On the whole, a Gospel confounds

Photo: Pixabay Photo: Pixabay

I have great sympathy for Mary and Joseph. I lose Jesus all the time.
— Lauren F. Winner

Each day of Advent, our family read a chapter from the Gospel of Luke. Conveniently, there are 24 chapters total, which means that by Christmas morning Jesus had both arrived and departed from Earth.

Turns out, Luke doesn’t fit the spirit of a feel-good storybook Christmas. The Virgin, angels, shepherds and swaddled baby are gone after the second chapter. From Dec. 3 on, it’s all miracles, teachings, scheming villains, torture and death and, in the end, a plot twist of eternal proportions. Luke isn’t a Hallmark card.

I hadn’t read a book of the Bible straight through for quite some time, and I felt overwhelmed. There was so much to process in just one chapter. I realized how much I miss Sunday school class from pre-COVID times, where we sit together and tackle one shorter section of the Bible at a time.

I hadn’t read the Bible with my children recently. As we progressed through Luke I was reminded there is a reason we ladle out the Bible slowly and in piecemeal fashion; there is a lot in the Gospels that is simply above children’s ken.

Many of the parables, like the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, have high entertainment value coupled with a clear moral message, both palatable for the elementary-age mind.

Some of Jesus’ metaphors are perfect conduits for a child’s imaginative mind to grasp a heady concept, like describing the kingdom of God as yeast, a growing plant or a treasure.

Yet other parables and teachings carry contradictions and confusing instructions. What is a literal mind supposed to think when Jesus emphatically proclaims he has come to divide families in chapter 12 and then in chapter 18 tells the rich ruler to honor his father and mother. My son’s response: “Well, that doesn’t make sense.”

Don’t get me started on the multiple passages about end times. Who is this queen of the South (Luke 11:31), and why do I feel slightly pathetic telling my kid I have absolutely no idea what Jesus is talking about?

My high school daughters noticed that Jesus talked a lot about money and sharing. Often the message is pretty straightforward: Don’t love money, and make sure others’ needs are taken care of as well. Turn the page, however, and there is the parable of the shrewd manager, in which the incompetent manager is seemingly rewarded by his rich boss because the manager was dishonest and gamed the system.

Three chapters later in the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27) the nobleman is described as a hard man, taking out what he does not put in. This hard man chastises his servant who hasn’t made more money and proclaims that “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Both of these parables run contrary to our notion of God’s priorities and justice if we assume the rich boss and man of noble birth are the heroes. What if Jesus told both of these parables from the villain’s point of view? And how much do you get into that with a third-grader?

You don’t. And thus the children’s Sunday school curricula committee strikes the Ten Minas from the lesson plan, leaving it to the adults to muddle out a meaning.

Because churches have closed their physical doors due to COVID, our children haven’t had real Sunday school for eight months now. This is a loss. Our children will not pick up the Bible on their own. TikTok is an entirely more entertaining alternative.

Frankly, few of us are quick to pick up a Bible on our own. The Bible isn’t as warm and cozy as the Christmas movies readily available during Advent. Without weekly church meetings I’ve hardly cracked the spine.

But unlike make-believe movies, the Bible is where we are commanded to do the hard things that bring real purpose and meaning to our lives: like sell possessions, persist for justice, humbly admit our sins and not worry. It is where we find stories of incomprehensible forgiveness and healing. It is where we find the human Jesus, God with us.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!