We'll all be rooned

Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So he told them this parable: 4‘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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
8 ‘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?9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

Never under estimate the offensiveness to the people who own God, or God's favour, when we extend it to others. A colleague's ministry went wrong years ago. Whatever the real reasons, the complaint that seemed somehow to sum up the anger of parishioners, that seemed for some reason to gather it all together, was my colleague's propensity for hob nobbing with locals up at the pub. Not that said colleague got drunk or anything- what really offended some parishioners, as I read it, was the association with those people in a context where condemnation, or at least correction, was not on the agenda.

I'm guessing that both minister and parishioners were of one mind, just as were Jesus and the Pharisees, and feared many of the people in that pub were “lost.” All this offence is happening despite Jesus and the Pharisees having similar diagnoses of people's spiritual health!

it is possible to trivialise these little parables because we are so rich. We have no real idea how valuable one single sheep could be. The thought that losing just one coin would be a problem, is foreign to we of paper money, for whom coins are often a nuisance.That one coin is a cause for rejoicing, seems a little "over the top" to us!

When it comes to the sheep, there are more weighty issues. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness while searching for the lost sheep. Subject to a risk-benefit analysis, this is a questionable strategy. The rejoinder to Jesus might be, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Is that one lost sheep worth all the risk to the others?

When the minister spends morning tea chatting with the slightly tatty visitors, instead of paying attention to us- after all, we've been waiting all week to see him- do we feel we are being "left in the wilderness?" We are the ones who are behaving correctly; at least we pay for a hair cut! Look at them, untidy, bad attitude, obviously not church goers- do we want people like that here? Friends, new to an industrial town, were quietly informed that “This is the Managers' church. You'll be more comfortable at the workers' church across town.”

We can read the parables, in the beginning, as a corrective to the presumption of the Pharisees and scribes about which people are important to God. Jesus then gives this lesson of the importance of “the lost” a massive, unsubtle reinforcement with the tale of the wayward younger son which follows. The narrative connection is obvious.

There is something else; another layer to the stories. They are more than a dry “doctrinal corrective.” He does not say to the Pharisees and scribes, “Everyone is important to God.” He does not then add, “Especially those who have become separated from God.” Instead he tells a story. He adds colour and emotion, and an invitation to feel, rather than simply intellectually apprehend.

“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
And, indeed, “...And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate!”

There is often something in church, a nuance, which is hard to pin down. It's not just about “ownership of the gospel,” and reservations or dislike of outsiders and newcomers. Despite all our entitlement and privilege (which itself often excludes the “lost,”) there is often something about us which is begrudging. I mean not just our often  begrudging welcome of the lost sheep returning to the fold, but a wider attitude of begrudgment. There's a tiny harmonium at the front of our church, over a century old. People left the church when that was purchased, because of the sin of music in church. We begrudge joy. We begrudge enjoyment. All of this to ourselves, and especially to others who show us up because, sinful or not, they are able to enjoy themselves at the pub.

There's a famous Australian poem. Week after week outside the church, the men discuss the weather.

"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
In accents most forlorn,
Outside the church, ere Mass began,
One frosty Sunday morn.
The congregation stood about,
coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock, and crops, and drought,
As it had done for years.

Finally the rain comes...

In God's good time down came the rain;
And all the afternoon
On iron roof and window-pane
It drummed a homely tune.
And through the night it pattered still,
And lightsome, gladsome elves
On dripping spout and window-sill
Kept talking to themselves.
It pelted, pelted all day long,
A-singing at its work,
Till every heart took up the song
Way out to Back-o'Bourke.
And every creek a banker ran,
And dams filled overtop;
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"If this rain doesn't stop."...  (There is more here.)

And Akkibahan said they'd all be rooned, what with those sinners not coming to synagogue. But when Jesus came and brought them words of God, that was going to bring ruin upon the village, too. And when they all came back to synagogue? “We'll all be rooned,” said Akkibahan.

Somehow, a whole heap of Hanrahans file into church, each week when the bell rings. Why?

The shepherd and the woman and the father all rejoice. There is rejoicing in heaven. Somewhere, as we grumble about the newcomer sitting in our pew, we have lost perspective on what is important and what really counts. It is not doctrine. It is not who is proper or polite. It is not doing what God wants. It is people. God care first of all about people. God rejoices about people.

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) quotes a Jewish story

A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept. [p. 298]

Brian Stoffragen quotes this and goes on to say

He concludes: "Only those who can celebrate God's grace to others can experience that mercy themselves."

Working backwards from this, and looking at our so often begrudging lives, I can't help thinking that the attitude of the Pharisees and Scribe in this part of Luke, and of ourselves, is that we are rejecting the experience of God's mercy. We are rejecting God's love of ourselves, when all the while, we could be rejoicing at how much we have been given, and how much we are loved.

Andrew Prior Sept 2010
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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