Luke 15:1-10 with Psalm 14
This morning’s gospel reading is one of the most familiar narratives in our Biblical texts. It can be a challenge to find something new to say about such an old story. But as your pastor I found this narrative, combined with today’s Psalm about the fool, to be a rich ground for theological thinking.
Jesus has been traveling with large crowds throughout the countryside. He has been preaching, teaching, and healing and he seems to have no regard for the type of people who are drawn to his presence. It appears that both the Pharisees and the scribes, as well as the tax collectors and sinners are all a part of the group that is keeping tabs on him, albeit for different reasons. The tax collectors and sinners see something they need, instruction and welcome into the religious circle. The Pharisees and scribes see something that threatens them, a religious teacher who refuses to follow the rules.
As the religious authorities grumble about the company Jesus keeps, he sees an opportunity to teach the whole group and so he offers these parables. When I saw Tom Long preach this past summer, he talked about a parable being a story with a trap door and these two are no exception. Parables seek to orient by dis-orienting and these two stories certainly throw first time listeners off base.
We start with the lost sheep. “Which of you having a hundred sheep and losing one, doesn’t go leave the 99 to search for the one, and when he finds the one, celebrates?” Listeners are disoriented, asking themselves what is going on. What happens with the 99? Who is watching them? It makes no sense to leave the others to search for one sheep. We miss the part about the celebration because we are stuck wondering why a shepherd would abandon 99% of their flock.
Then Jesus asks, “What woman having 10 coins and losing one, wouldn’t sweep the house, find the coin, and then throw a giant party?” Again listeners are disoriented. Why is Jesus using a woman as an example? That is completely unheard of. More than that, is the woman supposed to represent God? That is offensive and strange. On top of it, why would she spend the coin throwing a party after she went to all the trouble to find it? Listeners again are shocked and miss the point of the story.
On the surface, both of these parables seem to be about repentance. God is looking for those who have become lost, and heaven rejoices over the repentant sinner who returns home. Ah, but here is the trap door! A lamb can’t repent, a coin can’t repent. These stories can’t be about repentance so they must be about something else.
On closer examination we realize that these stories are directed not to the tax collectors and sinners who have gathered to listen. No, these stories are directed at the Pharisees and scribes who stand on the side lines grumbling. These stories aren’t about repentance at all. These stories are about joining the celebration. Both the shepherd and the widow throw parties to celebrate the return of their lost items. These stories are about who is coming to the party, who we are willing to party with.
Psalm 14 is an interesting partner in this conversation as it seeks to address who is lost in our world today. Although attributed to David, scholars believe that this Psalm was probably written during the Babylonian exile. The people are captives in a foreign land and all appears to be lost. Everyone has gone astray and evil doers are the ones who prosper. It seems that even God cannot find a wise man upon the earth.
This is why “fools say in their hearts, there is no God.” This is a Psalm about practical atheism. Not to be confused with philosophical atheism, which is the belief system that says God does not exist. Practical atheism is the outright dismissal of the relevance of God. The practical atheist claims that God is nowhere to be found in the world, therefore God does not matter. Rather than being a simpleton, the fool in this Psalm is someone whose mind is hardened, someone who is not open to instruction or change. This is the person who claims God doesn’t matter and religion has no relevance. This is the fool who says there is no God.
In our modern day and age we see these people everywhere. I am sure we all have plenty of friends and neighbors who don’t necessarily claim that God doesn’t exist, but who simply claim that God and church don’t matter. They are too busy for church, they don’t think the stories of Jesus have any relevance, and on the whole they don’t think any of it is worth much anyway.
It is no wonder that so many people feel this way. On this anniversary of September 11th, I am sure that many of us are thinking of the ways our country has changed in the past 15 years. Some stories are not new, like unrest and violence in the Middle East. But some things are very different, like a blanket distrust of Muslims, our experience of air travel, and our general narrative of terrorism. Many folks could easily look around at the world, and like the Israelites in Babylon, claim that the world is full of injustice. Evildoers seem to prosper, they all are corrupt, and there is no one who does good. When we look at the world today it is easy to see how one could come to the point of claiming that God is irrelevant. We can see how someone could be so lost as to claim that “there is no God.”
When I read Psalm 14 next to the parables of lost things that Luke offers, I began to find an interesting connection. Perhaps these fools, these folks who have hardened their hearts and minds against God, are the lost things God is seeking in our world today. Jesus is telling us stories of a loving God who is searching in compassionate concern for what is lost. And to lose faith, to be the fool, is to wander into a place where one can be found again.
Those of us who come to church regularly, and work for social justice causes in our world, can find it hard to have patience with those who have written God off entirely. Believe me, I know. I often find myself in situations where folks roll their eyes at my chosen profession, or assume that I’m the fool for believing what I believe. Yet, today’s readings lead me to wonder if these aren’t the very folks that God is seeking. Those who have hardened their minds and hearts and the very ones the shepherd is leaving the 99 behind to chase after.
These parables challenge us to ask not how we will convince these people to repent, but rather how we will welcome them into the community that is the church. If God is throwing a great big party, inviting friends and neighbors in celebrating the finding of what has been lost, are we willing to participate?
Today we are celebrating communion. When we gather at the table we look forward to a place where people from all times and places gather together as one family to celebrate with our risen Lord. Presbyterians have an open table, and everyone who is here today is welcome to share in the sacrament. But of course it wasn’t always that way, and it is not that way in many other churches today. In Penny Nixon’s article in Feasting on the Word she tells the story of a church where “people wearing rainbow sashes, indicating their solidarity with LGBT people, were refused communion. A person who was offered communion took his wafer and began to break it into pieces to share it with those who had been denied and deemed unworthy. The church officials, the religious insiders, called the police.” Penny asks, how do we respond when our place as religious insiders is threatened? If just anyone can come to the party, then where is our special place as the faithful?
In our topsy turvy post 9/11 world, it is easy to come across people who have no hope, those who say in their hearts that there is no God. How do we as religious insiders recognize these beloved ones who have gotten lost? How do we welcome them back into the shepherd’s flock, celebrating with them and God at our reunion as a united people? We have to ask ourselves if our relationships are based on merit or mercy, for if we find the mercy of God offensive then we end up excusing ourselves from the party of God’s grace.
As we leave the table of grace this morning, nourished for the journey ahead, may we partner with the God who seeks after all that is lost, and look forward to the day when all the fools are found and everyone gathers together in the kingdom. Amen.