Humble Pie with a Cherry on Top – Luke 15:1-10
I was served a big heaping slice of humble pie this week. I’m still chewing on it.
This week we started a new study here at Cross of Grace exploring the parables under the guidance of Amy Jill-Levine, a Jewish professor of New Testament at a Christian seminary. Her book, Short Stories by Jesus, is an attempt to uncover the original context of parables that Jesus told. She peels off the layers of 2,000 years of Christian interpretation and attempts to reveal the message that the original Jewish audiences who gathered around Jesus would have heard.
It’s not an easy read, both in terms of its dense intellectual prose as well as the author’s clear argument that much of what we’ve heard Christian ministers preach about these parables is too-often misguided. Which is to say, much of what I’ve been preaching about these parables is too-often misguided.
And so, in front of you today I’d like to say, “My bad.”
- My bad – for basing much of my messages on assumptions about the purpose and context of the parables that I failed to critically evaluate;
- My bad – for unwittingly perpetuating stereotypes that Jewish people were ignorant of truth, perpetrators of injustice, and void of any religious and spiritual authenticity and beauty (as if the first 3/4 of the Bible was meaningless;
- My bad – for so often reducing the parables to stories that accomplish little more than to make us feel good about ourselves and the love that God has for us. The truth is that Jesus’ parables serve to identify and convict the parts of us that need to die while also filling us with hope that God will help us change.
Buoyed by this new outlook, and the taste of that humble pie still lingering in my mouth, I set to work exploring the assigned gospel text for today, what we commonly refer to as the parable of the prodigal son. This parable found in the Gospel of Luke is the third in a series of parables, beginning with Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, followed by the parable of the lost coin. As I explored the first two parables, I realized that God had given me something to say about the first two parables. So, today I’m stopping short of the third parable and, instead, bringing a message about sheep, coins, and the things we’ve lost.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So he told them this parable: "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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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.' Just 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.
"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? When 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.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.'
The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin are virtually the same. In each story, a person of considerable wealth has amassed a collection of something and finds that one is missing – one sheep out of 100, one silver coin out of 10.
It’s worth pointing out that the lost sheep didn’t wander off out of spite or in search of more fulfilling employment; the lost coin didn’t roll away because it felt unappreciated or neglected. Rather, in each case, it was the owner’s negligence that led to the thing being lost.
We might be tempted to think that a shepherd with 99 sheep is still in pretty good shape – a flock of 99 is essentially as valuable as a flock of 100. Likewise, take a casual glance at a handful of change and you’d be hard pressed to identify the difference between 9 or 10 coins. Plus, whether a person has 9 silver coins or 10, he or she is still wealthier than anyone who would have heard Jesus tell this parable!
But the point of these parables of Jesus is for people who have been entrusted with resources, talents, and relationships, each and every one matters. Thou shall not be content with anything less than the complete set (which, I admit, sounds like a slogan that could be used at Toys-R-Us, but I believe it’s true nonetheless).
Each parable concludes with the owner going to extraordinary and unprecedented lengths to recover the lost item. Once found, an extraordinary and unprecedented celebration involving the whole community ensues.
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are ultimately a call for each of us to take the time to count and honor the blessings we have received. The parables are a warning against taking anything or anyone for granted. And the parables give us permission to share our joy when we have the good fortune of finding something we thought was gone forever.
Maybe this is how you’ve always understood these parables, and I’m not saying anything new to you; but I certainly had a different understanding of these parables ’til now. I’ve heard these parables countless times before and assumed I was the lost one – one sheep out of 100, one coin out of 9, one Christian out of a couple million – and that no matter how far I ran away from God, the Lord would always bring me back to the flock…or the piggybank.
That’s a message that gives me a warm fuzzy feeling and certainly praises God for the unconditional love we all receive; but it also completely absolves me of any responsibility for myself or others.
Consider how the message changes when we let the parable convict us – when we start to see ourselves as the ones who have lost something. Now the responsibility rests on us.
Do you have all your blessings accounted for? Or have you misplaced one and didn’t even realize it?
- What about your silver coins? Are you wasting your money on purchases that serve no ultimate purpose and fail to benefit anyone?
- What about your talents? Do you have a God-given ability or passion that could benefit others, but you haven’t carved out the time, energy, or resources to put it to use?
- What about your sheep? Do you really know how each one of your friends is doing? Or do you see their picture on Facebook, click “like,” and feel like you’ve done your part to sustain that friendship?
It’s hard to admit we would be so cold, distant, self-absorbed, or afraid that we wouldn't even realize that we were missing something of great value to us. It’s just as hard to do the work of looking for the thing we’ve misplaced. It’s harder, still, to trust that the thing we’ve misplaced would even want to have anything to do with us once we find it again.
This happens to me ALL. THE. TIME. And I finally heard this parable in a way that calls me out on it.
For example, I could list a top ten of my “best” friends – the ones who have made a huge impact in my life, whose friendship I cherish so much – and I kid you not, for more than five of those top ten, I have spoken to that person face-to-face, over the phone, or even sent an email only once or in many cases, zero times, in the past year. I’ll also admit, this happens as a pastor, also. I too often take you for granted, assuming you’ll let me know if you need me; reluctant to reach out fearing being seen as intrusive or worse dismissed as unnecessary.
Back when I thought of myself as the lost one about whom the parables spoke (that is, five days ago) I would say, “They know our friendship is important. Once we get back together it will be just like old times…we’ll pick up right where we left off. I’ll just keep to myself over here, away from everything. I’m busy, after all. They’ll come find me when they need me, just like God will come find me.
Now I hear this parable as an indictment. Now, the parable is personal, and I hear it like this:
There was a man who had, at last count according to Facebook, 486 friends. The man took the presence and emotional wellbeing of most of those friends for granted. He didn’t know that dozens of those friends were dealing with depression, several more were dealing with crippling life circumstances, almost half neither felt nor sought any connection with God, and many had celebrated important life-giving milestones, of which the man was unaware.
So, like I said…humble pie; but it’s humble pie with a cherry on top!
The good news is that the parable concludes with the man with 486 Facebook friends going out and seeking to have real, authentic, life-giving conversations with the people he let slip through his fingers. There is so much joy at the reestablishment of relationship, that the joy permeates the man’s actions and spreads to others.
I’d be a poor example if I told you that I feel the parable convicting me, but I went back to business as usual, without making any concerted effort to right the wrongs I had been committing. I’m happy to say that in the past week I have taken it upon myself to reach out to my friends to let them know how important they are to me. It’s been a holy, humbling, and profoundly happy experience.
That’s my story. What’s yours? What have you lost? What ought you take the time to count? Who has wandered away from you? What will you do to get them back?
Take the time to answer these questions.
Take the time to seek out what you've lost.
Just make sure you let me know when you find them; because I love a good party.