Study Guide for Short Stories by Jesus Part I

Study Guide for Short Stories by Jesus:

Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi

By Amy Jill Levine

Amy Jill Levine provides an important and refreshing look at the Parables of Jesus. Part of her interest is to strip away the additions the early church made to the Parables in the 50 or so years after the death of Jesus. One of her motivations is to strip out the anti-Semitic tone that became part of the early church after the synagogue and the church parted company after about 60 C.E. Of course for those of us who are interested in trying to reclaim the historical Jesus as much as possible, rather than the early church’s version of Jesus, Amy Jill’s work is very helpful.

Page 3: Mark’s disciples are not the best candidates for accurately preserving explanations of parables. Whether they were as clueless as Mark portrays them, or whether the evangelist has deliberately portrayed them as in need of remedial instruction, the literary effect of their descriptions is the same. Mark is telling readers, “Go beyond the disciples, be open to the mystery and the challenge, interpret for yourselves.” And we readers should be reassured that if Peter, James and John, even after failing, can find rehabilitation and stay with the program, there’s hope for the rest of us.

Amy Jill is asserting that the early church may not have understood Jesus. Do you think that is true? If so, what factors do you think contributed to their misunderstanding or misinterpreting of Jesus? Again and again Levine will encourage us to discover and appreciate the context of the First Century, but ultimately she is saying: “Go beyond the disciples, be open to the mystery and the challenge, interpret for yourselves.” How do you feel about allowing yourself the freedom to interpret?

Page 3: What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge. Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance. For our own comfort, we many want to foreclose the meaning rather than allow the parable to open into multiple interpretations. We are probably more comfortable proclaiming a creed than prompting a conversation or pursuing a call.

            Religion has been defined as designed 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.

Can you think of any of the Parables of Jesus you have found challenging? Are there any stories of Jesus you find very comforting?

Context Matters:

Pages 9 – 11: In order to hear the parables in their original contexts and so to determine what is normal and what is absurd, what is conventional and what is unexpected, we need to do the history. We need to determine how Samaritans and Jews related to each other; what the cultural expectations of fathers and sons were; how say laborers and vineyard owners established their contractual obligations; what social roles were open to women; and who went to the Temple to pray and why. If we get the context wrong, we’ll get Jesus wrong as well. . .

 

            The best modern example I have for explaining the importance of context for understanding stories is the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. . .

            In listening to parables and appreciating them within their initial context, we also do well to listen for echoes of Israel’s scriptures, since the parables evoke earlier stories and then comment on them. “There was a man who had two sons . . . (Luke 15:11) is the beginning of what is traditionally called the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus’ Jewish audience would be reminded of other men and their two sons: Cain and Able, the sons of Adam; Ishmael and Isaac, he sons of Abraham; Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac: and so on. Reading the parable in light of the antecedent narratives creates surprise and challenge; in turn, reading the antecedent narrative in light of the parable opens a host of new insights.

            Another maxim that frequently holds for biblical studies is that the world of the people who wrote and first heard the texts is different from our world. . .

 

            On the other hand, these distinctions can be taken to extremes. Sometimes what seems odd to us really is odd. . . The trick is to determine what is surprising in the parable, and what is not. And there is much in Jesus’ parables that surprises.

What history do you think is important in trying to understand Jesus? Thinking about your favorite parables, can you think of stories in the Hebrew Scriptures that are echoed in your favorite parables? What differences between our world and the world of Jesus do you think are most profound? In what ways do you think people are still the same in the 21st century as the 1st century? Thinking about your own favorite parables, what in those stories do you find surprising?

The Parables of Jesus

Page 11 – 15: When we turn to Jesus’s parables, we do well to hear them as the people who firs heard them, Jews in the Galilee and Judea, did and thus to recover as best as we can the original provocation. To do so requires several leaps of faith. . .  

. . . Jesus is concerned about economics; about giving to those who beg, about the blessings that will come to the poor, about mutual dependence rather than top down brokerage, about what can be summarized as “Kingdom economics,” in which the prayer “Forgive us our debts,” meant more than sins and included monetary loans. His focus is on laying up treasure in heaven, not on accumulating bank accounts on earth. The parables, with their attention to wealth management, debts, daily wages, land ownership, and lost coins speaks to the same concerns. Luke retains several parables that begin “There was a rich man who. . .”; none is likely to be loved by owners of Fortune 500 companies. . . .

            Jesus is also concerned about relationships: between parents and children, siblings, neighbors, and leaders and followers; he emphasizes caring for the other, mutual reciprocity, servant leadership, and humility. . .

            Next Jesus is concerned about prioritizing. Expecting the kingdom of heaven to break in, indeed, seeing it already as present in his actions, he demands a reaction: choose life, choose to live the way God wants us to live. . .

            Another reason to see Jesus as speaking not only in parables, but in these parables that have come down to us from the Gospels is their frequent motif of celebration. What is infectiously appealing about Jesus is that he likes to celebrate. He is consistently meeting people not at the altar but at the table, whether as host, guest, or the body and blood to be consumed. He is indiscriminate in his dining companions, who include Pharisees, tax collectors, sinners, and even an upscale family consisting of two sisters and a formerly dead brother. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the one miracle story recounted in all four Gospels. To be in his presence is not only to be challenged and comforted; it is to celebrate at table. There is feasting at the end of the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and a fatted calf awaits the Lost Son.

In what stories about Jesus or told by Jesus do you hear a concern about economics? How would you characterize his concern? In what stories about Jesus or told by Jesus do you hear a concern for relationships? What stories about Jesus or told by Jesus do you see a concern about prioritizing? And what stories about Jesus or told by Jesus do you see the theme of celebration?

The Parables Today

Pages 19 – 20: For people who claim to follow Jesus today, whether they regard him as the divine Son or a rabbi with superb things to say, the parables cannot remain historical artifacts. We should ask, as we should with any literature: How do the messages an original audience would have heard translate over the centuries to the person in the pew, the Bible study, or the classroom? . . . Each generation looks for new meanings, reads with new sensitivity, and projects onto the text new issues. Good literature continues to yield those new meanings, and the parables are no exceptions. Thus this volume asks two main questions: How do we hear the parables through an imagined set of first-century Jewish ears, and then how do we translate them so that they can be heard still speaking?

Amy Jill suggests that the first task is to try to understand the Parables from a First Century perspective. I would even go one further to understand what maybe Jesus was trying to communicate stripping out some of the interpretation the early church tried to place on Jesus. The second task is to try to figure out what Jesus has to say to us today. Do you think it is possible to try to figure out what Jesus has to day to us? How do you think this second task relates to the U.C.C. slogan that God is still speaking? Do we listen to God by ourselves, or in community?

Auditory Atrophy and Aids to Hearing

Pages 20 – 25: When it comes to parables and to ancient texts in general, our listening skills are not as developed as they should be. Not only do we frequently miss the original provocation, and not only do we frequently default to simplistic interpretations; we also often import ahistorical and anachronistic readings that deform the good news of the gospel into something Jesus would neither recognize nor condone.

            The reasons for this auditory atrophy are easy to locate. Here are six, among the many:

             First in a number of churches, the parables function as children’s stories. This is because children can understand those simple usages. . . show and tell of the parable of the Leaven means playing with dough and eating fresh baked bread; the parable of the Mustard Seed means looking at mustard seeds and perhaps tasting them. . .        

            A second reason we settle for easy interpretations is that many clergy do not take the time to develop the challenge of the parable. Many priests and pastors are reluctant to challenge congregations about matters of social policy, family dysfunction, or how to love the enemy. Sunday morning has become in far too many settings the occasion for a pep talk rather than provocation. . .

             A third reason for auditory atrophy is the expectation of congregations who have come to believe that the sermon is a monologue, not motivation, that it is designed for entertainment. The sermon becomes less an opportunity for reconciliation, restoration and renewal and more a Sunday morning version Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and now Jimmy Fallon. . . . When church becomes a club, parables become pedestrian. At times then, the problem rests with the person in the pulpit, just as often, the problem rests with the person in the pew.

             There is yet a fourth reason why the easy answers work, in addition to their familiarity and comfort value, clergy fear, and congregational resistance. This reason is more pernicious. . . The clergy actually do think they are presenting a challenging message when in fact they are repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes. If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of “Jesus came to fix Judaism – whatever it was – must have been bad,” then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way. . . .

             Here is our fifth reason we misread the parables. The study of homiletics, the art of giving sermons, is moving increasingly away from historical-critical focus on the biblical text and more toward communication theory, toward what is known as “practical theology,” or toward readings from one’s own subject position or social location, such as a focus on African American hermeneutics or disability studies. . . . My concern is that attention only to these areas, without attention to Jesus’s own cultural context, opens the door not just to anachronism, but to stereotype. The more time we take in finding our own context and so our own voice, the less attention gets paid to Jesus’s own context and voice.

             Finally, the sixth problem: for some on the liberal side of the theological scale, students of the Bible are also pulled away from history by the allure of newer approaches – including pretty much anything beginning with “post,” as in “postmodern,” “postcolonial,” “postcritical,” and so on. These various approaches arose in part as a response to earlier forms of historical work, in which the histories claimed to be doing objective work, when instead he (it usually was a “he”) was projecting his own cultural values and theological views on the ancient materials. However, some of today’s generation have tossed out all of historical work; they prefer to find meaning from their own perspective. What the text might have meant to Jesus or to his first followers becomes either an impossible or irrelevant question. The more the parables become detached from their own setting, the more the demons of anti-Jewish readings easily enter.

             Amy Jill Levine offers six reasons we may not be able to hear the parables clearly. Would you agree that people often think of the Parables as “children’s stories?” What might be lost, when we treat the Parables as children’s stories? Is there a way of being able to use the stories of Jesus with children as simple object lessons, but then treating them with greater gravity as stories for people of mature faith?

The second reason the author suggests that the Parables have not received appropriate treatment is that clergy are unwilling to seek the challenge of the Parable but settle for something comforting. Have you ever heard a sermon that used a Parable of Jesus in a way that was uncomfortable or challenging?

Amy Jill does not let lay people off the hook. “When church becomes a club, parables become pedestrian. At times then, the problem rests with the person in the pulpit, just as often, the problem rests with the person in the pew.” Have you observed churches that seem to behave like clubs? Have you seen congregations who want to be entertained? What would be a good corrective for the “church entertainment syndrome.”

Levine suggests that many clergy, rather than doing their “homework” are content with repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes. Have you observed this fourth reason to be true?

The fifth and sixth problems enumerated by the author are tied to certain academic concerns about how one does Biblical Studies. Do you think studying the history of the scriptures is helpful? Would you be willing to spend more time studying the history of the Bible or Bible land geography, or visit the Holy Land to literally get a feel for the lay of the land? The author also suggests that the study of the scriptures has become infected with ideological issues like feminist theology, or a postcolonial, or a postmodern reading of the text. What do you think are the dangers of bringing our own modern culture values and concerns to a reading of Jesus?

Chapter 1 – Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son

Page 29: According to Luke, the narratives traditionally called the parable of the Lost Sheep, the parable of the Lost Coin, and the parable of the Prodigal Son are about sinners repenting and God graciously offering forgiveness and reconciliation. Luke misleads by turning the parables into allegories. It is unlikely a first century Jewish listener would hear the first two parables and conclude that they have something to do with sheep repenting or coins confessing. . . . Neither the sheep nor coins have the capability to repent, and I doubt the younger brother does either.

             If any blame is to be assigned in the first two parables, then the shepherd and the woman are at fault, for they “lost,” respectively the sheep and the coin. Were the parables called “The Shepherd Who Lost His Sheep” and “The Woman Who Lost Her Coin,” we might be closer to an earlier meaning. Regarding the issue of fault in the third parable, were the prodigal son a sinner for demanding his inheritance — which is unlikely to be the case, as we’ll see – he had help; his father, instead of disciplining him, abetted his request by complying with it. This this parable too might be renamed: “The Father Who Lost His Son(s).”

Amy Jill asks us to consider the possibility that Luke did not understand the parables he wrote down in his Gospel. Do you think it is possible that the Gospel writers have passed on to us material they misunderstood, or did not understand? How does the tone of these stories change, if the responsibility for the lost sheep, and the lost coin, even the lost sons rest with the owners or the father rather than the objects or the sons?

Pages 35-36: Sinners are not “outcasts”; they are not cast out of synagogues or out of the Jewish Temple. To the contrary, they are welcome in such places, since such places encourage repentance. The Gospels generally present sinners as wealthy people who have not attended to the poor. That is a dandy definition of the term. Thus, in a first-century context sinners, like tax collectors, are individuals who have removed themselves from the common welfare, who look to themselves rather than to the community.

             The author provides us with an interesting definition of “sinner.”   Using this definition, “individuals who have removed themselves from the common welfare, who look to themselves rather than to the community,” how does this change our ordinary reading of these parables? Would you agree with this definition of “sinner?” What social or political implications might this definition have for our modern context?

Lost Sheep

Pages 37 – 38: . . . Most peasants do not own a hundred sheep. The parable’s opening presupposes a person of some means. So does the story of the woman who has lost her silver coin and the father who has a sufficiently large estate to have fatted calves, lots of clothing, and good accessories. . . the image conveyed by all three parables is that of substance. Perhaps it is those who “have” who are more likely to fail to notice what is missing. . . .

 . . . And if he can notice the missing one and diligently seek to find it, he reminds listeners that perhaps they have lost something, or someone, as well, but have not noticed it. Before the search can begin, we need to notice what or who is not there.

Most of us in our modern context would not recognize the people in these parables as “people of means.” How does this affect your appreciation of these stories? At the point that the author says: “he reminds listeners that perhaps they have lost something, or someone, as well, tyour life that might need restoration?

Pages 40 – 41: With this verse, (Luke 15:7) it is Luke who provides the first interpretation by turning the parable into an allegory. The idea that someone, let alone 99 such someones, do not need repentance” tends to be overlooked in the church, where the prevailing view is that everyone needs to repent. If there are 99 folks in the neighborhood who have nothing to repent for, we really are in the land of fantasy rather than reality. Also overlooked is how the allegory fails to match the parable. There was no repenting in the story; there was no sin; the sheep did not “come to itself” and find its way home. It was the owner who lost the sheep, and if this losing was sinful, he’s not seen repenting.

             Amy Jill again suggests that Luke is presenting material he did not understand. This may not be so far from the truth, since Luke did not know the historical Jesus. Do you think turning the parable into an allegory misses the point of the original story? But now we must ask, how do we re-discover the original meaning of the parable? What did Jesus want his audience to do with the story?

Page 45: . . . If this fellow can experience such joy in finding one of a hundred sheep, what joy do we experience when he find what we have lost? More, if he can realize that one of his hundred has gone missing, so we know what or whom we have lost? When was the last time we took stock, or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence? Will we take responsibility for the losing, and what effort will we make to find it — or him or her — again?

What are some of the important things people lose besides possessions? Are there relationships we have lost? What about losses we may have suffered in our health? Or what if we have a lost dream? What about other spiritual intangibles may we have lost — faith, hope, joy, love?

The Lost Coin

Page 47: But there is a subtle shift from the first parable to the second. The guardian of the flock speaks only of “my sheep, the lost one” (Luke 15:6). He does not claim responsibility for losing it. The woman mentions “the one I had lost” (Luke 15:9); she claims responsibility. We are provoked again. We can celebrate when what we have lost is found, but can we also admit our responsibility for the losing?

Thinking about the list of “lost” items in our lives, are there any of those items that have been “mislaid” or allowed to go missing through no fault of our own?   Which of our lost items may we need to admit some responsibility for losing? Are there any relationships that may require us to own responsibility before the relationship can be restored?

Sheep, Coin Prodigal

Pages 49 – 50: In the first parable, the shepherd does not take responsibility for losing his sheep; in the second, the woman admits her fault; in the third, the father does not initially even realize that his elder son is lost; his desperate search then is not for the younger who himself went astray, but for the older, whom he had lost. The first two parables have happy endings; the third leaves us with the father and the oldest son (unresolved) in the field. The challenge continues.

How do you understand the “progression” in the three stories about things that were lost? Have you thought about the older son as the son the father has lost? Can you imagine a happy ending for the father and the two sons, where “all of the remaining property” supposedly belongs to the older brother, but the father still wants to restore the younger son to a place in the family?

Maybe we can find more answers, but probably more questions after examining Amy Jill’s insights into the story of the father who had two sons.

Pages 55: What exactly caused Junior’s fall is a matter of cultural understanding. Readers in the United States. . . tend to attribute his desperate state to a combination of bad parenting, lack of community values, separating himself from his network, and personal irresponsibility. One individual in a church based adult education program suggested, when I asked what went wrong with the prodigal so that he found himself in such a dire condition, that had Junior experienced prayer in the public school system, none of this mess would have happened.

             Readers in Russia tend to note neither parental failure nor fiduciary ineptitude, but the famine — there was no food to distribute. In a Vanderbilt University seminar on Luke’s Gospel, a graduate student from Kenya proposed that the real problem was lack of generosity, for no one gave him anything. . .

The author here reminds us that all of our reading of the parables, indeed all of scripture are conditioned by our cultural context. How do you think our North American protestant culture has conditioned how we read the story of the man with two sons?

Pages 57 – 58: A proverb from the rabbinic commentary Leviticus Rabbah (13.4) notes, “When the Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.” . . .

            And yet first century listeners may have heard not contrition, but conniving. Junior recalls that Daddy still has money, and he might be able to get more. Unlike the sheep and the coin, he has not been “found.” Rather he recovers his true nature — he is described as “coming to himself” — and that self is one who knows that Daddy will do anything he asks. . .   Although Junior speaks of being treated as a hired hand, his repeated paternal language suggests that he still thinks of himself as his father’s “son”. . . .

            Further suggesting Junior’s lack of remorse is his line, “I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Biblically literate listeners hear an echo of the empty words of Pharaoh in order to stop the plagues. . . The prodigal is no more repentant, has had no more change of heart, that Egypt’s ruler. Homiletician David Buttrick concisely summarizes the prodigal’s strategy: “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”

If we assume the prodigal is not truly repentant, how does this change our reading of the story? Is the meaning of the parable about something other than sin and repentance?

Pages 66 – 76: Before rushing off to allegory, we do well to look at this father as a happy dad whose favorite son has returned. And so we do well to notice who is not mentioned as invited to the party. “Some man had two sons.” Most of us, including the dad in the parable, had lost count. . .

            The father did not know until this moment that the elder was the son who was truly “lost” to him. Once the recognition comes, he does what the shepherd and the woman do: realizing his loss, his lost son, the one whom he loves, he seeks to make his family whole. . .

             Years of resentment have finally boiled over and found expression. The son’s fidelity has been over looked. Once again, the problem child receives more attention, or more love, than the prudent and faithful one. . .

             The son’s alienation is reflected in his words. In contrast to the narrator’s language of “his father” in connection with him. . . there is no relational language in the older son’s remarks. Instead he distances himself from both father and brother by speaking of “your son, his one.”. . .

             What do we do if we identify with the father and find our own children are lost? Is repeated pleading sufficient? What would be? What does a parent do to show a love that the child never felt? The parable shows us that indulgence does not buy love, but withholding can stifle it. And so we search desperately, because our family is not whole. Sheep and coins are easy, children less so. . . .

             If we hold in abeyance, at least for the moment, the rush to read repenting and forgiving into the parable, then it does something more profound than repeat well-know messages. It provokes us with simple exhortations. Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.

             Instead go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection — it is unlikely to happen twice. . . .

. . . We need to take count not only of our blessings, but also of those in our families, and in our communities. And once we count, we need to act. Finding the lost, whether they are sheep, coins or people, takes work. It also requires our efforts, and from those efforts there is potential for wholeness and joy.  

             This is a long section that may require an entire session to discuss. Feel free to bring up any of the material this guide has glossed over. Are there any places in our lives, where we have “lost count?” Have you ever been surprised at discovering you had lost a relationship without know it? What challenges do you face in trying to make your family whole? What challenges do you face in trying to help your community to become whole? Can you identify with the problem of trying to help a child feel loved?   How do you feel about these three admonitions offered by the author: Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past? What do you think of Amy Jill Levine’s definition of “resurrection” with the stories of things that are lost?

Chapter 2: The Good Samaritan

Pages 78 – 79: The parable of the Good Samaritan is so well known for its message of aiding the stranger that it has become a staple of political discourse. Former U.S. President George W. Bush invoked the parable in his first inaugural address: “I can pledge our nation to a goal: when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.” Bush’s presumption was that the U.S. population — who in the minds of some of our politicians, are all Christians — would immediately pick up the reference: “wounded traveler” and “road to Jericho” are images from the parable.

             I checked with Jewish friend of mine — a naturalized U.S. citizen who pays more attention to national and local politics than most people I know. She thought the reference might have been to an accident in New York, since she knew there was a Jericho on Long Island. . . .

. . . . The standard reading is the one in which “we” are the Samaritans; “we Samaritans” help “them,” the sick, the poor, foreign nationals, and so on.

Do you think the Good Samaritan is one of the most recognized passages of scripture? What do you think is the meaning that most people ascribe to the story? Is it important that the hero of the parable was a Samaritan?

Pages 80 – 81: . . . . Nor would they have thought of Samaritans as “strangers.” To the contrary, they were all too familiar neighbors and all too hated enemies.

             The parable for them would not have been about looking after a fellow human being, and the parable is not, finally, an answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” It is more provocative than that. . . .

 . . . . To label the Samaritan, any Samaritan, a “good Samaritan” should be, in today’s climate, seen as offensive. It is tantamount to saying, “He’s a good Muslim” (as opposed to all those others who, in this configuration, would be terrorists) or “She’s a good immigrant” (as opposed to all those others who, in this same configuration, are here to take our jobs or scam our welfare system) . . . .

What modern equivalent could you use to replace “Samaritan” to capture the meaning of this story for a modern American audience? Once you have considered what symbolic figure you would use to replace the Samaritan, what symbolic figures would you use to replace the Priest and the Levite?

The Malevolent Lawyer

Pages 86 – 90: . . . . Like that of our lawyer in our parable, the ruler’s focus on eternal life leads nowhere; a focus on caring for others might offer a better path.

            How far off base is our lawyer? He thinks in terms of a single action rather than a life of righteousness. He thinks of eternal life as a commodity to be inherited or acquired rather than a gift freely given. He focuses on eternal life — his own salvation — when he should be, as Judaism teaches, focused on loving God and neighbor, honoring parents, eschewing stealing, and so on. Finally, he is asking obnoxious questions to which he already knows the answers.

             Jesus does not directly answer the question. Instead, he uses what is sometimes called the “Socratic method” but which, I think, Jews invented or at least perfected. In typical Jewish fashion, he answers a question with a question.

             By turning the question back on the lawyer, Jesus evades the trick. He may also be appealing to the lawyer’s ego: “Surely sir, you know the answer; after all, you are the trained professional.” Jesus provides the lawyer an opportunity to display his knowledge to the

public. . . .

 . . . . Actually, the Torah is not much interested in eternal life or life after death. It is much more interested in how to live in the present. . . .

             Jesus does not merely ask, “What is written in the Torah?” He glosses that question with the more specific: “How do you read?” The double focus on literacy — what is written and how is it read — is usually ignored, but to do so ignores the historical point. The lawyer is literate, a quality not shared by the majority of the population in antiquity. . . .

 

            The lawyer’s response is a combination of two verses of the Torah known to all practicing Jews then and now. The first is Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of Judaism’s daily liturgy. . . . love of God is the ground of one’s being and the guide for one’s life.

             The second verse the lawyer cites is inextricably connected to the first: love of God has to be manifested: to love means to act: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is Leviticus 19:18. . . .

             The lawyer knew the commandments, and he would have known the context. Whether he fully understood them is another question.

             The lawyer got the right answer; good for him. However, he did not get the right question, so Jesus changes it for him. Whereas the lawyer asked about “eternal life,” Jesus reframes what is at stake by exhorting, “Do this, and you will live.” . . . The point is to “live now” and not be focused on “eternal life. . . “

What is the problem with the assumptions behind the lawyers questions? Do you see any parallels between the assumptions made by the lawyer and focus of much of much of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity? For you how important is it to “get saved?” How important is “salvation theology” in your faith?

Pages 90 – 92: His question, “Who is my neighbor?” is on the technical level not a bad one. . . .

             Thus the alien is necessarily a neighbor, a fellow.

             On the home front, I wonder if those folks who want to impose “biblical values” in America today have considered Leviticus 19 in debates over immigration reform. . .

             The lawyers question has legal merit. One needs to know who are neighbors, and so under the same legal system, and who are not. But in the context of love, his question is not relevant. According to Leviticus, love has to extend beyond the people in one’s group. Leviticus 19 insists on loving the stranger as well.

Amy Jill suggests that the question, “Who is my neighbor?” might have some relevance in a discussion about immigration reform. How do you think a “biblical values” person like Ted Cruz would respond to the implications of Levine’s arguments? How do you think Donald Trump would respond to her statement that, “Leviticus 19 insists on loving the strange as well?” How do you think “law” and “love” are related?

Pages 93 – 94: For our parable the lawyer’s question is again misguided. To ask “Who is my neighbor” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom I can hate?” The answer Jesus gives is, “No one.” Everyone deserves that love — local or alien, Jew or gentile, terrorist or rapist, everyone. . . .

            . . . . Only Jesus insists on loving the enemy: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He may be the only person in antiquity to have given this instruction.

             Given this concern for loving the enemy, the focus on literacy in the lead-in to our parable provokes another possible reading. In Hebrew the words “neighbor” and “evil” share the same consonants (reshayin); they differ only in the vowels — but ancient Hebrew texts do not have vowels (if this sounds odd, think of text messaging). Both words are written identically.

             When Jesus asks the lawyer, “How do you read?” he is therefore asking, “Dear Sir, are you able to see, in the very words of the Torah, the equation of enemy with neighbor and thus the command to love both? The lawyer has read the words in the Hebrew, but he cannot see their full meaning.

             Not only does our lawyer fail to interpret the Law in its fullest meaning; he is about to become the recipient of a parable. We know from the parables told by Jotham and Nathan, that if a parable is directed to a particular individual, the individual is likely to come to an unwelcome realization. The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus is about to bring him to the test.

Can you see how Jesus is setting up the lawyer? Were you aware of the lack of vowel markings in ancient Hebrew? This lack of vowels sometimes opens up a wide range of readings of a text. Can you see how this lack of vowels opens up to numerous different translations?

Pages 94 – 96: The opening of the parable efficiently sets the scene. The person lacks identification. . . Jesus’s listeners would have had no trouble identifying with the victim; they may have been victims of attack themselves. . .

             So the robbers are the bad guys, as we note also from their violence. . . He is robbed not only of his possessions, but also of his dignity, his health, and almost his life. . . The lawyer had asked about eternal life – he should rather be worried about those left half dead. . .

             And yet half dead is still alive; the man is, despite being naked. . . and prostrate, alive. Listeners, identifying with him, can only hope that rescue will come. And because they identify with him their question — and so our question — is: “Who will help me?”

Have you even found yourself identifying with the victim in the parable? Have you ever been in need of help? In what form did help come? How did you feel about that?

Page 102 – 103: Arguments that read the parable in terms of “uncleanness” or “purity are made by modern Christians, not by Jesus or Luke. Neither gives the priest or Levite an excuse. Nor would any excuse be acceptable. Their responsibility was to save life; they failed. Saving a live is so important that Jewish Law mandates that it override every other concern, including keeping the Sabbath. . . Their responsibility, should the man have died, was to bury the corpse. They failed here as well.

             The best explanation I’ve heard for the refusal of the priest and the Levite to come to the aid of the man in the ditch comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who preached: “I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible there men were afraid. . . . And so the first question that the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ . . . But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help that man, what will happen to him?’” King went on, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” King then went to Memphis, and it was there he was assassinated. There are bandits on the road.

             Whatever the motives of the priest and the Levite, King is correct. They, like the lawyer, thought only about themselves, not about the man in the ditch.

             So if the issue is not priestly purity, why did Jesus speak explicitly of a priest and a Levite? The duo anticipate, in good folkloric fashion, the appearance of the third figure. . . .

             For Jesus’s audience, and for any synagogue congregation today, the third of the group is obvious. Mention a priest and a Levite, and anyone who knows anything about Judaism will know that the third person is an Israelite. . . .

             However, Jesus is telling a parable, and parables never go the way one expects. Instead of the anticipated Israelite, the person who stops to help is a Samaritan. In modern terms, this would be like going from Larry and Moe to Osama bin Laden.

How do you think a modern American audience would respond to an Isis fighter or a member of Hamas portrayed as the hero of the parable? For a modern American audience, what would be appropriate parallels for the priest and the Levite? What do you think of Martin Luther King’s observation that maybe the priest and the Levite did not stop, because they were afraid? Have you ever been in a situation, where you were afraid to help?

Page 104: But to understand the parable as did its original audience, we need to think of Samaritans less as oppressed but benevolent figures and more as the enemy, as those who do the oppressing. From the perspective of the man in the ditch, Jewish listeners might balk at the idea of receiving Samaritan aid. They might have thought, “I’d rather die than acknowledge that one of that group saved me”; I do not want to acknowledge that a rapist has a human face”; or “I do not want to recognize that a murder will be the one to rescue me.”

Have you known people who were “picky” about the sources of help they would accept? What do you think motivated their reluctance to accept help? Have you ever offered aid that was refused?

Pages 112 – 113: . . . a benevolent reading of the Samaritan’s final actions understands him as providing not one time aid, but long term care. Thus, the sense of loving neighbor means continual action, not something to check off the to do list. The Samaritan’s offering the inn keeper what amounts to a blank check fits within Jesus’ over all concern for generosity. Moreover, his trusting the Inn Keeper to care for the wounded man echoes the trust the wounded man had to have had in him.   By trusting the Inn Keeper, he provides confirmatory evidence that we make our neighbors; that trust is essential for life.

             . . . . In the long run, at least as far as the victim is concerned, they (motives) may not matter. Of ultimate import is not our motive, but our action.

             The parable proper ends here. But Jesus is not done with the lawyer and neither are we.

             Do you think it is true that we “make” our neighbors? How important is trust in the process of being neighbors? How important are motives?

Pages 114 – 115: For the lawyer and for Luke’s readers, the Samaritan does what God does. The divine is manifested only through our actions. Therefore, Jesus responds to the lawyer’s observation not with a question and not with a parable , but with an imperative: “Go,” he says, “and do likewise.” . . . .

             For a final sense of the profundity of the parable, we need only look from ancient texts to present contexts. . . .

             . . . . To hear the parable today, we only need to update the identity of the figures. I am an Israeli Jew . . . . left half dead in a ditch. Two people who should have stopped to help pass me by. . . . But the person who takes compassion on me and shows me mercy is a Palestinian Muslim whose sympathies lie with Hamas. . .

 . . . . If people in the Middle East could picture this, we might have a better vision for choosing life.

             Can we finally agree that it is better to acknowledge the humanity and the potential to do good in the enemy, rather than to choose death? Will we be able to care for our enemies , who are also our neighbors? Will we be able to find up their wounds rather than blow up their cities? And can we imagine they might do the same for us?

Can you see the parallels between the parable and the situation in the Holy Land today?   Can you think of any other parallels in our world today? Refugees? Immigrants? Illegal Aliens?

 

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2 Comments on “Study Guide for Short Stories by Jesus Part I”

  1. Larry Thomson says:

    I really appreciate your study guide to “Short Stories of Jesus” part 1. Do you have a guide to part 2?


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