It makes for a striking juxtaposition, to hear these two biblical passages read one after the other. From the prophet Jeremiah—that most outspoken and sobering of prophets—comes this image of a hot desert wind pouring forth from the mouth of God “toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse [but rather to] speak in judgment against them.” And then from Jesus these two little parables of grace, speaking of hope, mercy, and reconciliation for the lost and found. Does the preacher just embrace the one, and ignore the other? Tempting to take the path of least resistance, and deal only with the parables… yet the architects of the lectionary seem convinced that we should indeed hear them together.
To listen to the sermon press play:
The picture that Jeremiah paints is distressing. He calls the people “foolish” and “stupid children,” and characterizes them as “skilled in doing evil,” and incapable of even knowing “how to do good.” The prophet is speaking these words at a point when Israel is on the verge of collapsing in on itself; at a point when its political and religious institutions had become hollow, its ability to stand as an independent nation precarious at best. Yet few were prepared to recognize that reality, least of all those in positions of authority in both temple and palace.
And so Jeremiah rails hard against complacency and denial:
“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”
“With these verses the picture becomes cosmic in scope,” comments Walter Brueggemann. “The fourfold ‘I looked’ is a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos. The Creator waits for the world to become the world hoped for. Yahweh waits for Israel to become fully God’s people. But each time the poet looks at the world, he sees more and more of creation being nullified, regressing to the murky condition of Genesis 1:2.” This, suggests Brueggemann, is Jeremiah’s “rhetorical attempt to engage this numbed, unaware community in an imaginative embrace of what is happening. The world is becoming unglued.”
Wake up, in other words. Tell the truth about what is going on all around you. Look, and you’ll see widows and orphans in the street, begging for food, while those in places of privilege get richer. That’s a sure sign that Israel has lost its covenantal bearings; that some accumulate more and more, while others starve. Listen—open your ears and really listen—and you’ll hear the rattling of the armor of the Babylonian army as it marches across neighboring lands. It won’t be long before that army is in your streets, O Jerusalem. Wake up!
And then we had those two parables from Jesus, which speak so hopefully about a shepherd who seeks out a lost sheep and a woman who searches relentlessly for a lost coin. Tempting, maybe, to say that Jeremiah is so much a man of the Old Testament, and that Jesus brings such a different message in the New. Yet Jeremiah’s wake-up call is not all that different from what Jesus says in other parts of the gospels, about the need to be awake and prepared and to learn to read the signs of the times. And much later in his own writings, after his dire words of warning had turned out to be accurate, even Jeremiah will have words of hope and grace for a lost people. No, it is too easy to say that the Old Testament is concerned with judgment while the New Testament speaks only of grace.
The prologue to these two parables is that “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus, causing the Pharisees and the scribes to grumble and say with some pretty evident judgment in their voices, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response, Jesus tells his stories about the lost sheep and the lost coin. In the first, the shepherd is so determined to find the one that has gone astray that he leaves the other ninety-nine in the wilderness to go out searching… which when you think about it, makes for an odd strategy. In the second, a woman turns her house inside out, looking for the one silver coin that she has somehow lost. In both instances, the response to the finding is to call together a party of friends and neighbours to celebrate what was lost and is now found. It is a party image, by which Jesus suggests that God and the angels are always ready to raise a glass in celebration over the restoration of just “one sinner who repents.”
Well, we can’t know if that satisfied the grumbling scribes and Pharisees. Maybe they just heard these parables, and thought “sure, if they repent… and we know how likely that is…” In their eyes, repenting meant returning to a strict adherence to the law, and looking at those who came to Jesus and with whom he even shared meals, they probably would have just crossed their arms, given each other smug and knowing glances, and thought, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Besides, if Jesus is dining in the company of known sinners, it is likely he is himself in violation of the purity codes.
Jesus, though, has a rather different view of repentance. He does require it, of course, yet in the parable it is not as if the lost sheep comes remorsefully home, with its tail tucked humbly between its legs. The parable is really more about the Shepherd, who goes out searching; it is really about Jesus, who willingly sits down to share a meal and some stories with the most messed up of people. In the words of N.T. Wright, “For Jesus, when people follow him and his way, that is the true repentance.” Staying close to the shepherd and actually trusting that he knows what he is doing and where he’s taking you; that’s what Jesus is after.
There is that one line in the parable of the lost sheep that I’ve often found particularly fascinating, as Jesus says to his audience, “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.” It’s the phrase about the “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” that I’ve wondered about… were there such people in that world? Or in ours?
And so N.T. Wright continues, “And—Jesus doesn’t say so in so many word, but I think its there by implication— the Pharisees and legal experts themselves need to repent in that way. ‘Righteous persons who don’t need to repent’ indeed! Try saying the sentence with a smile and a question-mark in your voice and you will, I think, hear what Jesus intended.”
Jeremiah railed at the people, hoping to jolt them awake with his dire images and harsh warnings. Here and in the parable of the prodigal son that follows, Jesus does a not dissimilar piece of work, though he does it with stories and—if Bishop Wright is correct… and I think he is—Jesus does it with a smile and a mischievous light dancing in his eyes. Wake up to who you are, and to the reality of your own lostness. Wake up, and realize that those you’ve been so quick to reject as the other and the outcast are also your neighbours. Wake up, and stay close to the Shepherd, for he’s the one who is bringing you home.