The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Outrageous mercy (my sermon for March 18, 2007)

with 4 comments

Click for larger image at Artchive[Here’s the sermon from our worship gathering at New Oaks Church in Washington, Iowa (USA) for March 18. We sang “All About You,” “You Are the One,” “Healing Grace,” and “I Am Loved.” I found some encouragement in what I discovered while this sermon was stewing up. I hope you do, as well.]

It seems like this time of small size is our opportunity to figure out what the church of the future looks like. While we’re small, we can turn like a sports car. But the larger a church gets, the harder it is for it to change directions.

Each week, when we gather together and read the Bible, we get clues about our individual lives and our life together. So here’s a question to be asking as we look into the Bible and listen to the Holy Spirit together each Sunday: What do we learn about what he wants of us?

* * *

Luke 15: Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable . . .

In fact, he tells them three parables – three made-up stories to teach a lesson.
You can see them in the paragraph lengths in a print Bible: short, short, long. Simple, simple, elaborate.

Two groups of people present – who did the words we read tell us they are?
3 of the greatest stories ever told – and what’s the setup? Jesus is attracting people with bad reputations, and the people with good reputations don’t like it. …

1st story – tell it fast: Shepherd with 100 sheep, missing one, leaves the 99, finds the one and brings it home, everybody rejoices.

What’s he talking about? Who’s the shepherd? How’s this related to the setup? [They gave me great answers to these questions!] The shepherd represents God. The 99 are the religious types who’ve been grumbling. The 1 represents the the people of bad reputation that Jesus has been with.

How would the bad guys feel? Validated, wouldn’t you think?
And how would the good guys feel? Uh … put down? After all, he says, “There’s more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who don’t need to repent.”

Now probably none of these Pharisees and teachers are shepherds – shepherds are a little bit outcast (remember the shepherds of Bethlehem when Jesus was born?) – but it may be some of the others are. It’s a story that Jesus set in characters the outsiders would ID with, more than the Pharisees and teachers, who would probably be a little more wealthy.

2nd story – tell it fast: Woman has 10 coins, has lost one, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, searches carefully, finds it, gets friends together for a celebration.

This time, who’s the God-figure? A woman! More than that, a woman without a man in the picture at all. Whoa, that’s even farther from the Pharisees – women being of little prestige in the culture of the day, and certainly not teachers or Pharisees. Casting a woman as the God-figure – there goes Jesus again! Know what, tho? Among the other group, there may have been some women. Who’s going to ID with this story?

God as a seeking shepherd, then God as a woman with no man in the picture. He’s talking to religious insiders and religious outsiders – but in his stories, he likens God to people the outsiders would relate to, and the insiders might look down on. Must have been frustrating to the Pharisees! Must have made the outsiders thrilled.

But then, everything changes. He sets down his third story right where the Pharisees lived. It’s a wealthy home – for this is a story about an estate. And it’s about two sons – one who was following Dad’s respectable footsteps and one who wasn’t. And some of these hearers were probably wrestling with that very issue in their own homes – certainly they would know someone who was.

So this story – in contrast to the first two – is drawn from the Pharisees and teachers’ world. Why would Jesus do that? Maybe the unrespected bad guys had heard the grumbling of the much-respected good guys. Maybe Jesus told the first two stories from the bad guys worlds to help them to shrug off the respectable folks’ grumbling. In fact, you’ll often see that in Scripture. Jesus doesn’t go head-to-head too often, but when he does, look around to see if there’s someone watching. Often there’s someone standing by who’s at risk for getting wounded, and Jesus is confronting publicly for their benefit.

So now he turns to the good guys, and teaches right from their world, and he teaches slowly and carefully, drawing out the details.

The Parable of the Lost Son
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

Now apparently at this time 2/3 of an estate would pass to the older son, and 1/3 to the younger. Providing the father had died, of course. To demand it early would be to cash out of the family – and to show utter disdain for his father. How do you suppose the Pharisee fathers who are hearing Jesus’ story are feeling toward this young son?

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

Why would Jesus put his character in a hog pen? Because he’s making it as repulsive as possible to his Pharisees hearers, who view pigs as vile.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

Think he’s ever made up a line like this before? Put it this way – have you ever known a young man to be perfect in every way all his life and then suddenly hateful and dissolute? Doesn’t happen that way much. Mostly, we get to extremes of behavior a little step at a time. We stretch the limits on mom and dad one step at a time. Chances are, this young son would be viewed by the hearers as a “problem child” – someone who’d given Dad fits for years. Let’s see how Dad reacts:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, [interrupting, by the way, the son’s speech] ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

Robe and sandals and ring! These suggest he’s back “in.” Many commentators suggest that Dad’s actions indicate that Son is part owner again – with an inheritance again. But what’s different about the estate? It’s a third smaller than it was before.

How are Jesus’ hearers feeling about this?
How are we feeling about it?

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ “

Is the father a fool? Is the moral son a victim? It’s outrageous for the father to be this irresponsible! The estate is smaller now – the moral son will get less. It’s not fair!

Is the older son’s heart like his father’s heart?
What risk is the father taking? He’s risking further loss – he may end up losing another third.
Is he gonna get burned? My guess is that he’s been burned before. But he freely serves up outrageous mercy.

Let me ask you this: If we understand what God does correctly – that he seeks people and finds them and puts himself in them and what they do actually becomes others’ assumptions about what God is like – what risk did the father take when he called me? You? He risked getting burned, didn’t he, by letting us be called “Christian” and letting how we behave become public assumption about what a Christian is? And hasn’t he been burned a lot? And haven’t I done my share of the burning?

Back to the story. All these Scriptures happen on the way to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be put to death. Along the way, most of his trusted followers will slip away. By the time he hangs alone on the cross, only a very few of those to whom he has devoted the last three and a half years will have courage enough to be there with him.

Most of his people appear to be totally unpromising cowards. He hangs on the cross for people who’ve run away. He appears to have gotten badly burned.

But if he returned from the dead, as we believe, it was an endurable burn. For those very same unpromising, untrustworthy, prodigal followers of his will develop hearts like the father’s heart, brimming with outrageous mercy, looking for all the world like Jesus himself, loving those the religious may disrespect, enduring the grumbling of the religious.

Wow, I like this Jesus.
So. As we dream about the church of the future – a community of faith that reflect what Jesus is really like – what do we learn here about what he might want of us?

Related posts: Not of this world
Jesus’ Preference for the Poor

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Written by Monte

March 19, 2007 at 5:11 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Yeah – hard to get used to it – we ARE the insiders now. May God give us grace to see through ourselves!


    March 28, 2007 at 7:30 pm

  2. Hi M Per usual I’m mulling this over and trying to see the places that don’t fit with what I thought I thought.
    Would it be fair to say that both sons were prodigals? The money/inheritance does not seem to be the issue. The Father celebrates the chance to be in relationship with the runner. The Father bemoans the lost of the chance for relationship with the stayer.
    For years I thought I was the runner and it was easy to dismiss the story. I have returned and I’m fine now. Recently I realized I was the stayer and had been working because I thought it was the ‘good’ thing to do. I was burnt out and used up and not working in response to His love for me. After Sunday I realize I’m both. Drat!
    God is just relentless on my sharp edges.


    March 28, 2007 at 3:05 pm

  3. Thanks Art! Where these things end up is always a surprise to me.


    March 20, 2007 at 11:33 am

  4. Excellent sermon, Monte!


    March 20, 2007 at 8:40 am

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