Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 24), September 15, 2013
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15: 1-10
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Society was very different in Jesus’ day, in many ways. The gap between rich and poor was much larger, for example, and virtually everyone worked at hard physical labor since their machinery was very primitive. Their ideas of what family was were very different than ours, as was their understanding of gender. They had very little concept of science, and viewed numbers and mathematics with a kind of mysticism. But, as it happens, despite all the differences, there was a group in Jesus day very similar to most modern Christians.
These people were the pillars of their community. They were as close as the ancient world got to “middle class.” They studied the Bible regularly (although their Bible was only what we would call the Old Testament, as the New Testament hadn’t been written yet). They went to worship every Sabbath. They tried to do everything the right way, the way God wanted it. They tried their best to follow the Commandments and establish a good and godly society. They tried to get everyone in their community to be faithful to God, too; they spent lots of time and energy teaching anyone who would listen about God. And they were generous, always giving their offering at the Temple and supporting the needy in their community. They tried to do everything right, and by most standards they succeeded. They knew who deserved God’s favor, who had earned God’s love. When Jesus showed up, they were among the first to listen to him, although in the end they didn’t like what he had to say. They agreed with Jesus about most things, but in the end, the few things they disagreed on were so important to them that they turned on Jesus and helped the chief priests to arrest him. Who were these people, you may ask, these righteous and self-righteous people doing their best to follow God’s commandments? The Pharisees.
One of the things that most annoyed the Pharisees about Jesus was who he spent time with. Sure, he came to be with them in worship, and he ate with them and taught them … but he also spent time with the sinners and tax collectors and all manner of unsavory people. And sure, the Pharisees said, healing such people was great (as long as it wasn’t on the Sabbath), and teaching them was wonderful, and feeding the hungry was just what God would approve of. But … eating with them? Not just feeding the hungry, but spending time socializing with sinners from all walks of life? Not just ladling out bowls of soup at a soup kitchen along with an invitation to worship, but building relationships with them? These are the losers! The lost! The ones who have proved by their behavior that they don’t belong with the good people! The ones who have proved that they aren’t worthy of being included in the community! No respectable person should be hanging out with them, especially not someone who claims to be a teacher of the faith. So it’s no wonder that they grumbled about Jesus’ social time with sinners.
Jesus, of course, heard the grumbling. And so he told them three parables. We only hear the first two today; the third, the story of the Prodigal Son, we won’t hear until Lent. All three parables are about finding what is lost, and rejoicing. The shepherd leaving ninety nine sheep behind to search for one that is lost, the woman who scours her house until she finds the last coin, the son who comes back expecting to be thrown out on his ear only to find himself wrapped in his father’s loving arms.
In our two parables today, the search for what is lost is extravagant, frantic, trumping all other concerns. Have you ever thought what might happen to the ninety-nine sheep while the shepherd is away searching for the one that is lost? Have you ever spent more time than you can afford tearing apart your home to search for something you know you have in there somewhere? There comes a point where it makes more sense, from any rational standpoint, to simply accept the loss and move on. But that’s not what happens in the stories. The search continues until what is lost has been found. We’re not told the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ choice of metaphor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d been skeptical about it, frowning at what doesn’t seem to make sense.
And then, even worse is what happens after the lost is found. There’s a party! Rejoicing! Sheep go astray all the time; it’s the shepherd’s job to keep them together and find the ones who wander off before anything happens to them. So why is the shepherd throwing a party for doing his job? And as for the woman with the ten coins, well, she, too, throws a party. But how much did the party cost, I wonder? She reacts to finding and saving money by … spending it. Surely, the sensible thing to do would be to not lose things in the first place, and if you do lose them, take a good look at how important they are and whether or not it’s worth it to put in the time and effort to find them. And how about a cost-benefit analysis before throwing the party. Is it worth it? Was the stuff you lost really that important? What’s the sensible, responsible, logical thing to do? Particularly when you remember that these parables are all about Jesus’ disreputable habit of hanging out with sinners. It’s one thing to put a lot of time and energy into finding something that was lost by accident; something else entirely to search for someone who chose to get lost. It’s no wonder that when Jesus was done telling his parables, the Pharisees ridiculed him!
And while the Pharisees are standing around debating the finer points of Jesus’ stories and pointing out the logical flaws, they were missing the big picture. Any time, in Scripture, that you hear someone talking about a party, you should start paying attention. Particularly when they’re talking about God throwing a party. Because, you see, one of the great metaphors for Heaven is that of a party. You see it over and over and over again, in the Old Testament and again in Jesus’ parables and even through to Revelation. The Pharisees, good Bible-thumping people that they were, should have recognized the party just as you or I would recognize a picture of someone in a white robe sitting on a cloud with a harp. But they don’t seem to; in chapter 16 when Jesus finally gets done with this string of parables, they ridicule him. They’re so focused on the commandments, that they can’t see the love and grace behind them. After all, as Jesus pointed out, all of the commandments can be summed up as loving God and loving your neighbor. And that love comes in response to God’s love for us, a love that is extravagant and impractical and can’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis.
You have to wonder if the Pharisees are ever going to get with the program. Because, if they continue on as they are, they’ll be standing outside the party by their own choice. In the great party that is heaven, will they be standing outside the gates complaining about who got in and refusing to enter because they certainly wouldn’t want to be seen with those kinds of people? And complaining about what low standards God has, instead of joining in the rejoicing that what was lost has been found? Will they spend eternity complaining about the extravagance of God’s determination to find and save everyone no matter how lost they are, an extravagance that includes pouring out God’s own self on the cross for the sake of the world?
But it’s easy to condemn the Pharisees. After all, they lived so long ago and they are often Jesus’ opponents in the Bible. It’s harder to recognize the same flaws in ourselves. We, too, are good God-fearing people. We, too, judge others, sometimes harshly. We, too, are prone to think more about our own righteousness than on God’s saving grace. We, too, sometimes hold to the letter of the law instead of the spirit of love which is its foundation. If Jesus came here today, would we be offended by whom he chose to hang out with? Would we be shocked to see him seek out druggies and welfare mothers and gang-bangers and pregnant teens and spend time with them? Not just giving them a handout and a sermon, but building a relationship, loving them, and inviting them to the great party that is God’s kingdom? Would we ridicule the time and effort spent seeking out the lost? Would we, too, find ourselves on the outside of the party looking in, complaining about the guest list and the extravagance?
The truth is, we are all lost, in one way or another. No matter how well we think we know God and follow him, we fall astray. No matter how good we think we are, we fall short of the glory of God. We fail to love God, and we fail to love our neighbor. And sometimes, we even get so caught up in trying to follow the letter of the law that we forget the spirit of it. If we can’t love our neighbors, particularly the ones who aren’t particularly good or likeable, how can we understand and accept God’s love for them? Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own judgments that we lose sight of God’s grace, and become lost.
So thank God that our God loves us—all of us—so much that he will never stop seeking us. Thank God for the extravagant grace and mercy poured out on all people, saint and sinner, good and bad, respectable and outcast. For we are all, every one of us, sinners, in one way or another; and we are all, every one of us, saved by God’s grace and love, and invited in to the great party. Thanks be to God.