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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

 

 

 

Does “turn the other cheek” mean that Christians are to be doormats?

“But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” Mt. 5:39

By his words and example, did Jesus teach us to be completely passive in our personal encounters with evil?

Most teachers of passivity purport to draw from two sources for such an interpretation of our Lord’s teaching:  The “Suffering Servant” narratives in Isaiah 53, and the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7).  

The Suffering Servant

The teaching of passivity is based, in great part, on The Suffering Servant (the Servant of YHWH) in Isaiah 53:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,   yet he opened not his mouth;  like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,   and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7

The Church has long considered the rich, prophetic symbolism of the Suffering Servant narratives to be a prefiguring, or prophesy, of the Passion of Christ.  It is wrong, however, to apply this text thoughtlessly to the entirety of Christ’s public ministry, or even uncritically to Christ’s passion.  For example, our Lord was not exactly silent when on trial in front of the High Priest, and especially when he was struck by one of the high priest’s officers:

“Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret.  Why do you question Me?  Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; they know what I said.” When He had said this, one of the officers standing nearby struck Jesus, saying, “Is that the way You answer the high priest?” Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?”  John 18:20-23

The Sermon on the Mount

Others arrive at a passive interpretation of “Do not resist evil” from some words spoken by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount.  Let’s consider these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;  and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;  and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”  Mt. 5:38-42

Consider the first part of verse 39:  “But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil.”  

Here is the verse in the original Koine Greek:

mt5-39a

 We can get to the heart of the matter by considering the word St. Matthew uses for “resist”, which is the Greek word, “antistenai”.

"antistenai"
“antistenai”

New Testament scholar Walter Wink, in his book, “Jesus and Nonviolence, A Third Way” [p.11], says:

“The Greek word is made up of two parts: anti, a word still used in English for “against,” and histēmi, a verb that in its noun form (stasis) means violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissention. In the Greek Old Testament, antistēnai is used primarily for military encounters—44 out of 71 times. It refers specifically to the moment two armies collide, steel on steel, until one side breaks and flees.”

St. Paul also uses the same word, “antistenai”, in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians.  There he uses a dramatic military metaphor to urge the Ephesians to resist evil, but with the armor and weapons of God:

“Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist [antistenai] on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground [stenai].” Ephesians 6:13 [1]

An accurate translation of Matthew 5:39a, would then be, “Do not respond in kind to those who do evil to you.”  That vastly differs from the phrase, “Do not resist evil”, in that it allows and even invites us to vigorously and creatively respond to evil in our personal encounters with it, albeit nonviolently.

On a side note, we also see see that the direct object of verse 39a is not the generic, unspecific “evil” in “Do not resist evil,” but rather, “do not resist the evil person.”

Peter and Paul Weigh In

Saints Peter and Paul confirm this interpretation.  For example, read St. Paul’s summary of the Sermon on the Mount in the 12th chapter of his letter to the Romans:

“…Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.Romans 12:19-20

and from the First Letter of Peter:

Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.”  1 Peter 3:9

In other words, in response to evil, we are not to do evil, we are not to retaliate, we are not to seek revenge, we are not to revile, and we are to have mercy on the enemy.  Our Lord places no restriction on us whatsoever, however, from pursuing justice and defending our lives.

“Turn the other cheek…”

In his public ministry, Jesus often pushed people from their comfort zones into places from which the only means of escape was some serious soul-searching.  It is not surprising, then, that he taught that form of non-violent response to the lowly and oppressed who followed him.  Do not forget his advice to his disciples,  “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves [Mt. 10:16].”

Our Lord give three specific examples to the poor people listening to him on the mountain: “Turn the other cheek,” “let him have your cloak as well,” and “go with him two miles.”  Each example gave those who were listening a way to resist evil without resorting to violence.  Let’s consider each in turn.[2]

“if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”

Did you ever wonder why Jesus explicitly mentioned the right cheek?  How does one, in the right-handed world of first century Palestine, where the use of one’s left hand was often taboo, strike another on the right cheek?  With a right-handed back slap, of course.  Jesus was speaking directly to a poor, downtrodden and colonized people, and a back slap was a humiliating action of a master toward a slave, of a Roman to a Jew, of a landowner to a tenant farmer.  It was meant to degrade.  Now, after having been slapped on the right cheek by a superior’s right hand, presenting the left cheek would effectively force the master to backslap again using his left hand, which was taboo, or to strike with his right fist, which would be the act of a peer, not a master.  So, while risky, presenting the left cheek after a back slap would help the oppressed person recover a bit of his God-given dignity without having to resort to violence.

“If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well…”

In the debtor society of first century Palestine, the lowly and landless did not sue each other, but rather, could be sued by the powerful.  To take off the second and last piece of clothing in the public court of that time would make one naked, but the greater shame and embarrassment would not be born by the person being sued, but rather, the wealthy person suing him.  Remember the great length to which Noah’s sons, Shem and Japheth went to in order to avoid the shame of seeing their father naked. [Gen. 9:23].

“If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles…”

It would not have been uncommon for those listening to Jesus on the mountain – the men at least – to have been forced to carry the gear of a Roman legionary or an auxiliary for up to a mile.  It was generally frowned upon, if not forbidden, for a legionary to require a colonized person to carry such a pack for more than that distance, and in fact, this was eventually codified into law.  So, by cheerfully “going the extra mile”, one would place the legionary or auxiliary in the uncomfortable position of possibly facing disciplinary action by his superiors.   The soldier would probably prefer to get his pack back, but how on earth would he ask for it back without losing his pride?

 Examples from the Scriptures

The words of Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount do not repudiate His own examples of resisting evil, or the examples set by heroes of the Old Testament.

Jesus resisted the evil of Satan in the desert [ Mt. 4:1-11];  he resisted the evil of the men who would stone the woman caught in adultery [John 8:1-11];  he drove the merchants and their animals from the temple [Mt. 21:12];  and he resisted the evil of the Pharisee’s disciples who would trap him with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” [ Mt. 22:15-22].  

 St. Paul Resisted Evil
St. Paul escapes Damascus in a basket, 12th/13th century (mosaic)
St. Paul escapes Damascus in a basket, 12th/13th century (mosaic)

St. Paul used his Roman citizenship to escape an evil beating and to appeal the case against him to the governors Felix and Festus, and ultimately to Caesar [Acts 22-24].  He defended himself in front of King Agrippa [Acts 26], and he even plotted a clever escape from the evil plans of his adversaries in Damascus [Acts 9:25] by having himself lowered from the city walls in a basket.

The Heroes of the Old Testament Resisted Evil

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah resisted the evil command of Pharaoh to murder Hebrew baby boys [Exodus 1:15-20].  The people of Israel boldly asked the Egyptians for reparations before leaving Egypt. [Exodus 12:35-36].  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed′nego refused to worship the image that King ebuchadnez′zar had set up and so were thrown into the fiery furnace [Daniel 3].  Daniel resisted the evil order of King Darius to pray to him alone, and was consequently thrown into the lion’s den [Daniel 6:10-28].  Queen Esther risked her life and broke the law to approach the King Ahasuerus  on behalf of her people, whose annihilation had been ordered [Esther 4-5].  And the priests of Nob lost their lives for resisting the evil of Saul by giving the consecrated bread to David and his men to eat [1 Samuel 21-22].

The Teaching of the Church

We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not. [CCC 2263]

and

Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality.  Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow…Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”   [CCC 2264]

and

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.” [CCC 2264]

Conclusion

It is clear that in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that we are not to resort to violence, retaliation, or revenge in our personal encounters of the evil of others.  In short, we are to resist evil in a way that prevents us from becoming evil ourselves.

 

Endnotes

[1]  Wink elaborates more on this in his book,”Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination“,(Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1984) p. 185:

“What the translators have not noted, however, is how frequently anthistemi is used as a military term. Resistance implies “counteractive aggression,” a response to hostilities initiated by someone else. Liddell-Scott defines anthistemi as to “set against esp. in battle, withstand.” Ephesians 6:13 is exemplary of its military usage: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand [antistenai, lit., to draw up battle ranks against the enemy] on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm [stenai, lit., to close ranks and continue to fight].” The term is used in the LXX primarily for armed resistance in military encounters (44 out of 71 times). Josephus uses anthistemi for violent struggle 15 out of 17 times, Philo 4 out of 10. As James W. Douglass notes, Jesus’ answer is set against the backdrop of the burning question of forcible resistance to Rome. In that context, “resistance” could have only one meaning: lethal violence.-16 In short, antistenai means more in Matt. 5:39a than simply to “stand against” or “resist.”” It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection.”

[2]  See “Jesus and Nonviolence, a Third Way“, by Walter Wink, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003, pp 14-27.

Reflections on the Book of Job

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth;  and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.  My heart faints within me!  Job 19:25-27 RSV

 Even if you haven’t read the Book of Job yourself, perhaps you remember the story:  The wealthy and influential Job is a just man in God’s eyes (1:8), but God, at Satan’s prompting, allows him to be tested.  Job loses all of his property, livestock, friends, and with the exception of his wife, his entire family.  He then is afflicted with dreadful sores all over his body and sinks into depression.  Three friends come to console him, but end up harassing him instead.  Job responds to their harangues and to that of stranger too.  After lamenting bitterly, God visits him face to face.  Job is silenced, and his wealth and health are eventually restored two-fold. (42:10)

The Book of Job addresses two burning questions:

  1. Is suffering only a retribution for wickedness? Why do the just often suffer, while the wicked often thrive?
  2. How should a just man respond to suffering?

Suffering as Retribution?

"The Trials of Job", painted by Leonaert Bramer (1596-1674), 1630s.
“The Trials of Job”, painted by Leonaert Bramer (1596-1674), 1630s.

Is suffering only a retribution for wickedness?  Job’s “friends” certainly think so (4:7-9).  They consistently impugn his character (22:5) and tell him to repent (22:23).  God, though, has the last say:  “After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eli’phaz the Te’manite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42:7)

The old idea that suffering is God’s retribution for sin is, at its best, inadequate.

The Response of a Just Man

While the inspired author does not provide us with a definitive purpose for suffering (we find that in the person of Jesus Christ), he does give us some guidance on how to respond to suffering, and I found four elements of such a response by a “just man” in the Book of Job.

First, the just man takes personal initiative to relieve the suffering of others, especially the oppressed.

“I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy…I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame.  I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.  I broke the fangs of the unrighteous, and made him drop his prey from his teeth.” (29:13-17)

Let’s stop and ponder that last picture for a moment.  In a personal act of courageous mercy, we are to get close enough to the wild beast to smash its teeth with a rock or stick, forcing it to drop its helpless prey.  In word, our response to the suffering of the oppressed should be one of bold mercy.

Job also maintains his trust in God:

“Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he that vouches for me is on high.” (16:19)  and “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth;  and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.  My heart faints within me!”  (19:25-27)

When it comes to his own suffering, Job does not fail to praise God, even in his bitterest laments:  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (1:21) and “With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding.” (12:13)  Praising God in the most desperate of situations is quite difficult, and challenging even if one’s trust in God is great.

Lastly (and eventually), Job responds to his suffering with humility:

Then Job answered the LORD:   ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee?  I lay my hand on my mouth.  I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.’ (40:3-5)

A face-to-face encounter with God finally silences Job.

Summary

A challenge laid down by the Book of Job, perhaps, is to drop our old conceptions of suffering as always and everywhere a punishment, and concentrate instead on encountering God in it by responding to it as a just man would.   With courageous mercy when we see the suffering of others, and with trust, praise, and humility when we experience it ourselves.