Gospel for the Twenty Fourth Sunday (11 September 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 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.’ 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.
“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? 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:1-10 – NRSV) (NOTE: The foregoing is the shorter version of the Gospel for today. Luke 15:11-32 – the parable of the Prodigal Son – is optional reading.)
Luke’s Gospel undergoes a mood change in this chapter. Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem, there is still evidence of the conflict with the religious authorities but the principal focus is on joy and mercy. The portrait of Jesus that comes through is characteristic of Luke. One commentator writes: “The three parables of chap. 15, that of the lost sheep (vv. 4–7), of the lost coin (vv. 8–10), and of the lost or prodigal son (vv. 11–32), are so distinctive of the Lucan portrait of Jesus that this part of his account has been called ‘the heart of the Third Gospel’ (L. Ramaroson, ‘Le coeur’)..... They make a major contribution to the Lucan theme of God’s love and mercy for sinful human beings and of Jesus’ call for repentance and conversion. Indeed, the note of ‘joy’ that is part of the first two parables is explicitly applied to God himself in the concluding verse of each (vv. 7, 10).” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J. (2008). The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1071.)
Here, in these three parables, Luke shows God’s concern for those who find themselves on the edge of society, even despised by those who are the ‘important’ people in that society. Later parables and events in Luke confirm this theme: the dishonest manager [16:1–8a], the dishonest judge [18:1–8], the rich man and Lazarus [16:19–31], the ten lepers [17:11–19], the Pharisee and the toll-collector [18:9–14], and the story of Zacchaeus [19:1–10].
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him: This is a direct response to the last verse of the previous chapter: “Listen anyone who has ears to hear!” (14:35). The repeated references to the presence of “tax collectors” serves a powerful double purpose in Luke’s Gospel. Firstly, it brings into focus the marginalized and outcast, people who are hearing the call to be part of the Kingdom; secondly it brings into focus the Pharisees (and other religious authorities) who refuse to hear the call. “For ‘hearing’ as a sign of conversion, see 5:1, 15; 6:17, 27, 47, 49; 7:29; 8:8–18, 21; 9:35; 10:16, 24, 39; 11:28, 31. These outcast ones are becoming members of the restored people by responding to the prophet.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 235.) See 3:10-12 (“even tax collectors came” to listen to John the Baptist); 5:27-32 (Jesus calls Levi, “the tax collector”, to follow him; Levi then throws a party where “there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance’”); 7:29 (Jesus says that the “tax collectors” who listened to John the Baptist thus “acknowledged God’s plan”); 7:33-35 (“John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children”); 18:9-14 (the parable of “the tax collector” and the Pharisee who go up to the temple to pray – “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”); 19:1-10 (the encounter with Zacchaeus “a senior tax collector”).
So he told them this parable: Jesus proceeds to tell three parables to “the Pharisees and the scribes” who have complained. The first of these – the parable of the lost sheep – is paralleled by a similar parable in Matthew 18:12-14. The metaphor of the sheep and the shepherd is a popular one in the Hebrew Scriptures. More particular we might recall the Prophet Ezekiel beating the shepherds of Israel for not caring for the sheep while they live off the fat of the land themselves – see Ezekiel 34. Because the leaders have failed the people, Ezekiel proclaims, the Lord will intervene: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (34:14-16). The same theme runs through each of the three parables: the one (sheep, coin, son) being lost, is found and this brings great joy. Jesus explains that, in these first two parables, there is reason for great rejoicing whenever people submit to the grace of metanoia.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins ....”: “It is typical of Luke to match a male example with one involving a woman (cf. 1:6–7; 2:36–38; 4:25, 38; 7:11–15, 36–50; 8:1–3, 19–21, 43–56; 10:38–42; 11:27; 13:10–17). The story is not found in the other Gospels. Luke’s characteristic attention to the use of possessions is also obvious.” (Johnson, op cit, 236.)
What does it feel like to be lost? Typically it is a more or less uncomfortable, even painful experience. It may bring with it such feelings as anxiety and fear, desperation and anger. At the heart of feeling lost is the feeling of impotence. Powerlessness terrifies us. It awakens the basic anxiety at the core of humanity. We are anxious about both the possibility of non-being and the possibility of great being. We live in between these possibilities.
We are haunted by the “more than” and we are saddened by the “less than”. Yet we are powerless to bridge the gap. This is a painful situation that may provoke a multitude of strange and even destructive behaviours, all of them oriented to escape from the pain of feeling lost. T S Eliot speaks of the “unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves ....” (T S Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Harvard University Press, 1933, 149.)
We do not have to escape. Indeed, our faith in Jesus Christ invites us to see that feeling lost can be the beginning of the real human journey. Yes, we are “in between”, and therefore anxious and restless, haunted and sad, however we may mask it. In Jesus Christ, we can embrace our lostness whenever and however it emerges, face the pain and surrender to the love of God and be humanized.
St Augustine – using an expression borrowed from Plato – says we experience ourselves as living in “the land of unlikeness”. (Confessions, Book 7, Chapter 10) He then goes on to describe in a very personal way his experience of being lost and found by God:
“Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you! Behold, you were within me while I was outside: it was there that I sought you, and, a deformed creature, rushed headlong upon these things of beauty which you have made. You were with me but I was not with you. They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all. You have called to me, and have cried out, and have shattered my deafness. You have blazed forth with light, and have shone upon me, and you have put my blindness to flight! You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace.” (Book 10, Chapter 27)
Feeling lost is in fact the only place you can find yourself – your true self!