The God of the one per cent

Week of Sunday September 15 – Pentecost 17
Gospel: Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

3 So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

8 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself withthe pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

My colleague’s job as a child was to look after the sheep. There were 30, and she had  names for them all. Thirty sheep was around double the flock of the average family in Jesus’ time! A farmer with a flock of a hundred sheep was more like an Australian farmer, rich enough to work with just the majority of the sheep. In our farm reminiscing, another colleague told of her astonishment that her husband’s family would not bother with a sick sheep or two, or with one that was lost. “There are plenty more.” Why bother with the stragglers? It’s not cost efficient. You can’t look after them all. That’s life.

The shepherd is not an Australian farmer. The shepherd is concerned with the whole. The number 99 is a number of incompleteness. The one lost sheep makes the flock whole, just as the lost coin completes the ten.

The  startling thing about the story of the lost sheep is not so much that he goes in search of the sheep. It is that he leaves the 99 in the wilderness! This is not some shepherd who takes the mob back to safety and then goes searching. He leaves the mob where they are, on their own, in the wilderness, and goes searching for the lost sheep.

He turns the expected farming practice on its head, just as Jesus turned the practice of religion on its head. We tend to sit in our churches, wishing that people would repent and come join us. We disapprove of sinners. I remember criticism, long ago, of a colleague who used to go to the pub and be friends with the locals, valuing them for who they were.

How much did the criticism from the congregation have its source in the sense that their minister was “leaving them in the wilderness,” and paying attention to others, and how much did it come from the sense that you should not mix with people who are not “nice”; people who are tax collectors and sinners?

Jesus met with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees were not upset by his seeking their repentance. It was his treating them as equals, valuing them, treating them as the shepherd treated the lost sheep that upset them. Keeping company and eating with  them clearly implied  they were not lesser beings, but equals to be welcomed and valued.

Loader says this week

Nothing in the Law forbids such company, but it is sound advice to avoid such company, as already Psalm 1 declares: Blessed is the person who does not keep company with the ungodly.

Meals were significant symbols of togetherness, especially meals beyond the immediate family circle. Food was precious. Hosting a meal for a number of people cost something in a time of scarce resources. It is difficult for modern people in wealthy societies to appreciate the value of such occasions. In the ancient world people took these larger community meals very seriously.

This is almost beside the point for us; we disapprove of such behaviour even without this appreciation of table fellowship. We too often use difference and “sin” as a means of delineating ourselves from others, and as a means of underlining our superiority.

We are blind to the fact  that we are incomplete without the very people of whom we disapprove. We are only 99. In the eyes of God we respectable church members can be left in the wilderness while the one sheep, the least sheep, the sinful sheep is rescued! In a rich irony for our age, God is the God of the one percent! We are incomplete without the one percent.

Luke is pointing us toward a fundamental mind shift in our understanding of God. Although we say God is a God of love, we tend to make that love conditional. It is conditional on our repentance; it depends on our keeping the rules, rules which are too often somewhat arbitrary habits that support our local prejudices. We use the rules to bolster our own status and position.

This sense of conditional love leads us towards, or allows us to live in, a mindset of disapproval. Fundamentally, we think, God disapproves of us and loves us only when we fit in with what we imagine to be God’s expectations; expectations that have an alarming correlation with our own social expectations of what is acceptable. Our imagining of God determines the way we treat others.

We miss the implication of Jesus’ honouring of sinners and tax collectors by eating with them, and we miss the implication of the next parable in Luke, which we incorrectly call the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

In that parable—  the three parables should be read together—  the younger son is greedy, self centred, shameless and dissolute. The hurt, shame, and economic suffering he brings on his family is unforgivable in anybody’s terms. When he returns, I cannot escape the idea that his repentance is half baked at best. Luke’s words

How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ 

sound as much like careful calculation as genuine repentance.

Yet even before he utters his carefully rehearsed little speech, his father runs to meet him, runs to embrace him, kisses him. Before he can finish his apology his father has given orders for him to be clothed, and for the feast to be prepared.

We never find out if the younger son was genuine or not! But only with him at home was the family complete. Except that it was not, because the older brother, the church, decided to get in a huff, to stand on his dignity, and despite having everything that belonged to the father, could not rejoice with him.

When we stand with the older brother we refuse to go into the feast! We refuse the joy God offers us. We refuse our inheritance. We refuse all that we long for!

The disapproving mindset of conditional love cuts us off from our inheritance. The love of the Shepherd is boundless. It is unconditional. It lets the Shepherds and his friends and neighbours rejoice.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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