Who doesn’t love to hear the parable of the prodigal son? Or the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin? We love hearing these stories about God’s immense love for us and being reminded of our value as children of God. But there’s the rub. These stories are not necessarily about us. They are about the other. We have all grown up loving these wonderful stories about God’s love but we rarely take into account the context of these three wonderful parables:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” – Luke 15:1-2.
During the time of Jesus, there was a vibrant renewal movement going on among the Pharisees, Sadducees and Teachers of the Law. It involved a rigorous keeping of “every jot and tittle” of the law. They were especially focused on the rituals of table fellowship following strict dietary codes, ritual cleansing and purity laws as well as eating with only those who were “pure” like them. It is important for us to remember the play of words for Luke in this context. “Pharisees and teachers of the law” were a part of this Torah and Table renewal. “Tax collectors and sinners” refers to all who were not rigorously observing these table rituals, Jews included. So you can imagine just how unnerving it was for this influential teacher of the law, son of God, Jesus to eat and drink with sinners.
Marcus Borg in his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time writes,
“The open table fellowship of Jesus was thus perceived to be a challenge to the purity system. And it was: the meals of Jesus embodied his alternative vision of an inclusive community. The ethos of compassion led to an inclusive table fellowship, just as the ethos of purity led to a closed fellowship.”
So imagine with me for a moment this earthy, radical, young and influential Jewish rabbi Jesus sitting around a table with those people… you know those people who aren’t keeping the law, people who made you unclean. You know, those people who make us feel uncomfortable,who aren’t like us. Right? Anyway they are laughing and eating and drinking at the same table as Jesus. They are rubbing shoulders with him! Jesus is teaching them, loving them, affirming them but most of all he is including them in this new kingdom of God.
Now imagine with me, a group of people in the background, they are whispering in hushed voices about the company that Jesus is keeping. How could this prophet keep company with the likes of these people? Doesn’t he know that they don’t obey the law of the scriptures? Doesn’t he know that they are making him unclean and not fit to worship or teach in the temple? What will other churches think if he keeps letting people like that come to Bible studies?
Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence in our Christian communities.
Churches spend more energy in dark corners worrying about who’s in and who’s out, arguing about the rules and those people, rather than focusing their energy and resources on actually loving people.
Richard Rohr recently wrote in his recent blog entry, “learning to love”,
“Jesus became someone to actually imitate and not just to collectively worship. Believe it or not, this has hardly ever been the norm or practice of most Christians. We preferred Sunday morning worship services and arguing about how to conduct them or prohibiting each other from attending “heretical” church services. God must just cry.” – Richard Rohr
So overhearing their murmuring, Jesus responds to these Pharisees and naysayers with three parables. Each parable tells us something of Jesus and his love for the other… those people.
In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus wants us to remember that the one sheep that wondered away from the flock because he couldn’t hear or chose to ignore the shepherd’s voice is as important to the good shepherd as the other 99 sheep who were faithfully following their masters voice and commands.
Now to tease this out you have to remember the audience. The 99 sheep who were keeping the commandments were of course, the Pharisees. Their life was committed to keeping all of the commandments, observing all of the purity rituals, making all of the appropriate sacrifices… and because of that, they felt protected. They were in the flock. They were secure.
But the good shepherd does something just crazy! He leaves all of those obedient ones and runs after the one sheep who, for whatever the reason, is not obeying the shepherds voice. And when he finds the sheep he beats him and punishes him and gives him what he deserves! Good on him.
No, he puts the sheep on his shoulders and carries him home. He calls his friends together and says rejoice with me!
Similarly, in the second parable, the widow loses a precious coin. She looks all over the house trying to find it. Who among us hasn’t lost something precious to us only to desperately try to find it? We put microchips in our pets, find our phone apps so we can locate our cell phones when they’re missing. When we recover those precious things there is genuine joy, relief and celebration. How much more rejoicing in heaven will there be over one lost soul that finds its way back into the loving arms of Jesus?
You see, Jesus is saying two things here:
- All of humanity belongs to God. We are all created by God. We are all loved. We are all valuable to God… so valuable that God will go to all extremes to recover what belongs to him.
- People are more important than rules.
Have you ever wondered why we get so hung up on the rules and place such importance on them? They give us a false sense of safety. If we are following all the rules well then, we’re good when it comes to God and well, he must really love us! Subsequently, all of those others who are not keeping God’s commands, well they are wrong. They are out. God doesn’t love them as much as he loves us.
This is the rub for the Pharisees in Luke chapter 15. Jesus sums it all up for them at the end of the prodigal son story… you may remember the son goes out and squanders all of the inheritance while the older brother remains at home… working hard…. Keeping all of the rules. When the younger son finally returns home the father throws a huge feast, killing the fatted calf reserved for the most extravagant occasions. The older son is nowhere to be found. The father goes out to find the older son… you know… the Pharisee… sulking because it isn’t fair. The father should love him more for being obedient. Its just human nature.
But notice what Father says in the parable:
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Jesus tells this parable so that they can understand. The inclusion of others doesn’t exclude them! It brings the kingdom of God a little closer. Luke retells this story to remind the church to rejoice over the recovery of life and the inclusion of the other. We are to make room at the table!
Jesus told his disciples in John 13:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:34-35
You see my friends, it’s all about love. It’s the one thing that we need to get right as the church. It’s the power of God’s love that wins, that melts the hardest heart, that consoles the loneliest heart, that restores the heart that is broken.
Over the past year, I have found myself wondering about our country’s current expression of Christianity. I have often felt overwhelmed with Christian mud slinging in the name of Jesus, words of judgment and hate paraded across the Internet, and sometimes-downright heresy. I confess that at times I found myself feeling ashamed to call myself Christian. How could there be such vast differences between the Jesus I have come to know and love through scripture and the political, pop culture Jesus that seems to dominate social media? It grieves me. It concerns me. It humbles me.
As I began to pray about our Church’s Lenten Season, I sensed an invitation to journey more deeply toward Jesus. I began to share my thoughts and feelings with some of my colleagues and they recommended several books. So, I picked four books and invited several persons in the congregation to prayerfully read them with me. As a pastor, this was more than a personal journey; it was a subject of prayer and searching on behalf of our congregation. The books we read together are: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: the Historical Jesus and Contemporary Faith – Marcus Borg, Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for political Power Is Ruining the Church – Greg Boyd, The Jesus I Never Knew – Phillip Yancey, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Gospel of Peace – Brian Zahnd
The brothers and sisters that I asked graciously agreed to read with me and ponder following questions: What is the most important thing you learned about Jesus and the Church from your book? How has that impacted you? If you could share one thing you have learned with the congregation, what would it be? What passage of scripture best demonstrates this new understanding?
After reading the books, we met together and discussed what we had learned. We shared new and fresh perspectives that we had gained about Jesus and Scripture. After a rich conversation, we identified the following topics that we will cover each Sunday in Lent. These are the things that the Holy Spirit seemed to highlight for us.
Lent 1 – Sunday February 14th
“It’s. All. About. Love.”
Children’s thought: Did you get a Valentine for Valentine’s Day? Did you know that God sent you one too? God sent us Jesus to show us how much he loves us! No matter what we look like, or what we have done, or what kind of grades we make, God is in love with us! He thinks we are great! God wants us to share that valentine with others.
Lent 2 – Sunday February 21st
“The slow way: modeling power under as opposed to power over.”
Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
Children’s thought – Jesus was a servant. He served others instead of serving himself even when he didn’t have to.
Lent 3 – Sunday February 28th
“Live Christ-like now.”
Children’s thought – Has anyone ever done something nice for you that made you feel really good? How about when you didn’t deserve it, has that ever happened to you? It’s a really special thing when we think we are going to get in trouble for something we did but instead someone reminds us of how much they love us and does something kind for us! That’s how Jesus is! Jesus wants us to live that way too.
Lent 4 – Sunday March 6th
“It’s not about what we shouldn’t do… it’s about what we should do.”
Children’s thought – We hear a lot of “should not’s” in life don’t we? But Jesus spent a lot of time teaching us about “should’s”. He wanted us to know how important it is to love people. We should love. We should be kind. We should help people when they need it.
Lent 5 – Sunday March 13th
“The kingdom of God is happening right now, here, today.”
Children’s thought – Have you ever wondered what heaven is like? I know we all do! Jesus wants us to live today as happy as we would be when we are in heaven. In fact, he wants people to see what his kingdom is like on earth right now! Do you know how that’s supposed to happen? You and I are to help people see heaven by loving one another, helping one another and caring about one another.
Lent 6 – Sunday March 20th (Palm Sunday)
“It’s easy to fall into group thinking – take time to discern kingdom living.”
Children’s thought – We hear a lot these days about the presidential election don’t we? Did you know that when Jesus rode into town on the donkey that people were waving their palms because they thought he was going to be the president… or the King? Everyone was convinced! The whole group thought that Jesus was going to set the world strait by making Israel a powerful nation. What would you do if you were going to be president? Jesus did something completely unexpected. He decided he would be a servant instead. Can you imagine that? He washed people’s feet! He served them dinner… and he even went to jail and was punished in the place of other criminals. That’s a very different kind of kingdom isn’t it?
As we begin this season of Lent, I invite you to consider what Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the light.” Jesus is the way. Jesus is the Truth. Jesus is the light that illumines our perplexing times. How much do we actually know and understand about His way? How much time do we spend reading His story in the Bible under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit? I want to encourage you to make a journey toward Jesus this Lenten Season. What can you strip away in your own life that will free you to relate to Jesus more deeply?
Journeying with you in Christ,
315 South Dogwood Drive
Harrisonburg, VA 22801