Last Sunday I wrote an article about the two stories of Christmas, one in Matthew’s gospel and the other in Luke’s, and I called them both Parables. Monday morning, I received a voicemail from a very prominent and successful attorney in town, a man I’ve known for 38 years. He said it was obvious that I had “joined up with the Devil.” And he was dead serious.
Who the devil is the devil? Well, he’s been the subject of intense interest for thousands of years. He’s been pictured as a ghost, a bogeyman, and a spook, or as a “devilishly” handsome man in a red suit, with horns and a pitchfork. He has even been portrayed as the nebulous “epitome of all evil,” or the cause of everything bad that people do. You know: “the Devil made me do it.”
My description of the literary styles in the two birth stories of Jesus made my attorney-friend decide with absolute certainty that I have “joined up with the Devil.” There is no doubt in his mind that my allegiance has shifted from God to the devil, and he counseled me to find my way back immediately. Think of all the damage I could do in this Sunday paper if I wield the power of the Devil!
I wonder if he was thinking about the story of Job in the Old Testament (the Tanakh). You remember: God makes a bet with the Devil that Job will stay faithful no matter what the Devil does to Job. And just look at the power this Devil has:
And if that is what I did, I apologize. If we take this to court and my attorney-friend can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that these two authors wrote two historical documents instead of two beautiful parables, I will retract immediately. I will call all the Scripture scholars I know (especially Borg and Crossan) and have them re-think their conclusions and re-do their research. I will stop my own research into the literary styles and customs of the 1st century, and I will try to read the Gospels as if they were written in English by Galilean journalists who were trained in the tradition of the Wall Street Journal.
But if he cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, I will continue to base my faith on sound, scholarly assumptions—not on devilishly convenient religious traditions.
A Parable is a “story with a moral.” The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:20) is quoted by Christians and non-Christians alike as the “love your neighbor—even when you hate him” story. The Prodigal son parable (Lk.15:3) strikes home to every father with a teen-age son. The gospels of Matthew and Luke are full of parables; nearly one on every page.
Nobody asks: “Was there really a Samaritan who took care of his Jewish enemy?” “Is this fact or fable?” It’s neither; it’s a parable. Parables are intriguing stories that pull you in with fascinating details and real-life examples and then “sock it to you” at the end. It would destroy the whole meaning of the parable to focus on its so-called historicity.
So it is, I think, with our two Christmas stories. I think both of them are parables. (Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan agree with me and they wrote a book about it: The First Christmas.) Matthew’s short parable is only 31 verses long as opposed to Luke’s edited version which is four times longer. Matthew wrote his story about eighty to ninety years after the birth of Christ. Ten years later, Luke studied Matthew’s story and changed it. But both authors, I believe, were writing parables –not history.
Matthew’s parable is a striking comparison to the birth of Moses in Exodus. Just as the Pharaoh plots to kill Moses, so King Herod sets out to kill Jesus, and both Moses and Jesus are saved by divine intervention. This connection continues throughout the entire gospel of Matthew: Jesus gives us the New Law from the New Mt. Sinai (the Sermon on the Mount) and chapters 5 to 25 contain five long discourses to mirror the five books of the Pentateuch. The early Jewish/Christians would get this point immediately.
Luke’s parable is completely different; the focus here is on the marginalized people under Roman rule. Luke wanted his readers to think about the plight of women and the poor. Luke’s Christmas story is not about Moses but about Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, and sets the stage for his unique stories about women, especially Mary Magdalene. The poor appear when Luke has the angel announcing the Birth to the shepherds in the fields – not to the Wise Men. Shepherds were even lower in the pecking order than peasants. The early Jewish/Christians would also get this point right away.
This is what these two parables meant to those early 1st century Christians. But what do they mean to us today? We combine both stories together—all the time—so we miss the two original parabolic references but we do get the one overall powerful theme: Joyous Love.
Christmas means Joy to the World. We sing: “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant”; we have parties and celebrations and lively church services; we fill the whole month of December with happy smiles and family get-togethers. The new parable of the whole Christmas season –whether we’re Christians or Jews or Atheists –is love; joyous love.
It doesn’t really matter whether we say: Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Feliz Navidad; the meaning of the parable is clear in every language and in every nation. It’s more powerful than the story of the Good Samaritan; it’s more pungent than the Prodigal Son.
Christmas is the most meaningful parable we have ever seen. Its meaning never fades; it only increases each year as new children are born, and our love for each other becomes more and more joyous.
So: Merry Christmas to all and to all—a very joyous holiday!