One of the reasons I like audio books as much as I do is that there comes a time when I’m reading that I decide what’s important and what isn’t, as if, the author just added in random pieces of information for the fun of it instead of intentionally for building the narrative. And, to be fair, on occasion I’m right and I probably should be reading better quality books, but that’s not really the point.
The point is, I think that I have spent most of my life not really noticing that these stories were told to particular people. There is a context that I had just blown right by because, it’s just another conversation with Pharisees, but it’s not. Sure the Pharisees and the scribes were there, and there was something compelling about Jesus that kept the Pharisees coming back, hanging around, being present. Turns out, what Jesus was teaching wasn’t that far off from what the Pharisees were teaching. There was something compelling about Jesus that they wanted to be near him, and there was something familiar about his teachings that they wanted to talk about, discuss, participate in the very Jewish practice of arguing about things while seeking growth and learning, not winning.
But this day, Jesus didn’t just have the Pharisees and the scribes, he had the other people that he was building a community with and around… tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors took advantage of their own people for the benefit of their oppressors, which feels very treacherous. And sinners, well, sinning in general didn’t keep you from the community, there were ways to atone, there were sacrifices and ritual cleansings, there were ways around it! This was a label, not a religious state of being. This was a lifestyle. Those people, who choose to live in sin, and keep sinning, according to some upstanding persons standards. You could insert all kinds of modern people into that category, often pertaining to sex, who’s having it, how, with whom, or addiction, as if it’s not an illness, usually comes down to power but that’s not the point we’re making today.
Jesus gathers people to have a meal together, which is an intimate and delicate thing. Kelly and I have hosted dinners for holidays or just for fun, but she is very aware of who she thinks will get along, when someone we didn’t account is invited by someone else and the whole vibe changes. Or when I invited someone we couldn’t plan on how they’d fit in I just don’t think people should be alone on holidays. Not necessarily bad, just changes things, and we want people to be able to get along. Jesus didn’t seem to take the same care in the invitations for this gathering. Or maybe he took more care and was just trying to prove a point, because there was grumbling. Sitting down at a table and sharing a meal was an intimate event, and it meant that you were in community with the people that you were seated with. In fact, they generally didn’t sit in chairs, but on the floor and cushions at low tables, And they were younger than I, and probably in better shape, because I would have to move constantly to adjust my body and would be bumping into “those people.” They might have been saying, “Those people don’t belong here.” “Those people don’t know what God stands for.” “Those people aren’t like us.” “Those people should leave.”
That’s the context Jesus tells these stories about lost things. And over the centuries, we have named them. The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Prodigal–the lost and frivolous–Son. And the title really defines how we think about the story, we focus on those that are lost: sheep, coin, son. And we imagine in the story that it’s God who is searching and celebrating the found lost thing, which is for sure one way to think of the story, but, let’s consider that sheep and coins, they don’t lose themselves. Sheep wander around and it’s the shepherd’s job to keep them safe and close. And coins have no free will, no instincts, no legs to take off on. These could maybe be called the parables of sheep being sheep or the coin that was dropped and rolled. And when we look at the person involved in these stories, they seem to have some responsibility in the fact that things are missing. So maybe they’re the parable of the neglectful shepherd, and the woman who should have had a piggy bank.
Jesus asks, what shepherd, seeing 1 of his flock of a 100, does not leave the 99 to find the 1. And he says it in such a way that it’s obvious… but it’s not obvious. No shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness, THE WILDERNESS, where there are scary things that eat sheep, and bandits, and more space to wander off. No, Jesus, no shepherd does that! There was a story this week of a sheep missing for years because they probably didn’t’ notice, or, it doesn’t make sense to go look for one at the cost of 99. The parable of the shepherd who started out with 100 sheep, then 99, then 1.
And the woman, he coin might have been a full days wage, which isn’t anything, but the searching for it, in the dark, using the oil, then throwing a party in the middle of the night! These things cost more than the coin that had rolled into the corner!
These stories don’t make any sense!
The parable of the father and sons is different. The youngest son chooses to leave, chooses to take off, chooses to demand from his father what he was to receive as his inheritance. The Parable of the Son who told his father he wished he was dead. But it was his choice, he took off, and his father… let him, like you have to do when kids grown up and decide they’re going to make their own decisions.
And the father seems to stand at the door every day, looking down the road, waiting for his youngest son to come up the road, that he never looked over to the field where his other son was still there, still working, still doing what he was supposed to, without recognition. When the young brother came home, everyone was told of this party… except the son who finished his day in the field, unaware until he drew close to home and heard the music and celebration. I would be mad too, all these years being ignored, and his father couldn’t even be bothered to let him know. The parable of the inattentive father.
Here’s the thing, parables are complicated, they have layers. And even throughout the telling of the story we can have more than one metaphor in the telling of these parables. Because I want to be believe in a God who relentlessly pursues us, who knows when we wander off to dangerous wilderness, who follow us to dark corners, that there is no where we can go to escape, not in life or death, wings of dawn or the depths of the sea.
And that when we are brought back, when we are safely home, we are made whole, there is celebration and joy and everyone is invited. We are invited into and part of a beloved community that would not be complete without each one of you, and me, and everyone else.
I have to believe it because I have tried to hide from God, I have tried to be less than who God made me to be. I have tried to live outside of the beloved community and still, God calls me back, my community calls me back to wholeness, to abundant living. Never abandoned, always a party, invited to the beloved community.
And sometimes we’re not lost, sometimes we have been neglectful, sometimes we have lost track of people, sometimes it is us that have seen that someone is missing and haven’t gone to make sure they’re safe and know they aren’t forgotten, sometimes we fail to notice that they are gone. I lose track of my friends. And honestly, I have a hard time when we’re together trying to remember who’s missing on a Sunday morning. I usually need help with that. I remember there was a group at the college I went to, and I attended events, programs, social gatherings for 6 months and had to introduce myself almost every time. Sometimes we miss people even when they are right in front of us.
We look out for each other, call back to each other, bring each other into community, celebrate,
And we look out for those who have been lost, pushed out, by others, folks for whom church hasn’t always been a safe place and family, we seek them out, invite them to a celebration planned just for them.
Because perhaps the repenting isn’t the sheep that did what sheep do, and the coin that couldn’t change its direction, but it’s the shepherd, and the woman, and the father, turning back toward the beloved community, back toward the whole, back to each other, back to celebrating and welcoming.
You are loved , radically, unquestionably, without hesitation, no matter, by the God who is love.
We love our God loving each other, by sharing the love God has for us with each other, with the strangers and neighbors, for those on the edges of society, for those outside of the church, for those searching for community, for those trying to do this life alone, for those whose families gave them everything they ever wanted and those whose families never seem to notice them, we are called to live the love we have been given and to offer it to everyone.
And we invited them in, not to church, but to a community, to a family, to a home, to a celebration just for them! This is the love of God we are given, abundant, life giving, community nurturing and that is our call, too!