PROPER 19, C, Exodus 32:7-14 Timothy 1:12-17
Sometimes the magic works and all three lessons speak together, when we take the time to look closely. I thank the folks in my Bible Study at the Villa for helping me to see some connections this week.
The Old Testament story is familiar to us, or at least is associated with a familiar event. While camped in the wilderness, Moses went up on the mountain to meet God and while he was gone the people urged Aaron to make for them an idol to worship – and he did. This was the infamous golden calf.
In the confrontation we heard today between God and Moses, we see a very angry God who is planning to consume the Hebrews with his wrath against them for turning away from the God who saved them. He is taking the oath he swore to Abraham and going to place it on Moses instead, so that the descendants of Moses will become God’s people.
Instead of being pleased by this, Moses pleads for the people, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to destroy the people God has just saved. The Egyptians will make good propaganda of it. Moses reminds God of his covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
And God changes his mind. Isn’t this amazing? As Brian Jones noted in his commentary this week, this is a passionate God, full of wrath and hurt feelings; not remote, but deeply involved in human behavior, much like a human father would be. Clearly, too, this is not a perfect God. Moses is the one who pleads for mercy. Might this suggest something about the power of prayer?
When we look at the opening lines of 1st Timothy, one of the pastoral letters written later than Paul, but in his voice, we see that while the purpose of these lines is to proclaim Paul’s history and authority to speak, it is focused very directly on God’s mercy.
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that” . . . I might be an example.
Luke’s Gospel story begins with the Pharisees and the scribes grumbling (nothing new there!). They are indignant that Jesus not only welcomes sinners but also eats with them. As you’ll remember this was a big deal, because according to Jewish law, eating with someone who is unclean renders you unclean as well. It just wasn’t done! Way worse than eating with the wrong fork!
It is in response to their grumbling that Jesus tells the two parables, one of the lost sheep and one of the lost coin. As you listened to them did they remind you of another parable? Indeed, this passage is followed immediately by the parable of the Prodigal Son – or might we say the lost son?
So, in the first two parable what is lost is a sheep and a coin, but in the last one it is a person. In all three cases the finding of that which had been lost is cause for great joy and rejoicing.
Clearly, the grumbling Pharisees and scribes do not see any value in the sinners that Jesus has gathered around him. They are blinded, perhaps, by their rules about righteousness, as we often are too. Certainly, if we think of ourselves as righteous, or at least more righteous than a known sinner, we might also be offended by what Jesus says: 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.” We might be inclined to respond, “But that’s not fair!”
This week David Lose asked a very provocative question? “Can you be righteous and still be lost? Well, doesn’t that describe the Pharisees? Could it not also describe most of us, at least at some times in our lives, even if we’ve never felt lost? How often do we do the wrong thing for all the right reasons?
For example, what about the Dad who works so hard to provide for his family that he has no time for them? What about a Mom who wants her children to be all that they can be so badly that she pushes them beyond their ability to handle it? What about the volunteer who does so much that other volunteers feel they’re not needed? What about using criticism as a way of “helping” people? The list goes on.
The main point of these parables, according to David Lose, is about a God who is so crazy, so passionate about us, that God will do anything to find us when we are lost. That passion is available to all of us, not just to notorious sinners. And God will rejoice over finding us just as much as any others.
In my own experience I’ve noticed, sadly, that I have had to repent over and over again. There always seem to be new lessons to learn about living righteously, and besides, sometimes I have to learn the same lesson several times before it sticks (OK so most of the time that’s true!). These stories tell me that God rejoices every time I repent and return to the Way, even if I can’t stay there very long.
Notice that as Jesus begins he says to the Pharisees and scribes, “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?”
The irony is that most of us would NOT do as the shepherd and the woman do in these stories. Oh we might look for what is lost, but call in the neighbors for a party? The other implied insult here is that the Pharisees and scribes are being put in the place of a shepherd and a woman, the lowest of the low in their society, and the lowest of the low actually do the right thing, a sort of double twist.
Even in the parable of the Prodigal son, while the man is a respectable Jewish farmer, he behaves in ways that are not, especially in rejoicing over the lost son who comes home. He runs down the path with his robes flapping, he embraces his son who has been tending pigs, unclean, unclean, unclean.
What I hope you’ll remember today is the rejoicing of God over anyone who repents. That kind of over-the-top mercy is available to everyone, and it should be a model for us in our dealings with others. God is just like the father of the prodigal son, passionate and caring and so full of mercy and compassion that he doesn’t care about the normal rules of behavior. Isn’t that awesome? AMEN