Lectionary blog for Sept. 11
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10;
1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
“Is God a grown-up or a parent?” Writing in the Catholic Digest, Kathleen Chesto says she was confused by her daughter’s question. “I’m not sure what you mean. What’s the difference between a grown-up and a parent?” “Well,” her daughter said, “Grown-ups love you when you’re good and parents love you anyway.”
“Is God a grown-up or a parent?” It’s a good question. Does God love only when you’re good? Or does God love you anyway? What is the nature of God’s love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really? And if that’s the nature of God’s love, what does that mean for us? Do we have to love everybody, too? Or are there some people we’re allowed to dislike because we’re pretty certain God doesn’t like them either?
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, the “Pharisees and the scribes” are consistently portrayed as the grown-ups, as the people who spend a lot of time figuring out all the do’s and don’ts of life, all the nuances of good and bad behavior.
And these Pharisees and scribes are mighty unhappy when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up, loving people even when they’re bad. Even though he knows that the people he is partying with are not acceptable and nice and “good” people, well, he’s going to party with them anyway.
And the official good people can’t stand it. They thought Jesus was one of them; they thought he was on their side. They thought this because he knew so much Scripture and because he talked so much about giving your all for the kingdom of God. And because he was so obviously such a good man, he must be a Pharisee or a scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and scribes and … well, they just could not figure his behavior out. What is he thinking—eating with those people? Doesn’t he know who they are, where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing?
The Pharisees and scribes had decided that the people Jesus was hanging out with were bad people who violated the rules of good behavior and should be avoided and shunned and in general treated badly, both by God and by us—the official good people in the world. Therefore, when they saw Jesus eating and drinking and partying with these “tax collectors and sinners,” they were appalled and disgusted and decided that Jesus could not possibly be the “good person” they had presumed him to be.
And like a good parent, Jesus responded to their distress not with argument or protest—but by telling them stories. These stories have two “God figures,” people who, according to Jesus, act the way God acts. One is a shepherd; the other is a woman. These are interesting choices. Shepherds were nomads. They slept, bathed, ate and lived outdoors. Because of this they were unable to keep most of the purity laws that were so important to the Pharisees. And women were a problem for Pharisees, who preferred to neither see them nor speak to them any more than was absolutely necessary.
Jesus uses these two stories to make the same two points:
1—God loves every single human being extravagantly. Just as the shepherd cared about his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, God cares about all people enough to spare no effort in looking for us. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money, and God will ransack the universe getting us back the way the woman ransacked her house hunting that coin. These are incarnational stories, stories about God coming into the world to seek out and save God’s lost creation. Jesus is the shepherd looking high and low for those not in the fold; Jesus is the woman sweeping through the house, turning over chairs and pulling out couch cushions, looking high and low for a valuable possession.
2—In telling about the parties given by the shepherd and the woman, Jesus is pointedly chastising the Pharisees and scribes for their hard-heartedness in grouching about the time Jesus is spending with the so-called sinners. “Look,” Jesus says, “God is elated that these people are thinking about God and their life and about what it means to be a good person. That is something to celebrate.”
As one of my mother’s childhood preachers in the Virginia mountains said about this text, “Instead of being happy, the sinners came in for a bath—those old sourpusses are sitting around complaining about the smell.” It seems clear that for Jesus, God is a parent, not a grown-up. God does not love us only when we’re good, God loves us anyway. The question for us today is do we know that God loves us anyway?
Dr. William McElvaney was president of the St. Paul School of Theology in Overland Park, Kan. One day he was driving to the airport to pick up a person who was giving a speech at the seminary. To get there he had to drive over the Missouri River on the Paseo Bridge. About a half mile from the bridge he got stuck in traffic. Nothing moved. After about 15 minutes, traffic moved again. There was no indication for why traffic had stopped—no road work, no accident, nothing.
The next morning McElvaney read in his morning paper about a depressed man who stopped his car on the bridge, got out and crawled over the rail and got ready to jump. People saw him and called the police. Officers leaned over the rail and talked to him, trying to get him to come back to safety. Meanwhile another officer fitted himself with a harness and a long rope. He secured the rope and crawled over the rail, inching toward the man. Just when he got close enough to reach out and touch him, the man jumped off the bridge. And the officer jumped after him, wrapping his arms and legs around him in a tight embrace. They fell together until the rope was tight, and they swung above the river. Up above, on the bridge, people could hear the police officer yelling in the ear of the jumper, “If you go, I go! Because I’m going to hold onto you until hell freezes over!” (Tex Sample, “The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World” p. 117)
The gospel for us today is this—God is not a grown-up, God is a parent. God does not love us only when we’re good. God loves us anyway, all the time, until hell freezes over. God has clearly been revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as a loving parent who will never stop loving us, ever. 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 onto us until the fires of hell burn out.