Notes from Amy-Jill Levine lecture; Jesus’ Parables through the first century lens

Jonathan and I went to see Amy-Jill Levine lecture last night at Our Lady of the Brook in Northbrook, IL (a few miles away from our church). There were probably a hundred people or so in attendance…many Jews, several Catholics, some Protestants…a good mix of religious backgrounds.

She lectured on Jesus’ parables and shared an amazing perspective that really challenged me, especially as I’m about to write a whole year of lessons on Jesus’ life and ministry. Some of the things she shared were:

-Parables were written for adults. While the Beatitudes were meant to comfort the afflicted, the parables were meant to afflict the comfortable. *Many times, especially when teaching the parables to children, we wrap the parable up with a neat moralistic bow and push a certain objective such as “this parable teaches us about the importance of repentance.” She noted that in doing this we completely miss the historical context of the parable and the intended meaning. Thus, she would take a few parables and dissect them in their historical context, and BAM – totally different perspective.

-If someone in the parable is doing something weird, pay attention. *This one really caught my attention, especially hearing it with the understanding of not needing to prove a certain moralistic objective. She shared the parable of the Pearl of Great Price as an example; “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46, CEB). She noted what general commentaries say about it, trying to figure out what the pearl signifies, and said, perhaps it’s not about the pearl, but about what the merchant is doing. She talked about what a merchant would have been like in the first century context, and suggested that the real question in this passage is, what, like the merchant, are you willing to sell/give up everything you have for? 

-She was so quick-witted and just really funny, the way she interweaved humor and wit into her presentation. When introducing the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three men visiting them (to explain the meaning of “measures of flour”), she said that Jews read that the three men are God and two angels, Christians think of the three men as the Trinity, and Bible Scholars note that “it probably never happened so it doesn’t really matter.”

-Another piece I found interesting was her notes on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which she deems the Parable of the Absent Mother, “because if she were there it would never have happened.” She proposed that it wasn’t about repentance…because the son never really repented…but it was about bad parenting and not attending to relationships, and summed the meaning up in one simple phrase, “perhaps you should go to lunch” (and be with those whom you have written out of the story of your life).


We are excited to get the Jewish Annotated New Testament. She led a seminar again today for several hours but we weren’t able to go. I would LOVE to hear her speak again. I told Jonathan he needs to work at Vanderbilt so we can be friends with her. Ha.

The link above is an article I found today…which I searched for because I had several friends like my status on facebook about hearing her speak and I know they have no clue who she is (or else they would not have liked it). To sum up her lecture last night she talked about the importance of interreligious dialogue, so I thought I’d share her quote in this article on the topic, which totally sits well with me:

“What brings me great joy is to have people recognize they can disagree. They don’t have to sacrifice their own religion in order to be in an interfaith conversation. They can stand firmly in terms of who they are and say, ‘This is what I believe,’ and then have somebody else say, ‘OK, I don’t believe that, but I see where you get it, and I respect it.’ That’s fabulous.” -Amy-Jill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s