James Montgomery Boice. The Parables of Jesus. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1983. See here to buy the book.
James Montgomery Boice was a renowned Presbyterian pastor. This book, The Parables of Jesus, is a collection of sermons that he preached in 1980-1981 about Jesus’ parables in the synoptic Gospels. One reason that Boice decided to put them in book form was that they convinced a young man who heard them to doubt that he was truly born again, notwithstanding his religiosity. That conviction led the young man to a genuine profession of faith. Boice concluded that others could benefit from his sermons.
My main problem with the book is that it reminds me of the old Puritan spiritual insecurity. It runs like this: We have to realize that we are sinners to be accepted by God. On the other hand, we can only know that we are true Christians when we look at our lives and our hearts and see spiritual fruit: a love for righteousness and a hatred of sin. So we need to believe that we are bad, yet we also need to think that we are good (albeit imperfectly good) to have assurance that we are saved. What’s more, we need to be able to identify God’s work on our hearts: God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And in the backdrop (or maybe even the forefront) of all of this is hell: those who are unsaved and fail these tests will spend eternity in hell.
There is a lot of pressure there, some of it about things that may be difficult for a person to control! What if you’re like me: you want to do the right thing, but there’s just so much sin within you that you wonder if God is working in you at all? Suppose you are going through Boice’s sermons and you find that you do not particularly care for that kind of God? Well, Boice does refer to one of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons that talks about how human beings are enemies of God. I guess Boice would say that your dislike for God is evidence of your sinfulness, which deserves damnation. But, to his credit, Boice does try to offer hope to the struggling soul. He encourages people to be open to God, which gives God the opportunity to work on their hearts. Still, according to Boice, they need to realize in doing this that their being open to God does not merit them salvation. Boice also exhorts them to be honest with God about their hard hearts and their dislike of God, and God may renew them.
This kind of spiritual treadmill may have some assets. In my opinion, it’s a good thing for people to take a moral inventory of themselves and to be open to God. But is there a place for relaxing in God’s love and grace? And fear of hell being part of the mix can stress a person out, when people already have enough stress in life. Perhaps Boice’s sermons would have been better had he emphasized God’s love and grace more. He did have sermons about the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but there could have been more in his book about God’s love and grace. There could have been more encouragement. A Lutheran, for example, would probably take hell as seriously as Boice, but her interaction with the parables would highlight God’s love and grace. It would also make salvation look accessible, not merely possible or elusive (not that Boice intends to portray it as such, but that is the impression that I get).
On account of what I say above, I cannot say that I “like” the book. But I cannot say that I dislike the book, either, because it does have positives. Therefore, I give it three stars.
What are some of the book’s positives, in my opinion?
Well, first of all, while the book does smell (to me at least) of Puritan insecurity, it also echoes Puritan practicality. For example, Boice gives us things to look for within our hearts and actions when we are trying to determine if we are materialistic. He talks about the importance of having gratitude rather than a feeling of self-entitlement. In these cases, Boice offers practical tips about how one can have a constructive outlook on life.
Second, Boice does well when he actually attempts to explain parables in light of their immediate context. A lot of times, he does not do this, but rather he imports other parts of Scripture or his Reformed views into his interpretation of a parable. But when he does wrestle with the immediate context of the parable and seek to arrive at an interpretation that way, he does that rather well. His attempts to determine whether the “world” in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13) means the world or the church comes to mind as an excellent discussion.
I was rather ambivalent about one story that Boice told. Boice talked about how Christian H.A. Ironside was challenged to a debate by an agnostic. Ironside accepted the challenge, but on one condition. Both sides would have to bring to the debate people who were down and out at some point, but their lives became better in response to the message of the speaker, whether that message be the Christian Gospel or agnosticism. Ironside could definitely bring people to the debate who became positively changed as a result of the Gospel, but the agnostic could not find people who became better as a result of becoming agnostic. Of course, we’re supposed to conclude from this that Christianity is right and agnosticism is wrong. On the one hand, this story did encourage me to appreciate the positive changes that Christianity has brought in people’s lives. On the other hand, I do think that there are agnostics who can testify that agnosticism has made them better: less judgmental, more appreciative of people rather than having the ulterior motive of trying to sell them the Gospel, etc.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.