Alright friends, let’s be honest with each other. Have you ever read a portion of scripture, particularly from the Gospels, and been like, “Eghhh…I really don’t like this passage. I don’t really like what Jesus has to say here.” Well? Do I have some nodding heads here or are y’all too shy to admit what you know is true? Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Even pastors have those passages that they cringe at. Even “people of the cloth” feel like talking back to Jesus sometimes. Maybe that sounds surprising, but let’s be real—Jesus says some harsh things every now and then. Sometimes his words are just plain uncomfortable because they teach us to do what is often hardest to do.
Well, our gospel readings from this week—Luke 15, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin—were just those kinds of passages for me. I’ll confess here, when I read the scripture assigned for this week from the lectionary, I may have emitted an audible—“nooo!” See, I have been wrestling with this passage throughout the week, and I’d like to take you on a little journey through the wrestling I had, and what I learned about God in the process. Perhaps you’ll find it’s a theological and spiritual journey you’ve been on yourself. But first, a little context.
The fifteenth chapter of Luke is composed of three parables, two of which we read today—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and finally, the parable of the prodigal son, which although we didn’t read of it, I’m sure we are all familiar with it. The first two parables are about non-human entities that become lost and the celebration that ensues when they are found. The third is about a person who is lost to sin, but becomes found again through repentance and reacceptance into the community.
First Jesus begins with two parables that the average person of that time could relate to. For men, Jesus tells about the quest of a shepherd to find the one sheep that has gone missing. For women, Jesus tells about a woman who scours her house for a lost coin, an object that would have been of great worth, perhaps saved for her dowry. Jesus asks, would not a regular person go to great lengths to find something of great worth that had gone missing? In a more modern context, would not you or I look high and low for a lost pet? Or would we not scour our house for a lost wedding ring? Jesus instructs his listeners that the fervor with which the average person would look for these things is the same fervor for which God yearns to find the lost among humanity. The joy God feels upon recovering a sinner is the same you or I may feel having found a beloved object.
Jesus then goes on to elaborate with another parable, which we know as the parable of the prodigal son. Here the meaning comes into clear view that God is eager to forgive those who have been lost (i.e. done wrong) and are found (i.e. repent). God wants everyone to come back into the light. God rejoices for every person who rejoins the community of the faithful.
This suite of parables rings of good news for you and me. Jesus in his time taught of something incredible, something that thwarted the logic of the day. In that time, it was assumed that the guilty received their punishment, and if you were suffering it must mean you suffered as a result of your guilt. But Jesus says that sin no longer condemns. Instead, it is those who turn back from their sin that God is most eager to receive. God is forgiveness. And this is indeed good news because who amongst us has not sinned? Who is not in some way like the prodigal son?
This is good news, and yet, there is something deeply uncomfortable with this message as well, and this is where my wrestling comes in. Jesus has a way of making bold statements that are frankly difficult to swallow. Jesus says, “Just 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.” God will celebrate morefor those who repent than those who have strived to be good all their lives. I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as wholly unfair. For those who do their best to stay on the righteous path, it seems that this idea that God celebrates morefor a repentant sinner is some crazy loophole in God’s nature.
This all seems like some moral slippery slope. What’s the point of doing good your whole life if God is actually more excited for those who have strayed and returned than for those who have always stayed? Why not we enjoy a life of indulgence, frivolity, and debauchery so that we may repent later and enjoy God’s forgiveness? Is God really more joyful for those who have committed atrocities throughout their life time only to repent later? What about justice? What about the victims of the suffering caused by others? Where is the accountability?
It reminds me about the debate surrounding George Wallace, the governor of Alabama during the Civil Rights era. Wallace was a staunchly pro-segregationist and even personally attempted to block black students from entering a white school. He was the governor of the state when peaceful protestors were assaulted by fire hoses and dogs, during Bloody Sunday, and during the bombing of the church where four girls were killed. Later, as Wallace lived out his last years crippled and facing death, he repented for his segregationist ways. Many believe his repentance is genuine. Whether or not we as Americans should forgive Wallace will probably always be up for debate. But, how are we to feel about a God who might celebrate more heartily for Wallace’s repentance than for ninety-nine black people who peacefully marched for their freedom and rights? That’s a hard pill to swallow.
Like the elder brother of the prodigal son, there’s something in me that’s like, “Whoa, hey God! That’s not really fair.” Why should the one who did badly get the favored response from God? And I want to ask Jesus—“hey Jesus, what does this mean for the suffering, the weak, the poor, the oppressed? What is justice in this world you just laid out?” I think my reaction to these passages is similar to what any rational human being might have. Think of our own criminal justice system—it is designed, if executed correctly, to punish the wrong-doers of our world. Justice, in our minds, is seeking fitting punishment for a transgression as a way to atone for the original harm.
But as we see in Luke 15, our sense of justice is not God’s sense of justice. God’s wisdom is much greater than that of the typical person. It is true, it is not really “fair” that the guilty can receive forgiveness seemingly so freely, and that such forgiveness comes not begrudgingly, but joyfully. That free forgiveness is what we know as Grace, God’s greatest gift to humanity. For God knows that a rupture in the goodness and wholeness of all humanity is a terrible affair, one worth grieving over. Someone who seeks to repair that rupture is a cause of enormous relief and celebration. For God and humanity are not made more whole by expelling those who have sinned. We are made whole by rejoining together in a process of healing and reconciliation.
The gift of Grace is that each person is too precious to be lost completely. The story of the prodigal son gives us a tangible example of this, but I don’t think people would have been able to understand this parable if it weren’t for the two that preceded it. It’s when Jesus is able to relate the fervor of God’s love to that of a shepherd who lost a sheep or a woman who lost a coin that people could feel what it must be like when God “loses” a person to sin. When we know how precious a sheep, a coin, a pet, or a wedding ring is to us, we can understand how precious we might be to God.
Looking at these parables, forgiveness doesn’t mean no accountability. God’s unending forgiveness doesn’t mean that people don’t have to face the consequences of their behavior. It’s not stated explicitly in Luke 15, but since the prodigal son spent his inheritance, we can assume that in the future there is no more inheritance that he will receive. He will have to face the economic consequences of his indulgence for the rest of his rest life. The elder son may resent the party his brother receives upon his homecoming, but ultimately the elder son will be rewarded in the future. He needn’t worry that he didn’t get a fair shake because his father showed the younger son unconditional love. The inheritance is finite, and the elder son will get his share, but his father’s love is infinite, and so he will never be robbed of that.
God’s love is infinite, too. Although the people who have become lost to sin may receive God’s joyful forgiveness when they repent, they in no way take away from the love God has for those who have done right their whole lives or for those who have suffered on account of the guilty. When God welcomes back the sinner, God has not forgotten the wronged or the oppressed. We know this because of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain—Bless are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” Jesus may offer forgiveness to those who have done wrong, but he offers hope for those who have suffered.
Perhaps it is so that God offers love in different ways to different people. God heals the sick, forgives the sinner, gives hope to the poor, walks alongside the oppressed, promises Heaven to the meek, and offers his Son to suffering and death for those who have suffered greatly. God forgave George Wallace, but protested in solidarity with the black people of Alabama. One expression of love does not negate the other. That is Grace. And that is good news. For most of us, at some point, will be all those people, and we will need God’s love in different ways at different times. The great wisdom of God is that God will be there in all forms, even if from our one angle it doesn’t seem fair.
So, friends, what started for me as a moral uproar against Luke chapter 15 transformed into a meditation on God’s love. May Jesus parables of God’s forgiveness and love be a continual example for us, as we ever wrestle with how to treat those amongst us who have done wrong. And may we find ourselves standing in the light of God’s love, however it shines upon us.