Book Reviews

Book Review: Surprised by the Parables (Michelle Lee-Barnewall)

It’s been said that one should not teach the parables until they have been preaching for at least ten years, but Michelle Lee-Barnewall’s new book on the parables makes it hard to follow such advice. In it she shows how Jesus’ parables were a means of spiritual formation through confronting and challenging those Jesus spoke with. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God and life in the kingdom, about God’s grace shown to us and the grace we should show to others. It is in the story parables where “we see best how Jesus’ teaching causes people to come to the point where they must decide whether their hearts will be open or closed to Jesus and the kingdom” (2).

Michelle Lee-Barnewall is associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. In her book Lee-Barnewall examines nine of Jesus’ parables, focusing “on different aspects of Jesus’ invitation to follow him in the hopes of challenging us to a more holistic understanding of what it means to be his disciple” (2). She notes that Jesus’ story parables transfer truth by focusing on specific people, their actions, and how they relate to one another, and how they portray some truth about God’s gracious character. 

Here, historical context is key to understanding the parables’ plot twists. Historical context helps us see why it mattered that the prodigal son asked for inheritance rather than money, or whether the friend who comes to the door at midnight was being rude or just acting “according to cultural convention” (3). Lee-Barnewall helps us understand what the crowds would expect to hear, and how and why they would have been surprised at what the characters in Jesus’ parables do. By using these plot twists, Jesus “confronts prejudices, brings about conviction, exposes hardness of heart, and so forth” (3). We rely on God to reveal his truths to us, but we must also cultivate our hearts to receive his truths. 

The Prodigal Son

I found each one of these nine chapters to be enlightening. For the prodigal son, to make such an early request for his inheritance would basically be to wish for his father to be dead. Yet the father graciously gives to his son his inheritance. As Lee-Barnewall writes, “One has to realize that the father would be depending on those resources to support him in his old age. By giving in to the younger son, he is essentially risking his own well-being in his advancing years” (28). However the son has forfeited his right as a son. Once he spent all of his money, how could he go back to the father? Sirach 9:30 tells us, “A man’s manner of walking tells you what he is,” but here the father, being so overcome with joy, casts aside “proper decorum” and runs to his son.

But unlike many times I’ve heard this parable taught, Lee-Barnewall doesn’t leave out the older brother. The older brother was likely exaggerating when he says the younger brother spent all of his money on prostitutes (33). He complains to the father that the younger brother squandered “your property” instead of “his [own] property,” which would likely imply that the younger brother irresponsibly wasted his father’s own property which he would need in his old age. The elder brother was not as eager to forgive as the father had been.

Yet the older brother himself rebels against his father! When the father throws a banquet for the younger son, the older brother would have had specific responsibilities such as serving as the chief steward for his father. Yet “not only does he neglect these duties, he even refuses to go into the house” (34). Doing so “profoundly insults his father” because he doesn’t even participate in his father’s own banquet (34). He speaks to his father disrespectfully and believes he has been treated as a slave. “His relationship was a transactional one, just like his brother’s” (34).

The older son represented the Pharisees, and the younger the outcasts of Israel. The Pharisees were dutiful and conscientious, “deserving” of God’s grace. Why was Jesus reaching out to sinners and tax collectors? Lee-Barnewall shows how the father, who represents God, responds graciously to both of his sons, and he responds graciously to us today.

Lee-Barnewall successfully recontextualizes/applies the meaning of each parable to our day. With this parable, she asks us to consider if we feel like the older brother. We are to believe that we are unworthy of God’s grace and that he freely gives is to us, but how much of our time do we spend trying to prove our worth? God provides, but I need to work for my money. And I need to have the right qualities for my job. Or, “if I have a problem with someone at work, I immediately want to fix things. That feels much better than pondering what God wants to do in my own heart so I can see what I did that led to the rift” (38).


I really enjoyed reading this book. Lee-Barnewall makes good illustrations and opens up the parables by reavealing the historical context and showing us our unbelievably gracious God. She confronts us with Jesus’ teachings in his parables and asks us to consider what needs to change in our hearts and lives in order to walk more faithfully in God’s kingdom as his representatives. An excellent book for pastors, teachers, and laypeople.


    • Author: Michelle Lee-Barnewall
    • Paperback: 171 pages
    • Publisher: Lexham Press (January 22, 2020)

Buy it on Amazon or from Lexham Press

Disclosure: I received this book free from Lexham Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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