Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 15, 2019
Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the religious leaders were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” … and Jesus said, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” You know what struck me about this reading, when was studying the texts for this Sunday? It’s the contrast between God’s reaction to sin, and the religious leaders’ reaction to sin. In our reading from Exodus, God sees the Hebrew people sin and becomes furious. He knows the harm they are doing to themselves and one another. And, like anyone who sees someone they love being hurt, God gets angry. Meanwhile, the religious leaders see people who have committed sin, and grumble that Jesus talks to them. Their reaction is not about punishing sin; it’s not about hating the brokenness and destruction that sin leaves in its wake; it’s certainly not about trying to heal that brokenness or help people turn away from sin. No, their grumbling is about dividing people into good people and bad people, people who deserve good things and people who don’t—and then making sure that everybody knows who’s supposed to be on what side of that equation.
For most people in the world, there are two kinds of sinners: the ones they can sympathize with, and the ones they can’t. There are some people, and some sins, where we can put ourselves in the sinner’s shoes. “If I were in their position, I might have done something similar.” We feel compassion. And, very often, we begin to excuse the sin, to minimize it. It’s not that big a deal! Anyone might have done that, in that situation! We believe ourselves to be good people, and we can see why they did it, therefore they must be good people too, and therefore the sin must not really be that bad. Or maybe the sinner is so nice, and they seem so much like us, so surely they can’t be that bad. Therefore, the thing they did can’t have been that bad, either. We close our eyes to the hurt their sin caused, the damage, and sweep any consequences neatly under the rug. This is what happens every time a man known to harass women keeps getting invited to parties, or someone gets mad that their friend was called a racist for saying and doing racist stuff. If we sympathize with the sinner, we are very likely to excuse the sin. If there’s a way to sweep things under the rug and prevent them from facing any consequences, we’ll do that. We may even convince ourselves that their actions were good.
When we can’t sympathize with the sinner or the sin, however, things are exactly the opposite. Then there is no excuse for their behavior or their words. Why, they must be pure evil to have said or done such a thing. No punishment is too much for their offenses. And anyone who can have compassion or sympathy for them must be just as bad. Even minor sins, done by people we dislike or have no sympathy for, loom large in our eyes. We want the book thrown at them, and we are quite happy to exclude them and demean them and treat them badly, because obviously they deserve it. If terrible things happen to them, that’s okay, because they don’t deserve compassion or humane treatment because they’re bad.
How much harm the sin caused is less important than how we feel about the sinner. If we like the sinner, we think there is nothing to forgive. If we don’t like the sinner, we think forgiveness is not—or shouldn’t be—possible. And neither of these is healthy, good, or godly. In God’s eyes, no sin can or should be swept under the rug or minimized. God sees all the hurt and pain that sin causes. God knows exactly how bad each sin is, even when we humans blind ourselves to the real consequences of our thoughts and actions. But at the same time, God truly loves sinners and can and will forgive anything if we give God half a chance. And God rejoices every time someone can be saved, every time someone can be turned to a more life-giving path.
Consider God’s words in our reading from Exodus. We see how angry God is at the Hebrew people for breaking their promises and going astray. It’s not just that they’ve started to make themselves idols, it’s that God knew where that was going to lead. Once you’ve decided that one of the ten greatest commandments can be broken, and that everybody should just go along with it, where does it stop? This isn’t just a minor thing like jaywalking. Idolatry is creating God in your own image, a god you’re comfortable with who will only ever tell you what you want to hear and confirm what you already believe. Once you have taken that step—once you have stopped listening to the actual God who created the universe and saves people from slaver and sin and death, once you have started substituting your own preconceptions and prejudices and ideologies and telling yourself that’s what God wants you to do—then any other evil becomes excusable. Because it’s just a matter of finding the right justification. And if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s finding justifications.
The gods of our own creation like all the same people we like, and hate all the same people we hate. The idols of our ideology tell us that we are righteous when we do the things we want to do, whatever that may be and no matter who gets hurt. After all, if our actions or inactions hurt people we don’t care about, the gods we make in our own image don’t care about them, either. Murder, rape, torture, theft, adultery, abuse, exploitation … all of them can be justified. If we work hard enough, we can even find a way to explain them as a good thing.
And that’s why God is so mad about the Hebrew’s idolatry. God knows where it will lead. God knows that they will use the idol they have created to justify the worst parts of human nature. They will hurt one another, and do evil, and they will use their idol to excuse it all. If your children whom you loved and had tried to teach good to were hurting one another, and convincing themselves that their cruelty and selfishness was good and right, wouldn’t you be angry? Every single human being ever born is God’s beloved child, whom God created in God’s own image. Every bit of the universe was created by God, and made good. Every time we hurt another human being, we hurt someone God loves. Every time we hurt ourselves, we hurt someone God loves. Every time we ignore another human being’s pain, we ignore the pain of someone God loves. Every time we hurt the world, we are hurting God’s good creation. God cares about everyone, even the people we don’t. Even the people we actively hate or despise. That’s why God hates sin, because it hurts people God loves. That’s why sin makes God angry.
And that’s also why God forgives. Because God loves. God loves both the sinner and the sinned-against. God loves both the one who is hurt, and the one who caused their pain. God hates the things we do that hurt ourselves and others and creation, but God still loves us. And no matter what we have done, or failed to do, God will always seek us out and work to turn our lives around. No matter what others have done or failed to, God will always seek them out and work to turn their lives around. And when it works—when someone is saved, when someone is put on a better path, God and all heaven throws a party and rejoices. Wouldn’t you, if it were your child?
The Pharisees saw sin as a way of determining who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, who’s worth caring about and who’s disposable. And so when they saw Jesus spending time with people they thought were sinners, they grumbled. Because God should care about the nice people like us, not the bad people like them. All too often, that’s the way we think about sin and sinners, too. But that’s not the way God sees it. To God, sin is the tragedy that causes his beloved children to hurt one another and God’s good creation. Sin is the thing that breaks the world and separates us from God and one another. But no matter how great our sin is, God’s love is greater still. And sometimes, sometimes people choose to be better. Sometimes people choose to stop contributing to the cycle of pain and violence. Sometimes people who have gotten lost are found and put on a better path. And when that happens, God and all heaven rejoices. Shouldn’t we rejoice, too?