Reconciling with God and Neighbor
INTRODUCTION TO THE WEEK
The mission of God is the reconciliation of all, and forgiveness is the practice of mending that makes reconciliation possible. The practice of forgiveness is central to being a Christian, and yet many of us find it one of the hardest practices of all.
I got to see a very clear image of what forgiveness is like in the following way. A friend brought a sweater she had knitted for her husband to a weekend knitting retreat. This was the second time we had seen this sweater, as she had knitted it for him during the previous year’s retreat. But it had never fit right, and so she brought it back with the intention of
unraveling all the yarn and re-knitting it in the right proportions. She unraveled and unraveled for hours, while the rest of the women knitted quietly. By the end of the first evening, she had a huge, unruly pile of soft gray yarn about the size of a border collie – and it was a mass of tangles. Slowly, she started to work out the tangles.
It got late, we turned the lights out and all went to bed. All but one of us, that is. One of the women, finding herself awake, stole back down the stairs and spent the night untangling and rolling up the yarn into a several neat balls. By morning, there they were, sitting on my friend’s chair, awaiting the re-knitting.
In the following stories, Jesus both teaches and participates in patient practices of forgiveness and reconciliation, untangling relationships and preparing them to be reknit into wholeness. Disciples of Jesus learn to forgive.
Monday: The Prodigal Son, Part I
Today and tomorrow, we will be studying the parable of the prodigal son, a story that is familiar to many. But most often we read or hear the story of the prodigal removed from its setting in the Gospel of Luke (the only Gospel that contains the parable of the prodigal son). So today, let’s begin as the Gospel does, with a sense for who was listening to Jesus the day he told the parable:
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” (Luke 15:1-2).
In first century Palestine, Pharisees were a loosely identified group of Jews who were committed to holiness in daily life, raising up holiness for ordinary people to a level more akin to that of the priests in the Temple.
• They emphasized those aspects of the Torah that could be kept by ordinary people: study of the scriptures, prayer, keeping the Sabbath and the dietary laws.
• Ironically, Jesus and his followers were very much like the Pharisees in their focus on daily faithfulness, though with some differences in how they observed their faith. Scribes were a literate professional class, most of whom were employed in a secretarial capacity in the government.
• At the time, there was no separation between religion and politics, so
knowledge of the scriptures (as the law of the Jews) was part of their set of
From the point of view of the Gospels, both Pharisees and scribes had a vested interest in maintaining the power structures of Roman-occupied Palestine in the face of a “rebel” like Jesus, who imagined a land and a people who would live as a witness to the patterns of God’s justice.
• Jesus can see that maintenance of things as they are will never bring about the kind of reconciliation that is God’s mission, so he begins to tell some stories: 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 (Luke 15:3-7).
I once used this parable in an adult formation class, and asked whether there were any shepherds in the room.
• One man raised his hand. He had been raised in Wyoming, and had worked on the family ranch until he was an adult. “Is this an obvious thing for a shepherd to do, to leave the flock and seek out one lost sheep?” He answered, “That would have to be one really expensive sheep.”
• In other words, what the shepherd does in the parable is not obvious. It goes against shepherding wisdom.
• But God is like that. In order to bring about the reconciliation of all people,
God’s energy is directed completely toward the lost, not toward the existing flock.
• The parable relies for its force on the fact that God does not do the expected thing. Remember who is listening, the scribes and Pharisees, who are enmeshed in the current social and political system.
“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 15:8-10).
This second parable emphasizes the woman’s diligence in searching for the lost coin.
• Interestingly, the listeners are not told of the value of the coin; we know only that it was considered valuable to the woman, who turns her house upside down looking for it.
• In this parable, God is compared to a woman whose whole focus is on
searching for one small object among all the items in her house.
• She will use up the oil in her lamp and all the time it takes to find that one coin.
• Remember the complaint that the Pharisees and scribes had against Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
• Jesus’ practice of welcoming sinners and his willingness to be their guest at dinner is a shocking outpouring of forgiveness, from the point of view of those who were most religious, the Pharisees and scribes.
Questions for Reflection
•Parables tend to turn pointedly upon the hearers to ask, “Where are you in this story?” So, where are you now in the story of the shepherd and the sheep? The woman and the coin? Have you played different roles at different times in your life? Once the sheep or coin has been found, how does its role change within the community?
•Looking at the parable from a first-century point of view, who do you imagine to be the lost sheep and lost coin? Are there groups of people who are “lost” from God in our society?
•Whom are disciples called to imitate?
God of the lost and God of the found, thank you for seeking us out. Today may I be alert to all of the ways in which you seek my attention, and may I also be a part of your plan to re-knit our cities and communities into places of life for all. I pray this in the name of Jesus, our Reconciler. Amen.