This September brings with it a heavy joy. Every year the calendar’s turn to Labor Day and the weather’s switch to rain and chill bring us back from the fun of summer. Vacation is over—it’s back to normal life. For families with children, this year brings a new celebration: every kid from preschool through senior year has the chance to start September fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Finally, after three disrupted school years, a normal September!
But years in the shadow of a global pandemic have called our attention to the same questions that Jesus poses in this month’s Gospel readings. Luke’s witness to Jesus’ good news speaks to us still, even across the miles and centuries. From Labor Day to Sept. 11 to Rally Sundays, we face questions from our lectionary readings: What is “normal” and is it worth it?
Jesus will challenge culturally enforced family structures (Luke 14:25-33), push religious authorities to welcome the marginalized and those in need of mercy (15:1-10), celebrate a fraudulent forgiveness of debt (16:1-13), and even depict the salvation of a homeless beggar and the damnation of the comfortable rich (16:19-31).
In each of these four parables, Jesus invites those around him, from large crowds to his close disciples to the Pharisees, to question the norm. In his time, a person’s value was assumed by societal position: their family, their wealth, their proximity to power. Those who found themselves outside those norms were systematically and societally ignored—or worse, condemned.
“Jesus invites us to rejoice with the restoration of others, rather than keep out those who have been lost.”
Yet in his teachings, Jesus praises those who are forced to or are willing to step outside expectations. What had seemed beneficial becomes a barrier. Allegiance to family would preclude discipleship; maintaining the majority would leave the lost forgotten; high interest on debts would drive a community to exile the collector; exorbitant wealth would signal not God’s favor but a future disgrace.
We aren’t too distant from the same mistakes Jesus’ peers made. Our world is full of pressure to value ourselves based on the worth assigned to us—how well we fit into our family, how much money we make, how much we belong to the majority opinion or culture. But the cost Jesus poses to the crowd (14:28) is to be willing to give up “normal” worthiness and accept the worth God gives us.
Jesus invites us to rejoice with the restoration of others, rather than keep out those who have been lost. He invites us to forgo power or manipulation and instead to receive radical welcome by those who might have been our enemies. And Jesus invites us to give up our abundant comforts for the benefit of those starving and suffering at our gates.
The busyness of fall can easily crowd out Jesus’ invitations. It’s our vocation—as it was for Jesus’ first followers—to commit ourselves to regular reflection, education and connection. Even as we participate in September kickoffs and resumed “normalcy,” we can be continually drawn back into God’s grace, remembering that our worth is given not by who we are but by whose we are.