Levine: Parables should make us feel uncomfortable


Amy-Jill Levine speaks at the Hall of Philosophy on Monday. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

Survive Week Eight in three easy steps: avoid allegory, listen for humor and exaggeration and find a message to look at the world in a new way.

These are tips Amy-Jill Levine gave the Hall of Philosophy audience at 2 p.m. Monday during her lecture, “Hearing the Parables: Pearls, Pharisees, Publicans and Pounds.”

Every day of Week Eight, Levine, who is a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, will examine a different parable.

For Levine, nothing demonstrates Week Eight’s theme, “Human Creativity, The Spark of the Divine,” like a good parable.

“I think in terms of human creativity, perhaps it’s storytelling that may unite us all,” she said. “And one of the amazing things about stories is that stories give rise to other stories.”

Jesus used parables to incite discussion.

“Jesus was a masterful storyteller, perhaps one of the best the world has ever known,” Levine said. “He knew that stories would get people talking.”

The interpretations of parables change depending on their readers’ historical context.

“Jesus himself tells us that the parables are not easy to understand,” Levine said.

Mark 4 suggests the disciples themselves may not have fully understood Jesus’ parables.

The parables’ difficulty tempts their readers to accept easy explanations, Levine said.

“Consequently, the parables begin to sound like nice little sweet children’s stories, rather than the provocative tales that they are,” she said.

Parables should make us feel uncomfortable, she said.

“Think about parables as little tiny bombs thrown into the status quo,” she said.

Jesus did not simplify his parables; rather, he trusted the intelligence of those who would follow him, Levine explained. But the modern church is wary of multiple meanings.

This week, Levine wants to examine how the people of Jesus’ time would have understood the parables.

“How do we hear the Good News in the parables, and when Jesus compares something to the kingdom of heaven, what do we do with that particular parable?” she asked.

This question proved the crux of Levine’s lecture. Before exploring the New Testament, she offered several examples of parables found in the Old Testament, before Jesus’ time, including the prophet Nathan’s parable presentation to King David in 2 Samuel 12 after the king murdered the husband of his lover, and the parable of the trees in Judges 9, which commentates on what kind of person makes the best king.

Levine said these parables demonstrate archetypal aspects of the genre, including hyperbole and humor. Not every character symbolizes someone or something else or has to represent God, she said.

Parables also function by comparison, using similes and metaphors. Parables hold individual and communal significance.

“We can begin by saying, ‘What does this parable mean to me?’ and that will be a correct answer,” she said. “But the difficulty is then to say to the neighbor, ‘What does this parable mean to you?’ or to say to the community, ‘What does this parable mean to us?’ That way, we can check our answers and find out if we’ve gotten off-track or not.”

Nevertheless, not all interpretations are created equal, she said.

“Some interpretations will always be better than others,” Levine said.

First, Levine addressed the parable of the pearl of great price from Matthew 13:45-46: “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Modern commentaries assume the merchant will sell the pearl for a profit. Levine disagreed.

“I don’t think the kingdom of heaven is a commodity,” she said.

Other commentaries approach the parable allegorically, saying that pursuers of the kingdom of God should give up all they have in their pursuit. Levine said she finds this interpretation, commonly used in preaching, to be hypocritical.

Instead, Levine suggested taking the parable literally, at least at first — the merchant is just a merchant, and the pearl is just a pearl.

Jesus’ listeners most likely found the comparison to a merchant off-putting; merchants were not the most popular citizens of their time, Levine said.

“If the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a merchant, then the kingdom of heaven can be compared to just about anybody,” she said.

As for the significance of the pearl, Levine said, “Perhaps the parable is designed to make us ask questions of ourselves. At least this merchant knows what he wants.”

She spoke about teaching this parable in a prison ministry to both students and prisoners, many of whom had different answers, from freedom to safety to the Gospel itself. The experience forced her to reassess her own priorities.

“The parable worked on me,” Levine said. “It may be less important for us to say, ‘This is what the parable means,’ than perhaps to say, for this parable and all parables, ‘Here’s what the parable does.’”

She added, “If you’re disturbed I haven’t given you the answer, good.”

Levine next addressed the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18:9-14. In this parable, a Pharisee prays and thanks God for not making him like other men, including a nearby tax collector. The tax collector prays for mercy. The parable concludes with the tax collector leaving justified, as the New Revised Standard Version Levine cited, “rather than the other.”

It is tempting, Levine said, to automatically bash the Pharisee for his self-righteousness.

“Once the parable puts us in the position of one person and says, ‘Thank God I’m not like the other,’ the parable traps us,” she said, adding that Jesus himself warned his followers not to judge others.

Bible readers are predisposed to hate Pharisees and love tax collectors by this point in the Book of Luke. But this wasn’t the way of the Jewish people of the time, Levine explained. Tax collectors were Jews turned agents of the Roman Empire, whereas Pharisees were highly respected teachers who worked among the people.

Levine challenged her audience to see the Pharisee as something other than hypocritical. For one, he prays to God without asking for anything in return.

She also delved into the human need to see someone suffer in the parable.

“Why is it, when we hear this parable, we want one person to be condemned and another person to be saved?” she asked. “Why is it so often … we don’t want to celebrate the good things that happen to somebody else? We want to have an enemy. We want somebody to suffer, because it makes us look better.”

In this vein, the Greek preposition translated as “rather,” referring to who left the temple justified, is incorrect. Instead, Levine said, it translates as “side-by-side” — perhaps both men went away justified, not just one.

“That’s part of divine mercy,” she said. “It just may not be human nature.”

Another way to look at the parable involves the communitarian nature of plural prayer. In the Jewish tradition, communities are judged on the actions of individuals, Levine explained. If the Pharisee was so good with his fasting, tithing and praying, perhaps some of his goodness compensated on the behalf of the tax collector and helped him to become justified.

“We really are our brother’s keeper,” Levine said.

The third and final parable Levine addressed, the parable of the yeast, comes from Matthew 13:33: “He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.’”

The standard interpretation of this parable is that God pervades one’s life to give it new quality, Levine said, but she disagrees with this meaning for several reasons.

First, the parable uses strange vocabulary; yeast imagery comes with negative connotations, typically. Rather than “to mix,” the Greek translates as “to hide.” And three measures of flour (the “large measure”) equates to fifty to sixty pounds of flour.

“Might the message be that we should reevaluate the meanest of domestic materials, that what we might see as negative or at best utilitarian may have spiritual potential?” Levine asked.

This accounts for the sheer amount of flour.

“The kingdom of heaven occurs when we adapt our lives in light of kingdom values, rather than our own values,” she said. “When we are just extraordinarily generous, when we do things that people might seem to say are foolish or foolhardy, but it works … Be exorbitant, exaggerate, be more generous than you’ve ever been, and people will appreciate it.”

She concluded, “The good news is, you cannot be fully wrong, and the better news is, you cannot either be fully right. The really, really good news is, there’s always going to be another reading, another challenge and another provocation, because that’s what storytelling and imagination allows us to do.”