Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
Today is a special day for us here at Holy Trinity as it is the day we officially move in to our new youth and community centre. This is significant for us in many ways.
For one thing, it brings to a close (hopefully) a long chapter of pain, for the Wardens in particular, who have had to negotiate the treacherous path that led from the smouldering ruins of our old youth centre to the eventual construction and completion of this new building. Every step of that path has been strewn with obstacles of one sort or another – some technical and unavoidable, but many also the results of predictable human failings and weaknesses.
Just as this spells the end of one journey, of course, it more importantly signals the beginning of a new journey, and one that could quite possibly bring with it so many challenges and struggles that we could soon be wishing this new place had never been built! I don’t really want to case any air of foreboding over our new venture, of course, but at the same time we should resist being too sentimental about the past.
We’ve run a youth drop-in program of one sort or another from our church hall for at least twenty of the last twenty-five years, and it’s one that we became well known for, and one for which we received various community awards, and one towards which local individuals and businesses and organisations contributed many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and yet we would be lying if we suggested that it had all been plain sailing!
Not only do I carry multiple memories of difficult young people we have worked with who have lied to us, threatened us and robbed us, but we’ve received short shrift over time from many of our neighbours too. I’ve had people threaten to do harm to me personally and to my family, and it’s worth remembering that the young man who eventually burnt down our old youth centre was not the first person to threaten to burn the place down (or at least to blow it up).
Indeed, it did click with me over time that the people who most loved and supported us – the businesses and clubs and media – were never those who lived in our street! It was always people who were nearby but not too close – not so close that they were directly affected by our activities. Those who were our immediate neighbours were generally far more circumspect about what we were doing, which makes a lot of sense when you think what a miracle it was that none of our neighbours were killed when the place went up in flames in April 2013!
I believe this puts us into a strange alignment with Jesus, who has always had millions of admirers who have loved him from the other side of the globe and from the distance of many centuries (and even millennia)! It’s worth recognising that most of those who have loved and admired Jesus throughout history have done so from a safe distance, whereas those who were closest to Jesus in both time and physical location almost all ended up either abandoning Him or trying to kill Him!
And one of the reasons that Jesus was so radically unpopular with those who were closest to Him was (I’m happy to say) much the same reason that we at Holy Trinity were so unpopular with some of the people closest to use. It wasn’t simply that Jesus was a disagreeable figure who was difficult to get along with. The problem was more with the kind of people that He inevitably drew into His orbit!
Dealing with Jesus, one on one, was a challenge no doubt, but the bigger challenge for the upright citizens of Israel was that wherever Jesus went he hauled along with Him an ever-growing entourage of social misfits – beggars and addicts and mentally-ill veterans, and single women who should have had better things to do than wander around the hills of Judea with an itinerant preacher!
And so the Pharisees and the teachers of the law mutter to each other, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2), and Jesus tells them a story:
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” (Luke 15:4-6)
Jesus tells this story as if He’s posing a rhetorical question – ‘what one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, doesn’t leave the other ninety-nine …’ – and yet you don’t have to be an expert in Ancient Near Eastern farming techniques to know that no self-respecting shepherd in his right mind would behave that way!
If you have a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, you open your account book and remove one from the inventory column marked ‘sheep’. You don’t leave the ninety-nine alone and unprotected while you pursue the one that’s gone missing! This is not good practice – not now, not then and not ever – not for a shepherd who is running a business that depends on maintaining a solid stock of sheep!
I appreciate that this is no ordinary shepherd, but I can assure you that this is not a popular way to pastor a church either. I’ve been criticised more than once myself for spending all my time chasing stray lambs and giving very little time to the ninety-nine who are happily grazing away, and such criticisms are not without justification!
It does make me wonder what sort of pastor Jesus was when it came to the entourage that moved about with him. In addition to the twelve disciples, Jesus had a significant group with him of a size that would have been similar, I suspect, to a decent church congregation. I would love to know whether all those people enjoyed significant time with Jesus, one-on-one, or whether some of those people really got no time from Him at all! It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but the pastoral model Jesus presents us with here is hardly reassuring!
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8)
Surely ‘no’ is the obvious answer to that question!
What happens when you have ten coins and lose one? The answer is that you now have nine coins, and you learn to live with it!
It’s interesting that over the years commentators have suggested that the coin the woman loses must have had some special significance – that it must have been associated with her dowry or some such – but Jesus gives us no indication in the story that there’s anything special about this coin. Taken at face value, what’s unusual here is not the coin but the woman. She, like the shepherd, appears to be mentally ill according to ordinary standards of interpretation.
Jesus reinforces this appraisal of the woman, I’d suggest, by detailing how she holds a party once she finds her coin – a party that must have surely cost her more than the value of the coin. This woman is not behaving rationally any more than the shepherd was behaving rationally. This woman has an obsessive-compulsive disorder of some sort and surely is hardly the person we should model ourselves on!
I suspect we’ve all known people like this dear woman. Whenever I read this story my mind immediately goes to my dear belated friend Ruth Paddle. She was one of a number of hoarders we once had in our parish.
Ruth had so many things stacked in every nook and cranny of her house that she had no room to sleep on her bed, and she couldn’t cook anything in her kitchen because the table-tops were covered and even the sink was stacked with crockery. She’d have to have meals-on-wheels delivered to her and eat and sleep on a space on her couch in the living room.
Dear Ruth had so much stuff that to the outside observer she seemed to live in complete chaos. Even so, she seemed to have a mental inventory of every item that was in that house and she was the kind of soul such that if she lost one coin she would spend the whole night looking for it until she found it! She was a beautiful soul, but hardly someone anybody would want to model their life on!
It’s a great shame that mobile phones hadn’t been invented in the first century, as it would be great to have a video of Jesus telling these stories. If the people listening to Jesus had had mobiles, someone would have caught this on video, and it would be great, I think, to see how the Pharisees were reacting to Jesus’ stories thus far!
It all starts, you will remember, with these religious leaders grumbling about why Jesus wastes His time with so many drop-kicks, and Jesus responds by comparing Himself to an eccentric shepherd and a mentally-ill woman. I envisage the Pharisees having rather blank expressions on their faces at this stage. Jesus seems to be scoring home goals with these stories! But the brilliance of Jesus’ story-telling, I’d suggest, is that He uses these first two stories primarily to draw His listeners in to hear the last of His three stories where everything falls into perspective.
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.” (Luke 15:11f)
We know the story well enough, I think, so I won’t go through it in detail. The depiction of the father who loses his son parallels the shepherd who loses his sheep and the woman who loses her coin, and it’s worth making the point that, rationally speaking, there is nothing more sensible about the father’s obsessive love for his son than there is about the shepherds love for his wayward sheep or the woman’s obsession over her lost coin.
From a rational point of view, if you lose one son then you give thanks that you have another one – a far better one in fact, as Jesus’ story makes clear! Getting obsessed about the lost son doesn’t make a lot of sense from a purely rational point of view. Why wait at the gate, hoping that your son will come home? Get on with life, forget the young fool who forgot everything you taught him and betrayed you, and move on with thankfulness for what you’ve got rather than lamenting what is gone!
From a purely rational point of view the obsessed father behaves as stupidly as the crazy shepherd and the mentally-ill woman, and yet for all of us who are parents, and for all of those Pharisees listening to Jesus who were also parents, all three stories now start to come into perspective in an entirely new way!
It’s not simple obsession or mental illness that is driving the father. It is love! And we who are mothers and fathers understand that, and we who are sons and daughters understand that, and so we start to look at these addicted persons – these noisy, dirty and intrusive persons, these lost sheep, lost coins and lost sons and daughters in a new way. They too are somebody’s children. They too are loved, and if you’re wondering why we behave so stupidly, what person in love doesn’t behave stupidly?
I read an excellent book a while back called ‘Do the Work’ where the author said that as human beings we have two great assets we can draw upon – stubbornness and stupidity. He said let’s not give them high-sounding names like ‘perseverance’ and ‘tenacity’ and ‘creativity’. Let’s call them what they are – stubbornness and stupidity. It’s the stupidity side of this duo that Jesus emphasises here, for real love is stupid.
A good friend of mine was telling me the other night how when he told his father he was getting married his father was very happy for him but pointed to the door and said “See that door. When you leave. You don’t turn around later and come back”.
His dad made it very clear to him that if the relationship failed that didn’t mean his son could come back to the family. He’d made his bed and now he had to lie in it (so to speak). And that makes sense. And that is certainly a rational way of parenting, and maybe that was what you got from your earthly father. Maybe so. Jesus tells us very clearly though that this is NOT what we get from our Heavenly Father – who is always there for us, always waiting, always forgiving, always loving!
I remember back in the early nineties, during some of the darker days of our youth work, when we had a whole series of addicted people drying out in our centre and one of those guys had just walked out onto the front footpath and thrown up, and I was trying to deal with that and deal with the chaos inside, and one of our neighbours walking past stopped and asked me “what are you doing to this place?”
It was an unhelpful question but not an inappropriate one. And I remember at the time simply having nothing to say in response. What can you say? There is no sensible answer to some questions. Perhaps I could have started sprouting stories about lost sheep and coins. I think I just forced out a pathetic smile.
Love doesn’t always make sense. Love doesn’t have to make sense. There is much in life and in God that doesn’t make sense. But God is love, not rationality, and so as we move into our new centre and as we move forward as a community, I trust that God will preserve us from having to make too much sense. Let us rather live in love!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 6th of March, 2016.
Click here for the audio.