This week, we get three parables.
Three stories in response to the way that the Pharisees and scribes – who had ostensibly come out to hear Jesus teach and preach – were, in fact, mostly complaining. Honestly, They had been grumbling for some time now about Jesus and the company he was keeping.
If we turn back to chapter 5, we see that when Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, a large crowd of tax collectors were at table… which caused the Pharisees and their scribes to complain to the disciples, saying “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (5:30)
And later, in chapter 7, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of their saying that John the Baptist had a demon because he abstained from bread and wine, even as they called Jesus a glutton and drunkard and friend of tax collectors and sinners. (7:33-34)
Obviously, there was a pattern developing…
The question keeps coming up… though rarely as a question from those struggling with Jesus’ obvious answer to their concerns…..
Who should be included?
Who should be included at table?
Who should be included in community… in the people I count as family… ?
Who is included in the Kingdom of God?
And the unspoken flip side of the question… who may I exclude?
Because that gets us to the real question behind “Who is my neighbor?”
Who isn’t my neighbor?
Who isn’t in?
See… once I can identify THOSE people, the ones who aren’t my neighbors, then I need not do the work of loving them, nor feel guilty about treating them unjustly.
Tax collectors, Gentiles, and sinners of all ilk… those people had been excluded for a long time. They were not among God’s people. Though some might have been, if not for the ways they had broken the laws or associated with others who had.
Those people were not among the righteous… like the Pharisees and scribes… and those who agreed with them, ate like them, lived like them… And so it seemed odd that Jesus, a prophet and potentially the messiah, Would be so willing to welcome and associate with those people.
What I didn’t read earlier as we turned to scripture was the verse immediately preceding this trio of parables…
At the end of a series of sayings about discipleship, what it means to follow and live in the way that God commands, Jesus talks about salt… he says
“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away.
Then Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 14:34-35)
The very next sentence – verse 1 in today’s reading, tells us who does have ears to listen…
Luke writes “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”
And then he continues, telling us… And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
As it turns out, Jesus has heard this refrain about tax collectors and sinners often enough, has responded to them often enough, that you almost get the feeling they aren’t listening to what he has said… At least not in any meaningful way.
Hearing, in Luke’s gospel, is as critical to serving God as seeing.
When your eyes are opened, when your ears are opened, when you really really see people, when you really really hear the good news, then there is the potential for a reorientation of the heart… that recalculation and repentance we’ve talked about for the last several weeks.
Jesus is more than happy to hang out with the ones who are listening – because he knows that they will hear the truth that God’s Kingdom is here…. In here… in us… whenever we open our hearts and minds to God’s direction and then become the ones who make the Kingdom visible… for everyone.
And so in the same way that God in Jesus refused to exclude those who had been pushed to the edges, Jesus cannot leave those who have been at the center, the ones pushing others out to the margins, Jesus will not leave them without the opportunity to hear – again – what Jesus has come to do…
It was time again to engage their hearts and minds with a story. Or three.
There’s a beautiful pattern in these stories… did you catch it?
The sheep that was lost – is found – and the shepherd gathers his friends to celebrate!!
The coin that was lost – is found – and the woman gathers her friends to celebrate with her!!
The son that was lost to the father – he returns from the far country – and the father throws a massive party!!
The people in the story – the ones meant to represent God – seem almost foolish at points, don’t they?
I mean, what kind of shepherd would really leave an entire flock of sheep alone… in the wilderness… to go get one stray?
A foolish one…
I mean, come on! The fleece alone on 99 sheep had to be worth a fortune. Keeping them together and safe and fed and watered is the priority of any shepherd with common sense.
Pray for the wayward sheep to return? Sure.
Herd the other sheep in the direction you think it went… maybe.
Leave them? Nope.
But that’s exactly what he does. Just like the woman steps away from any chores or work or plans that she has for the day… as soon as she realizes her coin is lost. Whatever it takes to search every nook and corner of her house… that is what she’ll do.
Which actually reminds me of my friend Brad.
The other day, I ran across a photo he posted. It was talking about how he and his wife had matching keyrings that had been gifts. How much the keyrings meant to them. And then he said: this is her set of keys. Mine have gone missing…
After a day of being distracted by thoughts of where the key might be, how much time, trouble and money it would take to replace them, Brad had the whole family looking that evening.
They tore up the whole house…. Dinner was delayed, extracurricular activities were canceled…
And finally, after the whole house had been torn apart and put back together, Brad knew it was time… the last place any of us want to look. But knowing it was trash day eve, Brad dug through the trash can…
And sure enough, there it was – his key ring with all the keys intact.
But in the meantime, life came screeching to a halt.
No one was going anywhere.
No one was watching TV…
No one was on the internet after that first “has anyone we visited in the last 24 hours seen this…” post.
Not until the – slightly messy and sticky – keys were finally found. And then… there was much rejoicing. A new photo announced their return to the safety of the key rack.
Friends joined in the jubilant chorus of alleluias! We didn’t all rush to Cincinnati, of course, but comments and likes and Yay’s appeared from friends all across the country!
Because when the thing that was lost… the thing of great value that was lost… is found… there is always celebration upon its return! Even if the actual market value – the cost to replace the lost item – isn’t all that high.
Like when the lost thing is a teddy bear – missing an eye and half the fur on its backside.
Or when the lost thing is just a scrap of paper….containing a note from a dear friend that you’ve managed to keep up with across several states and a couple of decades.
Because the value of an object isn’t really just about the object, is it?
Their value comes from a relationship…
the connection between the lost sheep or coin
The connection between the key or teddy bear or scrap of paper….
And the one who is missing it.
The one who longs to be reunited with it.
Which is very very good news, indeed. Why?
Because this means my value is not based on my merits – my skills or my ability to be good…
My value is not tied to my ability to follow rules or live up to expectations.
This is very good news because I know I wouldn’t be worth a whole lot after 50 years of making messes of all manner of things.
And I am not an anomaly.
There is not a person on this earth who could claim to be worthy of standing in the presence of God. Not based on their own merit.
And yet, we are worthy, and we have great value in God’s eyes.
Because God loves us
Because God loves you.
Did you hear that as good news…?
Let all who have ears to hear, listen.
God loves you. God loves you.
Just as against all odds, God loves me…
God loves the world….
There is not a single person in the world unworthy of invitation into the Kingdom of God.
There is not a single person on this earth who is unworthy
of hearing the call of the prophet to repent,
of hearing the call to open their eyes and see the pain and injustice around them
There is not a single person on this earth who is unworthy of hearing the call to reorient their hearts to the work of bringing healing to their little corner of the world.
Not a single one.
Not even that person you are trying to imagine right now.
Or that second one.
Oh, there are plenty of people who have wandered off… like sheep, we all can go astray.
And there are certainly people who have chosen to walk away, to separate themselves from God for a variety of reasons
And there are people who have – without even being completely aware of it – allowed their work for God to replace their relationship with God. People who look or sound righteous, but are every bit as lost as those who have left the fold.
People like the older brother.
He’s a good son.
He’s a hard worker.
He’s a rule follower.
All excellent traits.
I mean, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a faithful person who keeps plugging away. But there is nothing inherently better about being that person, either.
Because sometimes, as we keep our heads down and do the work,
even when others get distracted or leave,
even when times get difficult…
When we keep our heads down, the work ceases to be about gratitude or love and becomes a duty.
We can begin to forget about the grace that drew us into God’s family,
We can forget about the provision that reveals God’s faithfulness to us,
We can lose sight of the privilege that already being “in” has afforded
We can forget the joy of our own return to the fold and become jealous of the depth and breadth of God’s love, resentful of the joyful welcome offered to others.
We can begin to grumble and complain and refuse to be part of the party.
Which means, for all intents and purposes, we are lost…
Kind of like when the hubby and I would drive without a map (pre GPS, of course) because he knew right where he was going… Sometimes, I’d get the feeling maybe we were a little off course and I’d ask, “Are we lost?”
“Oh no,” he’d say, “I know exactly where I am”
It only took me a couple of misadventures early in our marriage to realize that knowing “exactly where we are” did not necessarily mean he knew where we were relative to where we hoped to be in the end.
In other words… yes, we were lost. Or at the very least not found
The younger brother in our story… as soon as he headed out the door, he was lost to the father.
Not because he was living wildly – at least until the money ran out.
And not because he was impoverished and doing about as bad a job as any Jew could get assigned… what with the Levitical restrictions about pork and pigs.
The son was lost because the relationship between father and son was broken.
And yet… the father watched and waited.
Oh, he went on with the day to day, as you must. But he must have been watching..
Because one day the father sees him, while he was still far off, he sees him…
and in that moment, the father was filled with compassion;
Remember that word we talked about- when Jesus saw -really saw – the widow mourning her dead son – and he was moved in his GUTS – his splangknoi – to do something… to act out of love and empathy and mercy… Jesus was moved with compassion and raised the boy from the dead…
In the same way, Luke tells us, the father was moved by compassion – and he ran and put his arms around his son and kissed him.
He welcomed him home with compassion that was rooted in very core of his being
And what did he say about this son?
Well, before the young man could even finish the proposal he must have rehearsed a thousand times on that long journey home…
I know I’m not worthy to be your son… would you let me live here as a hired hand…
Before the young man could get all the words out of his mouth…
The father was calling for a party to end all parties…
Because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
And here’s the thing, guys…
When the older son stood there arms crossed, brows furrowed, refusing to join the celebration, what he revealed was another broken relationship.
The years of resentment and frustration over who knows what… maybe the kid brother leaving him to more than his share of work…for sure he felt like his hard work was never rewarded…just slaving away for Dad.
While his was not nearly so dramatic as his brother’s departure, the fracturing of the relationship between the older son and his father was no less real and no less tragic in terms of lost time,
And its revelation – in the midst of celebration – was no less heartbreaking for the father.
And yet, the father still went out to meet him, to comfort him, to remind him of just how much he was loved, and to offer the same invitation to rejoice in the reunion…
Looking at my own life, I can certainly relate to the younger brother… I spent time in a far country, I have believed myself totally unworthy, and I have been welcomed back home by grace
Grace that extends far beyond my wildest imaginings.
I can also relate to the father, having lost many people I love, having been put in the position of helping my own child leave home before I was ready to do so, not knowing if there would be a reunion or any reconciliation.
And if I am really honest with myself, I can also relate to the older brother… wanting to control just how far that grace extends, control who else gets to hear the welcome I enjoy every day.
That circle is extended beyond where it used to be.. but yeah… I have issues.
I still wrestle and argue with God about stuff like this.
But here’s the thing… Even as I argue and fuss, I know for a fact that God weeps
Every time we make it hard for any beloved child, old or young, alone or part of a family, to experience sanctuary from this broken and hurtful world.
Every time I choose my comfort over taking a risk and meeting the needs of another human being, our God weeps.
This is why we need each other…
to push and prod and challenge each other to know better and do better
to read scriptures and ask each other…
Are we there yet?
Are we listening for the call of the prophet to repent?
Are we listening for the voices, watching for the far off shapes of those who have wandered to far countries, wondering if they might be ready to be welcomed home?
Are we keeping our hearts tender and open to God?
Are we opening our doors widely enough?
We need each other to ask…
Are we willing to answer these questions with honesty and integrity?
We need each other…
Because otherwise we may never take the time to look within, to confess and to repent of the ways that we have been lost without even knowing it.
And the truth about confession – real, vulnerable, hard to say out loud confession – is this:
God, who is merciful and just, full of compassion, is faithful to forgive,
And God longs to know that we are ready to come home…
Would you Join your hearts with mine in prayer…
Gracious, compassionate God,
Today my prayer is simple…
Would you give us ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to love, feet to run and arms to embrace?
Would you send your Spirit to fill us, so that we might lift our voices along with yours – loudly and joyfully-boisterously with abandon every time the lost ones are found, no matter who they are?
Because we can’t do this alone. We need you.
Always and forever.