Based on Luke 15:1-10
Here we are at the dinner table again. With Jesus. With each other. And there are self-righteous religion enforcers there complaining about the company Jesus keeps. Before even getting to the meat of the two parables that Jesus tells, I’m struck by the setting.
How would a movie director stage this? Suppose you and your friends are at a restaurant sitting at the window, and all your ministry staff—Pr. Karin, Deacon Ben, Deacon Rick, Counselor Bev, Nurse Linda, Associate Mary Joy and I laser-focused on you from the other side of the window, and we’re commenting on you like some angry restaurant critic. Would that be…weird? Back in Jesus’ day, could just anybody come in and stand around the diners sitting on the floor of the sinner host’s home? Or did Jesus go outside to talk with them like a celebrity addressing the paparazzi? If today, maybe Jesus would just tweet at them and hide behind the digital veil. But I doubt it. However the players are positioned, however the rude intrude on Jesus and his party animal friends, it seems to me that Jesus makes a special, if inconvenient, effort to get up from his dinner to answer the incessant cell phone from callers who will not be blocked.
Jesus breaks momentarily from the dinner party with his base base and goes face to face with his critics. This staging makes all the difference for understanding the scene. Because when Jesus tells the two parables to the intruders, he likens his dinner company to a lost sheep and a lost coin., but it is from his detractors that he counsels repentance. After each little parable, looking at the faces of his critics, he says “I tell you,” indicating that it is the self-righteous whom he here directly engages that need to repent. And when those inappropriate restaurant critics repent, there will be joy in heaven!
It is not Jesus’ table mates who need repentance. There is joy there around a feast shared. There at that table were gathered those whom righteous society abused and discounted. But God in Christ brought them to that table. It wasn’t the sheep’s fault that it got lost and sheep do not have the capacity to repent. It can’t be a coin’s fault that it was lost and surely it is not its role to repent. The sheep and the coin were found, instead, by one who placed in them the highest value. But if repentance applies, it applies to the naysayers and denigrators, the dividers and hate-mongers who stand outside the party and who finally, as is evil’s practice, will just slip out to get other authorities to exact their vengeful jealousy, to get rid of goodness, to get love crucified while keeping their own purportedly ritual pure hands legally clean, though their hearts morally remain cynical, dark, lonely, and evil. Left to themselves, the self-righteous always will choose immoral law over illegal goodness. But how heaven will crack open laughing with hysterical joy when these sheep who truly are accountable finally repent!
We each know who our self-righteous candidates are from whom we would demand repentance. Lest we become too “we-they” biased, let us be clear. It is God’s overall intention, whatever it takes and no matter how long, to see that those who are already found are joined in their celebration by those who yet do not know their deep need for repentance. Repentance will dawn as a mighty “yes and thank you” upon their realizing finally that they are found, that they are valued too, and that their lives—thank God—do not need any longer to be based on the false human presumptions of meritocracy, nor on the deadly presumption that it is even in them to become righteous enough for God. Because if that is the basis for their religion, they-we- will fail, we will fail, because, quite simply and radically, that God whom we must please does not exist, no matter how many people insist on believing their belief. That God, who must be appeased, does not exist, That God is an idol and a cover for the unhuman need for power and control, That God is false, if even presumed as the basis for whole civilizations.
The true God–the power of all life, goodness, and beauty–is the one for whom Jesus came as a dinner party bon vivant with the so-called–but self-aware! –sinners. The true God who indeed exists is the one who simply loves all his creatures beyond all telling. This God, our God, the God of Abraham, Joseph, Isaac, and Jesus: this God is the one who seeks out the sheep so to bring back into fullness of life with the flock; this God is the one who looks for the one coin even though she has lots of other coins and then celebrates with her friends. This God, my God, your God will not be assuaged until every person celebrates justice-mercy-dignity at the Great Thanksgiving table.
We spout it readily in our political ethics, do we not—we self-righteous and self-aware alike? We easily talk about the image of God in each and every person, as if every person thereby has a kind of regulatory tattoo on their brow. The meaning is far more profound, however. You and every person—every person—bears God’s image because God so values you that God placed God’s image in and on you! It’s not just about human rights that we speak of the image of God, though the rights are sufficient enough, if still not honored. It is because God so values you and every one that the dinner party must happen. God so values each and every human person that God places God’s valued image in you. All sheep matter! Black sheep, brown sheep, fat sheep, fleeced sheep. They matter so much that God will find and have the stubborn stupid sheep until they are stubborn and stupid no more. God’s whole strategy is as egalitarian as it can get. The folks who look down on us will finally come from their side of the window to join us at the feast. And the folks we look down on, we learn, are our responsibility to seek and rescue; after following Jesus’ command to love them, we will even come to like them! After all, whichever side of the window we find ourselves, we’re all cut from the same cloth and we each bear the same divine image, which is exactly why every saint has a past and every sinner a future.
Joy really will break out and go free range. After forty years preaching and teaching this, I finally believe it, notwithstanding severe disappointments that others or I have wrought on myself, not of God’s doing. And I expect this means more than forty years yet of holy laughter, and I am profoundly grateful to be able to share it with you. Another important part of Jesus’ going face to face with the press corps is that he was in a very happy mood, dining with his sinner peeps. We know this because a joke told with a likely smile is at the heart of the whole scene. The woman who found her coin, which was worth a lot, spent more than the coin’s worth for a party with her friend’s to celebrate the lost coin found, and now, ironically spent. The main course for her party was most likely…wait for it…mutton; just as Jesus’ dinner with the sinners was likely roast of lamb. He had to be smiling and chuckling while talking to his critics. He was, in effect, inviting them joyfully to join his joy.
He insists and is relentless with love. No one finally will deny the truth that he is the life of his own party, because the lamb who would be slain already had begun his reign.
Duane H. Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX