By LINDA M. LINONIS
With insight, Scriptural references and a hefty dose of humor, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine captivated an audience of about 215 people during her presentation, “Jesus’ Parables as Jewish Stories: Hearing Jesus’ Parables with Jewish Ears,” in the 2013 Rabbi Samuel Meyer Memorial Lecture. The event was Thursday night at First Presbyterian Church, 201 Wick Ave.
The Rev. Nick Mager, church pastor, welcomed the group, noting the it represented both “diversity and unity.” The Rev. Sue Francis, pastor of Kinsman Presbyterian Church, introduced the speaker. She shared the story that when Levine was a child, she told her mother she wanted to be the Pope. Francis said Levine’s mother told her she couldn’t do that because she wasn’t Italian.
Levine carried on that humor in her talk, which dealt with how Jesus’ first followers, Jews, would have understood parables. “I’m not erasing the Christian interpretation but adding a layer to it,” Levine said.
She noted that how contemporary people interpret and understand the parables is different from the generation that heard them from Jesus and succeeding generations. “Each generation comes up with a new interpretation of what parables mean,” she said. “The Bible is a living text ... it means new things to new people reading it.”
Levine said how the Jewish audience of Jesus’ time period understood the parables and we, contemporary society, interpret the stories differs because of semantics and circumstances. She pointed out that early Scripture was written in Greek, but Jesus spoke Aramaic. And we’re reading the Bible in English. “In translation, something is left out, something is added,” she said. Parables can find roots in the Torah, she said.
Parables were mean to “shake up the invididual and the status quo,” she said, but they also offer simplistic moral interpretations that makes them wonderful teaching tools for vacation Bible schools and children’s programs. “The parables give a message to children but in a cultural context there’s so much more,” she said. “Parables are open to multiple interpretations.”
Levine used a variety of parables to make points. She described the merchant mentioned in Matthew 13:45-46 as a “wholesaler of high-end products” who sold what he had to buy one of the “goodly pearls” at a great price. The merchant, she said, “puts all his eggs in one basket” with the expensive pearl. Levine said the “one thing” of importance is different for each person. The parable raises questions about choices and what’s valued.
Levine said sometimes a word “sounds peculiar” in a parable. That could be said about the parable of leaven, which refers to how leaven was “hid in three measures of meal” in Matthew 13:33. Then succeeding references warn about the leaven of the Pharisees.
In Genesis Chapter 18, when Abraham welcomes three stranges, Jews interpret it as God and two angels and Christians, the Trinity. “This is about hospitality. Do we invite people in .... or wait for them to show up at the door,” Levine asked.
Levine wondered about the parable of the lost sheep or the inept shepherd. The shepherd leaves 99 in the wilderness to go look for one lost one, she said. But, she said, “There is joy in finding it.”
The parable of the Good Samaritan poses the question of who is your neighbor, Levine said. A priest and Levite passed by the man, beaten and bloody and left in a ditch. Some might say there were concerned about “purity issues” of dealing with what might have been a corpse, Levine said. But they were traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, not going to the temple. The enemy, a Samarian, helps the man left for dead. Levine wondered if the enemy ignored that aspect and saw a “child of God” in the wounded man.
“Parables are mean to be read in community,” Levine said, noting “they are open to our interpretation.”
The Bible, Levine said, is not static. “It’s a living text,” she said. “The past informs the present and the present informs the future. That’s what parables do.”
A workshop, which took place Thursday at the church, was attended by 84 participants including clergy, church school and parochial teachers and others who teach the New Testament. Levine led the program on the topic “Understanding First Century Judaism: A Key to Understanding Jesus.”
The Rev. George Balasko, who founded the Jewish/Christian Studies with Rabbi Meyer, noted monetary donations are being accepted at the Rabbi Samuel Meyer Memorial Trust, in care of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, 3635 Boardman-Canfield Road, Canfield, to help continue the series. Next year will be the 20th.