September 15, 2019
Today is just prologue for next week’s most challenging parable, The Parable of the Unjust Manager and we must get ready for it. We will ease into position before we take a leap of faith off the cliff. Many preachers will avoid it, opting instead for a little Old Testament fire from the prophet Amos or Jeremiah, and others will take an easier path and just focus on the last line: You cannot serve God and wealth.” That’s a nice jump start into our stewardship season, Abundant Grace, but that’s taking the easy way out, and if there is one thing I know about the Gospels, it is never easy. And the parables, you must understand, they must never be used to make a direct, left-brained, linear point.
We can only find traction in the mystical and poetic realm of the right-brain, the domain of the complex, paradoxical tension that allows us to enter into the mind of God — that place where we see as God sees, that place of longing where God plays hide and seek with humanity, the threshold where we glimpse paradise. And thus, we must enter through this narrow place, slipping into the mystery of Christ.
This Sunday, I am especially mindful of the challenge because in the world of Godly Play, first we must get ready, we must settle into place and prepare our hearts to wonder. This week we will get ready for the most difficult parable. Luke provides us with two tiny parables, followed by a parable that is not assigned for today but cannot be avoided. The Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son (or the Parable of the Loving Father, as I prefer) are offered by Jesus to the tax collectors and sinners, and delivered in the presence of the Pharisees and the scribes who complain, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Now, don’t forget, Jesus just had a big Sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, offending his host and the guests by healing on the Sabbath, chastising their choice of seats, and finally offering the Parable of the Great Feast, indicting the privileged who had excuses for their absence, and welcoming the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame who fill the banquet hall for the feast. The privileged are left behind: “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
Jesus then speaks to the crowds of the cost of discipleship: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” The call to be all in, to be the salt of the earth, is for those who have ears to hear. And it is those, the tax collectors and sinners who came to listen, to hear the hopeful words, the words that they too might be saved.
This is not good news to those whose worldview demanded obedience to the Law. And here is the fun part. The disciples of Jesus were surely there, watching and listening to their teacher work his confounding magic, toying with the Pharisees, twisting words until their world was turned inside out with these tales of lost, seeking, finding and rejoicing. “Which 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?” What? This would be crazy — leaving ninety-nine perfectly good sheep in the wilderness? Remember, the wilderness is the place of testing. For one errant sheep? This is madness. And because Luke is always careful to nod to women, we now hear about the woman and the lost coin who tears through the house to find one silver coin and then rejoicing, shares with her neighbors and may even throw a party? The party probably costs more than the value of the one coin. Why would she do this?
But these two parables are just warming up the crowd. Luke, alone, offers the Parable of the Prodigal, the Elder Son and the Loving Father and both the placement of this story and the utter brilliance of this gospel, we come to the heart of the Good News of finding what is lost and celebrating with joy. Let me remind you by reading it — remember the gospel was meant to be heard. (Luke 15:11-32)
The Pharisees must have been seething as Jesus finishes with the tale of a well behaving but bitter older brother and a lost loser of a younger brother, now feasting on the fatted calf after taking his inheritance and essentially telling his father, “You’re dead to me.”
As Jesus ends the tale with these words from the Father, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and his been found.” The disciples were ready with a high five or two. Jesus just spiked it in the end zone.
And this is where Luke turns up the heat and Jesus, without missing a beat, turns to his disciples and says, “There was a rich man.” Next week brings the parable that turns the whole story upside down and Luke in his methodical, intentional and deliberative way brings the house down around us, all of us: the crowds, the Scribes and Pharisees, the disciples and of course, the good people of Grace Church.
Stay tuned. Next week, the rest of the story. I think we are now ready.