I’ve always been fascinated by the parable of the two sons, more commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. Although I’ve never done a real deep dive into the parable, it’s one that is popular enough that if you’ve spent even a little time in church you would have surely come across it being taught in some way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a sermon on this parable – some good, some not so good.
For those who are somewhat familiar with the parables that Jesus tells in the Gospels (the accounts of Jesus life in the New Testament of the Bible), we can often look past the richness of what is going on. Our familiarity with the parables can lead us to not grasp the depth and genius of their teaching. Admittedly, not all of us have a certificate for a PhD in Old Testament studies hanging gloriously on our wall for all to see – I certainly do not – and so the genius of how Jesus’s parables draw on Old Testament stories is easy to miss.
In what is one of the most interesting reads I’ve had in recent memory, Peter J. Williams brings an absolute wealth of knowledge to this very topic – and he does it in less than 120 pages! The Surprising Genius of Jesus: What the Gospels Reveal about the Greatest Teacher argues that Jesus should be considered a genius, not merely because a vast number of people today claim to follow him but also because of the cleverness and wisdom of his teaching. The argument is made over five short chapters, and the focus is primarily on the parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-32 – the longest parable Jesus told – although other parables are also brought in to make the case.
The opening chapter – which alone makes the book well worth the read – explains the parable of the prodigal son while connecting it to the original hearers and the way that they would have understood it. Here already Williams starts peeling back the layers of Jesus’s genius in telling this parallel, both by the fascinating elements included in the story, but also by what Jesus masterfully omits. This is the trend throughout the book, and Williams has the skill to pull this out fantastically. Whether you are a Christian who is familiar with Jesus’s parables, or perhaps you are not – Williams makes it very hard to deny that what we have in Jesus is absolute mastery in storytelling, and someone intimately familiar with the text of the Old Testament, a point he leaves no room to disagree on through what he presents in the second and third chapters.
There is another question that Williams was sharp enough to pick up on, and – as someone who sees the value and necessity of apologetics – I’m so glad he did. Is Jesus the genius behind the parables? Or, as some have contended, are these creations of the gospel writers themselves? In a succinct and precise presentation Williams traces several arguments that point in the direction of Jesus, and away from the gospel writers as the mind behind the parables – as the accounts claim. Williams moves to a concluding chapter in which he gives what he sees as the reason behind the genius of Jesus: “But once we accept that Jesus is more than simply a particularly brilliant human, we are free to see that the coordination of Genesis and Luke 15 can arise from God’s own plan to shape the Genesis narrative with the purpose, among other things, of preparing for Jesus longest story…The single best explanation for Jesus’s genius is found at the beginning of John’s Gospel, where the Word, later identified as Jesus Christ, is described both as alongside God and as God himself.”
What I appreciate about the book is it’s brevity and accessibility, but also it’s depth. Where there are areas that are perhaps not as cogent as others, the author himself points these out, but shows how they add to the cumulative case he’d contending for.
In summary, as I consider and meditate on the teaching of Jesus Christ, The Surprising Genius of Jesus is a book that I will definitely be revisiting in the future.