The parables we hear today speak to our deep longing for a sense of wholeness and belonging. By God’s design, all of creation is connected in ways that we couldn’t even begin to understand. Just like a bee is drawn to pollen and a flower turns towards the sun and soaks up the rain, so too we are created by God for relationship. So when we are fragmented or alienated from one another, we suffer and wither.
And yet, a stark division begins this Gospel reading. The tax collectors and sinners on one side – and the Scribes and the Pharisees on the other. Per usual, Jesus doesn’t wag a finger at the sinners, but rather addresses these parables to the religious authorities, who are criticizing Jesus’ choice of dining partners.
One of the keystones of Jesus’ ministry was to eat with those who were labeled by society as unclean. Those who, for the most part, disregarded religion because they were considered outcasts. So they ignored the law, the commandments, and all the purity rituals altogether; the very pillars of the Jewish tradition.
And the significance of meal sharing during Jesus’ time, was very different than it is today too. To break bread with someone was an invitation to intimacy. It was a gesture that said “I want to know you and be your close friend.”
So, it’s no surprise that the Scribes and Pharisees take issue with Jesus’ very deliberate act of eating with these “so called” sinners. SO deliberate and intentional in fact, that many scholars claim that Jesus was crucified specifically because of how he dined.
If we look at the parables, they are quite similar. Both the main characters lose, search and find what has been lost and then invite their friends and neighbors to celebrate their good fortune. And both highlight how God does the difficult work of seeking and then compares the joy of finding what was lost to the delight felt in heaven over just one sinner who repents. (Reid)
But what Jesus MEANS, and what his first century audience HEARS, and what WE understand as sin and repentance maybe all very different things.
Knowing his first audience very well, namely the scribes and Pharisees, perhaps Jesus chooses the image of the shepherd because he knows that they all are steeped in the holy scriptures of their people. Which means they were very familiar with the book of Ezekiel, who wrote while the Jewish people were separated and suffering in exile. Their land had been overrun and they were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to Babylon, held in captivity for decades. Throughout history, perhaps more than any other, the Jewish people know the great pain of separated from one another – the anguish of alienation – and so Jesus is trying to soften their hearts by tapping into this experience.
In this holy book, that the temple authorities probably have memorized, the prophet Ezekiel passionately shakes his fist at God and prays “Look God, look at this! Your sheep are scattered, vulnerable and lost. Your name is defamed.” Basically he is saying that God’s reputation is shot because His sheep are scattered all over the earth. So Ezekiel challenges God “Unite your people, bring them home, so that YOUR name will be Hallowed, or made Holy again.”
So too, each week when we pray “hallowed be thy name” it’s not simply an expression of reverence, but rather a plea for God to show His stuff! To bring about such a dramatic change in restoring our wholeness, that all of humankind will take notice. We are imploring God to remove our divisions and restore our oneness – to make us one again…to make us whole… (Dale Bruner)
Just as Jesus prayed “Father, may they all be one…may they all be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Jesus knows that our journey to God, our path to the kingdom is a group effort, with not a single expendable person. We are one people of God and our own individual failings – places where we need others to fill the gaps and forgive us – serve as effective reminders that this point is not lost on us. God doesn’t love us despite our faults and failings, but rather in and through them is bringing about the Kingdom of God.
We all struggle with imperfection, but this is not some kind of design error on God’s part, but rather is a gift; a reminder of our oneness – that we need one another. That is why we ALL celebrate when just one of us is lost and then found, because truly it is PART OF OURSELVES that was lost; an essential part of the body of Christ that has been restored so we can continue moving together towards the fullness of creation – a time when “God will be all and all” and we will be whole once again.
For Jesus, SIN means alienation – alienation from our best selves,– from the community who loves and needs us, and from God – who we often distance ourselves from because we envision Him as an over-scrupulous, exacting, harsh judge up in the sky taking notes on our every misstep.
Jesus is trying to teach us that sin isn’t about individually following rules and regulations to the letter, but rather doing something loving with our life and resisting any action that threatens this wholeness. Anything that keeps us at a distance or makes us become lost or separated. And he is saying this to the Scribes and Pharisees who are standing right next to the ones who are being actively alienated from the community!
So Sin is not a lack of perfection which is related to our personal performance, but rather a lack of inclusiveness and acceptance that Jesus knew the religious authorities were wrongly attributing to God.
In short, “Jesus was a man of reconciliation in a world that had accepted, and even gloried in division, in proclaiming who was an insider and who was an outsider, the clean and the unclean. He was struggling to bring together people that others were struggling to keep apart.”
So what is Jesus proposing with these parables? What does repentance look like for him?
To our modern ears, we usually think repentance means to have a deep regret or remorse about our sin or wrongdoing and then to undertake some punishing hard-work in order to make amends. But our modern English take on our ancient texts often misses the mark – and doesn’t really capture the fullness of meaning communicated in the original language.
The word repentance in its original Greek, the word Metanoia, simply means to change our mind…to change the way we understand or think about something…
Dr. Barbara Reid says that the joy of repentance in these parables doesn’t coming from us shamefully beating our breasts and entering into some harsh acts of atonement, or even to apologize to God for our misconduct; this isn’t what God is asking of us at all. Rather, with these parables, Jesus is simply inviting us to change our mind…
He is trying to teach us about God and convince us that God is not AT ALL demanding any kind of harsh repentance or even a request for forgiveness. It’s automatically given. God simply wouldn’t be God if He were as small and exacting as we are sometimes.
Rather, it is God’s joy to bring us home and restore wholeness to us and our community – this is the true fulfillment of his dream for us. (something that seems quite lost on the religious leaders Jesus is speaking to)
God in God self is mercy and there will be nothing but rejoicing on God‘s part if we change our mind and believe fully – grabbing the truth with both hands – that God loves and forgives us without boundary or breaking point. Without conditions or demands, so that we all may be whole – together in mind in spirit once again. This is the nature of true repentance.
Jesus hoping that everyone in earshot – the religious teachers and the sinners – will come to a true repentance – a deep understanding of our need to repent about how we think about and portray God – and the great extent that God will go to, to show us just how much he loves and values us and how critical each and every one of us is to the wholeness that is the defining feature of the kingdom.
And if we go astray, God will go to the ends of the earth to find us, pick us up and bring us home.
John Shea writes “God desires unity and rejoices more when a wholeness is approached by the inclusion of what was formerly excluded than when an incompleteness, even when it is a righteous incompleteness, remains even one short.”
So true repentance begins with God searching for us when we are lost and offering us the free gift of forgiveness and restoration to the community. (Reid)
And for us it means being able to “change our mind” to truly believe in this kind of God and have the courage to accept acceptance…. and then, living out of this grace, offer OUR love and forgiveness as freely as we have received it.