11 September 2016
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19C (RCL)
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Jeremiah paints and unrelentingly grim picture of Judah’s future. In fact, his picture simple undoes creation. The wind is hot and destructive, not the spirit of God blowing over the chaos. The earth has become waste and void, the heavens are dark, their lights are gone out. The birds of the air have flown away. Jeremiah seeks to remind the people that the land is God’s, and the people have extorted wealth from the land and poor of the land. Jeremiah sees the impending exile as a way of the land achieving its sabbaths.
Jeremiah’s picture sounds eerily like what we may imagine as the results of global warming. We, too, have extorted wealth from the land, and not given the land its sabbaths. The only glimmer of hope in Jeremiah’s prophecy is that God says God will not make a complete end, although even that looks like it may be a later addition. The remnant that goes in to exile can return at some point (after 70 years, in Jeremiah’s prediction — a sabbath of decades) to a restored and rested land.
The reading from Luke’s Gospel is the first two parables of a set of three, the third of which is the story of prodigal son. The Scribes and Pharisees grumble that Jesus invites and eats with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus tells these three parables. The first two differ from the third in the nature of the moral culpability of the lost. The prodigal son very clearly asks for and squanders his share of his father’s inheritance with prostitutes and loose living. The lost sheep and the lost coin are not so obviously culpable.
The connection of the finding of the sheep and the coin to the joy in heaven over the repentance of a sinner forces the reader to reconsider the nature of sin. The tax collectors and sinners whom Jesus welcomes may not be as culpable as the scribes and pharisees assume. The kind of moral superiority we assume over the broken of our own society allows us a convenient sorting mechanism. We are so grateful that we are not like those people: lazy, undisciplined and whatever else we think puts them in the place they find themselves.
Both the shepherd and the woman invite their friends and neighbors to rejoice with them over the finding of the lost. The one hundred sheep and ten coins are not complete with one missing. The restoration of the one calls for celebration. How did the one become lost? Who bears responsibility? If anyone, the shepherd for losing the sheep and the woman for losing the coin. The coin certainly didn’t wander off on its own, and it is the shepherd’s job to prevent the sheep from wandering away. The prophets certainly put the onus on the privileged for the ruin of the poor, not on the poor for their own condition. Repentance, then, here seems to mean something like return. Jesus is scolding the religious officials for not being like the man who gave the great feast and when his guests couldn’t come, sent his servants out to compel the lost to come in.
These two parables are something of a set up for the prodigal. He clearly is morally culpable, but the father welcomes him back with a party. The older brother (the observant Jew) refuses to come in to the party (where the newly convert Greeks are present). The story leaves him hanging — will he join the celebration or not. The common thread in these three stories is the celebration. We should rejoice when those formerly left for out whatever reason join us at the party.
For us, scribes and pharisees, to join them at the party, we need to recognize our own complicity in the systems of sin that exclude. Paul (the author speaking in his name) in 1 Timothy acknowledges his own need of repentance, of being returned to the party. Jeremiah certainly gives us plenty of grist for the mill of repentance. The question we need to be asking is “Who is missing? Who is not here at the table?” That will indicate our need for repentance.