Luke 15: 1-10
St Andrew Indooroopilly September 2019
Offered by Mervyn Thomas
Today’s Gospel reading is short, and at one level very simple. God loves us all. Every human being is precious to him. No one is beyond redemption, and God will search us out against all the odds. God will never give up on us. He will find and restore us. And that is good news. For someone who gets it wrong as often as I do, that is great news! So that’s the first, and more important sermon over.
Now let’s consider what else we might find in the passage. There are, I think, some nuances here that are well worth considering. The passage is very dense – full of meanings that require us to understand something of the social context.
The literary situation for the parables is a familiar one in Luke. The tax collectors and sinners draw near, and the Pharisees criticize Jesus for accepting them: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Let’s remind ourselves about the tax collectors for a moment. In this province the Roman empire operated using tax farming. The word used for tax collectors is telonai – which means tax lease holders. A group of people, the, in Latin, the Publicani leased the right to collect taxes. This is the origin for the phrase sinners and publicans from the King James Version; it has nothing to do with pubs and hotels. The publicani pay heavily for the privilege of being tax collectors for a region, and that is how the empire gets its tax revenue. The publicani then have the right to collect taxes from within the region, and to keep them. That is how they get their return on capital.
Obviously, the publicani want to get the best return they can on the money they invest. And the way they do that is by systematically undervaluing the goods they receive, by extortion, and by operating a sort of state-licensed protection racket. They are much more like the Mafia or the Triads than they are like the Australian Tax Office.
It is an early example of government out-sourcing creating a private monopoly – rather like Macquarrie bank and Sydney airport.
That would be bad enough if you were a Roman citizen. But the Publicani are operating in occupied territory. They are Jews collaborating with a ruthless foreign power, they have turned their back on their own people and they are using the occupation to get rich.
These are not pleasant people; these are not decent people; these are not people with integrity. They are blood sucking state sponsored gangsters. And they are hated. They are hated with good reason.
The Pharisees complain “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” The phrase `and eats with them’ is of fundamental importance here. This is not the controlled, professional spiritual guidance of a teacher to someone seeking help. In pastoral training today we hear a lot about maintaining boundaries, about not letting the personal intrude into the pastoral relationship. If Jesus was doing that, if He was talking with the tax collectors in the synagogue, maintaining his status as teacher, and theirs as penitents, the Pharisees would not have had a problem. From their perspective it is the job of the righteous to instruct the unrighteous, and they should know – they do it all the time.
But that isn’t what Jesus does. He accepts the tax collectors as they are, dishonest, immoral and corrupt. He meets them as full human beings; he enjoys their hospitality. He doesn’t respect the boundaries of the situation. His relationship with them is not that of the professionalized spiritual advisor. It is deeply personal. Quite frankly Jesus would fail Chaplaincy 101. But, as we see elsewhere in the Gospel, it is this profoundly human encounter with Jesus that brings the tax collectors to repentance – not the detached moralizing of the Pharisees.
Now let’s turn our attention to the parables Jesus tells in response to the Pharisees. Luke recounts two: one of the shepherd finding the sheep, and one of the woman finding the coin. That is so typical of Luke; there are paired stories: one involving a man and one involving a woman. Luke structures his material in this way time and again. Matthew gives us the story of the shepherd and the sheep; but he doesn’t mention the woman and the coin. Matthew is much less likely than Luke to recount anything that shows women in anything like equality to men. Women don’t matter very much in this society. I’m not suggesting here that Luke made up this parable, rather that Matthew chose not to include it.
Using a woman as an image of God is bad enough for that time and place, but Our Lord is even more confronting than this. In the parable Our Lord says that the woman has 10 coins. The word used in the Greek is drachmae. A drachma had the same value as a denarius, used elsewhere in the Gospel. It corresponded to the wage for a day laborer. Using the Australian minimum wage as a guide, that amounts to about $150 in contemporary terms. The coins are almost certainly meant to be the woman’s dowry; perhaps they were worn on a string, or sown into her headdress. Rich women would have strings and strings of coins. This woman has only one string. Her entire dowry would be valued at about $1,500 in today’s money. This is a poor woman, in our terms: a battler, struggling to survive in difficult economic times.
So Our Lord is doing something quite shocking. He is using the care and determination of a marginal and poor woman as an image of the Love of God. Unimportant for two reasons, her gender and her poverty, this woman nevertheless reveals the determined care of God for us all.
Now let’s think about the lost and found sheep. Here it is the shepherd whose actions teach us about God. But a shepherd was not an important person in first century Palestine. Shepherds lived at the edges of society. They were rough and often violent men, usually desperately poor. We know something of contemporary attitudes to shepherds in the Holy Land and indeed throughout the Roman Empire from the literature of the time.
The Jewish oral tradition, the Mishnah, which was written down at the end of the second century but has much older oral roots, says:
Let not a man bring up his son to be a donkey-driver, nor a camel-driver, nor a barber, nor a sailor, nor a shepherd, nor a peddler; for their occupations are those of thieves.
The pharisees accuse Our Lord of consorting with immoral and dishonest people, and they are right – He does! But He counters with two images of the care and generosity of God – both using unimportant people at the edge of society, and neither of whom is worth any respect. Our lord is really pulling no punches here, not only does he reject the Pharisees’ morality, but he says God is like this too. Our Lord is deliberately offending the pharisees.
So where does that leave us? I don’t know about you, but I am a boringly respectable man. I have been married to the same woman for forty four years; the only crime I ever committed was when I misread a parking sign outside the cathedral – and I felt very ashamed about that. My sins lack even the virtues of originality and enthusiasm. They are mostly about petty, small-scale self centeredness; and the trivial dishonesties of every day life.
But what Our Lord says to me in this parable is don’t you dare confuse that conventional respectability with righteousness, and don’t you ever seek to limit God’s Grace from the self-serving perspective of your own complacent respectability. And yet, God help me, I do it all the time; it is the besetting sin of religious people throughout the generations.
And so I pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, shock me today as you shocked the Pharisees long ago. Shake me out of my complacent self-satisfaction. Open my eyes to see not sinners but your wandering lost sheep, and give me the grace to understand that I am one with them. Find me Lord, and bring me home.