By Jennifer Neville, Of The Catholic Virginian
Take a moment to step back when you hear or read a parable in the Bible. Go past the simple explanations children learn and launch yourself toward a more mature interpretation. Think about Jesus’ teachings in the historical perspective, about how first-century Jews may have interpreted Christ’s parables.
Such were the main points which biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D., stressed during her presentation at Immaculate Conception Parish in Hampton May 3. She was the first speaker in the parish’s third annual Bishop Keane Institute Lecture Series.
“She was very engaging and presented a perspective on Jesus that perhaps many had not heard before,” said Immaculate Conception Pastor Father Sean Prince.
Dr. Levine is a professor of Jewish studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Tennessee. Although she is Jewish, she has become an expert on the New Testament and Jewish Studies. She wrote the books “The Misunderstood Jew” and “Short Stories by Jesus.”
Without diminishing Christian tenet that Christ is the son of God, Dr. Levine praised Jesus as “a fabulous story teller” who can be both entertaining and profound at the same time. She added that Christ “opens our hearts” and his stories tell us “what we need to work on.”
“They challenge and they provoke,” Dr. Levine said.
A parable, even if it is only one line, can open up the Word of God and the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven, she said, adding that if you read a parable when you are 6, 26 and 66, it will take on different meanings.
To illustrate her point, she said that when she was a child she watched the cartoon “Rocky and Bullwinkle” with her parents sometimes. While she understood the jokes and puns written on a child’s level, she didn’t understand why her parents were laughing at parts she didn’t find funny. When she watched the show again as an adult, she determined that the program was a satire on the Cold War. The show, written on two levels, became “infinitely more interesting.”
Likewise parables are often told to children in religious education classes because they are easy to understand, Dr. Levine said. She gave the example of the parable in which a shepherd left his 99 sheep in pursuit of one that had gone astray. When he found the sheep, he carried it back and asked his neighbors to rejoice with him. A simple interpretation of the story is that God will rejoice if a person who has gone astray spiritually returns to him. However, your interpretation may change when you consider that in reality the flock would have strayed while the shepherd in his absence, Dr. Levine explained.
Another example she gave is the parable of the prodigal son who returns to his father after squandering his inheritance. The father, who rejoiced at his return, had a party for him. His older son was upset when he heard of the celebration because he had faithfully worked for his father while his sibling was away. His father explained that he was celebrating because his son was lost but now is found. Children usually interpret the parable as meaning God will love them no matter what they do. Some adults today find symbolism in the parable: the prodigal son is sin; the father is God and the brother represents the first-century Jew or Pharisee who doesn’t want anyone to convert to Christianity. But that is probably not the way people in the first century understood the story, Just one bit of information can make interpretation trickier: individuals in today’s world often see the son as selfish, insensitive and insulting for asking for his inheritance. However, in very wealthy families like his in the first century, it was not uncommon for the father to give a younger son his lot of the inheritance so he could go out into the world and make a life of his own, Dr. Levine said.
The parable stops with the father explaining why he was rejoicing, leaving the audience with a cliffhanger as to what happens next. Dr. Levine did not offer her own perspective on either parable because she said the stories are open ended and are meant “to make people think.”
“The reason we have four Gospels is because that’s one way the Bible has to tell us that there are multiple perspectives that you can get, so the Bible is actually an invitation to us to open up new perspectives.”
She advised that upon hearing a parable, you think about what it does for you, not necessarily what it means. She compared listening to a parable to attending a symphony. When it is over, you don’t deliberate on its meaning. Instead you think about how it made you feel.
“Parables help us take that next step to be closer to what the Church would call the Kingdom of Heaven, what the Synagogue would call the World to come,” she said. “They can teach us about theology to be sure. They can teach us about Jesus as Christ to be sure. But when we let parables challenge us, to make us be better people, then we have a better handle on how first century Jews would have heard the parables, and I think we also have a better handle on how the parables might be heard today.”