Yesterday morning in my morning prayer, I came across this verse from Philippians:
“Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be innocent and genuine, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like bright stars.”Philippians 2:14-15
I have heard many people paying tribute to our late Queen over the past few days, but I haven’t heard it better expressed than Paul’s words to the people of the city of Philippi.
Luke 15 contains three parables, the two that we heard this morning (the lost sheep and the lost coin) can you think what the third one is? To give you a clue they all result in celebratory meals. You’re all familiar with these parables and their context, you’ve all heard endless sermons on the subject.
The first starts “Which one among you?” and that question invites you personally into the story of the lost sheep, the second starts “Or what woman?” again inviting you personally in the story of lost coin. In both cases that means you. According to Cosmo Lang, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the abdication crisis which put George VI our late Queen’s father on the throne and set the path her life, Jesus purpose ins starting this way is to emphasise God’s care for each and every individual.
Now in the many stories that we’ve heard over the last few days, what has come across to me is precisely that same thing, her care for each and every individual that she came across in the course of her duties. Even in very brief exchanges people felt that they had her full attention and that she really cared about the answer when she asked them a question. A really important quality in a role where it would be so easy to give the impression that you are just going through the motions.
The setting for this morning’s parables is: “All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near in order to hear him” Why? What is it about Jesus that attracts tax collectors and sinners ? Let’s avoid glib answers about Jesus having a magnetic personality and try to understand what Luke’s saying and I would have to admit that it’s a bit a of a mixed message; Jesus is clearly seeking to bring sinners to repentance. But where in Luke does Jesus actually scold or correct a sinner? The short answer is that he doesn’t. Instead he eats with them. Luke reports four instances where Jesus eatswith sinners, as a result of which He gets criticised, but interestingly Jesus never comments on the sinners’ behaviour. So what’s going on?
The problem I suspect is the term sinner. Well aren’t we all sinners? In Luke’s world, Jesus distinguishes between sinners who repent and “the righteous who have no need of repentance“. Sinners are those who’ve turned away from God, who are just fine on their own. Is that ultimately not the cause of the climate crisis, turning away from God and interpreting having dominion over creation as being a right to exploit? The late Queen had dominion over us all, but did she exploit us?
Repentance is as Evening Prayer in the Scottish Prayer Book puts it in the Absolution “amendment of life”:
“The Almighty and merciful Lord grant you Absolution and Remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit. Amen.”Scottish Prayer Book evening prayer
Notice the petition is asking God to grant “true repentance” it’s not demanding the penitent show it. In the two parables this morning the shepherd and the woman concentrate on the ‘lost’ and leave the rest, because they don’t need attention at that point. Jesus embraces the people the rest of religious society rejects.
As ‘good Christians’ we tend to avoid taking sides on many issues and when someone does, such as the Bishop of Leeds speaking about the serious dangers faced by the poor in times of austerity and hardship, all hell breaks loose (well at least on the letters pages of the Church Times). Our society seems to have no inhibitions about branding people as losers. The Church should take sides with those who lose out and the really big losers as a result of the Climate Crisis are the people who live in many of the poorest countries on earth.
There are too many in positions of influence and power who are only too ready to scapegoat people who they see as “sinners” because they place an undue burden on the rest of society. Sinners, who are refugees or benefit claimants or migrants from parts of the world where changes in the climate makes life very difficult indeed. Sinners who for whatever reason have fallen on hard times, through no fault of their own. Sinners who though previously respectable members of society now suffer from ill-health Sinners who have addictions. Sinners who are not like us. The list could go on. Eating with sinners means taking sides.
Our two parables share the same structure. One sheep is lost from a larger group, someone goes to great lengths to find the lost one and the finder invites friends in for a celebration. Interestingly the second story goes into great detail about how the woman who lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully. She can’t rest, she can’t relax, she doesn’t feel right until she’s found it. Now who doesn’t know that feeling, I know I do? Perhaps I should be throwing a finding glasses party on a regular basis and invite everyone in to celebrate it!
But I digress. As with most of Jesus’ parables, in these, there’s something that seems out of place. That something is to be found in the totally disproportionate lavishness of the celebrations when the lost is found. Now I ask you would a shepherd really throw a big party over the finding of one lost sheep (“Which one of you does not do so?”)?
“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
If the lost coin is of such concern to the woman, would you really expect her to want the expense of a party (“What woman would not?”)?
“I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
So as we reflect on this, we’re invited to recognize the extravagant joy with which God, present in Christ, welcomes sinners – that is “those who recognise their need of repentance” but remember “the righteous have no need of repentance” and “the self-righteous don’t recognise their need of repentance” they’re just fine, they can look after themselves can’t they?
In response to the charge that Jesus associates with tax collectors and sinners, His response is, “Well Obviously.” Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus dines with the poor and the rich, the tax collectors, sinners, and the Pharisees. In these parables, Jesus invites us to find God’s image in all people and especially in those that seem lost, for “nothing will be impossible with God”
By the way that third parable is the Prodigal Son, the Queen’s favourite parable however was the Good Samaritan.