I imagine I am a shepherd in Judea at the time of Jesus. My cousin Reuben agrees to watch the sheep, so I can go listen to Jesus speak.
Jesus asks a strange question that I answer under my breath, “Not me!” The question, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one, would leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4-7)
Certainly, I would not go after the lost sheep. In this wilderness I could search for hours and never find it. There are thieves and marauders in the area. They could steal most of the other ninety-nine. No, I would cut my loses and save the ninety-nine.
As Jewish author, Amy-Jill Levine writes in “Short Stories by Jesus,” the parables are meant to provoke, confront and disturb us. Yet Christians have domesticated them to such a degree that they no longer challenge our behavior.
Christians have also misnamed several parables. In the first line, a parable tells us who the parable is about. For example, we name one parable “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32). Yet the parable begins, “A man had two sons.” The parable is about this man.
Another mistake is to turn parables into allegories. Briefly, a parable tries to teach one main point. In an allegory, each part represents something. When Christian preachers make each part represent something, it is often to the detriment of Jews.
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For example, some Christian writers say the angry older brother in the above parable represents Jews who were faithful to the Torah. They say he represents Jews who are upset that God’s mercy goes beyond them. This is a wrong interpretation and unfair to Jews. The older brother is simply the older brother. The story is about the father. When we observe the forgiveness by the father, how does it challenge us about our own practice of forgiveness?
Another parable that is misnamed is “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” (Luke 10: 30-37) The parable is about a man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who was robbed, stripped, beaten and left half dead. This parable challenges my response to people like him who are “left on the side of the road” in life.
Yet some Christian preachers explain the Jewish priest and Levite passed the man because they were concerned about Jewish purity laws. These preachers miss a main point: they are going down from Jerusalem, not up to the Temple. Hence purity laws would not be a concern. Another pejorative interpretation about Jews.
Levine says the best explanation of this parable is given by Martin Luther King Jr. He says the first question the priest and Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan reversed the question, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
King went on to say, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” King then went to Memphis to help the sanitation workers and was assassinated. There were “bandits on the road.”
Who do I leave “on the side of the road?” The homeless man in Houska Park? The transgender woman sitting by herself? The black family that moved into our white neighborhood? The person released from jail with no support?
The parables are meant to disturb and challenge us.
My mind goes back to August 2017 in Charlottesville. I was profoundly saddened seeing white supremacists marching with lit torches shouting, “The Jews will not replace us!” Many of these marchers would call themselves Christians.
Now I wonder how these Christians became angry anti-Semites. Did preachers and teachers contribute to this distorted and horrific view by how they taught the parables?
In the last chapter of her book, “The Power of Disturbing Stories,” Levine writes that Jesus told parables not to give us answers but to ask the right questions — questions about “how to live in community; how to determine what ultimately matters; how to live a life that God wants us to live.”
If the interpretation of a parable by a Jew to other Jews yields a negative stereotype of Judaism, then the interpretation has gotten more lost than the lost coin and the lost sons.
Even more lost than the lost sheep.
Vince Hatt has been a spiritual director for over 40 years. He has a master’s degree in religious education from Catholic University and a master’s degree in theology from the Aquinas Institute.