2021 ECPA Christian Book Award Finalist for Bible Study
Jesus’ parables can’t simply be interpreted, they must be experienced.
In the gospels, Jesus used parables to teach transformative lessons and convey deep spiritual truths about the kingdom of God. But he often used them to confront and challenge his audience as well, forcing them to open or close their hearts to the kingdom.
Jesus understood the power of stories, but there are some things lost in translation when we try to interpret those same stories thousands of years removed from their original context. The unexpected twists and surprises in the parables might be missed by a modern audience because they’re unfamiliar with the underlying points of reference.
In Surprised by the Parables, Michelle Lee-Barnewall explores the ancient context these parables drew from. These stories of grace reveal many of the mysteries central to God’s character, and understanding the ancient world behind them will help us see the parables from a new perspective.
The parables are some of the most important teachings we have from Jesus, but many modern readers of the Gospels find them puzzling. Why did Jesus teach like this? What was his message? Lee-Barnewall packs deep wisdom into this concise book, shedding light on context and unpacking how the parables are stories of divine grace.
–Nijay K. Gupta, associate professor of New Testament, Portland Seminary
Written with passion and candor, Michelle Lee-Barnewall investigates the parables’ historical setting and invites readers to ponder their teachings in light of their own circumstances. She explains the puzzles in the parables as she develops their lessons on discipleship. This beautifully written exploration of the parables draws the reader to the feet of Jesus.
–Lynn Cohick, provost and dean, professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
“Although the parables teach about the kingdom of heaven, the true message is only received by those who have willing hearts. Those who are open will seek Jesus for more clarification of the message, like the disciples do. Jesus calls them ‘blessed’ because they are able to see and hear spiritual truths. However, those who are hardened will simply be confused or, even more, reject Jesus and his message. In this way, parables reveal God’s secrets to some but conceal them from others. Indeed, for those who are unresponsive, even what they have will be taken away, and they will become even more hardened. The parables are teaching opportunities, but they also expose the nature of people’s hearts.” (Page 5)
“Parables not only teach a lesson; they also—perhaps even more importantly—call for a response from the reader or hearer. Because of this call for a response, we need to keep in mind the original audience. We must always ask ourselves, Whom is Jesus telling the parable to? How did he challenge them?” (Page 6)
“Jesus teaches that he came to save those society rejects. He memorably illustrates this by telling two parables, using as main characters those who were looked down on by the larger society: that is, a shepherd and a woman.” (Page 10)
“Story parables transfer truth through a focus on specific people and their actions” (Page 3)
“Jesus sees people as created in the image of God, which means they are of great value. He sees their worth and responds to it. Jesus does not expect people to be sinless like he is. Instead, he is willing to meet them where they are. That is what grace is about. It lifts people from where they are, rather than crushing them for not attaining perfection. It provides dignity and hope. It gives life.” (Page 19)
Michelle Lee-Barnewall (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, in La Mirada, California. She is the author of Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ.