Reading the parables of Jesus with Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine (Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi) has been unsettling. During lent I’ve preached some of Jesus’ parables, and listening to Levine unpack them causes me to cringe. I’m guilty of allegorizing; I’m guilty of making them too easy. The rhetoric in my community is starting to ratchet up even more. Social issues like immigration and homosexuality have people picking sides and claiming divine favor. One side is concerned about righteousness and biblical morality, the other grace and love. We’re all guilty of selectively reading the bible, hearing what we want and then using it as a defense for our position. And yet, a close reading of the sermon on the mount and Jesus’ parables unravels our certainty—maybe God doesn’t pick sides.
Levine describes the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector as a trap. The tendency is to identify with the tax collector over and against the pharisee. We read the text as a polemic against the religiosity of the pharisee, and even against the temple system itself, with its purity codes and religious expectations. Levine argues, however, that this is not what the parable is about. The tax collector is not impure, otherwise he wouldn’t even be in the temple, and the problem with the pharisee is not his dutiful keeping of the law. The problem is this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…or even this tax collector.” Immediately, we hear the judgmental nature of the pharisee, something the original audience would have heard as well, and we identify with the tax collector. The trap comes when we end up saying: “God I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.” The message of this parable is about judgement: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. (Matthew 7:1)
The teachings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount are life giving and difficult. We are told to “not resist an evil doer” and to “turn the other cheek”. We are told to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” What does it look like to love God and love neighbor, and on top of this what does it mean to love my enemy? Maybe it means practicing empathy, trying to understand each other despite our disagreements. Maybe it means giving space for the other side to hold their beliefs without judgement, demonizing, or public shaming, even as we acknowledge our differences and disagreements.
In Joshua 5 Joshua has a vision of man who identifies himself as the commander of the Lord’s army. Joshua asks, “What side are you on?” “Neither,” is the reply. I wonder if the same answer is true of the social, political, and theological battles raging all around us. God isn’t on anyone’s side, and yet God is on everyone’s side. What matters is that we hold our beliefs lightly, take responsibility for our neighbors through acts of mercy, justice, and kindness, while we learn what it means to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.