There is only one church calling I have ever coveted: Primary pianist. By means of inspiration, manipulation, and sometimes prevarication, I have managed to secure that posting, off and on, for around 25 years. My heart broke when three years ago back surgery compelled my release.
When people ask why I enjoy serving in this auxiliary so much, the first reason, on a very long list, is: “I have learned more about the gospel of Jesus Christ in Primary than I ever have in a Sunday school class or priesthood quorum.”
We frequently study the events, teachings and stories in the scriptures in a vacuum, giving little thought to what came before or what follows afterward. While we may appreciate the need to read a given passage in its proper historical and cultural context, we often fail to ask the question: is there something more I can learn about this narrative, parable or miracle by comparing it with what I just read or what comes later? A good illustration of what we gain by pursuing this line of inquiry can be seen when we contrast how two Old Testament Patriarchs—Noah and Abraham—interacted with the divine on certain occasions during their lives.
Each of the synoptic gospels recounts two miracles Christ performed on the Sea of Galilee. The first is Jesus calming the storm while the second is the Savior walking on the waters.
Jesus Calms the Storm
After a long day of teaching people near the shores of Galilee, Jesus proposed to his disciples that they cross over to the other side and continue their work there on the morrow. So they all piled into their boat and began what they thought would be an uneventful trip. But then the weather suddenly changed.
This essay is based loosely on some remarks I delivered at a flag raising ceremony in Arlington, Virginia on July 4, 2018.
What does it mean, “to be an American”? What defines us as a people? Some believe it is our fierce independence and dogged questioning of every new proposition, character traits often confounding to others. Baron von Steuben, a Prussian general who was enlisted by General Washington to train the raw recruits of the Continental Army, quickly encountered these vexing qualities.
Upon arriving at Valley Forge he discovered that his new charges were much different than the European soldiers he was used to commanding—men who were bred to deference and accustomed to obeying their superiors. In a letter to an old Prussian comrade after the war, von Steuben explained how he had to modify his regular approach: “You … tell your soldier, ‘Do this,’ and he does it; but I am obliged to say [to an American], ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that,’ and then he does it.” This should not have come as a complete surprise to the General since these were the same folks who had recently asked: “Why should we have to pay a tax on tea we didn’t consent to and, why don’t we have the right to elect representatives to Parliament?”
The Parable of the Mustard Seed, one of Christ’s shortest allegories, typically receives scant attention in our scripture study. But since it appears in each of the synoptic gospels, perhaps it’s worth more careful consideration.
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
We often misread scripture because we don’t study it carefully, are predisposed to simply accept the interpretation of an ecclesiastical leader, do not read it in context, or fail to consider the culture and beliefs of the original audience. And sometimes, it’s a combination of all of these. Such is the case, I believe, regarding Christ’s response to the question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Rome? (Matt. 22:15-22 NASB):
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. 16 And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. 17 Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.
The names by which we know Christ’s parables are often our own invention; they usually cannot be found in the scriptures. While these labels provide a convenient way to refer to a given story, they sometimes distort and obscure its message. A good example of this phenomenon is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. After studying this text more carefully, I believe it would be more accurate to call it: “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family of Man.”
Jesus recounted this parable as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. And Luke makes it clear that his audiences, like us, were large and diverse, consisting of disciples, detractors (e.g., scribes and Pharisees), sinners, tax collectors, and curiosity seekers.
Seventy-six years ago this morning, the United States and its allies launched the largest amphibious invasion in history when they attacked German forces occupying Normandy along the northern coast of France. The invasion—which came to be known as “D-Day”—consisted of approximately 7,000 vessels, 1,200 of which were warships. But most were transport vessels tasked with landing 150,000 allied soldiers and their equipment on five beaches—code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword—spanning some fifty miles.
The attack was preceded by an immense aerial and naval bombardment of the Normandy coast. Allied planes dropped more than 11,000 tons of bombs in the eight hours prior to the invasion, while the fleet’s artillery pounded the coast just before the troops went ashore. In 10 minutes, 600 naval guns fired 2,000 tons of shells at various German fortifications.
One of the most commonly misconstrued passages of scripture is Revelation 3:15-16 (NSRV):
15“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
Our manuals and the messages we hear from the pulpit invariably construe “lukewarm” to mean a halfhearted commitment to the gospel. Indeed, a speaker during the April 2017 General Conference cited these verses for this very proposition. While an apathetic or perfunctory attitude towards any righteous endeavor will always fall short of what is expected, a close reading of this text, and a careful examination of its historical—and geographical—context, reveals a message with multiple layers of meaning.
There are few religious texts of greater interest to modern Christians than the apocalyptic writings of Matthew. And there are few passages more challenging than the eschatological parables in the 25th chapter of that gospel, the most familiar of which is the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matt. 25:1-13 NRSV):
1Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.