Book Review: The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation

The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation by Brad Young

This is a fantastic book, I would recommend that all Christians read this book! It covers roughly twenty-one of Jesus parables. It looks at them in light of the other parables told regarding the subject in Judaism, and other parables which use the same elements (wheat and chaff, servants and masters, etc.) but about different subjects. It is remarkable the degree in which Jesus is truly a contemporary of his time. Young focuses on removing allegory from Christian interpretation. He suggests that Jesus is much in line with certain principles that the Pharisees already hold (not all, however). The true genius of Jesus is in his execution. For example, there are many parables and principles in Judaism, particularly held by the Pharisees, that you should help your neighbor in need. However, only Jesus took that principle and elevated it, showing just how serious God is about that idea, with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus would often use the “underdog”, or an outcast – like the Samaritan – as the hero in his parables. As an example of the rest of the book, I’ll focus on his treatment of this parable.

Young uses Luke’s version of the parable (10.25-37). He starts out by saying that the person asking Jesus questions is legitimate and within the social boundaries. This man is a Torah Scholar (gr. nomikos), and is well within scope to ask Jesus about who his neighbor is. Furthermore the end of the parable results in the man understanding Jesus’ point – which we gloss over as Christians reading this text. Jesus asked who was the neighbor to the man who was beaten. He did not ask which of the three considered the beaten man his neighbor. The scholars response was – the one who showed mercy – the Samaritan. Why is the Samaritan considered the neighbor? Because the original question the scholar posed was “Who is my neighbor”. We will see in further detail the Pharisee would have considered the beaten man’s plight and helped him – this is a valid conclusion we can take away from Jesus. But specifically regarding that man’s question, on that day in history, Jesus wished to show that Pharisee that Samaritans were his neighbor. Samaritans we’re typically regarded as enemies in that culture and time. Jesus teaches this scholar that your neighbor is a Samaritan – even your enemies. That is who you are to love. Now we can turn to see exactly what kind of love we are dealing with.

I do not think we can conclude that the other passers-by did not care at all for the man. But rather they had other, higher, priorities.

In the eyes of a Sadducean literalist, the prohibition in the written Torah (Lev 21.1) “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them that none of them shall defile himself for the dead among his people'” superseded all humanitarian concerns. The Pharisees would never have agreed. pg 109

E. P. Sanders wisely notes “In the parable, Jesus criticizes a priest and a Levite for not being willing to rish coming into contact with a corpse. The point seems to be that they did not know whether or not the man by the side of the road was dead, and they were unwilling to risk incurring corpse-impurity simply on the chance that they might have been able to help.” What should be emphasized here is that well-known oral Torah teachings treated the issues that confronted the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, who all encountered the scene of a cruel and brutal robbery. The oral law teaches proper ethical conduct whether the man was dead of still alive. pg 111

The oral Torah gave specific commandment that, if the man was dead, you have to bury him. You would be unclean, but you have to bury him. The ironic part of the story is that neither the priest, Levite, or Samaritan regarded the oral Torah as authoritative, while the man Jesus is speaking with does. If the priest and the Levite were to be unclean they could not serve in their respective temple duties. On the other hand the Samaritan, because of the prejudice of the society could in fact be implicated for the beating! There is a parable given about the same kind of attitude towards the temple service and the entire disregard for human life

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were side by side as they ran to mount the ramp. When one of them came first within four cubits of the alter, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. Rabbi Zadok stood on the steps of the Hall and proclaimed: “Our brethren of the house of Israel listen carefully! Behold it says: ‘If one shall be found slain in the land… then thy elders and judges shall come forth… (Deut 21.1). On whose behalf shall we offer the heifer whose neck is to be broken, on behalf of the city or on behalf of the Temple?” All the people burst out weeping. The father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: “May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.” His remark comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them than even the shedding of blood. Thus it was also said: “Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other (2 Kings 21.16). pg 113, ben Yoma 23a

We see here the same attitude towards the Temple service. A priest killed another in order to be able to give the sacrifice himself. And the dying man’s Father exclaims “The knife is still clean and can be used in service at the Temple”. In Jesus’ parable the priest and Levite would not risk their own service in the Temple to do what even a Pagan of the time would have the courtesy to do. Yet the Samaritan – whom they regarded as an enemy – risked being implicated in the crime to do what was right. All this comes to teach the scholar.

He asked the scholar, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” When the Torah scholar answered, “He who showed mercy on him,” he was saying, “An enemy is my neighbor,” or, to be more exact in the context of the first century, “Even my enemy is my neighbor.” pg 116

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