A Provocation: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 11, 2016): Luke 15:1-10

Luke 15:1-10

15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

15:3 So he told them this parable:

15:4 “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?

15:5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.

15:6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

15:8 “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?

15:9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

15:10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus ask such easy questions?  No one in her right mind does either of these things.
  • Who welcomes sinners and eats with them?
  • Really?

Some Longer Reflections:

The shepherd and the woman are the most interesting characters in this scene.  Their extravagant (and even unwise) investment of energy and time are fascinating, especially because both little embedded stories do violence to regular sense and life: the shepherd abandons 99 aimless sheep to their fate (meals for marauding predators, most likely) and the woman finishes her impassioned search with none of her necessary work done (no bread baked, no meals made, no clothes washed, etc.).  If these are parables about extravagant grace, then grace is risky, destructive, even.  And it is a great (and extraordinarily expensive) gift.

But I’m not going to spend any more time on those characters or their parables.

I find myself thinking about the Pharisees and the scribes.

As much as I deeply distrust any interpretation that begins by taking shots at the sitting-duck Pharisees, when I read this scene this week, I realized I had seen their reaction too many times lately.  Everywhere they look they see sinners, and this frightens me.  Not because they are wrong.  There are dangerous people in the world.  It is their disdain that scares me, that combined with their certainty.  I have seen too many people doing this lately.

I am worn out by the politics of contempt.

I am exhausted by the theology of disdain.

I have seen too much of each of these, and not only in the current presidential campaign.  I am frightened by our evidently shared certainty that no one (or a precious few) shares our piercing insight, and our essential correctness.  Sometimes it is a political position.  Sometimes it is a diet.  Sometimes it is a generational disagreement.  Always there is contempt.

It has worn me out.

I’m not too impressed when preachers drag their half-considered political opinions out and imagine that these opinions constitute a sermon.  This is especially true when I agree with the half-considered opinions.

I’m also not too impressed with the distorted (and distorting) practice of pretending to maintain fairness and balance by taking potshots at both sides.  This creates the impression that fairness requires believing that every idea is as good as every other idea.  This is simply not true.  There are some really bad ideas out there, and not just in the policy statements made by presidential candidates.

The only thing worse than the “one-potshot-apiece” policy is the pretense that one’s own ideology is, by definition, fair and balanced.  Probably all of us used to believe such nonsense, back when we were too young to know better.  For a middle-aged woman or man still to believe such things is more than unfortunate.

But you can figure out such things for yourself.

I cannot stop thinking about our disdain for each other.

News reports are filled with incidents of speakers being heckled.  Donald Trump has encouraged his supporters to assault people who attend his rallies, whether they heckle or just disagree.  But this is not new.  I remember when Senator Strom Thurmond was pelted with marshmallows while speaking at Carnegie-Mellon University back in 1970.  And I remember hearing the story of the politician who attacked his challenger for being a thespian, imagining that his constituents would think this was something disturbing and sexual.  The politics of disdain stretches back through history.

But I am exhausted.

I am sure that I am not alone, but I find that I read the lectionary text for this week (a favorite since I was a child) right now I can only see the disdain.  The Pharisees can only see sinners, and I can only see contempt.  That means that our current politics of disdain has warped my ability to read biblical texts.  That scares me.  More than a little.

Perhaps that is the point of the extravagant parables with their potentially dangerous willingness to throw sense out the window in the name of grace and inclusion?  Perhaps risk is the only alternative to a theology of disdain?  And perhaps risk is only possible when you realize the depth of your exhaustion?

Perhaps.

What I think I know for sure is that contempt will kill us.

I have seen it.

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