Pentecost 17 – 2016

Luke 15:1-10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose love and mercy confounds and astounds us all. Amen.

It all comes down to this – what sort of God you believe in. How do you envisage the nature of God? Do you believe in a fire-breathing, hell damning, judgemental, unforgiving God or is your image of God one of boundless, unconditional, all-encompassing, all forgiving love? The answer is important, because I believe that the answer lies at the heart of understanding the radical, shocking nature of the God depicted in today’s gospel.

Those who believe in an exacting, demanding rule-focussed God tend to have a view of the faith community as exclusive and limited, restricted to those who are willing and able to adhere to a set of stringent guidelines. They will be quite certain as to what behaviours determine who is in and who is out of the group and therefore who is in and out of God’s favour. A clear set of standards will enable them to measure their own goodness against that of others and at the same time will inform them of their (and others) status before God.

Those who believe in a compassionate, welcoming God will have a completely different view. They will understand that the community of believers is not exclusive or perfect but is made up of people who try but fail to achieve the godliness for which they aspire. As a consequence the boundaries of their community will be porous and ill-defined. They will welcome into their community the frail, the damaged and the imperfect. This community will also hold a clear set of standards, but they will accept that few, if any, will reach that ideal. Knowing their own imperfections and failures, they will think very carefully before measuring themselves against others and before standing in God’s place to judge.

Of course, these are broad-brush strokes and blatant stereotypes. Most Christian communities fall somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes. Some will believe that God sets very high standards and, while imposing those standards on themselves will be open and compassionate towards those whom they consider to be “sinners”. Other communities that appear on the surface to be loving and compassionate may carry a weight of guilt at their failure to be more than they are.

I have described these two extremes to try to demonstrate just how shocking the parables of the lost would be to those who think of God as the arbiter of strict behaviours and who withhold love and approval from those who fail to live up to certain pre-defined standards. In fact as the opening verse reminds us, Jesus tells the parables in response to the accusation by the Pharisees and scribes that he eats with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is answering the unspoken question: – who is worthy of God’s love – those who do what God requires or all God’s creatures, those who come up to standard or all people regardless of their failures?

Of the two parables, that of the lost sheep is the most shocking. Most of us find comfort in this parable. We see ourselves as those who were lost but are now found. It is interpreted as a parable that reminds us how much God loves us – that when we are lost God seeks us out and brings us home. That is certainly true – we can identify with the lost. However, what does the parable look like if we understand ourselves to be among the ninety-nine? Ninety-nine of the sheep are doing the right thing. Not one of them has wandered off. Not one has been absent-minded enough to lose track of the shepherd. Not one has been tempted to seek out better pastures. Not one thought that they knew better than the shepherd what was best for them.

No, only one sheep has been foolish enough or disobedient enough to wander from the safety of the group. Only one sheep has placed itself at risk by taking itself beyond the reach of the shepherd. Only one sheep has thought that it knew better than the shepherd. Yet – and here is the shock at the heart of the parable – despite the fact that one sheep hasn’t lived up to expectations, the shepherd abandons the ninety-nine compliant, obedient sheep and goes off in search of the one who did not conform. Instead of favouring those who behave according to expectation, the shepherd is making a big deal of the one that has gone its own way! The good sheep, those who are doing the right thing get no special treatment, no reward for their conformity – they might just as well not exist so concerned is the shepherd for the one that is lost.

If they could think like humans, the ninety-nine sheep would have every right to be indignant. What is the point, they might think, of doing the right thing, when the one who does the wrong thing receives special treatment. Why bother to behave in the right way when it is the one who behaves badly and creates so much trouble causes such joy to the shepherd when it is found? How can we feel smug about our own goodness when the shepherd (God) is obviously vitally concerned about those who are lost? If sheep could think I imagine that their reaction to the shepherd’s reckless behaviour would be much the same as the elder son’s response to the father’s extravagant welcome of the prodigal son.

In word and action, Jesus is revealing how much God loves ALL of God’s children. It is impossible for anyone to be beyond the reach of God’s love no matter what they do or how far they stray. When someone wanders from the fold, God is heartbroken and cannot rest until they are brought back in. God seeks the sheep that has drifted from the path, searches for the coin that has gone missing, and watches and waits for the prodigal to return.

Jesus’ parable is encouraging those who have responded to God’s love, who have remained within the fold, stayed with the other coins or remained at home with the Father to understand what a privilege it is to be so loved and to have the grace and generosity to allow – to desire even – that love to be shared with everybody – the good and the bad, the willing and the less willing, the conventional and the unconventional. .

In Jesus, God’s love for all people is made palpably visible. Do we, (like the scribes and Pharisees), resent the way that Jesus extends God’s love to those who do not deserve it? Are we (like the scribes and the Pharisees) so insecure of our place in God’s heart that we constantly compare ourselves with others to assure ourselves of our own worth? Or – are we so overwhelmed by God’s abundant, unconditional love and so confident that that love will never be withdrawn that we can join the rejoicing when the lost are found and God’s children come home?

To know God’s love and to begrudge that love to others demonstrates a meanness of spirit and a smallness of heart that makes us unworthy of the love that we have so freely received. God can love whomever God will. The wonder is that God has chosen to love us.

 

 

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