Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Last week we heard the passage in Luke just previous to today’s wonderful parables about the lost sheep and coin. That previous message could hardly have been more different. It concerned the cost of discipleship. Jesus told the crowds following him, you must renounce your family, even life itself, if you want to be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Then, somewhat surprisingly after demanding total, unconditional following, he went on to talk about how his would-be followers, like ordinary people everywhere, must make calculations about what they can accomplish and afford. I suggested we see in this odd passage our likewise odd position as disciples: we are called by God to be God’s own agents, and that sounds like an impossible calling. But we are still ordinary human beings, who must calculate what we can give to the church in terms of our financial support and, more importantly, our service. We will continue this fall to dwell in this odd place, in which we acknowledge that our taking part in God’s mission in the world is the most important thing we could do. (Seems obvious to me, anyway; but what do you expect, I’m a minister.) At the same time, we have to balance our church commitments against all the other demands on us: family, friends, career, and just taking time for ourselves. I will be making those same calculations with you. I just ask one thing: even as you set your church commitments alongside all those other commitments of time and money, and start weighing them and making the inevitable compromises we all must make, please just pause to reflect that you are still dealing with God’s call upon you. Our invitation to be disciples of God is still an amazing, wondrous thing, even if we all have to make our life in God just another pot on the many burners of life.
But what a different Jesus we have in today’s passage that follows right upon last weeks’, and it seems, a different God. Last week, a Jesus who presents his mob of followers with a godlike absolute demand to forsake all else to be his disciples. Today, a Jesus who tells us about a God who is so passionate about the one sheep that went astray, the one coin that disappeared, that God forgets about everything—including all those other sheep and coins—until the lost one is found. Last week, a lofty and demanding God who challenges us to be worthy of our calling. This week, a lowly, solicitous God who is almost obsessively tender toward the lost. Today, Jesus presents God in lowly form—shepherds and women were not high-status people—a God who wants nothing more than to find the lost. There’s nothing about this God, having found the lost, demanding that the sheep shape up, or that the coin ante up to true discipleship. (Tee hee) And there’s certainly nothing about the hot wind of God’s judgment that we hear in the Jeremiah passage. (So we set that aside this week. But it may be relevant at another time…)
Yes, what a difference between last week and this week. Like I said then, if Jesus can get away with such puzzling sermons, why can’t I? (Except that I’m not Jesus. that’s the easy answer.) We are celebrating education today. And of course the first thing we think of when we think of education is our young. But as our readings show us, we all need education to understand God’s word. By age 14, when most of our formal Christian education typically ceases, we are just getting ready to really start learning about God. Adult Christian education is absolutely essential to spiritual growth and competency, especially in our day, when the Christian tradition has been shown to be fallible and fragile in the face of new ideas and knowledge.
I think it’s a good thing that that the Bible is often perplexing. It reminds us how far above and beyond our small minds are God’s ways. It reminds us that God always exceeds our grasp. Christian education helps correct our simplifications of God, all our popular slogans (mostly not biblical) by which we try to get a handle on God: ‘God’s got a reason for everything,’ ‘God never gives you more than you can handle,’ or whatever. We all like a shortcut. But the teachers of the early church, whom we so often associate with dogmatism and narrow-mindedness, well understood that God is beyond our minds and our desire to have a grasp on God when they coined the slogan: “If you comprehend it, it’s not God.” And yet the fact that God exceeds everyone’s grasp, no matter how many 100s of theology books you have read, means that we all have some legitimate grasp on God. There are no definitive experts on God to whom the rest of us must defer.
So Christian education is really for adults, for it can never be finished. And in our deacons’ training yesterday, we agreed, I think, that Christian theological education must be one of the great joys and privileges of being a deacon; we all need it, but is the special privilege of our deacons. And I’m working on a community wide dinner-and-discussion series that will create a pleasant opportunity for us all to share in Christian education. But we also do a little education each week in the sermon.
So back to our gospel reading, and this question: how does the God who demands absolute service of would-be disciples hang together with the God who seeks the one who is lost—not to correct or punish the lost one, but just so God can celebrate the one found?
Well, first, let’s look carefully at the context. Luke tells us that Jesus made last week’s demand to forsake family and carry the cross to the large crowds travelling with Jesus. There are still a lot of questions we could ask if we want to comprehend that text. But let’s note that God doesn’t begin creating followers by placing an absolute demand on us. These are the crowds that already witnessed Jesus healing the sick and the possessed, and acts of compassion like the feeding of the 5000. The crowds had seen signs of grace. But the farther we want to follow Jesus, the more God might demand of us. Grace doesn’t change; it deepens. The grace that accepts us and welcomes us is the same that challenges us and calls us to a different life. And if we want to be disciples in the fullest way, we follow Jesus all the way to the cross. But we don’t have to give up everything, including our life, to be part of Jesus’ kingdom. It’s not pay to play. Oddly enough, it’s play to pay: the more you receive from God, and the more God saves you, the more you lose yourself. Because finally you realize that to lose yourself to God is to gain everything.
But in today’s reading, Jesus is speaking not to the crowds, but to the Pharisees and scribes. Who are they, you might ask? We should always wonder if we are the Pharisees today. Because in the gospel they represent the religious establishment that has taken their belonging to God’s covenant tradition to be an excuse for self-righteousness. In fact, they overturn God’s covenantal grace so that’s it’s the opposite of what it is supposed to be. For the Pharisees, God’s grace begins with lots of demands and high standards. God is for the righteous, they think. And worse, by righteousness, they envision something that is very exclusive, something that we might today call “classist.” God loves the righteous, that is, the respectable people, the proper people, the upstanding characters, the “cream of the crop.”
I would make an excellent Pharisee. I have a very respectable education in things of God, and I’ve acquried “good taste” in things like food and art. I can make very sophisticated sounding and erudite arguments. But for the grace of God, I would be the one grumbling when Jesus started welcoming all the red necks, the high school dropouts, the gangstas, the druggies. I would be the one saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” We are told that “tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. “Tax collector” requires some translation; I’d say our modern equivalent would be a low-level manager of a Check Cashing store, or maybe a repo man. Jesus, Jesus, we might find ourselves saying, look what sort of people you are attracting!
It’s not that us Pharisees are just churlish, ungenerous characters. Our mistake is easy to make, because we rightly recognize that God does invite God’s disciples into a rigorous and demanding life. God does confront us with standards and demands. We just so easily turn that divine demand into something that serves our interests, something that makes us feel special and different and superior. That’s why last week’s reading in fact goes along very well with this week’s; you don’t want to separate the demand from the lavish welcome.
To us Pharisees Jesus told his parables: God the shepherd who cared more for the one lost sheep than all the supposedly found sheep; God the woman who cared more for the lost coin than the supposedly more valuable stash of coins. It’s foolish of God; but what is foolish to us is wisdom to God, as Paul says. If we zero-in on these parables, we run up against a great mystery of God indeed. If, that is, we forget that Jesus addresses them to the self-righteous Pharisees, which is very important. But leaving that out for the moment, Jesus seems to be saying that to be a sinner who repents is worth more to God, much more, than the one who never goes astray. How else do we interpret: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” I think there is a hint here of the great mystery by which God permits sin in the world. In the Catholic tradition, this hint is developed into a special exclamation during the liturgy of Good Friday: “O Happy Fault (or Fall) that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” But we wouldn’t want to rip this mystery out of the careful fabric of Jesus’ many teachings as represented in Luke, so let’s move on.
There’s a better, more useful way to appropriate these parables and learn from them. We can certainly heed the warning about the danger of becoming Pharisees, as I mentioned earlier. As we embark on a rigorous, transformative life of discipleship, we must struggle mightily against the temptation to become judgmental—not because I’m ok, you’re ok; not because there is no such thing as sin. It’s because it is so easy to turn our call to be holy into something that makes us feel superior. That’s exactly the temptation that ancient Israel succumbed to, and when the risen Christ confronted Paul whose zeal as a Jew led him to persecute the church, he realized that he had turned God’s good revelation into a tool of exclusion and exclusivism.
But the parables of the sheep and coin go beyond this lesson too. They only make sense in light of the revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims from the start. The Kingdom of God is not the same as the American Dream, noble though that is: it’s not that God has created a level playing field, and now whoever really applies himself can succeed. ‘Even the poor; even the sinners can make it.’ That’s not it. The Kingdom of God, in Luke’s gospel especially, is a reversal of this world. Before he preaches the cost and challenge of discipleship, Jesus first announces that the Kingdom means this: God sides with and blesses those whom the world has forsaken, neglected, and condemned. Jesus in Luke chapter 6 announced: “Blessed are you who are poor [not ‘in spirit,’ that’s Matthew], for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Blessed are those who weep, and those who are hated and excluded. Woe to you who are rich, he goes on to say by contrast, for you have received your consolation.
These parables of the lost sheep and coin, remember, arose because Jesus was welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners—the morally compromised, the déclassé, the kind of people no respectable person would aspire to be. Most of us have spent our whole life running from such people—if not physically, then symbolically: we’ve worked fretfully hard not to become tax collectors and sinners. So yes, most of us, with just a little help, and a little less grace, would make very fine Pharisees. When Jesus tells us that God rejoices more over the lost than the righteous, he is also saying that God takes sides with those the world has no respect for, and God really doesn’t care much about those the world shows such high regard for.
So what do we do with these parables? How else can we profit from them? I already said we should not regard our call to holiness to become the occasion for a feeling of superiority. The revolutionary shape of God’s kingdom only reinforces that message: God doesn’t side with us respectable Pharisees-in-the-making; God sides with the poor and the vulgar who are the byproduct of our world’s wickedly selfish drive to succeed. Now Jesus doesn’t hang with tax collectors and sinners, by the way, because they are truly the noble ones, free from and uncorrupted by “society.” He hangs with them because God is a just God.
So what about us—that is, us respectable Pharisees-in-the-making? How do we hear these parables, besides as an awakening slap in the face? If we want to hear the good news in these parables, we have to see ourselves as lost. Are you willing to see yourself—not as successful, self-made, respectable, important—but lost? For some Christians, typically for evangelicals, everyone’s story of their faith journey has to look pretty much the same: I was a lost and miserable sinner, and when I hit rock bottom, Jesus found me, and I was born again. That might really be your story. Some of you have hit rock bottom in your lives, I know. You might be there right now. But it’s not so simple as “Once I was lost, now I am found.” For one thing, now that you are found, you’ve got to face that demanding, rigorous road of discipleship that we talked about last week. But for another thing, we don’t get lost just once, and then are simply found. Neither do we repent once, and then are forevermore righteous; that’s a sure route to becoming a Pharisee.
Instead, this parable can always apply to us. Even if we have our act together, we can still see ourselves as the lost that Jesus came to save—maybe, especially if we have our act together. For the deeper our faith journey goes, the deeper our grasp of sin. We may get our bad habits under control—our lusts, mean spiritedness, rank selfishness, boozing, whatever. But then we can more and more realize our deep complicity with the greater wrongs and fallenness of our world. And if you can no longer do that, if you become satisfied that “as far as I am concerned, all is right with the world;” then this parable no longer applies to you. Congratulations! you are a non-lost sheep left in the wilderness and an un-lost coin who is missing the party. God just stopped seeking you. Better to find yourself lost.