Short Stories by Jesus
The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
Amy-Jill Devine describes herself as “A Yankee Jewish Feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” In a nutshell that tells you everything that she brings to the task of explaining the parables of Jesus. She turned over my Parable applecart and leaves me still sorting out which apples were good, which were rotten and which of her apples deserve to be added to mine. My short answer to that last is: “All of them.”
What is a parable? Here is a short parable from Jesus’ time, not a parable by Jesus, but a jewel of an example. (And not an explanation by Amy-Jill. My explanation using some of her general ideas.)
A widow asked her two small sons to go into the fields in the evening and gather from the edges food for their supper. They returned to say that the fields were bare. That evening they laid their heads in their mother’s lap and all three of them died.
Tragic though this is, what makes it dynamite? First of all, it is being told to a group of first century Jews who have made serious verbal conflict a learning mechanism and an art form. Second, according to Jewish law, these deaths should not have happened. The edges of the field are not to be harvested with the expectation that the poor will need the food. The children should have returned with their supper and more.
What happened after the story was told? I suspect something like this: Some Pollyanna will say, “Thank God that cannot happen here!” Which will trigger some dialectical Jewish mind to say, “Three years ago, how about Miriam? She died didn’t she? Starvation was it not?” and quick rebuttal, “Well that was her fault.” Next a third pops in with “Nonsense, that was that roman legion passing through!” And a fourth, “You blame everything on Rome” and we are off to the wars. A self-taught analysis of the failures and strengths of their community, Jewish teachings, and the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire is always a major causal factor of any first century Jewish situation. It has stacked the deck. Offending it is the big reason to crucify a parable teller. He or she looks seditious. And is. Telling stories like this, “little stories” as Amy-Jill says, is what got Jesus into big trouble. “He stirs up the people, “ was the accusation at his trial.
Now for a Jesus little story and how Amy-Jill brings new things (and old) to the party helping us understand why it is explosive. “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Remember the youngest son asks dad for his half of the heritage, takes it, becomes a drunken bum caring for pigs, returns and tells dad he is sorry, dad takes him back in and prepares a rejoicing feast, eldest son returns from the field, angry that he has always worked and gets no praise, dad tells him to get over it, his brother has returned and he should be happy.
On opening the Bible to the correct page we are immediately misinformed. Who titled this story? I don’t think anyone knows, but whoever did, has decided for us that the young son is the focus. Try to ignore the title and then take the story flatly, as it is intended. Jesus does not care who you focus on and identify with. The more a different focus among individual listeners the more thrilling the discussion and the more sustainable the learning.
According to most modern scholars, including Amy-Jill, the Gospel writers did not understand parables either, at least in the texts that come to us. So, often they will characterize a parable in the preceding or following text as an allegory. In this case Luke, the only one of the Gospelers to write this story, did not do that. But Amy-Jill will warn you that the pious patter at the end of many parables is from the evangelist, not the storyteller. Beware pious patter purported to have been said by Jesus. He was not pious and he did not patter.
The oldest characterization is that this is a story about the nature of God. The more modern explanation is this is a story about how to be a good father as opposed to the autocratic model of first century Judaism. Amy-Jill, the Jewish scholar of Christian texts, says this is a provocation to argue about family life at the end of which many unpredictable lessons will have been learned. She asserts that there is no reason to expect that first century Jewish fathers were any more autocratic than any other century’s fathers of any extraction. Read the Jewish scriptures for several loving fathers and several wandering sons, whose fathers should have been more not less authoritarian. (Ask Joseph if a crackdown on his big brothers might not have been helpful. He spent some time in a pit because dad was not even watching.)
What are the various hooks on which various hearers might hang their projections in this parable?
Dear old dad has gone against the advice of the rabbis to hang onto the fortune until his last breath. Somebody will jump on that to argue that the softhearted and softheaded dad got what he deserved. Dad’s speech to the elder son will come off to some as pious piffle. He owes that kid an abject apology. The elder son portrayed by most as a disgruntled grouch will be seen by others as long-suffering, perhaps too long-suffering. Time for a sit down strike, and maybe a lawyer. He is owed half the inheritance. Now will that mean all of it? Or is the little chiseler going to once again come out on top? Amy-Jill thinks the younger son is not penitent at all, he just thinks it clever to pretend penitence. (She must have had a juvenile delinquent sister ) Others have found that a wee far fetched. I don’t. And that has nothing to do with my sisters, but his exact words as recorded: “I will tell my father that I am sorry.” Not: “I am sorry and I will tell my father.” (Oh dear, am I being overly meticulous? am I starting an argument? See, it is catching.)
Jesus tells the parable, and only then does the work start. A friend of mine says that in the absence of a group what she does is try to imagine the situation from the point of view of each of the characters. Then have an argument with herself. Using that suggestion I, who identify with the elder son, came to think that the primary motivation of the younger son for taking off might have been getting away from a goody two-shoes brother who blocked any fun that he might ever have. A guy like me! Whoops. That is worth a moment’s reflection.
Amy-Jill Devine brings Yankee hardheadedness and Jewish scholarship to the modern but still puzzling world of parables. She will apply her lens to many of Jesus parables and leave you with the tools to apply your lens to others.
This book is not easy going. One of the smartest guys I know gave up in favor of easier reading. Still, I highly recommend Short Stories by Jesus . If you are just entering this world of the Parables you might as well start with the best.