XV Pentecost, Year C
Jer 4:11-12,22-28 or * Ex 32:7-14
Ps 14 * Ps 51:1-10
1 Tm 1:12-17
At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse– a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
"For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good." I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger. For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
* (Exodus 32:7-14)
The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation." But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
(1 Timothy 1:12-17)
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
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." So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. "Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
What is the Gospel of Jesus about? What constitutes the good news of the message of Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom? Is it not the character of God, that is, the way God is in relation to us? Can we deny that Jesus’ use of ‘abba’ language constituted an essential inner dimension of his vision of God? Can we deny that Jesus explicitly and implicitly saw his role through the ‘collective metaphors’ of the Hebrew Scriptures, viz., Son of Man and Suffering Servant? Can we ignore the structure of positive mimesis found not only in the Synoptics but also in the Fourth Gospel and Paul as well?
In the light of Luke’s emphasis on the biblical jubilee eschatologically fulfilled in Jesus, can we continue to deny that liberation consists precisely in the reframing of our theology from its current moribund, tired state, to one centered in the vivacious, life giving God who made heaven and earth? Does not this God count the very hairs on our head? Does this God not consider us worth more than a sparrow, and how God loves the birds! Is this not the God who has acted and continues to act in human history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Our text for today has been used over and over again to call sinners to repentance. We are the lost sheep, we are the lost coin. Our anthropological centeredness on the text is actually egotistical exegesis in disguise. The text is only about us as lost sheep when it is about others, other than us, as lost sheep sought by God. Our tendency is to see ourselves within the sheepfold and Jesus as the Good Shepherd/Savior who brings us into his sheepfold when we are lost, weary, miserable sinners. Though we are indeed those miserable sinners, most of us fail to recognize how deeply that is true, and how utterly dependent we are on the shepherd’s care.
The reason we fail is that we apply the image of the lost sheep to our false, "Oh, we’re basically good folks" images. The reality is that we need to see that because of our mimetic tendencies we should first see ourselves as Luke’s ‘constructed audience,’ those religious faithful who already "knew" God from within, what God was like and how God acted towards those within and those without. In other words, our God is usually viewed from the perspective of scapegoating theologies and the god imagined is little more than anthropological self-centeredness writ large (as Feuerbach also demonstrated in the 19th century).
We are indebted to those scholars who have been able to show that these three parables, this Lukan collection, is all about the character of the ‘heavenly abba.’ To be sure we hearers may identify with the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, but only after we recognize that God goes to the outsider, the one marginalized and scapegoated. We must first see that it is we ourselves who do not like it when Jesus strolls outside the boundaries of our theology. Why? Because the God of the Scriptures, the Father of Jesus is revealing that our scapegoating is failing, our ability to make gods, what is called the sacralization process, is completely and forever exposed in the scapegoated Jesus (our theologia crucis).
Note: Barth was not entirely wrong to read the parable of the Waiting Father through a christological lens. The God of Jesus comes to all but especially to those who function as victims. Some have spoken of Jesus’ ‘preferential option for the poor.’ They are correct to note that there is a new sociality being created in Jesus’ actions, but when they argue that Jesus damns the opposite side of the socio-economic perspective they fail to see that Jesus also comes to persecutors (as Luke well knows, cf Acts 9) and to the wealthy and mighty and honored. All are welcome, but not everyone chooses to come to Jesus’ party. The A-List gets annoyed when there are so many D-List people there, mindless grey masses, am ha-aretz, human trash. What could God be doing with these people?
On the other hand, If we allow ourselves to identify with the ‘Pharisees and the teachers of the Law’ as Luke lumps them together, we hear our own complaint, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them?’ It is a two-fold indictment. Jesus’ welcomes sinners, that is, he expresses hospitality to those whom hospitality had been denied. The us against them paradigm of victimage had been invoked. The gods of mimetic victimage will always have an us and them dualism, an in group and an out group, believers and heretics. We may have a different set of "them" people than the Poor, but all of us have a "them." These parables of Jesus (whose authenticity we are comfortable with) challenge this view of God. Jesus’ God leaves no one behind. Jesus God comes for all. This is how big this God’s heart is. No one is left behind. Not with this God.
The second act of Jesus that is rebuked is that he eats with sinners. Were these ‘sinners’ all ritually pure? Was Jesus contaminating himself and consequently those around him when he ate with those for whom Torah observance was ‘minimal?’ Why welcome those obviously punished by God, those unfit for his holy service? Why break bread and laugh and act as a friend to those everyone knows God has rejected? How is that that you and I accept that God may include some folks we don’t like, but still cannot bring ourselves to be seen as their associates, for fear of "contamination?" Would we risk showing hospitality to a member of a street gang? an Aryan supremacist?
Karl Barth was once asked who Jesus Christ was for him and he replied that who Jesus is for all, as revealer, reconciler and redeemer, he is for also for me, and as Jesus is for me, caring, forgiving, loving, he is for all. No in group, no out group, no more scapegoating or blaming or finger-pointing. That is not the way the God of the Gospel acts. The God of the Gospel searches, seeks, suffers and waits and rejoices with open arms. This is the God of Jesus! This is what constitutes the good news according to Luke. We have seen this in the birth narratives, the inaugural sermon (Luke 4:16ff), the mercy code of the Sermon on the Plain and throughout this Central Section. There is an undeniable congruency to this Lukan theologizing that grasps the implications of Jesus’ life and teaching that can be traced in the use of the verbs ‘to rejoice’ and cognates. (For those of you who wish to pursue this further we highly recommend both James Alison’s Raising Abel and Raymund Schwager’s Jesus of Nazareth: How He Understood His Life).
If we examine our ecclesiology in the light of mimetic theory we realize that any ecclesiology that begins its self-definition by opposing "those without" to "those within" is fundamentally self-defeating. It is not grounded in the character of God and thus the character of those who share in the community of God, in the life of God. Rather it is already oriented to and determined by the ‘victimage mechanism,’ or what the apostle Paul calls the principalities and powers. Jesus, by welcoming sinners, is changing the rules about the role God plays in the cosmic ‘theodrama’ (Rahner/Schwager).
We note that the three parables belong together and eventuate in the character of the father in the last parable (Luke has structured the numbers found in the parables; 100 to 1, 10 to 1, 1 to 1). This funnel effect is precisely related to the muttering of the religious authorities and the theological implications of Jesus’ actions.
The challenge to Christianity today is the good news of the gospel of Jesus. At every turn it would appear that we have somehow allowed the virus of negative mimesis and its consequences to infect our theological thinking, our perception is blurred and we find ourselves out of balance. Jesus comes both to the abuser and the abused, the terrorist and the innocent (or not so innocent), to the persecutor and the victim. He comes with healing, a healing that transforms our perceptions, our thinking and our acting. In so doing we may find that we, like the heavenly abba, also search, seek, suffer and wait……and finally rejoice!
The challenge, as preachers, though, is to escape the easy association our congregation makes with the "lost" in the parables. They are indeed lost, but not in the facile way they have been taught to see in the past. How great is the Gospel we can preach to them when we can help them to see the way that they set themselves outside the company of Jesus, only to discover that he won’t stay away! Here the great Lutheran style of dialectic preaching comes in handy, the "Law/Gospel" sermon. Not that I’d use those terms, but before the coming of Jesus to find us can have it’s truly life-giving impact, we have to know the extent of our "lostness." Each congregation will have it’s own "them" group, but the one that our readers’ congregations most easily identify may well be "conservatives" or "evangelicals" or "fundamentalists." You know. The ones we want to paint as the "Pharisees" in the story from today. To the extent that we see them as "outsiders" we are ourselves acting as "excluders." And, as I suggested above, which of us can honestly say we don’t see a drug dealer or an avowed racist, carrying an automatic weapon as an "outsider?"
We are the lost, for the very reason that we see others as the "truly" lost, while we are just "a little off base." (If that.) As Michael has said, if we are to grasp the power of this Gospel for ourselves, we have to switch from the egocentric kind of theology/preaching that gives us false comfort as Jesus gathers in those of us who have just "wandered a bit."