Rejoice with Me: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Fourteenth Week after Pentecost
Fourteenth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 15:1-10
1) Last week’s passage from Luke was one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings - this week’s is one of his most beloved. It’s the run-up to perhaps his most famous (and most frequently misunderstood!) parable of all, the so-called “Prodigal Son,” which we explored earlier this year.
2) If last week’s focus was on a disciple’s faith and commitment, this week’s is on God’s. In Jesus’ day and in ours, the primary emphasis in religious life often comes down to some version of “searching for God” - which makes these parables surprising, since they turn that trope on its head. God searches for us! And finds us, and embraces us, and rejoices in the reunion.
3) But the other trope Jesus upends in these parables is the commonplace idea - explicit or implicit - that religious community is a circle of righteousness, of moral excellence and respectability. Clean up your act, this theory goes, and then you’ll be welcome into the circle. But these parables move in the other direction: God seeks out the lost, not the found - that is, God pursues precisely the ones whose acts aren’t “cleaned up.” It’s as if Jesus says, God’s extravagant mercy always comes first. How else would our repentance, our change of life for the better, even be possible?
1) Jesus’ critics here are religious leaders (think: “pastors and deacons”), the ones who ostensibly are striving to obey the rules and follow God’s law - and they take umbrage that Jesus would so liberally engage with rule-breakers: “tax collectors,” for example, exploiting their own people on behalf of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ answer, in effect, is this: Rule-breakers? Listen, I came for the rule-breakers! I’m like a shepherd so concerned with one lost lamb that I leave the other ninety-nine to find it. I’m like a woman who sweeps the whole house looking for a single coin - and when I find it, I’ll throw an expensive party! Do you see? Divine mercy is abundant, active, and tireless - and God will not be denied…
2) In these two parables, Jesus begins with psychological realism: when we lose something, we naturally focus on it, seek it out, and rejoice when we find it. Indeed, the time and energy we devote to the search and celebration can at times seem excessive - and God’s love, Jesus insists, is extravagant in just this way. A cool-eyed observer might say, Well, it’d be better to cut your losses and protect the ninety-nine sheep - or spend your time more productively than sweeping the entire house for a single coin! But God is no cool-eyed observer. God is deeply involved in our lives and the life of the world, loving us with a fierce, steadfast mercy. Accordingly, God ardently seeks out the lost, like a shepherd scouring the wilderness, or a housekeeper with a lamp and a broom.
3) These two parables cover a diverse socio-economic range: a rich man (the “hundred sheep” signal his status) and a poor woman (“ten coins”). But in both cases, the jubilation is over the top: inviting “friends and neighbors” to celebrate - “Rejoice with me!” - would have been expensive, and apparently out of proportion with the occasion (Luke 15:6,9). But that’s just it: these parties are “out of proportion” only if the starting point is a rational analysis of time and economic value. But if the starting point is the warm-blooded relationship of familial love, an outlandish party makes all the sense in the world: Rejoice with me, for my beloved is back! It’s as if Jesus says, Think of how you vigorously seek out a lost sheep or a lost coin, and then rejoice when you find it; how much more, then, does God seek out a lost child, and how much greater the joy in heaven! Listen, let me tell you another story, about a father who had two sons…
1) In the end, these are stories about the nature of repentance, the life-changing turn from being “lost” to being “found.” We can hear Jesus’ critics saying, Those tax collectors and sinners - they come and listen to you teach, sure, but they haven’t truly repented, they haven’t truly changed their lives; and you shouldn’t engage with them so warmly until they do! And Jesus’ response, via these stories and the parable that follows them, amounts to this: How will they truly change their lives unless God gracefully finds and embraces them in the first place? Grace doesn’t follow repentance - it makes repentance possible! And not just theirs; your repentance as well. My child, come in and celebrate! Let go of your fastidious accounts… Look, you’re already with me, what’s mine is yours; come in, come in, and rejoice with me! (Luke 15:31-32).
2) Shall we nevertheless repent, change our hearts, strive for moral excellence, turn from death toward life? Yes! But in the light of these parables, our efforts themselves are best understood as already undeserved gifts from a graceful, forgiving, loving God.
3) Accordingly, the Good News is for sinners, not former sinners! God doesn’t love us because we’ve picked up ourselves by our bootstraps - that’s the opposite of the Gospel. Rather, God loves us “even if” - even if we’re wayward lambs who’ve wandered into danger; even if we’re coins lying forlorn under a dresser; even if we’ve utterly lost our way, collaborating with the Empire as a tax collector. How could God love us in this apparently unfair, extravagant, “even if” sort of way? Because mercy isn’t “fair,” and God’s love is merciful, like a kind-hearted parent caring for a child - or a sweet, saving word, as the old hymn has it, for a “wretch like me.”
4) Properly understood, then, the church isn’t primarily a circle of moral excellence and respectability. Rather, it’s primarily a circle of joy, of celebration, of reveling in what the God of grace and mercy has done, is doing, and will do. Moral excellence has its place, but it’s decidedly in second place. What comes first is the party, the joy on earth as it is in heaven. Rejoice with me!