September 11, 2016-Proper 19 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

August 26, 2016 | by Nichole Torbitzky

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 4:11-12 & 22-28 Psalm 14 1 Timothy 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-10 Exodus 32:7-14 Psalm 51:1-10

Luke 15:1-10

Moral outrage is all the rage in America today. As we go through election season and events unfold on the world stage, it seems like every day there is a new reason to express our outrage. But, let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not the first generation to experience the self-righteous joy of moral outrage, and we won’t be the last. The “good” people of Jesus’ day, the scribes and the Pharisees were watching what Jesus was up to enjoying their own moral outrage. As moral outrage tends to work, if we look hard enough we’ll find something to justify our self-righteousness. The Pharisees and scribes found it in Jesus eating with tax-collectors and sinners. Implied in their judgment is that the tax-collectors and sinners are ritually impure, and by sharing table fellowship, Jesus makes himself impure as well. Their judgment reveals their self-righteousness and assumptions about the “lesser” people. There is nothing inherent to the job of tax-collector that makes them ritually impure. Any tax-collector like any other Jewish person could be ritually pure simply by following the purity rules of the day. The Pharisees and scribes are making a huge assumption about the state of purity of these ‘riff-raff’ that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with. As with so much of our moral outrage, the judgment made by the Pharisees and scribes is based on prejudice and assumption. In the end, the judgment made by the powerful people has very little to do with who does or does not follow the Jewish purity rules, and has more to do with the powerful deciding for themselves who is or is not worthy of God’s love and mercy.

Jesus understands this from the get-go. So, here’s one of the remarkable and heartening things (among many) in this passage: Jesus is engaged in conversation with these men. Unlike the situation of moral outrage we find ourselves in today, where politicians refuse to engage with people from other parties, and people ‘unfriend’ or ‘unfollow’ each other on social media over differing opinions, Jesus is aware that the Pharisees and scribes are themselves lost. He is willing to teach (not condemn or ignore) them as well. This is one of the many beauties of the lure of God. In each moment, no matter how lost we are, no matter how many times we’ve rejected the best possible that God has in store for us, without fail, God comes back with grace to entice us once again toward the best possible. God will not leave us to our ignorance, and God will not force us into change, but God will forever offer grace and possibility. Jesus reflects this metaphysical reality in his exchange with the authorities of his day. Rather than turn away, he offers them a way to into God’s love for us.

Rather than engage in heated debate, or name calling, or any of the childish behavior we see in the leaders of our world today, he tells them a story. But, true to Jesus’ style, he starts with a subversive question. One about shepherds. Certainly, first century Israel was more agrarian than twenty-first century America, and yet, one has to wonder how much time a Pharisee or a scribe had spent herding sheep. These are generally people of privilege and means, who were by and large not out with flocks in the fields. So, while the question would resonate, these men of privilege probably had very little first hand experience. His question is perfectly counter intuitive, which of you wouldn’t go after the lost one? I expect their instinctual answer, like mine, is that most of us wouldn’t go after the one and leave behind the 99 vulnerable in the wilderness. That makes very little practical sense. He plays on their moral outrage, and ours. How could he! How dare he! How could one little sheep, the stupid one who wandered off and got lost, be worth more than 99 smart ones? Our cost-benefit analysis mindset kicks in. It’s just not worth it. And, according to many, it is foolish to risk the 99 for the one.

Jesus goes onto to point out that God’s economy is not our economy. God’s math is not our math. That one sinner is worth it. The righteous are already found. They don’t need repentance. Jesus is actually giving the Pharisees and scribes a compliment. He assures them that their relationship with God is certain, so why not turn attention to those who do need renewed relationship with God.

Jesus’ judgment about the sinners and tax collectors is vastly different than that of the authorities. Rather than seeing the sinners as worthless in God’s sight, Jesus sees them as precious in God’s sight too. This is not to say that the Pharisees and scribes are also not precious. It is to say that sinners and tax-collectors are precious too. To drive this point home, Jesus follows up with the parable of the coin. God, like a woman, will sweep and sweep until something precious that was lost is found. That doesn’t make any other coins she has valueless or value-less. Instead, the lost coin has as much value. In God’s economy, a lost coin is worth as much as a coin in a pocket, and therefore worth any amount of effort to be found.

Once again, Jesus uses subversive imagery for God. It is safe to assume that none of these men has ever gone sweeping for a lost coin. It might be safe to assume that these men have never picked up a broom. But, here is God, poor and female, engaging in activities not usually deemed fitting for men let alone God. In one fell swoop, Jesus has insisted that not only sinners and tax-collectors are valued by God, but so are the poor, the working-class, and women. He has subtly implied that these men in their ignorance of the trials of the everyday people in Israel, might not be representing God the way they think they do. He has suggested that their priorities have gotten out of sync with God’s priorities. He has suggested that the energy of their moral outrage might be put to better use.

I would suggest that as you preach this text, you might be able to point out to your congregation that our moral outrage isn’t God’s moral outrage. As we preach this September 11 and remember the tragic events of 2001 perhaps we can help our congregations see Jesus refraining from moral outrage toward any group in this parable. Perhaps we can focus on his insistence on God’s love for everyone, even those we disagree with, even those we judge, even those we fear.