Homily for 9.15.13
24th Sunday in
The Lectionary Gospel reading that we have before us today is, as we heard, an extended text that includes three familiar, in fact, very familiar parable-teachings by Jesus. Namely:
The Lost Sheep
The Lost Coin
The Lost Son
We could actually rename them, calling them, as Ken Bailey does:
The Good Shepherd
The Good Mother
The Good Father
Of great importance is the occasion of the three parables, which is how we are able to offer a window into their meaning:
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Much of our previous teaching concerning the historical context of Jesus ministry -- a Jewish prophet ministering to Hebrew listeners -- converges through these three stories. The Pharisees, far from being the spiteful fun-haters as they are normally portrayed, are in fact deeply concerned with GOD becoming King. They want GOD's Kingdom to come; they want GOD's vindication of the nation to commence; they want the promised resurrection (e.g. EZ. 37) of the righteous to launch.
But, the question was: How would this occur? And, the even more important question which was tied to the first: Who would be included?
To the Pharisees and scribes, only those who faithfully kept Temple & Torah would be included, and some believed the more who seriously and faithfully kept Temple & Torah was how GOD would know that it was time to initiate the final Kingdom project. Thus, their bitterness at the sinner can at least be comprehended, for the sinner may be the one preventing the Kingdom! No wonder their distaste (or was it disgust) over Jesus eating with the sinners. How could a prophet who portends holiness condone sin by choosing to be present with them? What kind of teaching was this? And, this may be more than the idea of Jesus hanging out with sinners. As one commentator surmises, it could even mean Jesus was the one doing the inviting and the hosting!
To the question, then, of just why he associated with sinners, and by extension just who would be included in the coming Jewish Kingdom, Jesus offers these three parables.
But, before we attempt to unpack Jesus' meaning, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of Jesus use of the parable as a teaching device. As we offered severals weeks ago when we thought-through the parable of the Good Samaritan.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright reminds us:
Parables are an integral part of Jesus’ prophetic ministry, and are one of the key ways, therefore, in which the kingdom breaks in upon Israel, redefining itself as it does so.
Parables do not merely give people something to think about, they invite people into the new world being created and they warn of the dire consequences if the invitation is refused.
The parables, therefore, disclose a subversive and dangerous message, a message designed for those who have ears to hear, and in truly hearing, they believe, and they become part of the true Israel. (from Jesus and the Victory of God)
Having said this, we can now begin by saying that these three parables offer us three basic truths concerning GOD and his coming Kingdom.
First, the Kingdom will include those not expected to be there. Brothers and sisters, we must have the ears to hear this truth. What the Pharisees and Scribes could not see because of their understanding and interpretation of Israel's story was that GOD's heart is broken for all creation, even those whom, in the Pharisees and Scribes minds, were most unworthy.
This, of course, is the thrust of several of Jesus' parables. For example, we would say that this is the thrust of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that we will hear at the end of the month as well as the Parable of the Good Samaritan which we have already preached. Jesus teaches his critics in both stories that true Kingdom inclusion means loving GOD by loving our neighbor. And that, whoever loves in this way, even if it be the hated Samaritans doing so, will be included in the Kingdom, while whoever fails to do so, even if it be the ceremonially clean Priest and Levite, or the even rich, will not be included!
Thinking about the parables before us today, the word prodigal you will remember means one spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant and an imprudent spendthrift. Clearly and shockingly, the prodigal wishes his father dead so that he might have his inheritance early. So, just as clearly, by his actions the younger son is in no way deserving of grace. Yet, the true twist of the story is that we could say that even though the elder son seems righteous, he is not. His refusal to obey the father by his unwillingness to receive the younger son as a brother is itself a breech of the law -- love your neighbor as you love yourself. This means that, in reality, neither son deserves grace, but it is offered to both, anyway! GOD loves both equally. This is truly the ministry of Jesus.
A second basic truth contained within these three parables is the idea that GOD pursues the lost. That is, so motivated by love for the wayward and broken creation is the LORD, and being unwilling to allow the world he so loves to completely destruct, GOD continually moves toward this rebellious world at war with itself in sacrificial love and reconciling forgiveness.
The Good Shepherd leaves the safety of the fold and searches into the wilderness after the stray. Or, like any good mother or good father, true paternity means a willingness to give of oneself completely. Here the stories are compelled forward by sacrifice and self-giving love. Here the sense of shepherd responsibility shines as he searches the lost. Here the good father is compelled to shield the wayward son from the inevitable village ridicule and contempt, even doing the unthinkable -- running to meet the ingrate, clothing him in his own robe, fitting him out with his signet ring and offering a village celebration. (here I am following Ken Bailey's beautiful work, Poet and Peasant).
For GOD, restoration is the goal. He will restore his creation, and in his determination here will not be denied, even to the point of becoming part of the creation to insure it renewal!
This brings us to the third basic truth. GOD's reality is not far from us, and what occurs here somehow affects the realm of GOD:
"I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."
In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
This reminds us that the presence of GOD remains close, as close as the air we breathe. Somehow we must let go of the view of GOD that he is in some way the man in the sky. Not only is this preposterous, it is unbiblical. The GOD who is there is the "I AM," the consistently present one.
7 I can never escape from your spirit! I can never get away from your presence! 8 If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the place of the dead, you are there. 9 If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, 10 even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. 11 I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night -- 12 but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are both alike to you. (from Psalm 139)
So, the fact that we cannot see the reality of GOD's dimension as an extension of our own reality does not mean it is fantasy. But, the shocking aspect to this truth is the realty that what happens here is interlocked with what happens there! Astonishing! This offers an echo to that great passage in Hebrews 12 where we are told that we are surrounded by a great cloud of heavenly witnesses. The allusion here is to the arena and the games, and the witnesses -- as the great heroes of the faith from old -- cheering us on as we take our turn on the course.
How, then, are we to think about these parables? If the Kingdom includes those not expected to be there, and if GOD's reality is not far from us, and if GOD still pursues the lost, then perhaps we should open our minds to the leadership of the LORD’s Spirit and allow the Father of Lights to lead us to those who long for the light of the Kingdom but have yet to realize it. Perhaps we should drop our preconceived ideas, our class-group assumptions about who deserves the Kingdom message and instead find those around us who need a consistent, affirming love even though they do not deserve it, even though they are their own worst enemy, and even though they have no ears to hear. If we would do this, we may have to go it alone, for the church at large seems today to have no stomach for this. However, if we were to do this what may happen, to our surprise, is that we will find the good shepherd there, searching, the good mother there, toiling, and the good father there, waiting...waiting with open arms.
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them he addressed this parable.
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it,
he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home,
he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one
would not light a lamp and sweep the house,
searching carefully until she finds it?
And when she does find it,
she calls together her friends and neighbors
and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’
In just the same way, I tell you,
there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents.”
Then he said,
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns,
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”