Exodus 32.7-14; Psalm 51.1-10; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
+ In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
I was reading a bit of Norman MacCaig’s poetry yesterday and came across this rather wonderful quote by him. If you’ll permit me to, I’d like quote rather extensively…
‘I think a function of poetry is to recognise that words have an intellectual meaning, but they also have emotional meanings. Now, I think, an awful lot of the troubles in the world between two people or between two countries come from the fact that their emotions, their feelings and their beliefs are accepted as if they came out of a slot machine. They are unexamined. And of course, when a poem is doing its best, it compels the reader to examine the emotional and the intellectual meaning of the language so that the response to the poem isn’t a stock response, a penny-in-the-slot response’.
He continues, ‘And when you listen to politicians, trade unionists, teachers, in fact, all of us, we use words expecting a certain response. Mention liberty and people clap their hands. They haven’t examined the idea of liberty. Mention a word like love. They have never examined the feeling of love at all. And poetry does examine the emotional and the intellectual meaning of any event and of any word.’
It struck me that Jesus’ parables function in much this same way. Parables provide a way for Jesus to announce realities about God while at the same time unsettling his audiences’ expectations and challenging them to examine their emotional and intellectual response to their beliefs and their religious code. Jesus at once both situates his stories in the ordinary or familiar and in the strange, or even absurd.
And in doing so, he provides a place for our imaginations to linger as we consider what kinds of contrasts his parables encourage us to draw between our existing circumstances and the desires of God.
Jesus asks in these parables today, ‘Which one of you, having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the 1 that is lost until he finds it?’ or ‘what woman having ten silver coins and losing one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?’ Which one of you would not throw a party to celebrate the recovery of the lost?
The answer? No shepherd in his right mind would leave 99 sheep vulnerable in the wilderness to go searching for one. No woman would turn her house upside down searching for a coin, only to spend the same amount or more rejoicing with her friends. The celebrations are completely out of proportion to that which was lost.
Only reckless fools would do such a thing.
So if Jesus is saying that God is like that shepherd or like that woman, does that make God a reckless fool?
In the eyes of the world, according to reality then and now. Yes.
We worship and praise and glorify a reckless fool. A foolish God who at the pleas of Moses changes his mind about the people who have turned their back on him to worship other gods. A foolish God who called a man who was a vindictive persecutor to be one of his greatest witnesses. A foolish God who would risk the safety of the majority in search of the one lost soul.
It’s no surprise then that when Jesus proclaimed through his life and teaching that he came to inaugurate the Kingdom of this reckless, foolish God, he attracted the attention of the authorities.
These parables should continue to disturb us today. When we hear them, we find ourselves thinking of the sheep and the coin in terms of commodity because that is how our world works. In the world’s economy, everything, everyone has a market value. Too often, that becomes the sole source of their value.
God’s economy, on the other hand, is not about commodity but about communion. The flock is incomplete without that one sheep. The woman’s savings – maybe it’s her dowry – is incomplete without that one coin. God’s people is incomplete without the lost.
And maybe that’s something – the one thing – in these parables that we can really relate to. We might not have swept our houses looking for a single coin, or walked the hills looking for a lost sheep, but we have all had times in our lives when we forsake all other priorities because we fear that one we love is ‘lost’:
- The many days off work to sit with a sick child.
- The nighttime hours spent in silent vigil by the bed of a dying loved one.
- The way we drop everything else to help a friend in crisis.
We risk all we have because of love and worry and the knowledge that if something happened to that one person, we ourselves would be rendered incomplete. And in those moments, nothing else matters but the one who is lost.
Such recklessness makes no sense in terms of conventional wisdom or worldly economy.
But that’s just the point. There is nothing utilitarian about God’s love. When it comes to God’s children – God’s lost, confused, hurting children – God has no sense. God would risk everything to find one of them, to find one of us. And having found a lost and beloved child God would give everything again to celebrate.
‘Mention a word like love’, Norman MacCaig said in the quote I started with. ‘They have never examined the feeling of love at all. And poetry does examine the emotional and the intellectual meaning of any event and of any word.’
In his parables, Jesus is not only telling his audience what the reckless, foolish love of God is like, but is telling his listeners to examine and model it. It is communion they should be seeking, not commodity. We are now Christ’s body. And therefore we should be searching for others who are still lost, as Jesus did, listening to their stories, welcoming them to our table (or sitting at theirs), and rejoicing extravagantly when we are together at last, knowing ourselves to have been incomplete without them.