PREACHERS, politicians, and other public speakers know that a story is often the best way to get a point across to their listeners. In his itinerant ministry, Jesus was no exception. Some of his most important teaching was contained in stories—parables. Yet often we do not take them seriously enough to seek what he was really saying. Two thousand years of Christian theology has also obscured his original intent, often by considering them to be allegories rather than stories.
In that process, anti-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices have too often come to dominate the interpretation of the parables. Any villain is seen as representing Judaism, while the hero or victim represents the church—and, of course, in this framing God is on the side of the church. This often-unconscious bias affects how we read and understand the story and obscures Jesus’ message.
Professor Amy-Jill Levine, in Short Stories by Jesus, aims to correct that. As a Jewish New Testament scholar teaching at a Christian divinity school, she is uniquely situated to place Jesus and his teaching in their historical and cultural context. Jesus was a first-century Jew speaking to other first-century Jews. If we do not understand that starting point, we cannot understand Jesus or his stories. In an introduction not to be skipped, she points out that the parables often echo themes that appear elsewhere in Jesus’ teachings: economics, relationships, and, most important, prioritizing life in expectation of the coming kingdom of God. To make his point, he uses common, everyday examples of real-life characters and situations his audience would recognize.
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