly realizes at the end of the story that he’s the one that’s really lost to him.

So, in the end, it’s the elder son who is lost and must be sought after.  In Levine’s words,  “we too are to seek the lost and make every effort to find them.  Indeed, we are not only to seek; we are to take notice of who might be lost, even when immediately present. [p. 278]”    As you can see, this is different than the lesson of repentance and radical mercy that we usually associate with this parable.

The Strong Points

The book has several strong points.   I enjoyed Levine’s exposition of the context of first century Palestine and learned new things about tax collectors, Pharisees, widows, judges, merchants, inheritance and even mustard trees of those days.  After reading the book I think that I also have a healthier view of first century Judaism than I had before.

Summary

Short Stories by Jesus” certainly proved provocative to this Christian.  While I cannot agree with her that the Gospel writers “domesticated” the parables, I do find in her work some good insights into the original context of the Gospels, as well as other interpretations of the parables of Jesus that are worthy of consideration.


 

About Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee; affiliated professor at the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge; and a self-described “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” She is the author of The Misunderstood Jew and the editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament.   From http://www.harpercollins.com/cr-103689/amy-jill-levine

 

 

 

Book review: “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus”

“Can you tell me the story of your relationship with God so far?”

Forming Intentional DisciplesThis “threshold question” is at the heart of the book, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry Weddell (published by Our Sunday Visitor, 2012).  Any person can be asked this question, whether that person be Catholic or non-Catholic, non-Christian, agnostic, or atheist.  How a person answers it can begin, or continue, the journey of all journeys.

 

But why ask such a question in the first place?  The book:

  1. presents survey data on the current state and trends of Catholics’ (as well as non-Catholics’) beliefs, church attendance, and other religion-related activities;
  2. argues the central reasons that people are leaving the Catholic Church;
  3.  recommends how to begin to reverse the trend of losing Catholics to other faiths or to loss of faith itself; and
  4. outlines ways of how to further the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The book’s main premise is that a great number of present-day Catholics are not disciples of Jesus Christ.  Even though they may identify themselves as Catholic–primarily because they’ve received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, and have taken their first Communion; and also perhaps because they go to Mass regularly–they do not have an interior, lived relationship with Christ.  That is, they live what some call “cultural Catholicism.”

Catholics who are not yet disciples can come from a wide range of vocations.  One might expect that non-disciples are only those people who may come to Sunday services, but are otherwise not active in parish life.  However, it turns out that laypeople who have served actively in their parishes for years, as well as seminarians, have shown through interviews and surveys that they were not yet disciples.

What is the effect of this situation?  Because cultural-only Catholics don’t have a lived relationship with Christ, it is more likely for them to eventually leave the Church, often to Protestant denominations, notably to some evangelical church.  Sometimes they would abandon religion altogether.  Weddell presents various survey results that describe these trends, and the numbers can be discouraging.

Weddell argues that the crisis in Catholicism, especially in the developed West, in our present era is no longer one of catechesis, but of evangelization.  Although the two are not mutually exclusive, evangelization normally precedes catechesis.  One must first be attracted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But what is an “intentional disciple”?  Weddell, who co-founded the Dominican-affiliated Catherine of Siena Institute to promote evangelization, uses the term “intentional disciple” as a way to emphasize that the only way to be a disciple is to do so intentionally, for it doesn’t make sense to be an “unintentional disciple.”  Intentional discipleship is none other than to do what Jesus told Simon:

Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.  (Luke  5:10-11)

Weddell has found that a big obstacle among modern-day Catholics is that there is a strong culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to discussing faith.  One’s spiritual journey is a private matter that should not be discussed with friends or family.  Especially strong is the pressure on those who are already intentional disciples, for those disciples to maintain a “code of silence.”  Again, it’s revealing to learn that even priests feel that the right thing to do is to enforce this code of silence, with a few saying that to encourage such discussions is to adopt Protestant ways.

Regarding the “code of silence,” one observation Weddell shares is one that I myself have been asked by friends and family on more than a couple of occasions.  Just because I talked religion more openly and was more active in Church activities, people have asked me, “Are you going to become a priest?”  It’s a funny anecdote I like to share, but it points to the misunderstanding at the root of this problem.  As Weddell writes:

“There is a strong tendency to account for those who try to live as disciples by labeling them “extraordinary,” either positively, as called to priestly or religious life, or negatively, as pretenders to sanctity.”

But shouldn’t it be the ordinary and the norm, rather than the extraordinary and the exception, for Catholics to speak comfortably with others–both Catholic and non-Catholic–about their personal journeys of faith?

The following are some quotes from the book that I found intriguing and worth further reflection.  The emphases are Weddell’s:

“Catholics who become Protestants say that their strongest reason for doing so was “that my spiritual needs were not being met.”

In the twenty-first century, cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy, because God has no grandchildren. In the twenty-first century, we have to foster intentional Catholicism rather than cultural Catholicism.

[C]hanges of faith are, for most people, a journey and a search, not an instant, simple, and painless abandonment of belief.

The majority of adult Catholics are not even certain that a personal relationship with God is possible.

Millions of American adults are seeking a religious identity and are at least potentially open to the Catholic faith. At the same time, huge numbers of self-identified Catholics are not certain that a personal relationship with God is even possible, and their actions reflect it. The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized. They do not know that an explicit, personal attachment to Christ — personal discipleship — is normative Catholicism as taught by the apostles and reiterated time and time again by the popes, councils, and saints of the Church.

Intentional discipleship is not accidental or merely cultural. It is not just a matter of “following the rules.” A disciple’s primary motivation comes from within, out of a Holy Spirit-given “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” All things serve and flow from the central thing: the worship and love of the Blessed Trinity with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and therefore the love of one’s neighbor as oneself.

“We will never evangelize what we do not love.” (quoted from Cardinal Francis George)

Evangelization isn’t about us. It is about Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, seeking the lost sheep through us.

We have to come to terms with the reality that, in the United States, if we don’t evangelize our own, someone else will: evangelicals, Mormons, or independent Christians.

Many of Weddell’s points are from survey results, so if there is any room for argument about them, it would be on how to tackle the problems they describe.  Perhaps some readers will question how she reached some of her specific conclusions based on the surveys she cites, but it seems to me that the major points of fact are too straightforward to refute.

Since discipleship is a journey, Weddell gives concrete ways to help determine where people are in this journey, and how to help them discern and progress, if they are ready.  One of the first steps is the threshold question with which I began this review, which itself should only be asked when there is a certain level of trust with the other person.

One of the critiques I’ve seen about this book is its apparent de-emphasis of the sacraments.  It’s true that the book does not strongly promote the sacraments as an evangelical tool.  Weddell even has a section titled “Won’t the Sacraments Bring Them Back?”, a question she answers with No.  The presumption behind that question is prevalent particularly among older priests who served since the days when Catholicism was much more ingrained in the society.  The presumption is that Catholics who have become lukewarm will be brought back to the Church by the sacraments, such as when they get married in church.  Weddell says the surveys show that we can no longer presume that the sacraments will bring those people back.

To this same critique about the book’s de-emphasizing the sacraments, I would answer: We need to start at the right place, to meet people where they are.  Of course, living close to the sacraments is essential to spiritual growth.  But does it make sense to stress the sacraments to a person who doesn’t even know why he or she is Catholic in the first place?  To a person who doesn’t even know the story of Jesus Christ?

Weddell also mentions this point: Is it charitable for us to belittle Catholics who’ve left for an evangelical church, when we say that they left primarily so they could attend a service that featured “more entertainment”?  The data says that entertainment is not what those people were seeking.  They were seeking something much deeper, something that they perceived the Catholic Church was not providing them.

Because evangelization at its core is the proclaiming of the kerygma, Weddell devotes a chapter on a summary of the kerygma, which is “The Great Story of Jesus.”  She presents the kerygma in nine “acts,” as in the acts that make up a play.  However, I found her organization more complicated than it really needs to be.  Other readers may find her presentation of the kerygma more effective than I did.

Finally, given the current turbulent situation on Guam related to the “New Evangelization,” I feel the need to mention that the concrete ways Weddell describes on how to form intentional disciples is completely within the traditional parish setting.  She doesn’t endorse any particular lay movement.  The book’s only mention of lay movements is that they tend to reach only a very limited segment of people.  She also doesn’t necessarily advocate for increased diocesan or parish bureaucratic structures or programs.  Training on evangelization is certainly helpful, but creating new parish programs is not the point.

Instead, at the heart of this book is a simple and honest conversation between people, within an environment of trust.  Those conversations can happen almost anywhere, and should be encouraged especially in the home as well as in the parish, the workplace, or on a long flight.  I agree with Weddell’s assessment of the problem and what must be addressed.  The need is urgent.  Let us begin.


Rey Dalisay, a Third Order Carmelite, was raised on Guam and now writes from his home in Seattle, Washington.