16th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24
September 12, 2010
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 4Which 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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just 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.
8Or 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? 9When 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.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
In her book, “Jesus Freak,” Sara Miles tells the story of Jesus meeting the Caananite woman who wants him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus has just given a beautiful sermon about how our relationships with others is a reflection of God’s presence among us, not our obedience to ritual laws. You can’t abuse people and still be right with God, he’s said. Then this woman comes up. She’s not only a religious outsider, but one of the examples from Jewish history of the worst offenders against the purity of the religion God has given the Hebrew people. When she asks for her daughter to be healed, Jesus tells her, in essence, “You aren’t my people. You aren’t really human. You’re a dog.” But her answer, her faith, claims Miles, heals Jesus of his own racism. It’s the sin of religion, she says, which seeks to separate the indivisible parts of God’s creation. And so Jesus becomes the cure for religion.
Miles claims that all our anxious human rule-making is replaced finally with mercy. All Jesus’ stories reveal that God is merciful without reason, so we are called to have mercy. He ignores his upright hosts, and announces forgiveness and welcome to the most astonishing sinners. Everything that Jesus revealed in his teaching, in his death at the hands of authority, and his forgiveness of his torturers is available to his followers, says Miles. It doesn’t take a special kind of person or a lot of equipment or training; little kids can lead. Jesus is still with us, so we can say yes to God’s call. We can get over our fear of strangers, free ourselves from superstition, and find sweet streams of mercy in the middle of the world’s driest places. We are not alone.
“Just so I tell you,” Jesus says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents that over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” As often as I’ve heard this story and used this story to remind people that Jesus will not let them be lost, I had not heard that line so clearly. What is the Good News of this ridiculous story of leaving 99 sheep to fend for themselves in order to go after one to bring it home? One of my seminary professors defined the Gospel as Good News for my bad situation. If I don’t see my situation as bad, does the Gospel sound like Good News for me? I never see myself as the tax collector and sinner which were listening to Jesus, or inviting him to dinner, or being welcomed by him, even though they were so unholy that just associating with them put Jesus on the wrong side of the religion of his people. I am afraid that too often, I am the one who wants to ask Jesus to bless my isolation from people who are offensive, and my judgment against people whose lives and problems I don’t understand. I like my safe, secure world in which I get to feel like I am good, and doing the right things. And I don’t have much patience with people who aren’t good like me. Being found by Jesus isn’t much of an issue for me. I don’t feel very lost most of the time.
On this week-end when we remember the horrifying effects of those who lost sight of the lives affected by their acts of religious ideology, I wonder at how easy it is for me to lose sight of the radical welcome of God’s mercy and forgiveness for people that I barely even notice in my smug satisfaction with my own acceptance into God’s family. Do I ever notice that my own narrow vision of God’s world is what Miles identifies as the “sin of religion, which seeks to separate the indivisible parts of God’s creation.” The Pharisees who stand on the outside of Jesus’ radical welcome and forgiveness don’t even see their need for repentance. They are the losers of the offer of joy and peace which flows from God’s embrace. They are the ones left out of the celebration.
It was in Mexico that I heard this story as the story of the community waiting for the restoration of the one who was lost. It is not until Jesus has gathered us all in that the party starts. I am the one left out in the cold, I am the one who is lost when I don’t see that all my own righteousness is inadequate, “filthy rags” the psalmist says. I am the one who misses out on Jesus’ sweet mercy when I cling to my own correctness as being enough to include me in God’s family. It was to heal me of my blindness to my false righteousness and to restore me the fold in God’s love that Jesus came into this world as my brother, died and came back to assure me that the bonds of my isolating self-righteousness were broken forever. It is here in this community that is Jesus’ own body that I can receive God’s love and give away God’s love. It is here that we learn together that we are the lost who have been found, and carried home in Jesus’ loving arms. And it is here that we learn to welcome anyone and everyone that God invites to join us. Let the partying begin.
And now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.