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Reflections on the Gospel, Week before September 15, 2013

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Luke 15:1-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one 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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just 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. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

What I am Learning:

The sinners and tax collectors were coming near to Jesus to listen to him. The religious authorities didn't like this much.

We say "you are what you eat." They would have said, "You are who you hang out with."

Sinners = those who were too poor to pay the temple tax, fulfill all the ritual requirements of the 613 laws Jews were supposed to obey. The Pharisees thought that if the poor would simply obey the 613 laws that God would kick the Romans out - thus they blamed the poor for the occupation.

Tax Collectors = since most of the land had been taken by the Romans, 85% of the population was in survival mode. If your family was starving, you might take a job as a low-level tax collector. Most of the population would see you as a collaborator of the Romans and thus despise you.

In both cases, the Roman occupation and economic exploitation of Palestine had created these "poor sinners" and despised tax collectors. But the more affluent 15% of the population despised them anyway.

In response to their question about who he was hanging out with, Jesus tells two stories.

They are both, essentially, the same story.

In the middle east, many people would hire shepherds to take their flocks up into the hills to graze during the dry season. A shepherd could lose 15% of the flock without losing pay. This means that a shepherd with one missing sheep would not worry too much - 14 to go before he lost pay.

So when Jesus asks "which one of you would not leave the 99" the answer would have been, "Not me." If they did leave 99 sheep to look after one lost one, they would hardly share this stupid move with their friends.

Jesus says that as a shepherd, he makes stupid moves all the time. For Jesus, there is no acceptable loss rate and no throw-away people. Jesus claims that this is God's way, as the angels rejoice over the recently found sheep.

In the middle east, the women were responsible for keeping the money safe. In this brief story, a woman loses one of the coins, cleans up the house and finds it.

The surprise in the story is that the woman tells her neighbors that she lost the coin in the first place. The woman does not care that this brings shame to her family. She does not seem to care about maintaining the honor of her family at all.

Jesus seems to be saying that God is not concerned with God's honor at all - God is not afraid to admit that some humans are lost to God and that God rejoices when God finds them.

All of heaven rejoices when they are found.

As a practical matter, however, we have become very comfortable with acceptable loss rates and throw away people.

  • Today, it is estimated that 840 million people in the world are chronically hungry.
  • Today, 46 million Americans are below the poverty line. Nearly 11 million of them are the working poor.
  • Today, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 people are homeless. The huge range here testimony to the challenges of serving this population.

When talking about "the lost" Christians typically mean being lost in religious terms: not being converted to Christianity.

Jesus is taking on a much more broad topic as he hangs out with these poor sinners and tax collectors. He is taking on the a religious bigotry toward the poor. He is taking on the assumption that if you are poor you are lazy, stupid and being punished by God.

When we listen carefully to what people say about the poor in our own time, we can hear that same religious bigotry toward the poor.

We have added another bigotry, however. We say that "America is the land of opportunity" and so if you don't succeed (economically) then you are either lazy or stupid. If you do succeed (economically) you are smart and hard working.

Winners good. Losers bad.

Throughout Luke, however, God is moving to challenge every bigotry toward the poor. God plans to take a world captivated by the "winners good, losers bad" worldview and turn it upside down. Jesus lives this out as he hangs out with the despised poor in his day and invites them to participate in the God's way of mutuality which we define as:

  •  God’s love, grace, and shalom in everyday life, in every aspect of human relationship: public, private, economic, political, personal and communal, body, mind and environment.

But this is a costly attempt. Jesus is so dedicated to all people that he will risk being killed as a revolutionary to announce that there are no acceptable losses.

Indeed, if we were to say that our economic system needs to change to address the 840 million, the 46 million, and the 11 million we would be accused of being economically and politically evil.

"When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor had no food, they called me a Communist." -Archbishop Dom Helder Camara

 Maybe it's time to start asking why, for instance, the working poor only make $10 per hour?  And why we wonder why they don't have dinner with their children?