Luke 15:1-10 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, September 11, 2016
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
After Jesus spun the story about the solitary sheep that wandered away, and after Jesus coined a yarn about a woman searching for missing silver, Luke—and only Luke—invited one of the Bible’s most famous dysfunctional families onto center stage.
Ah, the parable of the “Prodigal Son.”
But, like this week’s formal lectionary readings, I won’t dwell on that familiar account. Nonetheless, it can’t be totally ignored since it immediately followed two shorter parables, expanding on their themes with memorable characters: a generous father, his greedy younger son, and the serious—and angry—older son. Luke’s chapter 15 is a trinity of tales of the lost and found.
And yet isn’t this chapter even more about those who hear (or read) these narratives and wonder if it matters to them?
In Luke, there are three groups of listeners.
The first are the “tax collectors and sinners” that hear Jesus’ story and smile or frown, nod or shake their heads, but hardly recall anything about sheep or coins by their next meal.
The second are the “tax collectors and sinners” who listen to Jesus and everything will change.
The third group includes the usual suspects of the “Pharisees and legal experts.” They grumble about Jesus. He’s a loser. He prattles on about meaningless subjects. He should find a real job.
Those in the third group are like the Trump voters chanting that Clinton should be “locked up.” They are the Clinton voters dismissing Trump as a bully and buffoon. Intransigent, these two sides of the same coin can’t (or won’t) learn anything from another that doesn’t conform to their fixed worldview. The third group is also the folks in the pews that mutter a version of the seven last words preventing new ideas in church: we’ve never done it that way before.
The first group is afraid. Yes, they are “tax collectors and sinners,” which are Gospel code words for the poor and the despised, but fear is a strong influence for them. They will gather with the rest of the crowd to hear what Jesus might say to make their day a little better. But then Jesus tells about a shepherd with 99 sheep still kept in the secure pasture. And that fool leaves those 99 to find one lost sheep. It will be dark out there! Wolves and bears might attack you, or the sheep, or both! Your selfish neighbors could steal one of those “safe” 99 sheep. Why waste time on 1% of the flock?
Worse yet, Jesus then tosses out a silly story about a woman’s quest for a lost coin. Such a dimwit! She had money and then misplaced it! And she’s all excited after finding it and has a celebration. Such a dimwit times two! Given party expenses, that would be like losing the coin a second time. If she was so concerned about her meager stash of “wealth,” then find the coin and hide it under a mattress. Money should be hoarded, not shared.
This group is afraid of losing. Afraid of finding. Afraid of celebrating. Afraid of . . .
Then there’s the second group I mentioned. Their lives are on the verge of transformation as they hear the stories.
I wish I could say I was a member in good standing of this group.
I’m not. Mostly, I prefer grumbling. Most of the time, I’m a practical (and fearful) guy that analyzes the potential costs of my actions.
But before sharing more about this second group, let me tell you about the only time my wife hosted a surprise party for me . . .
We were still in our dating “phase.” She was part of the church I served, involved in the young adult group. Our relationship was getting serious.
My birthday was approaching on the calendar.
My future wife, then and now, is not a party person, let alone a party planner. But she schemed with other young adults to give me a memorable birthday. After all, we were young and in love.
I drove into her apartment’s extensive parking area after a darn hard day of work at ye olde church. I figured we’d go out for dinner. Might see a movie. And my birthday was close! While hunting for a parking space, I noticed a familiar car, possibly owned by a church member. I kept driving, now hunting for other familiar vehicles. Found ‘em! There were a dozen recognizable cars parked in various spots in a place where none of the car owners lived.
Ah, a surprise party for me!
Being the jerk I can be, upon entering my future wife’s apartment, a group of wonderful friends from church shouted, “Surprise!” and, “Happy Birthday, Larry!” and . . .
I said something like: Yeah, I knew all about it.
I was a “Pharisee and legal expert.” I chose—and it’s always a choice—to grumble. Oh, yes, it was in fun! Oh yes, I was gleeful that it was my party! But I didn’t even fake surprise. I spoiled the festivities because I wanted to demonstrate my superior knowledge.
I was also a calculating, even fearful, “tax collector and sinner.” I prowled that parking area, trying to determine my future.
Or maybe I’m stretching the point or forcing a “moral to the story” that’s not really there. Except this I remember, and this I still struggle with in my daily life and faith . . .
I prefer to stand back and criticize.
I worry about the future and sometimes even pretend I can control it.
I (over) analyze Jesus’ stories.
I doubt, in the worst ways, God’s presence in my life.
Thirty-plus years later, my wife has never thrown another surprise party for me. (But, with much eye-rolling and eyebrow-raising, she does love me. She suffers my faults and failures.)
When I read about a shepherd seeking one sheep, and when I read about a woman sweeping every nook and cranny of her house for that coin, I want to be like them.
And yet I so often prioritize protecting . . . me. Inwardly and outwardly, I waste time criticizing others. I prioritize being rational and right, rather than taking faithful risks.
I know which groups I typically mingle with when hearing Jesus’ bold (and easy to understand) stories.
I am with the grumblers.
I am with the fearful analyzers.
But on rare occasions, I admit to being among the lost. And God, ever the dedicated shepherd, ever the diligent woman, never ceases to keep searching. For me; for you.