Special Book Review: By Annabel Robinson

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 10.29.35 AMA special review for this Saturday by Annabel Robinson.

Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting Our Lives in the Parables of Jesus, by Gordon King (from Wipf and Stock)

Here is a book that will challenge you to the core. When I picked it up I thought I was reading an exegesis of the parables of Luke. It is indeed that. But what I had in my hands was the outpouring of a soul as he heard the words of Jesus speaking to the downtrodden people in other parts of the world. Gordon King has worked for both secular and Christian agencies in many places: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Rwanda, Kenya, Angola, Malawi, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, the Middle East and Canada. He has listened to the cries from these places, and hears them in the people for whom Jesus first told these stories. He urges us to enter the social world of first century Palestine before we attempt to interpret the parables for our world of today.

The result will haunt you. These are “deeply challenging and dissident messages” that will change our lives. The book is written for two groups of people: those who have called to live their lives in difficult places—community workers, educators and pastoral workers—who know discouragement and despair, and those who are disillusioned and disappointed by what the church at home has to offer.

The parables are read against two backgrounds.

One is the stories of people whom Gordon has met in different places and left a lasting impression on him. The book is alive with them.

The other background is taken from secular writers in the social sciences and anthropology, who offer principles of understanding our world.

He cites Arthur Frank, who describes how we all develop an “inner library” of stories that have particular meaning for us. The parables are just such stories. This “inner library” can “ambush” us by invading our thinking when we are unprepared. Frank describes stories like this as “dangerous companions.”

He also builds on James C. Scott’s observation that a repressive regime will promulgate what Scott calls a “public transcript”—a way of seeing the world that serves their own ends. Against this, dissidents develop a “private transcript.” Jesus’ parables address the private transcript of the oppressed people of Palestine. They are far from simple, cosy stories. Too easily we accommodate them to the world with which we are familiar. But King writes, “Personal loyalty to Jesus’ message and mission requires a . . . commitment to critique and reverse the public transcripts that maintain the oppressive world order.”

To do this we need to cultivate the strength of character to remain faithful in times of fatigue and discouragement. We can’t do it in the midst of frenetic activity. It requires “solitude, patience, humour, prayer, and a stubborn commitment to face the truth about the world and our own lives.”

Against these backgrounds Gordon King offers a reading of a number of Jesus’ parables which will jar with more familiar interpretations. In particular, I would single out his reading of the parable of the talents. When I first read it I had to put the book aside. The next day I realized that it was my familiarity with the usual interpretation that was getting in the way. By the end of the day, I was convinced. Jesus, as C.S.Lewis observed, is not a tame lion.

But if the book is challenging, it is also encouraging. It is “the Spirit who hovers over us, and whispers in our ears the good and fruitful story of God, who is inviting us to participate in the work of healing and transforming the world.” We may be led to repentance. We may feel overwhelmed by God’s faithfulness. We will be inspired to imagine a world that can be called the new creation of a loving God.

Whether you know discouragement and despair from living in difficult places, or are dissatisfied with the church at home, read this book. You will hear Jesus afresh.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.