Jesus’ stories about the lost sheep and the lost coin are straightforward but the story about the lost son(s) is more complicated, as all human relationships are.
Local efforts to improve the lives of vulnerable people, such as the work of the Fairfax Food Council, are examples of Jesus’ story about a tiny mustard seed and a pinch of yeast a hidden but phenomenal growth of an alternative kingdom benefitting the lives of countless people. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God stands in the tradition of a long line of Jewish prophets who challenged imperial powers and advocated for an alternative community serving poor, hungry and despairing people. He instilled hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Jesus’ parable loses its provocative edge when we associate the Good Samaritan with a do-gooder preforming random acts of kindness. This short story, instead, confronts our most deeply held prejudices as the wounded and half-dead man lying by the side of the road receives astonishing help from an enemy when our most respected people fail to offer assistance.
Jesus' parable with the familiar title of “The Laborers in the Vineyard” is better titled “The Protesting Day Laborers.” It raises provocative questions about how to live in community and what ultimately matters. The vineyard owner’s strange actions raise provocative questions about respect, justice, equality, generosity, mutual care, and how to create healthy, flourishing communities.
We have a penchant for keeping score and seeking revenge for wrongs committed against us. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant turns that mindset on its head through undeserved mercy. A mindset that channels everything through the narrow categories of debts owed and debts paid will adversely shape our lives. The way of tit-for-tat and revenge paves the path to hell, but the way of mercy and forgiveness leads to the kingdom of God.
There are no undocumented immigrants or second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Everyone in welcome and we’re all valued for who we are. In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the lost sheep serves as a parable of life in community and especially of caring for the most needy and vulnerable among us. A kingdom inspired church, therefore, refuses to discriminate between rich and poor, professionals and laborers, brown, black and white, straight and gay, or male and female. We all belong.
The movie, “The Two Popes,” about a fictional conversation between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio (who became Pope Francis), makes a good segue to Jesus’ parable of the sower and the outrageously abundant harvest. The conversation between two very different men with different visions for the future of the church is filled with an abundance of grace and the capacity to reach beyond set positions to recognize our common humanity and faith.
As an avid gardener, I know the excitement and joy of new beginnings every spring. But I’m also aware that things are stirring in my garden even in the dead of winter. This is how it was when Mary was “found with child” and Joseph struggled with what he should do. The birth of this child would forever change their lives. Like them, we’re invited to say goodbye to a world that’s ending in order to say hello to God’s new world coming.
The Advent theme of “joy” is complicated by the underlying despair in our scripture texts and in our world. Advent joy is not a fake happiness but rather a joy that is deeper than the good times and the bad times that life metes out. Such joy lies in God and strengthens us in our love for the world.
Isaiah’s vivid dream, in which all manner of animals live in peace and are led by a child, inspires our imaginations. Paul’s letter to the Romans then brings our dreams of peace down to all the messy stuff of human relationships. In Christ, we are enabled to reach out beyond our church fellowship to become a community of reconciliation.