Book Notice: Surprised by the Parables: Growing in Grace through the Stories of Jesus

Michelle Lee-Barnewall. Surprised by the Parables: Growing in Grace through the Stories of Jesus. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2020. 192 pages. $18.99 (paperback).

Michelle Lee-Barnewall, who serves as Associate Professor of New Testament at Biola University, has authored numerous publications in the field of New Testament studies, particularly Pauline studies. In Surprised by the Parables: Growing in Grace through the Stories of Jesus, Lee-Barnewall seeks to present the meaning of ten “story” parables based on an exploration of the parables’ cultural and historical context. This exploration serves not only as a means to extract the didactic element of a parable but, more importantly, as a tool to assist readers in discovering an appropriate response to the parable, which elicits grace-oriented transformation (p. 6).

After a brief introduction, the author begins her investigation of ten specific parables from the Gospel accounts. The parables are not chosen arbitrarily. Rather, as is evident from the title of each corresponding chapter, the theme of grace serves as the undercurrent of the entire work. Thus, for example, the parable of the prodigal son underscores the benefits of receiving grace and rejecting self-righteousness, while the parable of the workers in the vineyard serves to bring out in its readers a response of generous grace that renounces self-advancement.

Though a short volume (roughly 160 pp.), Surprised by the Parables exhibits masterful attention to the biblical and cultural context in a refreshingly accessible manner. The parables examined are introduced in a relatable way, captivating the attention of modern-day readers. What is more, Lee-Barnewall’s point-by-point summaries and questions for application at the end of each chapter undoubtedly assist in cementing the contents presented. However, readers of a more academic bent may notice a potential weakness in Lee-Barnewall’s methodology that might leave it open to the charge of being too generalizing. In other words, while grace may be a central theme in the parables presented in her book, such a theme might be absent in other parables (e.g. the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). Thus, readers should be careful to avoid unwarranted generalizations that may surface from theme- or motif-driven presentations (e.g. assuming every parable has grace as a central theme).

Overall, this work is a welcome volume, particularly noteworthy for its fusion of academic prowess (evidenced in the author’s knowledge of the New Testament’s culture) and its accessibility. While scholars and pastors may find Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (2nd ed. 2018) a more thorough work in parable interpretation, the lay Christian with limited reading time would certainly find Lee-Barnewall’s work to be an effective guide in understanding and applying these ten parables.

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. CBS book notices are not full academic book reviews. The present book notice was written by Tom Musetti, a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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