The lectionary of Sunday readings is a bit like going on pilgrimage with Jesus. During Advent, we are invited to reflect on the coming (and second coming) of the Son of God into our broken and needy world. It is a time of longing and great expectations! Then comes Christmas and Epiphany, when we are called to ponder the awesome mystery of God-with-us. Before long, we will enter into the solemn season of Lent, when we are asked to reflect on our sinfulness, as we anticipate the powerful events of Holy Week.
And now we are in the weeks after Epiphany, a period that some Christian traditions identify as “Ordinary Time.” Anyone who has gone on pilgrimage will recognize this as the “between” time, when you are traveling to the next religious site or preparing for the next spiritual encounter. Sometimes it is a frustrating time. Sometimes it is a time of struggle laced with otherwise unnoticed moments of grace, but it is far from ordinary.
During this “ordinary time” of the church year between Epiphany and Lent, we are invited to reflect on Jesus’ words and deeds as he carried out his ministry among God’s chosen people and beyond. Concerning Jesus’ deeds, you might immediately think of the gospels’ miracle stories. These stories are dramatic and eye-catching. Biblical scholars describe them as evidence of the coming Kingdom of God, when there will no longer be suffering or illness and death, when God’s eternal power will be fully manifest in the world.
Miracle stories are great, but the teachings of Jesus are personally more challenging, because they tell us what it means to be Jesus’ disciples and how to do our part in bringing about the coming Kingdom of God. Sayings like “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:28) and “Give to everyone who asks of you” (Luke 6:30) call us to live justice and mercy in ways that fly in the face of today’s societal norms, especially in the western world. People will think we’re foolish and naïve!
And what about the parables? This is the second large category of Jesus’ teachings as revealed in the gospels. You might think “Yes! They are straight-forward, easy to understand, and enjoyable to read.” But beware! Like Jesus’ sayings, the parables call us to do our part in bringing about the Kingdom, but they make us work for the message. If you read one of Jesus’ parables and you say to yourself, “That was easy. I get it!” you’ve probably missed the point, because parables are riddles.
Take, for example, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Luke describes Jesus telling a story about a man who was robbed and beaten on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and left for dead. A priest passes by, presumably on his way to Jerusalem. Likewise, a Levite passes by. Neither one stops to help the man, but a Samaritan stops, bandages the man’s wounds, puts him on his pack animal and takes him to an inn to be cared for.
Jesus concludes the story by asking, “Who was neighbor to the man who was left on the road to die?” The answer seems obvious to us. The Samaritan, of course! But consider how radical this message is. Jesus tells the story in response to a Jewish scholar of the Law, who asked Jesus, perhaps tongue in cheek, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). As the conversation unfolds, one can imagine that this Jewish scholar’s head is spinning! How can it be that his most hated neighbor, a Samaritan, is obeying the Great Commandment, while breaking Jewish purity rules by touching a bloody and possibly dead man? How can this man inherit eternal life? This story should make our heads spin, too, because we encounter similar scenarios in our own lives. Will we be open to their message of giving and receiving mercy, even to our enemies?
During this time between Epiphany and Lent, please consider taking up Dr. Wendt’s The Parables of Jesus, which is the featured text for this month. He will take you on a journey to experience eleven parables through the eyes of ancient Middle Eastern readers of Luke’s gospel and unlock their meaning for today’s readers. It is an adventure not to be missed!