Lectionary blog for Sept. 15, 2013
Pentecost 17 — Proper 19
Texts: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10;
1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

“Mom, is God a grown-up or a parent?” Writing in the Catholic Digest, Kathleen Chesto admits being confused by her 5-year-old’s question. “I’m not sure what you mean,” she said, “What’s the difference between a grown-up and a parent?”

“Well,” the child went on, “grown-ups love you when you’re good, and parents love you anyway.”

It’s a good question, isn’t it? Is God a grown-up or a parent? Does God love you only when you’re good? Or does God love you anyway; that is, anyway you are? In many ways, that’s what our Gospel lesson is about today. What is the nature of God’s love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really? And if it is, what does that mean for us? Do we have to love everybody too? Or are there some people we are allowed to dislike because God doesn’t like them either?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find the Pharisees and the scribes are definitely the grown-ups. They have done a fine job of figuring out all the dos and don’ts of good and bad behavior. And they have, like Santa Claus, made up a list of who’s been naughty and nice, they’ve checked it twice, and they have separated themselves from the bad people, the “tax collectors and sinners.”

Problems start when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up; that is, even though he knows that the people with whom he is “fixin’ to party” are not acceptable, nice and good people, he’s fixin’ to party with them anyway.

And this upsets the “grown-up” Pharisees and scribes because they thought he was on their side. They thought he was one of them. They thought because he knew so much Bible and talked about giving your all for the kingdom of God and was an obviously good man, well he must be a Pharisee or a scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and scribes and — well, they just couldn’t figure this behavior out. What was he doing eating with those people? Doesn’t he know who they are and what they’ve been doing? It is an unfortunate part of basic human nature that we try to figure out who’s in and who’s out; who’s hot and who’s not; who’s cool and who’s a fool.

It starts in elementary school and, unfortunately, continues in some form for the rest of our lives. We separate ourselves into working class and white collar, urbanites and country folk, red states and blue states, the religious right and the secular humanists, good people and bad people.

It is when this separation-ism works its way into our religion that it is especially heinous. Not only do we decide whom we like and whom we dislike, who’s in and who’s out, we turn into grown-ups and judge the behavior of others and love them only when they’re good and then put the blessing and curse of God upon our choices and prejudices. For we know that God is a grown-up too and will, of course, endorse our decision.

This is what the Pharisees and scribes did. Not only did they decide that these people were violating the rules of good behavior, they had further decided that God had rejected the bad people and would have nothing further to do with them, and so all Good People should unite in rejecting and shunning them as well. Therefore, when they saw Jesus’ eating, drinking and partying with these “tax collectors and sinners,” they were appalled and seriously questioned his Good Person credentials. Jesus, as was typical of him, responded to their distress by telling them stories, stories about who’s in and who’s out, and about how God feels and acts toward those who are out.

The two stories have what we might call “God figures,” people who, according to Jesus, act like God. One is a shepherd, the other is a woman. These are interesting choices for Jesus to make, because both shepherds and women were out as far as Pharisees and scribes were concerned. Because of their nomadic, outdoor lifestyle, shepherds were unable to keep most of the purity laws. They slept, bathed, ate and lived outdoors. And women were always a problem for strict Pharisees; they preferred to neither see them, nor speak to them, anymore than was absolutely necessary.

Jesus’ stories about the 99 and the one sheep and the woman and her lost coin have two simple points:

First, just as a shepherd values his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, so God values all people enough to spare no effort in looking for them. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money and will spare no effort in getting us back.

These are incarnational stories, stories about God in Christ coming into the world to seek out and find God’s lost creation. Jesus is the shepherd seeking out those not in the fold. Jesus is the woman, sweeping through the house, looking high and low for a valuable possession.

Second, in telling about the parties given by the shepherd to celebrate finding the lost sheep and by the woman to celebrate finding her coin, Jesus is chiding the Pharisees and scribes over their grouchiness about Jesus spending time with the “tax collectors and sinners.” Look, he says, God is real happy these people are interested in spiritual things. These people are thinking about coming back to church. That is cause for celebration.

The question for us today is are we grown-ups or parents? Do we only love people when they’re good, or do we love them anyway, including anyway they are? Do we make lists of ins and outs, goods and bads, acceptables and unacceptables? Or do we, like Christ the good shepherd, the good wife, go into the world looking for those whom God has placed in our care, which is everyone?

What is the Gospel for us today? Is God a grown-up or a parent? Does God love us only when we’re good, or does God love us anyway? God has clearly been revealed as a loving parent who never stops loving us. Christ left the safety of heaven and leapt into the world to seek and save us. Christ has grabbed onto our souls and has promised to hold on to us until the fires of hell go out.

Amen and amen.

Talk back:

  • Do you act like a grown-up or a parent?
  • Can you remember a time when you loved someone — just the way they were?


Delmer Chilton
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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