The Lord sent Nathan to David….and he said to him,“…..’Now there came a traveler to the rich man,…[the rich man] took [a] poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die…’ Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!…’” – 1 Samuel 12:1, 4-7a
Stories are powerful means of helping us experience life through the eyes of someone else. When we are drawn into a story, we are better able to imagine a different perspective, even see ourselves in ways that reveal what our own defense mechanisms will not allow us to see. The story of King David in 2 Samuel 12 is a great example.
King David has a harem full of women and multiple wives. Yet he spied Bathsheba taking a bath, and decided he must have her. Bathsheba was already married, but that did not stop David. Who would dare refuse the King? The tryst resulted in a pregnancy; David tried keep that truth from Bathsheba’s husband. He ended up sending her husband to the front line, knowing he would be killed. When the time of mourning for her dead husband had ended, David married Bathsheba himself, thinking no one would be the wiser. However, God sees all, and sent Nathan the prophet to confront David. Nathan told him a parable about a rich man who slaughters a poor man’s only lamb to feed to a guest. David, having been a shepherd, related to the grief of the poor man’s loss. Nathan then confronted him with the truth: he is no better than that rich man!
Short Stories by Jesus is no ordinary study. Scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine uses first-century history and context to “reset” how we might hear some of Jesus’ most provocative parables. She reviews how these parables have traditionally been understood, and then explains why Jesus’ original audience would NOT have heard them in the same way. This does not make the traditional interpretations wrong; it simply defies the notion that parables have only one meaning. We have often domesticated Jesus’ parables to a children’s message (“Everyone should be nice, like the Good Samaritan”) or a comfortable Biblical truth (“We need to pray persistently, like the poor widow”). Domesticating Jesus’ parables keeps us from deeply engaging other possibilities that are more challenging to us. Levine also states that Jesus set a high priority on loving neighbors, as witnessed in the four gospels. It would have been front and center in all of His teachings as well, including the parables. As she works through possible meanings of the parables, she asks: “How is it I can love my neighbor?”
“The parables,” writes Levine, “if we take them seriously not as answers but as invitations, can continue to transform our lives, even as our lives continue to open up the parables to new reading.” (page 297, Short Stories by Jesus (the book)). In other words, Jesus’ parables were meant to challenge our pre-conceived notions and stereotypes, causing us to dig more deeply into ourselves.
As I read through the material in her book and the study guide, I was both challenged and intrigued. I did not always agree with Levine, but I don’t think she would be offended by my alternative opinions. I think her point is to upset our comfortable familiarity with some of the more beloved parables, and offer possibilities for those parables that are totally obtuse to those of us in the 21st century. Levine identifies several ways of interpreting parables that we need to avoid:
• Hearing the parable as a children’s message. These are generally overly simplistic interpretations.
• Hearing the parables as comfort. Levine insists that parables are meant to provoke and invite a new way of thinking.
• Hearing the parables using anti-Jewish stereotypes, comparing “bad Judaism” to “good Jesus.”
• Hearing the parables in our own context, without understanding the history or context behind the stories.
• Hearing the parables as allegory, in which characters or items symbolize something else.
As we study the six parables that Levine offers, we will not be focusing on the “right” interpretation, so much as we will be trying to hear the parables through the ears of the crowds who actually heard Jesus tell them. With some understanding of how the parables might have provoked the crowds that followed Jesus, how do we translate the parables into our own context, so that we can hear Jesus’ challenge for us today?
There should be some great discussions in all the small groups! I encourage you to join one of them!
See you in worship!
Yours for the Journey,