Exodus 32:7-14+Psalm 51:1-11+1 Timothy 1:12-17+Luke 15:1-10
I am often asked, especially by those struggling with faith or uncertain what they believe about God, what parts of the bible they should read to help them find answers. My first response to that is that the bible is not an answer book. It is a story of God’s love for all of us. Some parts of it are not very enlightening about faith or indicative of that godly love. But if there is one part of the bible that I would recommend everyone read to get a glimpse of the nature of God, it would be Luke’s 15th chapter, of which we read the beginning today. I recommend this because this chapter is about one thing – we are all lost, and God is not giving up until we are found. And when God does find us, there’s going to be the biggest party anyone has seen this side of heaven.
On the face of it, Jesus is telling a parable, or story, about a shepherd, a woman, and, in the next section (which, oddly, we don’t read next week but read during Lent), a prodigal son. The parables, though, are always pointing toward God – what’s God up to? What will God’s reign be like? How is God’s economy different than ours? How is God’s power different than earthly power?
Sometimes, Jesus uses images of banquets or agriculture or household servants, all things that his listeners would have immediately grasped. It might not be quite so easy for us, because most of us don’t have farms or servants, and our understanding of a banquet is not quite the same as one you might find in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean culture. So, a good way of understanding the parables is to wonder where God is in it? Even that can be hard to figure out sometimes, but not in these two parables we heard today or in the one that follows. God is the shepherd, the woman, and the father.
If you were listening to Jesus tell the parable of the lost sheep, you would likely have laughed out loud. I mean falling off your chair laughing. Because what shepherd in his right mind is going to go off and leave 99 sheep unprotected just for one stupid enough to get himself lost? And does he get angry with that wandering sheep? No! The shepherd slings him over his shoulders and throws a party for the neighborhood!
And what about that woman who, in her time and place, would have had multiple household responsibilities. What woman has time to turn an entire house upside-down just for one coin (even if that coin was worth a half-day’s wages)? Yet, she finds it, and she, too, throws a party, probably spending more on that than the coin that she lost.
And then there is the father in the prodigal son story who, even though that son as good as told him to drop dead, ran down the driveway with his robes flapping behind him when he saw the son returning in the distance. What does he do next? That’s right. He throws a big party.
God is not willing to lose any one of us. And whether God has to come find us and throw us over her shoulders or turn heaven and earth on end, sweeping under all the rugs while looking for us, God does not give up. And even if God does not go out searching, God, like the father, sits waiting, looking, searching the horizon for a sign that we are coming, and then, while we are still far off, God runs to meet us.
Please don’t miss one of the most radical things about this chapter of Luke. If we are being given an image of God, then yes, God is an old father in one story, but God is a woman in one and a shepherd in one. Either of these would have scandalized anyone within earshot, because women did not count; shepherds were the lowest of the low. And here Jesus is saying that these are images of God, this is who God is, this is a God who goes looking for us.
This is the true nature of God. So many people would have us believe that God is transactional, that we do something wrong and get punished or we do something right and get a reward. That’s not how God works. If we succeed, God loves us. If we fail, God loves us. If we leave the church, God loves us. If we come every Sunday, God loves us. There is no limit to God’s love. It is infinite.
We need to go back to the beginning of our gospel reading, because before launching into these stories today, Luke writes: “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’”(Luke 15:1-2). And can’t you just imagine the scribes an Pharisees wondering, “What about us?” It’s kind of like the older brother in the prodigal son parable who is furious that his dad has thrown the biggest party in town for his no-good brother who went off and blew through a fortune. The solidly faithful scribes and Pharisees never did that. They never went and got themselves lost. Why don’t they get some love from Jesus?
I have no doubt that Jesus looks at them with love, just as he always does, and says to them the same thing the father says to the older brother: all that I have is yours. There’s enough for both of you. Just because Jesus goes off after the least and the lost does not mean he doesn’t love all of those who never wander, never stray. How many times does he say, in so many words, a doctor doesn’t need my healing, so I’ll go to the ones who do?
Except maybe for little Jonathan who is getting baptized this morning and other babes in arms around here, there is not a single person on this planet who has not wandered, not fallen, not failed, not been lost, not sinned. Not one of us. And yet none of that matters when we come into God’s embrace. Some of us may come under absolute protest, but God’s grace will prevail.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s version of the lost sheep is one of my favorites, because he points out that sheep are not very bright. They need someone to feed and watch over them, and the only ones that go wandering off are the cantankerous old rams. So that picture of a nice, clean Jesus with a sweet little white sheep on his shoulders is nonsense, because that ram is kicking and bleating and fighting and is probably filthy and stinks to high heaven, yet even those Jesus goes looking for.
We’re all lost in one way or another, and yet we will be found, and there will be rejoicing in the heavens.