Sermon: God must be crazy!

Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
15th of September 2019

 Luke 15:1-10

In the two parables from today’s gospel reading we are in the very heart of the Gospel according to Luke. Christianity would not be the faith we know without these two stories and the one that follows them, the story of the so-called ‘prodigal son’. These stories of lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons reveal to us the overwhelming nature of the love of God. In fact, so extravagant is God’s love that the theme of these three stories could be ‘God behaving badly’.

Immediately before today’s reading begins Luke quotes Jesus as saying, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ (Luke 14:35b) Today’s reading begins by telling us that some people were indeed listening, ‘all the tax-collectors and sinners’. Not everyone is happy about this; Luke tells us that ‘the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’ In first-century Palestine table fellowship symbolised spiritual unity.[1] Jesus eating with tax-collectors and sinners could mean that he approved of their way of life. And their way of life was wrong! Tax-collectors had sold their souls to their Roman overlords and were willing to abuse their fellow Jews for personal gain. ‘Sinners’ were understood to despise the law by which Jews kept themselves the holy people of a holy God.[2] Jesus eating with such people is an utter scandal.

The one complaint against Jesus that is consistently reported in the gospels is that he ate with sinners. (Matt 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30) The good religious people, those who followed the Law and lived holy lives, those who knew that they were right with God, didn’t appreciate Jesus breaking bread with sinners. They certainly didn’t want to join in themselves. And so, Luke tells us, Jesus told them three parables. The parable of the lost sheep is also told in the Gospel according to 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 lost sons. These stories express Luke’s favourite theme; God’s astounding, extravagant, prodigal love for humanity – seen in the life and ministry of Jesus.

The pairing of today’s two parables is typically Lukan. A story about a man is followed by a story about a woman. There is an emphasis on the lowly of the world; 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; rabbis included shepherds in a list of despised trades, along with camel drivers, sailors, gamblers, dyers and tax collectors. So, telling a parable about a shepherd wasn’t going to get the Pharisees and the scribes onside.

They would find Jesus’ second tale equally challenging. Having pictured God as a lowly shepherd, Jesus now pictures God as a woman sweeping her house. While Church Fathers including Saint Augustine and Gregory the Great seem to have had no problem in seeing this woman as an avatar of God, and indeed describing her as Holy Wisdom incarnate in Jesus Christ,[3] there are still some Christians today who reject feminine images of God. The scribes and Pharisees would have been well enough educated in the psalms and Wisdom literature to accept feminine metaphors for God, but an anxious 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’ and ‘no woman’. Jesus’ descriptions of the actions of the shepherd and the woman are crazy. The shepherd has not made sure that his other 99 sheep are safe before looking for the lost one. This behaviour is so foolish that the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas adds in the detail that the sheep that was lost was ‘the largest’ in the flock. Only in that way might the parable make sense. Some commentators gloss the parable by explaining that a flock of 100 sheep would have several shepherds hired to watch over them, and the shepherd searching for the lost sheep would have left the 99 safely with the two or three others.[4] But that’s not what we’re told. Luke explicitly tells us that the shepherd ‘leave[s] the ninety-nine in the wilderness’ in order to go after that one, lost, sheep.

Then, having found it, the shepherd has a party to celebrate! One commentator I read this past week, Ernst R. Wendland, who teaches at the Lutheran Seminary in Lusaka, Zambia, wrote about some of the difficulties Christians from central Africa have with this passage. Among them is the fact that in central Africa no herder of livestock, usually a young boy, would dare leave a herd to seek after one lost animal. Why risk greater loss and a worse punishment if more went astray?[5] Even if the herder had done that, and recovered the lost animal, why on earth would he then have a party? In order to invite all his friends and neighbours for a celebration he would have to kill an animal to feed them, perhaps even the animal that he has just found after so much diligent searching. He wouldn’t gain anything at all.[6]

Then there are the actions of the woman. The coins aren’t particularly valuable, and the woman still has nine of them. To explain her excessive anxiety some commentators have suggested that these ten coins were part of her dowry, sewn into a headdress, an adornment for her as well as future security. Maybe the woman searches so vigorously for the one coin that is lost because it represents her marriage; it holds memories and symbolizes commitment. Whatever is behind her anxiety, the woman searches for the one lost coin as frantically as if it were unique, rather than one of ten. Then, having found it, she too has a party to celebrate. Wendland says that his Central African students find this party just as difficult to understand as that of the shepherd. After all, without it, no one would have known that the woman had lost a coin. ‘She could have kept the whole, potentially embarrassing, affair secret, at least from outsiders.’[7] But instead she lets them in on both the loss and recovery. If the shepherd and the woman are avatars for God, then they represent a God whose behaviour is decidedly strange.

That, of course, is the point. Parables are not meant to make a message easier to hear; the story form is not the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Parables are meant to leave the hearers with something to chew on, something to puzzle over and argue against so that parable becomes part of them. Frederick Beuchner writes of them that:

[they] can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people, and I believe that the comedy of them is not just a device for making the truth that they contain go down easy but that the truth that they contain can itself be thought of as comic.

These two parables, with their extravagantly celebratory protagonists, are certainly comic. In fact, as Beuchner says of several of Jesus’ other parables, ‘at least part of [their] point seems to be that a silly question deserves a silly answer’.

While both parables end with Jesus talking about the joy in heaven or in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents, the emphasis in both stories is on the joy of recovery, not on the need for repentance. This is partly because neither the sheep nor the coin has done anything wrong, and so the point cannot be the action of the sheep or the coin, the repentance of the sinner. The focus is the seeking shepherd and sweeping woman; the foolishness of the love of God that never ceases from searching out the lost.

Had Jesus been talking to sinners about the need for them to repent, no doubt the Pharisees and scribes would have commended him. Had he eaten with them in order to have the opportunity to tell them what dreadful lives they were leading, Jesus might have been the scribes’ and Pharisees’ hero. They still wouldn’t have joined him at the table, at least not until the tax-collectors and sinners were no longer tax-collectors and sinners, but they could have applauded from a safe distance. 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. There is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, but Jesus brings that heaven to sinners even before repentance occurs.

Whenever 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 and sinners like Matthew, Levi, and Zacchaeus, as well as with respectable people like Pharisees and scribes. Rich, poor, women, men, sinners, foreigners, the despised and the respected – all were welcome to share food with Jesus. And those meals were as extravagant and comic as the celebratory feast prepared by a shepherd who might have had to kill the sheep he just found in order to feed his friends and neighbours, or the one prepared by a woman who thus reveals her carelessness in losing a coin to her friends and neighbours.

The third parable in this series, the one of the extravagant father of two lost sons, ends with the implicit question to the scribes and the Pharisees: will you stay outside the feast, refusing to rejoice in the recovery of your sibling? But the first two parables, these we hear today, are told about the lost while Jesus was in the midst of  the lost, when ‘the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him’. Would the tax-collectors and sinners have recognised themselves as the lost sheep, the lost coin, the ones that God loves so passionately, crazily, extravagantly? We can imagine ourselves among the sinners who gather around Jesus, needing his compassion and recognition. If we think that we don’t need his compassion, then the story of the sulking older brother is for us. But if we are aware that we do, then these two stories of God’s passionate love and unceasing search for us when we get lost are ours.

God loves us: God searches for us; God rejoices with joy that cannot be contained when we are found. This good news is the heart of the gospel. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 99.

[2] Gerald L. Stevens, ‘Luke 15: Parables of God’s search for sinners,’ The Theological Educator, Fall 1997 (56) pp. 69-70.

[3] Shannon McAlister, ‘Christ as the Woman Seeking Her Lost Coin: Luke 15:8-10 and Divine Sophia in the Latin West,’ Theological Studies, 2018, Vol 79(1), pp. 7-35.

[4] Ernst R. Wendland, ‘Finding some lost aspects of meaning in Christ’s Parable of the Lost – and Found (Luke 15), Trinity Journal 17NS (1996), p. 38.

[5] Wendland, pp. 61-2.

[6] Wendland, pp. 62.

[7] Wendland, p. 40.

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