Jesus' prophetic teachings consistently overturned people's expectations and understanding of what it means to be religious. As Christmas approaches, we'll explore the enduring wisdom of Jesus' life and teachings. This Sunday is also a chance to sing some of your favourite Christmas carols.
The complete sermon can be read below:
A group of seminarians are split in half. Half are assigned a sermon on the Good Samaritan. Half are assigned a talk on seminary jobs. They have a limited time to prepare.
When it’s time, the students are sent to another building to give their presentations. Each student, on his or her way, passes by a man, moaning and coughing.
Some students are in a rush, having been told they’re going to be late. Some are leisurely, having been told they have plenty of time.
All of the students groups were part of an experiment by Darley and Batson exploring helping behaviour. They had students fill out a questionnaire first, anticipating that theological orientation would be a factor in people’s helping behaviour. That people with the Good Samaritan stories in their minds would also be more likely to help. They also predicted that people in less of a hurry would be more likely to help
Overall, 40 percent of the seminary students stopped to help the moaning, coughing man. That’s right, 40 percent. And time was the primary variable accounting for differences: in low hurry situations, 63 percent stopped. In high hurry situations, 10 percent stopped. Some people even stepped over the person groaning, hurrying on their way to talk about the Good Samaritan.
Theological orientation had no affect. And in case we feel that our children’s story today is inaccurate for UUs, if anything, people who saw religion “as a quest” were less likely to offer help than those who didn’t.
It wasn’t in the article, but I’d guess that each of the seminarians would hear themselves in the roll of the Good Samaritan when listening to the bible verse.
The goal of a parable is a surprise ending that overturns expectations, teaching a deeper truth in the process. In the original version of the Good Samaritan, religious folks listening would assume that the Priest and Levite who pass by, good religious Jews, would help the man who lies injured in the ditch. The fact that a Samaritan, a despised non-Jew, is the one to help is shocking. Not so much for us UUs, though. The idea that a non-religious person could have good or even better morals than someone who is religious doesn’t shake up our world view. I had to change the story for it to have any chance of surprising people here.
That’s one of the challenges of reading parables from any ancient Scripture in the contemporary world; when we aren’t part of the religious community being addressed, sometimes what we get out of the story is quite different than originally intended. Occasionally this leads to new and meaningful insights, but often, it simply helps affirm what we already think, and an opportunity for a true “parable” experience is lost.
Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Son of God, Jesus as God, Jesus the Prophet. However we understand him, Jesus challenged the status quo. He regularly overturned expectations of what it meant to be religious in his time. He challenged who is included and excluded. His teaching and his very living took conventional wisdom and turned it on its head.
Matthew 20:1-16 is another of his parables:
20 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.* 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?* 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”* 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’*
Jesus’ listeners presumably would have identified with those early morning workers, who felt unjustly compensated. And imagine if in your workplace, someone who came in from 4-5 each day had the same salary as you, working 9 to 5 and sometimes longer.
Some definitions differentiate between equality and equity, with equality treating everyone exactly the same, and equity giving everyone what the need to thrive. The child with a learning disability, the teenager with anxiety, the adult with chronic pain, the elder with boundless energy biking across town at 91 (I talked with one such elder recently!); all have different needs to thrive.
I’m guessing that each of the labourers in Jesus’ time needed that daily wage, and may not have thrived even with it.
But Jesus goes further: he says, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” He strikes down any sense of our earthly understanding of right and justice. Before God, the most vulnerable will be first, not the richest, the strongest, the most righteous, the hardest working, the most generous. No, the last shall be first.
We all have our hierarchies of worthiness, even when we try not to. What does “the last shall be first” mean for you, if you take it as a surprise ending? What might Jesus say to us if he were here with us today?
One more parable from Luke 18: 9-14:
9 [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income”13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
The listeners trusted they were righteous and regarded others with contempt, especially people like Tax Collectors, who were considered immoral by the Jewish people.
But all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Within Unitarian Universalism, we rarely talk about sin, especially individual sin. Unitarianism in North American arose more in opposition to the Calvinist perception of the depravity of all humankind, and belief instead in the capacity of humans to choose good, than it did from the understanding of God as one, rather than 3 persons, as our name suggests.
We may not fast or tithe 10 percent of our income, but it’s pretty easy to paint a picture of Unitarian Universalist righteousness: we say confidently that we are open-minded, free-thinkers, loving, conscientious, environmentally-aware, peace- and justice-seeking, thoughtful, caring of one another, scientific, respect the interdependent web, some of us drive electric or cars, most of us are reusable-grocery bag users and composters, … the list could go on.
What would humility look like in the midst of our righteousness? What might Jesus say if he were standing here, today, with us?
The Christmas story of Jesus’ birth is itself an overturning of all convention and hierarchy. The prophecies heralded the coming of a king. But Jesus was born in a stable, his parents turned away from all more respectable places to lay down their heads, let alone a palace. Shepherds and livestock were in attendance rather than servants and royalty. A king was born humble and vulnerable and without the wealth or power of any worldly throne.
And Jesus as God, as he is understood in most Christian traditions, was not all-powerful, either: he was born, lived, suffered, loved, and died human.
His teaching overturned the hierarchies of his day: he ate with prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners. He healed lepers. He told the righteous they shall be last, and the sinners they shall be first before God. He told the rich to give not some but all of their money away, making money a hindrance rather than a mark of prestige.
His life story overturned hierarchies of his day. Making more sacred the baby’s birth than the political King’s reign, making a carpenter a teacher of masses, and a homeless wanderer a prophet.
And his divinity, however we understand it, challenged an idea of God as separate from us, in the sky, all-knowing and all-powerful and untouchable. He was Emmanuel, God with us. And so forever more, the God of Abraham has known viscerally what it is to suffer, to hurt, to ache, to die, for that God’s son, also part of God, lived among us.
This may not be your understanding of the Christian story, or mine. But we can’t discount its inherent beauty, and its invitation to challenge our understanding of ourselves and the world and the Great Mystery that some call God.
The Christmas story invites us to turn our understandings, our most certain convictions, on their heads. The ones we may be comfortable challenging like wealth equals value, or traditional notions of success, prestige and privilege. And the ones that may be harder: it might be our insistence that only what we see and understand is possible, or that science is the ultimate way of understanding the universe; it might be our creative redefinition of miracles as either impossible or as the ordinary seen through extraordinary eyes; it might even be our atheism or agnosticism, or, conversely, our understanding of God. It might be our understanding of righteousness, our certainty that we are good (or pretty good) people; it might be our understanding of our own unworthiness, or lack of beauty, intelligence, or success that needs overturning; it might be our understanding of what it means to hold that to question, truly, is an answer.
The 19th century Polish rabbi Simcha Bunem had a slip of paper in each of his pockets:
In his right hand pocket the piece of paper read “For my sake was this world created. I am one with God.”
In his left hand pocket read, “I am but a speck of dust, existing for but a moment in time.”
The rabbi knew that when he was feeling low or depressed, he might need the uplifting message in his right pocket, reminding him that he is loved by God.
And when he is feeling so sure of himself that he might get carried away, he could reach into his left-hand pocket and remember to be humble.
The Christmas story invites us to understand ourselves as both as sacred, a miracle from our first breath, and as but a speck speck of stardust in the unfolding of the universe.
Today, I encourage you to reach into whichever pocket you need most.
And the same tomorrow, and the next day and the next, and every day for the rest of your life.
May it be so for us all. Blessed be.
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