Is your relationship with God based on merit or mercy? What price should we put on the grace of God? Who is righteous enough to earn it? These are the hard questions Jesus asks.
This is not the first time that he is seen with the tax collectors and sinners. It’s not the first time either, that Jesus proclaims he has come to call the lost and outcast, for he often compares himself to a physician who is sent out to the sick, to those who are looking for a healer, all the while reminding his audience that those who are well, have no need of a doctor.
And this is not the first time that people have grumbled about the leadership God provides, in the bible. It goes all the way back to the Exodus when Moses led the people out of Egypt, by the mighty hand of God, through the Red Sea, and they ended up in the desert, lacking for water and food. They grumbled that life was so much better back in Egypt, romanticizing the meals they had under hard labor, as being so fresh and delicious. ‘Oh the leeks and cucumbers we had, why have we been brought here, on this journey?’
Now, in the time of anticipation of a new leader to bring them out of bondage, the Pharisees and Scribes, who have no need of a physician, are jealous of those who are celebrating, banqueting, and being welcomed by this Rabbi-teacher, Jesus. And so they grumble that he should know better. You shouldn’t give away for free what is so costly and precious, this divine healing and mercy! The Pharisees and the Scribes were already righteous persons, Jesus seemed to concede, but they could not, they refused to, celebrate the widening of the circle. If they had a say, they’d just as soon keep others out! Will Jesus be able to change their mind? Will they come and join the joyous banquet that Jesus presides at? Do they see their relationship with God based on merit, or mercy?
Jesus tells these two simple parables in response to the grumbling of the righteous ones. “Which of you,” Jesus asks them, “having a hundred sheep, or having 10 silver coins, if you lose one, does not go after it until you have found it?” Actually, it’s already pretty extravagant for a shepherd to leave the 99 behind and risk losing a whole bunch more of them, just to find the one. While it sounds quite reasonable for the woman to light her lamp, sweep her house, and search carefully for her lost coin. A silver coin, or drachma, was worth about a days wage, and would be very important to her. So the really outlandish idea, I think, is that, the poor shepherd and the poor woman, would invite all their friends and neighbors over to have a party, to celebrate the return of that which was lost. Throwing a banquet would be certainly much more costly than the sheep, or the coin, which were recovered! What is Jesus teaching us? What is all this heavenly celebrating about?
Maybe Jesus just liked the shepherd and the woman because they are compassionate type characters? The shepherd is often an image used in the holy scriptures for the leaders of the people, but by Jesus time they had fallen in stature, had become outsiders, the blue-collar, hard-living, non-church-going, type. And women, who were not supposed to be seen or heard, in Palestinian society, in Luke’s gospel are continually lifted up as examples of faithfulness, and as leaders, who are not confined by human-made rules. That Jesus picks a shepherd and a woman to play the metaphorical part of a compassionate God is exactly what makes the Pharisees and Scribes so grumbly!
But the real winners in these parables are of course, the found ones, the sheep by the shepherd, and the coin by the woman. Sheep are notoriously lost characters, innocent, but given to wandering away. And we like sheep, we don’t get lost on purpose, usually. We go astray, a bit at a time. We go out with the wrong crowd, we try something we shouldn’t that seemed fun at the time, we give in to TV instead of that meeting or volunteer position. We are sheep, who wander away, not on purpose, not all at once, but one bush at a time, as we graze along, until we are suddenly disconnected, lost or isolated, from those who had been our friends, and neighbors, and our life-lines.
Or, we are the silver coin. Maybe we have rolled away inexplicably into the shadows, behind the leg of the coach, or the pew, or simply blended right in with the carpet or linoleum. “We know our own transgressions, and our sin is ever before us,” as the Psalmist says, so we become adept at disguising and hiding it behind a smile or a well phrased retort, blending in with everyone else doing the same. And we can become lost, separated from our brothers and sisters in the faith, and from God, losing hope that we will ever be found. We have become lost right in our own homes, right in our own house of worship.
This past week I was at another ECRA meeting on the Nursing Home situation in Edgewater and the closing of Sommerset earlier this year. It was a follow up to the large and successful gathering we had had with our legislators, nursing home providers, and religious leaders. One woman, who had been working on the issue of improving care in our Nursing Homes for some time, much longer than we at ECRA had, was suddenly hopeful, we found out. She had felt like she was the only one in all of Edgewater who was out there fighting to make a difference. And though she felt committed to her work all that time, she was losing heart that she could go on. She was obviously talented, but it had become a very lonely pursuit, in the face of overwhelming odds. Now this “one” felt as if she had been found, by a large and caring community. And it became a very joyous occasion!
Our God is a God who searches out the lost, who does not let a single one get away! God wants to widen the circle. In fact, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who returns than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. And the celebration and rejoicing, is extravagant, over the top, in comparison to the repentance. Because, the reconciliation, symbolized by the banquet, and meal, is much greater than the status quo which needs no saving. And so the meal has become the sign of God’s coming among us and establishing the new age. God feeds us, and we are overjoyed with grace and love.
Our relationship with God is not based on merit, but on mercy. We all become lost, one bush at a time. And if we are found, saved, based not on our merit, then there can be no grumbling over whomever God chooses to welcome and redeem. The true measure of where the kingdom and realm of God is, is where the people of God are banqueting and rejoicing together, welcoming all the lost ones, and giving thanks. For God is a God of mercy, and finds us, and calls together all our friends and neighbors, for the joyous banquet that has no end, where, we will be satisfied!