Twenty Fourth Sunday of the Year
The three stories Jesus tells us are how God feels about each one of us. We see God’s passion for all people; and God’s mercy and compassion is to recover, restore, all that is lost. They speak of God’s passion who looks at our world. How do we share that passion in our desires for the world and its people? When facing complaints about his poor taste in dinner companions, Jesus responds with these stories. The image that emerges is that God is not reasonable in human terms because God’s favourites are the broken people who we rub shoulders daily.
They are members of the Body of Christ, invisible but made visible by Jesus. All the stories proclaim God’s extravagant love. All reflect the heart of God made flesh in Jesus. ‘It was not because you were greater than any others that the Lord set his heart on you ... it was because the Lord loved you’ (Deut. 7-8). It is not about honour, prestige, status or power that measure one’s value in God’s eyes. Those on the edges were pushed there being labelled as sinners. Those on the edges had no power, privilege, or voice. This kind of ordering continues. We misuse a person’s gender, race, orientation, gender expression, and gender identity to draw boundary lines in society. Jesus taught a preferential option for the poor; a partiality and solidarity with those on the margins.
Luke today addresses four, not three, experiences of being lost. The one we rarely consider is subtle and insidious: it is the lostness of those who consider themselves righteous, who uphold the values of society and faith – like the morality or church police. The other stories are Jesus’ way of responding to those who criticise Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them. What is subtle and insidious is that their hearts are closed to people who are different and so have closed their hearts to God’s love for them.
Like the shepherd, each one of us can seek out one person among us who seems lost. Like the determined woman, each one of us can work for policies and attitudes that favour invisible people in our society. Like the compassionate father, each one of us can offer something of God’s stubborn presence who refuses to give up on children at their most vulnerable.
We are constantly challenged to see through different lens: how we see ourselves and others. Recall God’s question to Cain, ‘Where is your sister/brother? Jesus answers this by welcoming sinners and eats with them. He shows us a God who receives ‘trashy’ people and eats with them whether they are the excommunicated; violators of the Law; people excluded from synagogue or temple; con artists; adulterers; outcasts; and the poor unable to keep religion’s fancy rules. Do we stay outside and grumble or do we share the joy of all coming together?
The image of the determined woman shows us a God who sweeps the floor and checks the cracks ’until’ what is lost is found. This word ’until’ can easily be overlooked. It is not a cursory search but expresses a determination to find which is lost. She images a God who looks in the dark places of the world to bring the lost home. We need to actively search out those who are missing from the community, for whatever reason, and become catalysts in their restoration to the community. The fact that some are lost is not only tragic for the individual, but for the whole community. It is incomplete without them. Jesus is not describing a mere glance in the wilderness for a lost sheep or a casual search to find the coin. This search does not end until the lost object is found. This word picture is of God with us, for us, who refuses to give up on us. Might the lost coin not be a metaphor today where so much of the experiences and wisdom of women, of people with disabilities, of youth, and of LGBTIQA+ people have fallen through the cracks of the church and many other social institutions for so long and regarded as insignificant and uncelebrated. Do we stay outside and grumble or do we share the joy of all coming together?
Jesus transgressed the societal rules and boundaries of his day that pushed some people to the edges and excluded them. And we are called to, too! Jesus’ vision for a compassionate society was one where BOTH exclusionary and marginalizing practices and economic exploitation are rejected in favour of including everyone at a shared table. Everyone’s voice mattered, and everyone’s experience was valued. It was a community of shared values, shared production, and shared consumption.
Today is the 21st anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the USA. These events have been used to draw lines between people, innocent people, in the name of victimhood and grandiosity which much of the world was in grief with the people of the USA. Wednesday, September 21, is the ‘International Day of Peace’. We are challenged as to what lens we use to consider the meaning of violence and many forms of its presence, often hidden, in our lives. How quick we accommodate ourselves with violence whether it is the war on Ukraine or accepting the treatment of unhoused people; children in adult prisons; victims of domestic violence; and the violence of silence. We risk being at odds with Jesus’ teaching when we fail to recognise the sanctity of all people and places – the other whether other people or the Earth.
Jesus welcomed everyone into relationship, yet his followers continue draw lines between the worthy and the unworthy rather than build bridges amongst people, groups, and nations. How often do we see attempts to build bridges with God’s baptised gay and lesbian sons and daughters? How often to go after people who have left the church to find out why? How often do we challenge our punitive justice system? How often do we hold political leaders to account when provocations and cheap threats are made towards neighbouring countries rather than seek diplomacy, dialogue and understanding past injustices? Has Jesus’ message found a home in us? If we have absorbed the message, we see it as essential to the very character of God to be welcoming.
We have seen how human culture often sacrifices one person, or a group of vulnerable people, so that the majority, the ninety-nine can blame them and drain off tensions in the larger group. They are blamed for our woes, our problems, our loss of direction. To blame or sacrifice one person, or a group, is how peace among the ninety-nine can be maintained – at least for a while. Unity is maintained through exclusion of the one. We have seen this concerning asylum seekers and during the same sex marriage referendum. Of course, it did not work for long! But the gospel story inverses the tendency to scapegoat where the majority, the ninety-nine, are left so that the one who is lost or excluded can be found. No one is excluded or sacrificed or lost. The gospel story shows that God walks with the one who is excluded. Where are we in this picture?
Those who had been pushed to the margins and edges of society and labelled unclean were proving to be more righteous in relation to the poor and exploited than those around whom their society was centred. It’s even possible that the tax collectors sensed a connection between their own marginalisation and the marginalisation of the poor; that this shared experience of being excluded prepared them to respond compassionately to Jesus’ message.