“Goodness that Gets in the Way” - September 15, 2019

Luke 15:1-10

            In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables about losing and finding.  One is about a lost sheep, one is about a lost coin, and one is about a lost person.  That third one, usually called the Prodigal Son, is not only about a lost son but also about a lost brother.  All three parables, really, are about lost brothers and lost sisters, how they are found again, and what happens next.  What sets Jesus off, and the reason that he tells these stories, is that people who had fallen off the straight and narrow were trying to get back onto it, and people who had not fallen away were not making it any easier on them.

            Back in Nazareth, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had announced what he was going to be about.  Right after his baptism, in Luke’s account,

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor. 

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” [Luke 4:16-21]

 At first everybody was happy and proud, but he had not been speaking long when they realized he was saying that God’s concern was not so much with them as with other folk, and that it always had been, and they became so furious they were ready to throw Jesus off a cliff outside town, which he only narrowly escaped.

            As he went around saying these things, he found a much better response among the people Isaiah had named: the welfare mothers, the unemployed, the convicts and ex-convicts, the blind and disabled, the people in hock up to their eyebrows.  That left the people who had always played by the rules and who had always tried to be good in a quandary.  They saw Jesus’ miracles, so they had a sense of confirmation that God was backing him up.  But they also had a sense that, as we would say, “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”  (That’s not in the Bible, by the way.  What is there is Paul’s warning “Do not be deceived; bad company ruins good morals.” [I Corinthians 15:33]) 

I suspect that Jesus was fine with everyone being confused.  He was in the business of helping people change.  He wanted to see people move from the lost column to the found column.  There is no way to do that without reaching a hand out across the lines, or going into uncomfortable territory.  He was the sinless Son of God living among sinful human beings, after all, and would have experienced that sense of being out of place more profoundly than anyone ever has or will.  He had been there at the creation of the world, and the world itself would reject him.  Yet here he was – here he still is – among the fallible, broken human beings whom he has always loved.  He could live with the confusion.

What got to him was our inability or unwillingness to see just how fragile and arbitrary are the lines that we draw to count one another in or out, especially when he does so much to draw us into God’s embrace.

“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.’” [Luke 15:1-2]

That’s when he pointed out that they were treating human beings worse than they treated their sheep.  If 1% of the flock were to be lost, the shepherd goes looking for it.  One sheep out of one hundred.  Don’t you think that just maybe we could look at our brothers and sisters and count them as important as sheep?  Or is it because sheep are property, and people aren’t?  Whatever happened to the words of the psalm [100:3]?

“Know that the Lord is God.

            It is he that has made us, and we are his;

we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

If we saw ourselves as one flock instead of one hundred separate sheep, we might see things more like Jesus did.  Instead of making snarky comments, we might show some compassion. 

Of course, compassion is confusing and sometimes it brings its own demands, not only on one person who is gifted with compassion by the Holy Spirit, but also on the people who have to live with them.

Bob was a Methodist preacher who, when I knew him, had retired from a long and honorable career, mostly in the Hudson River Valley and the rural areas of New York.  His wife, Miriam, had a way about her of shaking her head and saying, “Hnh! Bob! Sometimes!”  Miriam was very proper, and Bob seemed that way, too.  He was quiet and mostly kept to himself.  He loved working in his brother’s car repair shop, in part to keep his mind sharp.

In the summer of 1969, Bob had been appointed to serve a small church out in the middle of nowhere, not expecting to get a phone call from the organizers of a music festival a couple of miles down the road in the town of Woodstock.  Problems were cropping up that the planners had not made provisions for.  They were calling local clergy for help.  Bob went off in the middle of the week because, as he said, there were people who were on bad acid trips and needed somebody to talk them down again.  Miriam did not hear from him again for a couple of days, and when she did, it was a phone call that said, “I’m on my way home finally, but I want to warn you that I have a young woman in the car.  She jumped into a pond to keep cool, and someone stole her clothing, so she’s wrapped up in a blanket.  We’ll have to see if you have anything that fits her.”  It’s a great story.  Bob always had trouble getting through it without breaking up in laughter.  Miriam never cracked a smile.

In Jesus’ parable about the shepherd and the lost-and-found sheep,

“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” [Luke 15:5-6]

If you miss the joy in that, you miss the joy that God himself shares in, and the kind of joy for which Jesus endured even the cross.  After all, it was Jesus who said,

“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.” [Luke 15:7]