Sermon for Williamstown
15th of September, 2010
In today’s two parables we find ourselves in the heart of Luke’s Gospel. Christianity would not be the faith we know if it wasn’t for these two stories and the one that follows them. Our identity as Christians would be very different without this trio. The stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, reveal to us the overwhelming nature of the love of God. They also reveal to us who we are.
The setting of these stories is one of both celebration and condemnation: “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” When Jesus shared a meal, the people around the table experienced the banquet of the kingdom of God. One of the signs of the coming of the kingdom was the sharing of table fellowship with tax collectors like Matthew, Levi, and Zacchaeus, as well as with respectable people like Pharisees. Rich, poor, women, men, sinners, foreigners, the despised and the respected – all were welcome to share food with Jesus.
But, as today’s reading reminds us, not everyone thought that welcome was a good thing. The one complaint against Jesus that’s consistently reported in the gospels is that Jesus ate with sinners. The Pharisees and scribes, the good religious people who were sure of their welcome, didn’t appreciate the welcome being offered to sinners and tax-collectors. And so, Luke tells us, Jesus told them three parables. The parable of the lost sheep is also told in the Gospel of Matthew, although with a slightly different emphasis. But only Luke includes the parable of the lost coin, and only Luke tells the tale of the prodigal son. These stories express Luke’s favourite theme; the gospel of God’s astounding love for humanity, seen in the life and ministry of Jesus. The third parable, the story of the prodigal son or the loving father or the elder brother, was read as part of the lectionary for the fourth week of Lent. So today we focus on the other two, remembering that the way we understand them is influenced by the extremely famous story that follows them.
The pairing of these two parables is typically Lukan. A story about a man is followed by a story about a woman, just in case we have any idea at all that Jesus’ message might not be equally relevant to both sexes. And we have Luke’s emphasis on the lowly of the world; in these two parables God is imagined as a shepherd and as a housewife. While the ‘shepherd’ image of God is one that the prophets used, shepherds themselves weren’t viewed highly in Jesus’ time. They had acquired a reputation as shiftless, thieving, hirelings; and rabbis included shepherds in a list of despised trades, along with camel drivers, sailors, gamblers, dyers and tax collectors. This is one of the reasons that Luke tells us that the first visitors to the baby Jesus were shepherds; God’s good news is announced first to the outcast. Jesus is hardly being soothing to the scribes and Pharisees. Accused of hanging out with sinners and tax-collectors, he responds with a story that pictures God as a shepherd.
And his second tale is equally testing. Having pictured God as a lowly shepherd, he then pictures God as a woman sweeping her house. There are still some Christians today who find feminine images of God challenging. Presumably the scribes and Pharisees would have been well enough educated in the Hebrew Scriptures, the psalms and Wisdom literature, to accept feminine metaphors for God, but a housewife would probably not have been the first one that sprang to mind.
Both stories begin with a question: “Which one of you…” “Or what woman having ten silver coins…” The answer to these questions could quite easily be, “none of us” or “no woman”. Jesus’ description of the actions of the shepherd and the woman is a little crazy. The shepherd has not made sure that his other 99 sheep are safe in the fold before looking for the lost one. We’re told that they have been left in the desert. This is extremely foolish behaviour. The only explanation for it can be that the shepherd is absolutely crazy over that one, lost, sheep. The shepherd loves the one lost sheep beyond all reason. This, Jesus says, is how God loves sinners.
And then there are the actions of the woman. The coins aren’t particularly valuable, and she still has nine of them. But maybe her ten coins were part of her dowry, sewn into a headdress and so an adornment for her as well as future security. Maybe she searches so vigorously for the one coin because it represents her marriage, it holds memories and symbolizes commitment. She searches for the one lost coin so frantically because each coin is unique; each has an inherent individual value. This, Jesus says, is how God sees sinners – uniquely valuable.
The emphasis in both stories is on the joy of recovery, not on the need for repentance. The shepherd and the woman do not merely seek out the sheep and the coin until they’re found, but they celebrate the finding joyously and extravagantly. In these parables, neither the sheep nor the coin actually do anything wrong. Matthew tells us that the sheep went astray; but in Luke’s version the sheep, like the coin, is merely lost. The point is not the action of the sheep or the coin, not the repentance of the sinner, but the actions of the seeking shepherd and woman, the love of God.
Had Jesus been talking to sinners about the need for them to repent, the Pharisees and scribes would have applauded him. Had he eaten with them in order to have the opportunity to tell them what dreadful lives they were leading, Jesus would have been the scribes and Pharisees’ hero. The problem is that Jesus is willing to eat with tax-collectors and sinners, to relate to them as people, to see them as beloved human beings, before they demonstrate any repentance at all.
How do we hear the story? Where do we sit as we listen? Are we with the scribes and the Pharisees, full of self-righteous judgment? It’s possible that these parables were collected for a church that thought like the scribes and the Pharisees. After all, the scribes and Pharisees aren’t alone in thinking that separating good and bad people is in the community’s interests. Are we in danger of seeing those of us in the church as part of the ninety-nine sheep or the nine coins, while those outside the church are the one lost sheep or the one lost coin, needing to repent?
There’s nothing wrong with seeking to be righteous. Righteousness merely means being in right relationship with God, and we all seek that. The trouble for the scribes and Pharisees was that their righteousness had become a barrier separating them from the outcasts. The church needs to make sure that we follow the example of Jesus rather than that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus told this story about the lost while in the midst of the lost. He told the story with love and compassion. If the church ever emphasizes judgment over mercy and the need for repentance over God’s rejoicing, then we have got Jesus’ emphasis wrong.
Earlier this week we had a forum on same-sex marriage, and whether the church should celebrate them. The Uniting Church holds within it people who have very different opinions on this. Some people believe that same-sex relationships should be treated in exactly the same way as heterosexual relationships and so the church should celebrate same-sex marriages. Other people believe that while there’s nothing wrong with same-sex relationships they should be treated in a different way from heterosexual relationships and so the church should acknowledge same-sex relationships in ways other than marriage. And yet other people believe that same-sex relationships are wrong, and so the church shouldn’t bless them in any way. All three positions are perfectly okay in the Uniting Church; that’s the sort of church we are – broad. What wouldn’t be okay is any one of us using any of these positions to exclude other people. God does not exclude people, and neither may we. Even if we think that other people are sinning, in their sexual practices or in their judgment of others, God loves those people extravagantly and welcomes them abundantly. And that is our role as the church, too.
There is another position from which we can hear this story. We can imagine ourselves as among the sinners who gather around, needing the compassion of someone who acknowledges and recognizes our humanity. If we imagine ourselves listening to Jesus from this position, then we know that these stories are about us. We are the lost sheep, the lost coin. This means that we are the sheep that God loves passionately, crazily, extravagantly. We are the uniquely valuable coin, whose recovery causes such celebration.
As you now know, I love the songs that come from the Iona community. One of my favorites is a song that seems to me to be the song of the lost sheep, or the lost coin, or the sinners and tax-collectors gathered around Jesus, or of everyone in the church. So, while I can’t sing it to you, I’m going to read you the first two verses:
Were I the perfect child of God
whose faith was deep and love was broad
not doubtful, guilty, worn or flawed,
I’d gladly follow Jesus.
But I’m the child of what I’ve been,
estranged by much I’ve done and seen,
afraid to show the love I mean,
unfit to follow Jesus.
Yet God, who knows me first and last,
who’s seen my best, my worst, my past,
has shown his love intense and vast
by meeting me in Jesus.
For Christ, though killed at Calvary,
by sins like mine and folk like me,
has risen, forgiven and set me free,
made fit to follow Jesus.
God knows us first and last, has seen our best, our worst and our past. And yet God loves us passionately and searches for us unceasingly. When we are found God rejoices with joy that cannot be contained. This good news is the heart of Luke’s gospel. Thanks be to God. Amen.