How Jesus’s parables are more than children’s stories

02.03.2019 | The Maxwell Institute

As Latter-day Saints focus this year on the New Testament we’ll bring you insights to ponder from past episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, hosted by Blair Hodges. This MIPodcast Moment is from Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish specialist of the New Testament. By reading the New Testament from a Jewish perspective she introduces Christian readers to new and challenging interpretations. Her book is called Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. Listen or read the freshly-created transcript here
BLAIR HODGES: Your book is written on the premise that many current readers of Jesus’s parables have taken away their edge, made them a little more safe. What are some reasons you think some people are prone to domesticate the parables? AMY-JILL LEVINE: There are several. The first is part of general Christian education. Little kids in churches get introduced to parables very early because they can kind of get a basic message out of them, like the prodigal son story means God loves us even if we screw up. Or the Good Samaritan means you help people by the side of the road. Or the mustard seed means God can do great things. All that’s fine. But it’s childish. But if children are taught parables as children’s stories then it’s very hard to make a shift over to say wait a minute, these may be adult stories speaking to adults. If we continue to look at them as children’s stories we will take the simplistic lesson, and we will not take the challenge. That’s part of the problem. Another part of the problem is, I think, that generally people really don’t want to be challenged. We just want to be comforted. We want to walk into a house of worship and be told that everything is okay and that God loves us and we should be inspired and we should be hopeful. That’s all well and good, but I think it’s insufficient. I think if we leave the house of worship feeling complacent and self-satisfied, congratulated for being good people, then that worship has not done its job. I think we should feel invigorated to be better than we already are. The Jewish scripture tells us that we’re made “just a little lower than the angels” [See Psalm 8:5 and Hebrews 2:7]. We ought to live up to that. HODGES: So on that point there’s a parable that you talk about, the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee and the tax collector go to the temple to pray, and the Pharisee says, “I thank you that I’m not a sinner and a terrible person, or even like this here tax collector.” And then the tax collector says, “God have mercy on me, I’m a sinner,” and hits his breast and then it says that one of them returned home justified. The typical reading of that parable would support the point you just made, that we often go to worship to be comforted and to feel good about ourselves but perhaps should also be discomfited. And that’s the typical reading of the tax collector and the Pharisee. But you actually challenge that reading. I want you to talk about that because that’s one of my favorite excerpts of the New Testament and you really turned the tables on me. LEVINE: Well good. Now, I’m not sure I would want to date that Pharisee. But I have no reason to think that he’s lying to God. That would be inopportune for him to do. He’s really a Super-Pharisee. He does more than any Pharisee would be expected to do. Fasting as a form of self-discipline, tithing, everything. He’s really over the top. He’s comparing himself to this tax collector, who I think is really quite humble and quite sincere himself. So the normal message we get in most sermons is “let’s not be sanctimonious like that Pharisee, let’s be humble like the tax collector.” HODGES: And that’s a real problem. It happens— LEVINE: Sure. But as soon as we do that, what are we doing? We’re saying “oh thank you God, I’m not like that Pharisee over there. Wait a minute. Am I a rogue and a sinner?” As soon as we do that the parable immediately traps us. HODGES: That’s what got me. I was like “oh no.” LEVINE: Then it’s more than that. Because Jews have this sense of being part of a community rather than just being individuals. Everybody’s responsible for everybody else. If one person sins, that sin impacts the entire community, if one person does something really fabulous the entire community can benefit from that. Jews will talk about what is sometimes called the “merits of the fathers.” In other words, we may be messing up, but remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? They were really terrific. So for their sake… Well, the Pharisee has more merit than he knows what to do with. He’s got good deeds over the top. The tax collector’s got nothing. So maybe first century Jews might have thought if the tax collector can go home justified, maybe he tapped into that Pharisee’s merit. If I’m a righteous person I don’t want to think that my righteousness somehow benefits somebody else, but that’s the generosity of God who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike. Then, gosh, just when you think you’ve got that rug swept underneath you right at the end, the last line in all English translations I was able to find is, “Therefore, I tell you this man,” referring to the tax collector, “went back to his home justified rather than the other.” HODGES: Rather than. In the King James, “rather” is italicized. LEVINE: Yeah. The Greek term for “rather” is “para,” like parallel or paradox, and it can mean “over against,” but what it also means is “side by side.” HODGES: —and “parable.” LEVINE: Or paradox or parable. You cast two things side by side. I’m wondering if that last line might be “they both went down justified, side-by-side.” I’m distressed by readers that think that somehow God’s mercy is a zero-sum game such that if the tax collector can be justified the Pharisee isn’t. Why wouldn’t God be merciful to somebody who’s doing all the right things? Who goes to the temple and doesn’t ask for a thing, but thanks God that he’s been put in a position where he can do all that stuff? HODGES: Although he does disrespect the—I wrote this in the margin for you [laughs]—he does diss the tax collector, though, right? LEVINE: That’s right. It turns out at the end the tax collector may well be justified because of the Pharisee’s good deeds, and that’s the last thing the Pharisee wants to know. HODGES: So the joke’s on him. LEVINE: The joke’s on him. The other man gets justified because of his good deeds, too bad! HODGES: I also thought another new Christian reading could be that the Pharisee might also be a type of Christ, in that Christ’s merit is said to cover for the sinner as well. I hadn’t thought of that before I’d read this book. I thought that was an interesting possibility. LEVINE: That’s how the cross works in part, some believe. It’s the fidelity of the Christ that allows the rest of us to tap into that merit, to tap into his good deed. Why wouldn’t it work for the Pharisee as well? It’s just Jesus wanted it to work that way, and the Pharisee didn’t.
“MIPodcast Moments” are interesting extracts from the Maxwell Institute Podcast. See our growing list of transcripts here.