"Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, 'I really like that' or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening hard enough."
Since Dr. Amy-Jill Levine first rolled into Greenwood on Friday night, these lines have been the chorus of her weekend engagements. They are effectively the thesis of her latest book, Short Stories by Jesus, but she echoed them in each of her talks over the past three days. It's safe to say that this Jewish New Testament scholar took the city by storm (not to mention the scores of visitors from five states that came to listen).
On Friday night I craned my neck from the back of the overflow crowd standing in Ahavath Rayim Synagogue. Rabbi Jeremy Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service which saw Greenwood's many civic leaders, farmers, lawyers, pastors, and priests don yarmulkes and join in Hebrew prayers. Already this would have been a signature moment for the city, but Dr. Levine hadn't even risen to speak yet. When she did, it was to completely disarm her audience with some rapidfire jokes and the story of how she had once aspired to become Pope. If there was anyone left who maintained a guarded suspicion, she won them over as well with her opening remarks about the differences between Christian and Jewish interpretations of Holy Scripture. "Whatever your own beliefs, I am not here to take that away," Dr. Levine began. Instead, she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian. The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.
Saturday's events were to take place at the parish hall of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity. I brought over several boxes of Dr. Levine's books from Turnrow in case any attendees were interested in her other work. I hadn't even started opening boxes before my table was swarmed with hands brandishing cash and cards. By lunchtime, our once-tall stacks of her books had dwindled, especially Short Stories by Jesus.
The talks on Saturday involved the Christmas story, Jesus' parables, and advice for anyone teaching the New Testament. Once again, Dr. Levine demonstrated the limitless depth of her biblical knowledge and her passion for returning her listeners to the first century shores of the Sea of Galilee. Most riveting of all were her words on the parables, especially when she read them through the disparate lenses of Jews, Australians, Russians, and Kenyans. At these moments, the crowd of 200+ was audibly gasping.
"A parable is designed to provoke, to challenge, to indict. If someone comes up to you and starts telling you a parable, RUN AWAY."
Returning to the store with mostly empty boxes, I looked ahead to her sermon at Nativity on Sunday. On that morning, the sanctuary filled with the usual congregants, but their numbers were bolstered by the dozens of attendees from all over. After the organ's thunderous swells had faded, Dr. Levine took center stage for the final time. She had saved her best moments for the very end. Remarking on the parable of the Good Samaritan (the one parable perhaps most often used to 'comfort' complacent churchgoers), Dr. Levine once again spun it around. Rather than think of ourselves as the Samaritan, she explained, we ought to take the place of the half-dead traveler. What would we do if our worst enemy had been the one to save our lives? Bringing the parable to the immediate present, Dr. Levine invoked Martin Luther King, Jr. (who spoke on this very parable only weeks before being gunned down in Memphis), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the shootings in Paris earlier this month. "The one who showed him mercy," is the lawyer's response to Jesus' question about which traveler was neighbor to the man in the ditch. Before the enraptured congregation could catch its breath, Dr. Levine finished with the words of Jesus himself: "Go and do likewise."
As advertised, Dr. Levine did not come to Greenwood to comfort and reassure its majority Christian population. In fact, her words of challenge will resonate in this town long after her return to Vanderbilt Sunday evening. We know this even as booksellers, since at least fifty copies of her books are now being read all over town. We're grateful to Mary Carol Miller, Rev. Peter Gray, Sarah Iwanski, and Nativity's Thoughts, Words, and Deeds Committee for organizing and rallying everyone around this weekend's events. Rabbi Jeremy Simons, Director of Rabbinic Services for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, was essential in making this weekend possible, especially Friday evening at Ahavath Rayim. And of course we're going to thank Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. She did indeed come to town to provoke, but in the crowds that listened intently all weekend, we saw a tremendous show of unity and common fellowship across faiths. In Greenwood and the Delta at large, we can always be thankful for that.