Continuing on from last week's study, a child grows through knowing his father as well as his mother. What might the child Jesus have experienced as he followed Joseph around, and how might those events have inspired Jesus' parables?
1. What fathers do: Jesus would have watched Joseph, not just at work in a carpenter’s workshop, but also in his interactions with other people of the village.
a. A father provides: Read Matthew 7:9-10, Luke 11:11-12
A father provides for his children and Jesus must surely have asked his father for many things, including bread, fish and eggs. We can probably assume Joseph didn’t give him stones, snakes and scorpions in return.
What if Jesus asked for fish and his father gave him bread instead? What if we ask God for one thing and receive another. Do we complain, or lose faith, or do we trust that our father will care for us?
b. Building: Read Matthew 7:24-27, Luke 6:47-49
Nazareth was a small agricultural village with about 300 residents in around 35 homes. Stone walls supported a roof made of sticks and twigs, bound together with clay. Rooms and houses were small. There was very little furniture. Clay pots might have been in an eating area. Stone slabs would have been covered with blankets for beds. Wooden ladders might lead to the roof. The table would be a mat laid on the earthen floor. There might be a cooking area—very smoky with blackened walls. And when it rained, everywhere would leak.
There was a spring that provided the village with water. It’s possible it may have flooded on some occasion, so Jesus would have seen the consequences of building without digging down to rock. Alternatively he may have seen how the waves destroyed structures on the beach when he lived in Egypt.
It’s easy for us to realize houses shouldn’t be built on unstable slopes, but we don’t often think about foundations unless we’re builders. What sort of events can you think of that leave you or society feeling helpless? What about 911? Does our reaction to such events help us see where we need to dig deeper for our foundations?
c. Day Laboring: Read Matthew 20:1-16
Nazareth was agricultural. Joseph may have gone to help in a vineyard to get some extra cash one year. Jesus may even have gone with him.
Who are modern America’s day laborers? Which matters more—being generous, being fair, or doing exactly what the law demands? Which matters more in modern society? And which should matter more if we want to be like Jesus? Why might events like this have come to Jesus’ mind when he tried to explain how hard it is for a rich young ruler to enter the kingdom.
d. Working for an absent master: Read Luke 12:42-48
Joseph may well have taken Jesus with him on jobs away from home. There Jesus could have learned about working for different kinds of masters, and for the servants of those masters. He may even have seen what happened in a household when the master travelled out of town.
It’s interesting that the punishment is based on what was known rather than what was done. Which principal governs our legal system? Why? Jesus had just told his disciples not to worry but to keep watch and be ready. He warned his followers to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees at the start of this chapter. Why do you think he tells this story now?
e. Working with family: Read Matthew 21:28-31
We don’t know for sure if Jesus had brothers and sisters, but he must have had relatives, and they probably had to work alongside Joseph. Jesus might have seen one boy agree to work and skive off while another said no and labored anyway.
Would we rather do more than we have to, or work out how much we can get away with? What about when we’re filling in our tax forms? We all say yes we’ll pay, but how many of us try to pay as little as we can get away with? The Pharisees had just questioned Jesus’ authority. Why might their question have brought this kind of memory to mind?
f. Work in the fields: Read Matthew 13:3-8, Mark 4:3-8, Luke 8:5-8
Nazareth was agricultural. At seedtime and harvest, Joseph and Jesus probably worked in the fields just like everyone else. Seeds were sown by hand, scattered from a sack held under the arm. And wastage mattered. Every seed sown was a seed not eaten. Every seed lost was a meal not grown.
Jesus explains this parable to his disciples, just as a teacher would normally explain his stories to his close followers. The surprising thing is that he told the parable to those who weren’t his disciples too. Thinking of the stony soil around Nazareth, a lot of seeds would fall on stony ground. But the farmers would try to prepare the ground first, and the sowers would try to be careful. What does that tell us about God’s actions in world history and in our lives?
g. Watch over the harvest: Read Mark 4:26-29
Jesus would have watched crops grow. He would have been well acquainted with what happens after the seed is planted.
We’re probably less well acquainted with growing things. Can you think of an equivalent analogy to the kingdom that might work for children growing up in apartments in big cities?
h. Weed the fields: Read Matthew 13:24-30
Jesus would have seen weeds grow with the crops. Might he have wondered why his father wasn’t pulling them out? Might Joseph have explained that the farmer said wheat and tares needed to grow to harvest together?
Our churches are often eager to weed out wrong behavior, not just from the church but from society too. How does this fit with Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares? How does it fit with love? Bearing in mind that Jesus tells this parable straight after talking about seed falling on stony ground, how do the two stories fit together?
i. Build a barn: Read Luke 12:16-21
The people of Nazareth probably didn’t grow enough to need barns, but if someone in the valley was building a barn, a skilled laborer like Joseph may well have been hired to help build it, and Jesus may have pondered the value of what was stored.
Building barns is sensible. Joseph told the Egyptians to save their surplus for a rainless da (Genesis 41:48). What is Jesus condemning in this story? Bear in mind he tells it in response to someone asking him to rule in an inheritance dispute.
j. Talk with friends in the shade: Read Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:10-32, Luke 13:18-19
People wouldn’t have met in houses to talk—the houses were too small. But the shade of a mustard tree would provide a good gathering place. And the seed of a mustard tree would provide a lesson in the miracles of nature and God’s providence.
We live in a society that values instant gratification. How comfortable are we waiting for God’s promises? When Jesus tells us to ask in faith for what we need, do we think of huge, powerful, energetic, determined faith, or do we imagine a mustard seed? If we’ve planted mustard seeds of faith in our children’s lives, how sure are we that God will grow trees from them? (And finally, does it worry us that the three gospels don’t seem to agree on when Jesus told this parable?)
k. Tenant farmers on a vineyard: Read Matthew 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-9, Luke 20:9-16
Nazareth is in the hills above the Jezreel valley where they may well have been many vineyards (1 Kings 21). Jesus and Joseph may have travelled around the vineyards in search of work, and Jesus may have become familiar with how tenant farming worked. He may even have seen a son return to his father’s vineyard after the tenants had rebelled.
In the story, the owner gives his vineyard to others when the tenants fail to recognize (okay, they kill) his son. The Jesus of history broke conventions, ignored irrelevant laws, argued with authorities, and generally wasn’t half as meek and mild as we sometimes imagine. He tells this parable as he enters Jerusalem. If he walked into church one Sunday, would we recognize him?
l. Seasonal labor: Read Matthew 24:32-33, Mark 13:28-29, Luke 21:29-32
Harvest and seasons were important to an agricultural community. Jesus would have known to watch for the fig tree’s leaves.
Someone once said he didn’t know if prayer worked but he knew the coincidences stopped happening when he forgot to pray. How good are we at keeping a lookout for God’s action in our lives? What does that say about how prepared we are for the End Times?
m. Fertilize the fruit tree: Read Luke 13:6-9
It might have been hard to grow figs in Nazareth, but easier in the vineyards of the valley. That’s where Jesus may have learned about digging and fertilizing a tree.
Digging loosens the soil and lets the farmer remove impurities. What needs removing from our lives? Fertilizing lets the farmer add nourishment. What needs adding to our lives? Jesus told the story after he pointed out that the men who a tower fell on were no more guilty than those on whom it didn’t fall. Can you see any connection?
n. At the End of a Long Day’s Work: Read Luke 17:7-10
At the end of a long day working for someone else, Joseph might have expected pay, but he wouldn’t have expected praise. Neither would Jesus.
Many people seem to imagine if they do good they should expect God to give good things to them. Then they ask “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” How would you respond? Jesus tells this story after warning his disciples that problems are inevitable but we shouldn’t let ourselves be the cause of someone else stumbling in faith. How do pride and expecting or demanding praise cause our neighbors to stumble?