Last Sunday when Andrew Colman served as our guest preacher, he offered a really important insight into the prophet Jeremiah. Noting that Jeremiah had been called to speak into an Israel that had lost its spiritual moorings—called to warn the people of Jerusalem’s impending destruction—Andrew suggested that Jeremiah’s message was “coming from a dark, dark tunnel.” All he sees, all the words and insights that come to him, are in this context of his knowing that a once faithful nation was coming off the rails. And so here we are again, faced with a message spoken out of that darkness; words Walter Brueggemann goes so far as to identify as “a dangerous poem.” It is dangerous because, “The poet has the awesome burden of helping his people sense that their presumed world is in jeopardy, because God’s holy patience is fully ended.”
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There are so many hard words in this passage, words about God’s people being foolish, like stupid children, skilled in evil and unable to do the good. And there are hard words about the shape of the created world: “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.” Waste and void—in Hebrew tohu vabohu. It is a phrase that occurs in only one other place in the scripture, in Genesis 1. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void—tohu vabohu—and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” In that creation story, it is from this formless void that God begins to draw out light and life, declaring again and again that it is good, it is good, it is good. And now, Jeremiah dares to say, God has looked and seen a people so derailed that what was declared good is again “waste and void”. It is an un-creation poem that Jeremiah speaks to the people. Don’t you see what you are doing? “For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation… yet I will not make a full end.” I will not make a full end. For all of the toughness of his message, Jeremiah knows that there will yet be a tomorrow. Yes, he can speak about how things will be plucked up and pulled down, destroyed and overthrown, but he also believes—knows, even from his dark, dark tunnel—that in the end God will again “build and plant.” (Jer. 1:10)
As is so often the case with these biblical truth-tellers, his message is met with indifference, disbelief, sometimes even hostility. How dare you say such things? We are faithful, we are paying our tithes, saying our prayers, making our sacrifices. Look at how people stream to the grand temple. And you say it will all be destroyed? Leave us alone.
They’re lost, and they don’t know it. They prefer to rely on the practices and patterns of the familiar, and to trust the status quo rather than to pay any attention to this cranky prophet with his impossible message.
Now listen to the opening words of tonight’s gospel reading: “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” The tax-collectors and sinners are coming to listen to Jesus teach, which in itself says something about not only Jesus’ teachings but also his very character. These are people deemed outsiders and unrighteous by the religious and social norms of the day, yet they seem all but unable to stay away from Jesus. And all the while “the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
It’s a common theme in the gospels. People come to him in their need, their searching, and their lostness, and it causes the properly religious ones to shudder with disgust. Look who’s touching him, look who is sitting at his feet, look who he is sharing meals with. No holy man, this…
To which Jesus responds with a series of parables. We heard two of them—the lost sheep and the lost coin—but there is a third: the parable of the lost sons, more familiarly called the parable of the prodigal son. Each of the three tells of something lost—a sheep, a coin, a person—and of the joy that comes when the lost is found. The “tax-collectors and sinners” in the crowd must have heard these stories with relief and delight—there is hope for us… more than hope, there is joy in heaven that we have found ourselves in the presence of Jesus. Yet there is an edge to the parables, because they’re told in direct response to the hostility of those scribes and Pharisees. Here Robert Farrar Capon comments that the parables are, “presented as yet another instance of Jesus’ rubbing the salt of lostness on the sensibilities of those who are preoccupied with the sweetness of their own success.” Isn’t that a great phrase? He’s “rubbing the salt of lostness on the sensibilities of those who are preoccupied with the sweetness of their own success.”
Tonight’s two short parables are of course so familiar that it can be easy to miss some of what Jesus is playing with. “Which one of you,” Jesus says, “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?” Think about that for a minute. Which one of you—remember, he’s got those scribes and Pharisees firmly in view—who lost one of your hundred sheep would not go off in search of the lost one, leaving the ninety-nine in the wilderness? Probably not a single one of them, in fact, because what they’d end up with is one found sheep and ninety-nine untended ones that would wander off and get themselves lost! Not only that, but in the parable the shepherd finds the sheep, heads home, “calls together his friends and neighbours,” and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” Really? A shepherd would do that because he’d found his one stray sheep? Not likely. It is not a particularly realistic picture of how shepherding really worked, and Jesus knows it; they all know it.
And then comes the punch-line: “Just 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.” Righteous people who need no repentance. Again, really? And who are they? Here N.T. Wright suggests we, “Try saying the sentence with a smile and a question mark in your voice and you will, I think, hear what Jesus intended.” “Righteous people who need no repentance?” He’s making a bit of dig at them, just as he does when he concludes the parable of the lost coin by saying “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” and by ending the parable of the lost sons by leaving the elder son—the so-called righteous one—standing in the garden with a big question mark over his head.
What Jesus is really trying to do is to get the scribes and Pharisees—and us, for that matter—to understand that we are all in our own way lost, and that admitting that is to be at the same time found. Again, from Robert Capon:
Jesus implies, it seems to me, that even if all one hundred sheep should get lost, it will not be a problem for this bizarrely Good Shepherd because he is first and foremost in the business of finding the lost, not of making a messianic buck off the unstrayed. Give him a world with a hundred out of every hundred lost souls—give him, in other words, the worldful of losers that is the only real world we have—and it will do just fine: lostness is exactly his cup of tea.
That’s great good news, and you know there are rumours of it in the writings of the hard-nosed cranky prophets like Jeremiah. Yes, Jeremiah writes of God’s impatience, even of God’s “fierce anger.” But he also knows that all it will take is for the people to admit their lostness—and he feels pretty lost himself at times—to admit their lostness, and let themselves be found.