A story’s title can prompt the reader to focus on certain aspects of the tale at the expense others, potentially masking its actual meaning. And when the author of the story is not the person who names it—as is the case with Jesus’ parables—the risk of misinterpretation increases. A careful reading of The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard reveals that its title is, indeed, a misnomer:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
The full meaning of an event chronicled in the scriptures will sometimes elude us if we are not acquainted with the historical, political, chronological, and geographical setting in which it unfolds. Such is the case with the story of “The Woman Taken in Adultery” found in the eighth chapter of John.
While in Jerusalem near the end of his ministry, Christ came early in the morning to the temple. Disciples and curiosity seekers soon gathered round and he began to teach them. In the middle of his sermon Jesus was rudely interrupted by some scribes and Pharisees who came with a woman in tow. Depositing her at his feet they said: “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?”
Healing the blind was one of the most frequent miracles performed by Christ during his earthly ministry. But one of those divine interventions sets itself apart from the rest: The Healing of the Blind Man at Bethsaida, which can only be found in the Gospel of St. Mark.
Bethsaida was a town located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus arrived there, the locals brought to him a blind man and asked the Savior to heal his affliction. Christ first led him out of the village and then put saliva on his eyes after which he laid his hands on him. Then he asked, “Do you see anything?” The man replied, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again. This time when the man opened his eyes, he saw everything clearly.
Towards the end of October 1702, the prominent New England Puritan Minister, Cotton Mather, was worried. His preoccupation was not with the ghosts and goblins associated with Halloween, as one might have suspected given his role in the Salem witch trials a decade earlier. Rather, his mind was focused on another invisible purveyor of death: smallpox.
In 1864, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a serious problem in the Sandwich Islands, what today we call Hawaii. The head of the church’s mission there had abused his stewardship and needed to be replaced. Elders Lorenzo Snow and Ezra T. Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve were dispatched to set things in order. To assist them in this endeavor, they recruited a young man who had just returned from a three-year mission in England and who had previously served a mission in Hawaii, where he learned the language and became well acquainted with the islands and their inhabitants.
After a long voyage, the party’s ship lay anchored in a channel at their destination. The seas in this region were rough, and traversing them could be dangerous unless you had the right kind of boat, were familiar with the currents, and knew the location of a man-made breakwater. Our young missionary possessed this knowledge, which he shared with his companions, recommending that they enlist the help of the locals and their specially designed boats to get ashore. But Elders Snow and Benson would have none of this.
Winston Churchill was a passionate student of history and wrote extensively on the subject, including celebrated multi-volume accounts of the two world wars. An important lesson he derived from his studies is captured in one of his most famous quotes: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”
This mindset is a prerequisite to divining the meaning of biblical prophecies, which are less about the future and more about the past and what we need to learn from it. And there is no better illustration of this principle than the second oracle of Simeon chronicled in Luke.
Christmas stimulates our senses like no other holiday. The dazzling holiday lights and decorations, the scent of pine from the tree and the aroma of roasted chestnuts emanating from the street vendor’s cart in the big city, that first sip of cinnamon-laced eggnog (we’ll pass on the fruitcake, thank you very much), the heft and feel of an unwrapped present, and the warm embrace of friends and family with whom we reunite. And my favorite of all: the laughter of children and the music of the season. Especially the music.
The sensory appeal of the holiday is not surprising since Christianity is very much a materialist religion, emphasizing the physical world and the human body as vehicles of the divine. In Medieval Europe this belief often found expression in an intense desire to be near the relics of the saints and martyrs, sacred objects that were frequently venerated in magnificent religious structures. The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, for example, was built in the 1240s by Saint Louis to house the Crown of Thorns, believed to have been on Christ’s head during the crucifixion.
Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
1 Timothy 4:12 (KJV)
Gene Weingarten, an award-winning author and writer for The Washington Post, was trying to come up with a topic for his next book. While bouncing ideas off his editor, he said: “What if we randomly pick a day from the recent past—last 50 years or so—and write about what happened in the United States during those 24 hours?”
His editor liked it, and so the two of them, on New Year’s Day, 2013, headed to Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington where they imposed on some fellow oyster lovers to help them select a date between 1969 and 1989. Through the drawing of three numbers—a day, a month and a year—from an old green fedora, a day was chosen: December 28, 1986.
Since Advent begins today, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to the infancy narratives found in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke.
When we study these scriptures, we typically skip over the verses at the beginning, which deal with the Savior’s ancestry. I imagine we do this because we assume they do nothing more than recite Christ’s lineage, just like the family trees we create on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. We also may be a bit perplexed by the numerous differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies.
’Tis the season of giving thanks for the gifts we have received.
While most of us appreciate the importance of gratitude, we typically give little thought as to how we express it. We don’t stop to ask: “How should I give thanks? What is the best way to show my appreciation?”
The importance of the manner in which we express our gratitude is embodied in the very word “thanks.” As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger observed, the word “thank” is etymologically similar to the word “think.” “To think” in German is denken while “thanks” is danken.