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!