Living by the Word: God's Party Time

Article excerpt

Sunday, September 16

Luke 15:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17

I CAN NEVER read stories about Jesus and his closest conversation partners, the Pharisees, without remembering JOY with some bemusement. JOY was the junior girls' group in the small mission church in which I grew up, and it stood for "Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last." It is perhaps no accident that this tiny social group spawned a number of staunch feminists, but that's another story.

One of my memories of JOY was the tension between the "church girls" and the "town girls." We church girls struggled mightily to be less smug and more open-hearted, but it was hard work. Despite the ample rewards for letting go of a carefully cultivated sense of superiority, such as the all-out fun and whoop-it-up trouble we enjoyed together, we church girls often settled for less grace and more superiority.

My memories are doubly ironic since I now know that two generations earlier, members of my own family were the impoverished folks welcomed by the people in that particular church. My grandmother's often repeated refrain was, "Where would this family be without the Chicago Home Mission?" I am grateful for knowing about this connection now--and forever grateful to both my grandmother and the town girls for knocking off some of the smugness.

In Luke 15:1-10, Jesus and those around him are fully engaged in this struggle to let go of notions of superiority and join the human party. The stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, along with the one about the lost son which follows, constitute Luke's "party chapter." It begins with Luke's commentary on the social tension that is developing in this part of Jesus' ministry. Jesus has already attracted the religious folks, the Pharisees and the scholars, but now tax collectors and sinners (the town girls of Luke's account) are coming in numbers that are disconcerting to the traditional religious folks, who begin to murmur among themselves (never a positive sign in Luke-Acts). They talk about the riffraff who are hanging around Jesus, and the fact that Jesus is not sufficiently aware of the difference in status between the various groups of his hangers-on.

As Luke sets it up, Jesus tells the three stories in direct response to this murmuring. The texts for this Sunday--about the lost sheep and the lost coin--are stories to which most of us can relate. Whether the two situations are totally realistic is not the point; the point is that whether or not we would actually leave 99 sheep to go look for one, or turn a house upside down in search of a single coin, all of us have experienced a crisis that abruptly turns our attention from the macrocosm to the microcosm. When such a crisis occurs, a normal human reaction is to shift focus, marshal all resources and apply every effort to solving the problem. …