Luke 15: Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son

March 6, 2016
Luke 15
Joanna Harader

The lectionary reading for today is just the second piece that we heard, but I thought it was important to include the opening reading as well, because these three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son clearly all fit together. And one thing that is important for us to consider when we hear these parables is the audience. Who was Jesus talking to?

The first group Luke mentions are those who are gathered around Jesus—the tax collectors and sinners. Some of them have been traveling with Jesus for awhile, some of them have sought him out because they are in need of healing. Some of them just heard there was a party going on, so they showed up!

The tax collectors and sinners. People who have been shunned from polite society and the respectable religious institutions.

And then there are the people from the respectable religious institutions: the Pharisees and the scribes. They have apparently shown up for the sole purpose of grumbling about the tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus tells both groups the same story, but I imagine they hear very different things.

The Pharisees and scribes are there for the sole purpose of grumbling about who Jesus is talking to, about all the rules that are getting broken, about how disgraceful this scene is–people that shouldn’t even be together sitting around together eating and probably drinking, laughing. There are so many cultic purity code items being broken at this event they have run out of fingers to count them on.

What may be most notable to the grumbling Pharisees and scribes is that all three of these stories end with a party. The shepherd finds a lamb and throws a party. The woman finds a coin and throws a party. And these are not realistic stories. Right? If your lamb wanders off and you find it you would be happy. But it seems a little over the top to think that a shepherd would even have the resources to throw a party, even if he felt like it. Where is a shepherd going to get the money to throw a party? Or the woman? She finds a coin and then spends all the money she just found on a party?

These aren’t realistic reactions to finding something that is lost. Jesus is making a point about God, about the Kingdom, about the ways in which the judgment and the grumbliness of these scribes and Pharisees is counter to what God wants for God’s people.

In other words, as Tony Campolo would say, “The Kingdom of God is a party.” So don’t be grumpy.

Of course, the message of the parables goes much deeper than that. Because the scribes and the Pharisees aren’t just grumpy. They are righteously, indignantly grumpy. They think that these tax collectors and sinners don’t deserve the company of Jesus–who they have figured out has a special relationship with God. Maybe they wish Jesus was eating and laughing and drinking with them, like the older son. And here Jesus is saying, “You’re invited to the party. But the party is not going to be just for you. And if you can’t celebrate with everybody, including the tax collectors and the sinners, then I guess you won’t be celebrating at all.”

So these are not really stories that made the scribes and the Pharisees very happy, I would assume. But the tax collectors and the sinners, they hear something very different in these stories. They hear about joy and forgiveness, and they hear, I think, something that for them, in their culture, would have been even more fundamentally Good News.

The concepts of honor and shame were central to Jesus’ culture. Honor was the ultimate virtue; one had to have honor to be accepted within—and protected by—the community. Shame made you an outcast. The Pharisees and scribes are the ones with honor. The tax collectors and sinners experience shame in their community.

And the younger son in Jesus’ story, he brings shame to his otherwise honorable family by asking for his share of the inheritance. The son brings further shame upon himself by selling his portion of the family farm and then wasting all of the money he got for it. And the worst part is that he loses the money to Gentiles—Roman prostitutes, pagan pig-owners. He takes his sacred inheritance and distributes it among those who do not even believe in, let alone honor, the God of his ancestors.

Barbara Brown Taylor explains that this activity was so shameful, the Talmud describes a ceremony for precisely this situation. A qetsatsah ceremony would “punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles.” If such a boy dares to show his face in the village again, the villagers fill a huge jug and burned nuts and corn and then break it in front of him. They yell his name and pronounce him cut off from his people. That is the shame the youngest son has earned.

Taylor suggests that when the father goes running out to meet his son, his running certainly is an expression of love. But it is also a means of protecting the son. The father wants to get to the son before the villagers have time to burn the nuts and corn and stuff them in a jar. The father risks his own honor to seek to restore his son to the family and the community before he is cut off forever. Once the people in the village come to the party honoring the returned son, the window of opportunity for rejecting him from the community is past.

So what would this story have meant to those tax collectors and sinners? Maybe some of them had experienced their own qetsatsah. Surely many of them were shamed and not welcome in their families and communities.

Jasmine and I watched a film at the library Friday night called “The Year We Thought About Love.” It follows an LGBTQ young adult acting troupe as they develop and perform pieces about the struggles they have faced. One young man, Chi, shares about struggles he had at church when he came out, about his pastor and one of the “mothers” of the church condemning him. And about his grandmother—also a church member—assuring him of her love and God’s love. His piece ends with him saying “I am a gay black male who loves God. And God loves this gay black male.” Towards the end of the film, one of the young women in the troupe shares that Chi’s piece has led her to start going back to church.

This story of the running father is powerful. The truth of Jesus’ parable for the tax collectors and sinners is that God seeks to honor them, not to shame them.

It is clear that this parable from Jesus would have been heard in different ways by the two distinct groups of Jesus’ listeners. And there is still one other group of listeners that I am interested in: us. How do we hear this parable today? Which characters do we identify with? What is the word of God for us in this story?

I would imagine, on an individual basis, most of us can relate to both brothers. Maybe you relate to one more than the other: being responsible but unappreciated; regretting a poor life choice and wondering if you can ever make things right. Most of us can relate to the brothers.

As a church, though, I’ve been thinking about us as the father. Which may be a bit blasphemous, but hey, that’s never stopped us before.

I’m thinking of Peace Mennonite as the father because this is a community that embraces people with God’s love—people who may have felt, in other places, that they were not in the appropriate category to receive God’s love.

Many of you probably remember several years ago when we hosted a wedding for two women who were not members of the church. What you may not know is that they contacted us because they wanted to be married by a Christian pastor in a Christian church and could not find a church in their home town that was willing to host their wedding. Someone—I still don’t know who or why—told them to call Peace Mennonite. We have a reputation.

I got a message recently from a Facebook friend who might be moving to Lawrence. “How would your church feel,” he wanted to know, “about an agnostic who won’t show up to church as much as he should?”. And I was able to honestly say, “We would love to have you.”

Another Facebook friend, someone I went to graduate school with, commented on my post about preaching the prodigal son this week:

The prodigal son is another one of those stories that shows that men have cultural capital. If a woman left and was consorting with those same kind of people, she’s be stoned upon her arrival at home. That’s the kind of party they’d throw for her.

When I asked if she’d like to come preach for me she said, “I’d love to. But they’d throw me out.” That’s what she expects from the religious establishment—to be shamed for her accurate insights and justified questions. But I know that you wouldn’t throw her out. Because this is a place where people are not shamed for having ideas that are different from what we may have learned in Sunday School.

Many of you have your own stories about how this church has embraced you. How you have felt the larger church or society shaming you, while the people in this church have shown you the love of God.

I may be a bit biased here, but I want to say to you all that what we have, as a church, is special. The ways that we run out to love each other and to show love to those who are not part of this church—it is beautiful. Not perfect. But really great and beautiful.

I pray we all keep this beauty in mind as we continue our discussions about our church and the space we want to be in; as we prepare and gather for our meeting tonight. Some of you are frustrated and ready to move last month. Some of you are feeling pushed. Some of you have clear ideas about what the church should do. Some of you don’t know. All of us are struggling to listen well and make faithful decisions.

I don’t yet know exactly the best path for us to follow. I have ideas about what makes the most sense to me at this point, but I’m not convinced that one particular space option is absolutely the best.

What I am convinced of is that this church is uniquely able to run out and meet many of the prodigals of this world. Maybe we can share the love because we have received the love. Or maybe we are just shameless. But whatever the reasons, our welcoming of prodigals is really great and beautiful.

And so I would love for Peace Mennonite to grow—not because we need more money or more Sunday School teachers or more Trustees (though we do)–but I would love for us to grow because I know there are people in Lawrence who feel shamed by the church and rejected by God; and I believe that we are called to welcome them with open arms.