Today, we officially celebrate the Second Sunday after Christmas and the last day of the Christmas season, and we unofficially celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. I say, “unofficially,” for while tomorrow is the actual feast day, the Gospel readings are, in fact, identical. So you can consider this a preview of coming attractions, like a movie trailer.
The Epiphany is an ancient Christian feast day, even older than Christmas. Like Christmas, it is a feast of the Incarnation. Since Incarnation happens to be the title of our parish, it is quite fitting that three of our stained-glass windows have to do with the visitation of the Magi, a story long-associated with the Epiphany. We have three crowns, three gifts, and a miraculous star. (You get extra credit if you can spot them later!) But the Epiphany differs from Christmas, that other great feast of the Incarnation, in that it has a narrower focus: the appearance of the Incarnate God to the Gentiles.
The Gospel reading for today is that well-known story of the Magi. The story is too well-known, in fact, for we think that we know more than we really do! We think that there are precisely three Magi, despite the fact that the Bible never specifies their number. We think that the Magi are really foreign kings, despite there being no mention of this in the Scriptures. We think that we know their names—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—information St. Matthew never provides. And we even think we know better than the Gospel about where the event took place. For the Gospel says that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house, whereas every nativity scene in the world shows the Magi headed for a stable.
So what do we really, really know? Just this…some unknown number of Magi, Zoroastrian priests from Persia, travel in search of a great king whose birth has been foretold in the heavens. But astrology gets them only so far. When they get to Jerusalem, they must consult with Jewish religious scholars to determine what only divine revelation can tell them, the exact location of the Messiah’s birth.
In today’s Gospel story, we find the Son of God hanging out with folks from “the wrong side of the tracks.” The Bible refers to them somewhat cryptically as “tax collectors and sinners.” Perhaps it would be more meaningful if we referred to them as “collaborators, swindlers, partyers, and prostitutes.” The Pharisees and the scribes, the devout churchgoers of their day, don’t approve! So, Jesus uses this situation as a teaching moment. And he tells the Pharisees and scribes two teaching stories about the nature of God.
The first story is addressed to the men who are present. In the Greek, the parable literally begins with these words: “Which man among you…?” Jesus poses a situation in which a shepherd owns 100 sheep and one gets lost. Jesus then asks a rhetorical question of his audience: Wouldn’t they leave behind the 99 sheep to seek the one lost sheep? Wouldn’t they be so overjoyed when they found it that they would carry the sheep home on their shoulders and then throw a party for the guys next door? The way the question is posed, the expected answer is surely, “Yes, we would!” But let’s stop and look at the parable before we commit ourselves, because I think Jesus is tricking us! Realistically speaking, what shepherd in his right mind would abandon 99 defenseless sheep in the wilderness to seek out one stray? It doesn’t make a bit of sense. Unless there is some assistant shepherd that we don’t know about, why would anyone risk 99% of their savings to recoup the loss of 1%? So, if Jesus’ audience had had time to consider the implications, they just might have said, “No, we would not abandon the 99 sheep to seek the one that was lost—that’s crazy talk!”
This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we consider the first advent of our Lord. More precisely, we look at the time just before Jesus’ first advent, namely, the annunciation to Joseph. Now the art world has always favored Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary over Matthew’s story of the annunciation to Joseph. I don’t know about you, but I could not possibly rank one story above the other. Each has its own artistic and theological merits.
But before addressing the Gospel, let me say something about the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only. It serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign. Well, he gets one anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” The child in question was probably King Ahaz’s future son, or just possibly Isaiah’s.” And there is no reason to believe that the young woman in question conceived in any way other than the normal way of doing it. For some reason or other, our lectionary omits the final verse of the prophecy, which portends the future fall of the kingdom to Assyria.
This week a preacher is presented with an embarrassment of riches. We have the great Old Testament story of Abraham’s hospitality to the Lord in the form of three travelers, a famous proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity. We have the reading from Colossians, which begins with an awe-inspiring hymn about the Cosmic Christ. And we have the familiar, but disturbing, story of Martha and Mary, found in Luke’s Gospel. Well, taking into account the overwork that I regularly witness in this parish, I have decided to focus on those five verses from Luke.
The story is short. The details are sparse. And most annoyingly, the point of the story is not readily apparent. The result is that biblical exegetes throughout the last two millennia have offered a wide variety of interpretations.
Our early Christian ancestors were fond of so-called “spiritual” interpretations. One Church Father by the name of Origen explained the story of Martha and Mary as an allegory contrasting the contemplative life (represented by Mary) with active life in the world (represented by Martha). While not excluding some value to a more literal interpretation, he thought that this story was included in the New Testament to encourage Christians who wanted to advance in spiritual attainment to abandon the world for either life in a monastery or life in a cave. St. Augustine, another advocate of allegorical interpretation, taught that Martha represented our current life in this world, where we suffer worry and distraction, and that Mary represented life in the Kingdom of God, where our carefree life will be focused solely on God.
My sense is that we here today might benefit more from a literal interpretation of this story. So let’s take a closer look at this story of a dinner party gone wrong.