“The parable thus continues to provoke, to challenge, to disturb. It is very Jesus, and very Jewish.” Amy-Jill Levine (The Misunderstood Jew)
One year and nine months! That’s how long it has been since I last roamed these halls of the Messiah Connection blog. A lot has changed in my life since then as is usually the case with most peoples lives, but those updates will be for another time, hopefully not in another 2 years! I might never get back to my “prolific” blogging days of years past, think 2010 and 2011. Though I do enjoy writing, er typing I mean and sharing my meager thoughts on theology when the occasion presents itself. The oft-repeated cliche of Time or the lack of it appears to be my main enemy in this endeavor or maybe more appropriately the word Excuse fits rather nicely. So, for the sake of time, I will get on with it.
“Jesus cannot be understood fully unless he is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears. the parables are products of first-century Jewish culture, not ours…”
I felt the impetus to write this post while reading the first chapter last night of The Misunderstood Jew (The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus) by Amy-Jill Levine. Amy-Jill Levine is a well awarded and accomplished Jewish scholar in Biblical Studies. She is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Levine is also part of a growing movement of non-messianic Jewish Biblical scholars who are publishing works on Jesus, Paul and the New Testament from an inherently Jewish academic perspective. This part is very exciting in my view, since these Jewish scholars are studying and writing about Jesus from within the greater Jewish community and interacting with his person, claims, theology and implications in a fresh new way. Yet this “new way” is actually a very old way that dates back to first-century Judea and Galilee. This movement seeks to place Jesus back in his Jewish context of land, language, and community. The culture of Jesus is radically different than ours today and has been for the past 1,800 years. This includes the Great Awakening, The Enlightenment, Reformation, the Dark Ages, and even the period of the Church Fathers. To say Jesus has been misunderstood might be the greatest understatement of all time and yet it is appropriate and it applies to both Jews and Christians individually and Judaism and Christianity corporately. This to me, is one of the great wrongs to right in our time!
“Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, shows both the wallop of the story and the weakness of the standard interpretations that fail to consider the Jewish context of the events described”
It was in reading Levine’s treatment of the parable mentioned from the quote above that is found in Luke 18:10-13 that the thought about blogging again was sparked within my heart and mind.
Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘O God, I thank You that I’m not like other people – thieving, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and tithe on all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, wouldn’t even lift his eyes toward heaven, but beat his chest, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
In Levine’s short but effective section on Parables found in the 1st chapter of The Misunderstood Jew, titled Jesus and Judaism my understanding of this parable in particular was enhanced and its possible interpretations broadened. For this I’m thankful!
To begin with, Levine shows how common the parable teaching method was in the Jewish tradition by citing examples from the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Samuel 12:1-7 & Judges 9:7-15) & The Talmud (Song of Songs Rabbah & Lamentations Rabbah). The term Parable literally means in Greek “to place or cast things side by side” i.e. to compare two items. The Hebrew term is Mashal which means a similitude or metaphor. The purpose of the parable is to grab the listeners attention and to provide an element of shock value through the way the story is told and its conclusion. As Levine states “The parable thus leaves readers with a sense of both discomfort and closure: difficult ideas are not repressed but channeled into story.” Levine says that due to centuries of misreading the Gospels, parables no longer pack a punch, cause a surprise or outrage in our days – they’re too nice!
Now back to our parable at hand – The Parable of the Pharisee & Tax Collector. Levine positions that we have a problem; The parable has lost its challenge, it’s no longer discomforting, where’s the shock value?
What we often read and hear today is all too easy to believe. The Tax Collector is obviously more righteous and justified than the evil or at least arrogant Pharisee right?
Levine offers a common conclusion “He [Tax Collector] becomes the ideal Christian: he recognizes his sin, he humbly begs forgiveness, and grace is accorded him. How nice….”.
However, when this parable is taken back to its first-century Jewish context, another more complex interpretation presents itself for consideration. To first-century Jewish ears, a “righteous” or “justified” Tax Collector would have been an oxymoron. “Unbelievable!” They would exclaim. Levine provides a modern analogy to help modern readers grasp this; “the Tax Collector would have been viewed as someone like that of an invading foreign government sent to your local community to take your money and the Pharisee as someone as well respected as that of Mother Teresa or Billy Graham in our times.”
To the original audience of the parable a much different picture would have been in the minds than the common one most often presented today. Levine provides 2 primary interpretive shocks resulting from this.
- Niether the Greek or context of Luke 18:14 demands only the Tax Collector to be “justified”. It is possible the Pharisee is also justified and maybe even more so! Levine quotes Robert Doran saying “As far as I can see, the only factor in the context that has led interpreters to choose such an exclusive meaning is that one doesn’t want to say that a Pharisee is upright/justified”. In this case, as Levine states “the ancient audience is shocked that the Tax Collector has the greater recognition and today’s audience is shocked that the Pharisee has any recognition at all.”
- The Pharisee’s righteous actions (prayer, fasting, tithing) may be the very reasons that make possible the Tax Collector’s right behavior in coming into relationship with God! Levine quotes Timothy Friedrichsen that “Jesus’ Jewish audience would have been shocked, dismayed, or even angered at the very idea that the Pharisee’s righteous behavior and attitude might have benefit, to of all people, their nemesis, a Tax Collector.” Levine offers another helpful modern analogy in that “the righteousness shown by the greatest saint in the church works for the redemption of the greatest sinner”.
The delicious irony of this parable that Levine mentions in the traditional reading, I’m as guilty as anyone! For not just a few times I’ve had the thought when reading this Scripture; “Thank heaven I’m not like that self-righteous Pharisee I’m reading about!” Thankfully due to Levine’s brief treatment of this parable I will no longer have that self-righteous thought. One down – a million more to go!
May grace and shalom be multiplied upon you and yours in the name of Messiah Yeshua during this holiday season and always!