God's mirth

Passage: Luke 15:1-10
Date: September 16, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

Having trouble playing the audio? download the mp3


One of the benefits of preaching from the lectionary, that three-year scripture rotation which many denominations follow, is that we hear and can be nurtured in a vast array of scripture. One of the disadvantages is that we consider scripture in little, distinct, isolated, chopped up bits, and lose the sweep and flow of the literature, of the writer's intention. Today's ten verses are such. They easily stand by themselves. Yet, their import and message grows in larger context. In Luke, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, to a clash of immense proportions. Read some tension in the atmosphere here. Moreover, our verses contain two of three parables in a row, the last being what we call "the Prodigal Son." All concern losing and finding. All, by the way, focus mainly on God.

A bit more: unlike our western culture, ancient societies were rigidly stratified. People knew family standings, and spent great energy seeking to maintain them. So, for example, marriages were arranged for economic reasons, and horizontal. One could not marry "up" and dared not marry "down." Near the top of the ladder were religious leaders: pharisees and doctors of the law. While not always friendly with each other, these two groups were admired by those lower down, even envied. Because of their wealth and learning, they were able to be faithful, to live the highest religious expectations, which they of course set. At the other end were the peasant classes, the vast majority. They were not able to maintain the great religious traditions, even if they wanted to. So they were seen by the elite as unholy, unwashed, sinners. Lest we forget, Jesus, a landless part-time artisan, was viewed to be toward the lower end of the peasant class. Depending on one's perspective, he was either "one of them," or "one of us."

Finally, a note from Rabbinic tradition: "Let not a person associate with sinners even to bring them near to the Torah." (Mekilta 57b) Feeding sinners (read peasants and others) was praiseworthy. Eating with them was forbidden. (John J. Pilch)

Now, listen. Listen for God's word. Open yourself to God's laughter, God's mirth. Luke 15:1-10.

Paraphrasing a famous line from a smiling Ronald Regan, "There he goes again." There Jesus goes again. Surely he could have benefitted from a Dale Carnegie course, "How to win friends and influence people." It is no wonder he found himself in trouble. Jesus, what are you doing? The people in power, the ones who set the standards for everyone else, grumbled about that upstart peasant, Jesus. "He eats with tax collectors-you know, those highly suspect Judeans who collaborate with our occupiers, those traitors who skim taxes to enrich themselves; and he eats with sinners." In Luke, read all those without standing: the misfits, marginalized, the outcasts. "Eating with" means touching, welcoming, valuing, and becoming unclean in the process. "How dare he flaunt what we believe so thoroughly, in the name of God."

Responding, Jesus deliberately twisted their tails. It would be like saying to men of the highest class in India: "Which of you, having to clean your master's toilets and shovel out his horse stalls..." What an insult. Only untouchables do such work. Or to a very orthodox Muslim: "Which of you, having forty pigs..." Or to a wealthy white patriarch at St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC, "Which of you, here as an illegal, working as a cash-under-the-table nanny..." In our somewhat egalitarian society, we miss this. No pharisee or doctor of the law would in his worst nightmare dream of being a lowly, shifty, unclean, unfaithful shepherd. For Jesus to even pose the question, "Which of you, having a hundred sheep..." was a direct insult and challenge. Of course, his fellow peasants were quietly cheering.

Not satisfied, Jesus added another: "And what woman..." Excuse me, Jesus. Don't you remember the daily prayer that includes: "and thank you God that I was not born a woman"? Women: absolutely necessary, of course. Perhaps the most valuable of a man's property. But, never a place to which a man would aspire. I can just see the peasant women smiling though, and feeling greatly affirmed by this man Jesus.

So, what is it that makes God smile? Jesus says it is when God finds what is valuable and lost. "There is more joy in heaven over one sinner, one outcast, one who has wandered away-more joy over that person who is found, returned, restored to community, than over the 99 who simply stay together."

We think we can get what this is about. It is the student in our classroom we battle all year, who makes us lose sleep at night, who may even make us wonder about why we do what we do. And then, along about late April, somehow, suddenly the kid transforms and gets excited about learning. How fun is that? It is an elder in a former church. I was told when I arrived that he would give me about six months, and then he would leave. It had been his pattern. Not if I had anything to do with it. Week after week, month after month, I spent time with him. I got to know him and his family. Gradually, we became very good trusted friends, a friendship that continues with his aging widow. When I think about that, it makes me smile. What about the other elders? I hope they did just fine, too. It did not seem like they were about to wander off.

But there is more here. In the peasant world, not in that of the religious elite who disdained shepherds, one's honor rested on the care of the sheep. One hundred sheep was a large flock, probably belonging to at least an extended family, and perhaps to the whole village. For a shepherd to lose even one sheep would be a huge dishonor, personally and on his family. After all, his grandfather never lost a sheep, his father never lost a sheep, and he certainly was not going to. So he searched....until he found that very unintelligent, immobile, bleating bunch of wool. Because it was so afraid, it could not walk, so he gladly hoisted it up on his shoulders-yuk. And when he got home, he threw a great party. His joy and relief were for far more than the sheep.

And the sweeping woman? Of course she turned her dark inside house upside down until she found that tiny coin, stuck, hiding in the stones on her floor. It was one of ten she wore publically in a headband, her badge as a wife and mother, the highest status a Jewish woman could attain. To appear at the town well with only nine? Her honor, and therefore her husband's and her parents' and her inlaws'-their honor was all on the line. Finding the coin signaled the restoration of her reputation for virtue in the community. No wonder she celebrated with her lady friends. They would understand, of course.

But the pharisees and religious leaders in this episode did not get it. And they missed it. They missed what was valuable to God and to God's reputation. They missed that Jesus was the shepherd, Jesus the woman, Jesus the Beloved on his way to Jerusalem seeking and seeking, ultimately seeking with all that he had for those God loved so much. Even the religious leaders.

You see, this scripture is not really about Jesus challenging the religious elite to get down off their high pure perches and into the gutter where the needy people languish. No, this is not a moralistic story. Jesus did not do that. It is a declaration of holy mirth when anyone is restored to community. Jesus proclaimed that God is the one, who, for God's sake, is not limited by our restrictions, our rules, our categorizations about who is in and who is out, who deserving and who not. Jesus announced that God with joy willingly shoulders the burden of restoration-a clear signal of his own coming passion. God laughs at God's own amazing capacity to love not very intelligent, sometimes immobile, often bleating human beings; tax collectors and other sinners, even pharisees, people a lot like us. Mercy, how amazing to be found by such a God.

And isn't that why we are here? May it be so. Amen.