Book Review of NAZARETH NEIGHBORS by Sheila Deeth

Nazareth Neighbors by Sheila Deeth (Cape Arago Press: 2014), 181 pages.

I just finished reading an advance copy of Nazareth Neighbors by my friend and author, Sheila Deeth. I was charmed. Sheila has taken Jesus’ parables from the four gospels and retold them using the narrative of Jesus’ childhood. She imagines Jesus as a small child, a school age boy and a teenager, growing up in Nazareth in Mary and Joseph’s home. By reimagining the parable of the good shepherd, the prodigal son, the lost coin and the pearl of great worth, and many others through the lens of a child, she is able to make the underlying lessons accessible and easy to understand.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Nazareth Neighbors.

“Do you suppose that sweet little boy, Jesus, growing up in the nice normal town of Nazareth, on its hill above the vineyards of the Jezreel Valley, knew what was going to happen at the end of his story? He obeyed his parents for all those years, growing ‘in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.’ Then he obeyed God, and gave his life for us.” (p. 3)

 

This is the frame of reference from which the narrator tells these stories about young Jesus Christ. In this next excerpt Sheila Deeth examines the parable of pouring new wine into new wineskins, but again from the vantage point of a young boy growing up in his parents’ home.

 

“Mary finally found a piece of cloth that was nearly right for Joseph’s robe. Then she asked Jesus to get a bowl of water from the river for her. He hurried away down sandy streets, feeling the wind on his legs. Then he scooped up water in his bowl and ran back with cold wet trickles dibbling onto his knees.

“Mary soaked the new piece of cloth in the water, rubbing it with stones and tugging and stretching at it, until she was ready to sew it onto Joseph’s robe.

‘Why do you do that?’ Jesus asked. ‘Why are you making the cloth all messy?’

‘I have to make it match,’ said Mary.

‘But the colors don’t match,’ said Jesus, and he was right. The robe was brown, and the cloth was grayish white.

‘I know,’ said his mother. ‘But I have to make the material match. If I sew something too new or too old into the hole it will just tear away. Then we’ll have a bigger hole to mend.’

 “When Jesus grew up, he remembered Mary’s cloth, and he remembered how to mend holes. When some important church leaders asked why he’d chosen such poor, uneducated people to be his most important disciples, Jesus explained, ‘I’m teaching something new. I’m filling in the holes in what you’ve learned. But I can’t teach people who think they’ve already learned it all. That would be like sewing new cloth onto an old garment. It would tear away and everything everyone knew would fall out through the hole.’” (p. 8)

 

This sweet vignette helped me better understand the new wineskin parable. Since I’ve never seen a wineskin I always had trouble visualizing what the difference was between old and new wineskins. Sheila points out that the parable isn’t really about the wineskins, it is about the old and new covenants. This final excerpt illuminates the parable of sowing seeds. Some seeds fall in rocky soil, some fall on the path, some fall amongst the weeds, and some seeds fall in rich soil.

 

One rainy morning, Mary gave Jesus an extra thick slice of bread for his breakfast and some goat’s milk to drink. Then Joseph took Jesus by the hand and said, ‘You’re a big boy today, young man. Today’s the day you start helping me in the fields.’

‘I want to help in the workshop,’ Jesus replied, but Joseph said he’d have to be even bigger to do that.

“Jesus and Joseph set off with their donkey through the streets of Nazareth. Jesus’ friends were kicking a rather soggy ball around. But Jesus splashed proudly in puddles, thinking how nice it was to be doing something new. Soon he’d even be old enough to go to the synagogue school. And after that he’d grow up to be a carpenter, just like his cousins.

The red roof of the synagogue shone in the falling rain. Jesus dawdled, staring at the older children who’d gathered on its walls. He even began to climb the hill toward them, but Joseph pulled him back. ‘Not yet, young man. You don’t start school today.’

‘But I want to study the scriptures,’ Jesus said. ‘I want to learn about God.’

‘Today you’re going to study God’s creation,’ Joseph replied, ‘and learn about seeds.’ So Jesus shook the rain out of his eyes and followed Joseph and the donkey to the field. A heavy sack rattled on the donkey’s back, and Jesus asked what was inside. ‘My tools,’ Joseph replied.

‘Oh good,’ said Jesus. ‘Can we do some woodworking in the fields? Are we going to make a gate?’

‘No,’ said Joseph. ‘These are my tools for plowing. I’ve got my blade and handle and grain, and the donkey’s harness too.’

“When they reached the field, Joseph rested the wooden yoke on the donkey’s neck and attached the plow. The dusty ground had turned into thick soggy mud. But the mud crumbled like cake as Joseph guided the donkey and plow over it.

“Jesus rolled the earth between his fingers. ‘It feels like bread dough,’ he said, but Joseph said, ‘Don’t eat it.’

“Jesus pointed to some stones tossed up by the plow. ‘They look like raisins, Dad!’ But Joseph said don’t eat them either. Instead he asked Jesus to pick up the stones and move them out the way. Soon the field was full of churned up earth, black and shining in the rain, with rows of stones like fences at the edge. ‘What do we do now?’ Jesus asked.

‘We plant the seed,’ said Joseph. He pulled a bag out from the bottom of his sack and hung it around Jesus’ neck. The cloth was scratchy and heavy, and seeds flowed like a river in its folds.

“Joseph tucked a bigger sack under his arm. Then he showed Jesus how to scoop the seeds and scatter them on the ground, like waterfalls of grain. ‘Don’t let too much seed land on the road though,’ said Joseph, pointing to flocks of birds which swooped down hungrily to eat whatever they could. ‘And not on the rocks; there’s not enough soil there for them to grow in.’

“Jesus scattered his seeds very slowly and carefully, shouting at the birds when they got too close. ‘It’s not your seed, birds. This is to make people’s food.’ Then he tripped over some thorns, and Joseph pulled him out.

‘Don’t let too much seed land in the thorns either,’ said Joseph.

‘Don’t let me land in the thorns!’ Jesus replied, rubbing mud over his scratches and cuts, while Joseph smiled at him.

“When all the seed had been scattered, Joseph pulled one of Mary’s old long brushes out of the sack on the donkey’s back.

‘What do we do with that?’ Jesus asked.

‘We spread the earth on top of the seeds so birds can’t eat them all.’ Then Jesus swept the brush gently back and forth until all the seeds were hidden. The brush was ruined afterward, of course, but Joseph said he’d make a new one soon.

“In spring, Jesus started going to school, but he checked on Joseph’s field every day before walking up the hill. Tiny seedlings appeared from the seeds in the ground. Some plants grew tall really fast, but then they withered in the sun. Others poked their heads above thorns, then shrank away and died. But the seeds sown on well-tilled soil grew thick and strong until harvest. Joseph’s two bags of grain turned into more than a hundred bags. Then Jesus smiled, pleased at what his work, and God’s sunshine had done.

“One day, Jesus told his friends to make their lives like a farmer’s well-tilled field, so the seed of God’s word wouldn’t land on dry stones or be choked by weeds, but would grow a hundred-fold in their lives too.” (pp. 52-54)

Nazareth Neighbors is 57 chapters long. Each chapter is two to four pages long and covers one parable. Each chapter ends with a simple prayer. Reading one chapter to a child at bedtime could be a lovely bedtime story. Nazareth Neighbors is now available in an e-version at amazon.com. A hard copy version will be available from Cape Arago Press in April, 2014.

 

Other books by Sheila Deeth include:

The book review of Nazareth Neighbors originally appeared on jaynechaseloseke.com on April 2, 2014.

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