Scripture Readings: Isaiah 1.15-18 (not Lectionary)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
At the beginning of today’s Bible reading, Jesus of Nazareth is in trouble. This happened to Jesus a lot. Again and again, he went against people’s expectations, and this upset some of them.
Luke tells us that, ‘all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him’. Tax collectors were not popular in a country under Roman occupation. Sinners were those who were thought to have broken moral and religious rules.
This causes ‘the Pharisees and the scribes’ to grumble. These are the respectable, those who think of themselves as very religious and moral. Nowadays they might be called ‘role-models’, to show the rest of us how to live. Admired by most people, they have a high opinion of themselves, for they are the kind of people who usually think they are right. And they believe that they have God on their side.
So they grumble: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’. They think that Jesus is attracting the wrong crowd. How can Jesus be a respected religious teacher, if his audience attracts people who are pretty irreligious? As the Pharisees and the scribes see it, there must be something wrong with a religious teacher who attracts the outcasts, the scum, the dregs of society, the irreligious, the immoral.
But Jesus has a message for those on the edge of respectable society. And he had way of putting across his message in a way that people could easily understand. He had an eye for metaphors, similes, signs. He told stories- parables- in which he used the everyday to speak of the eternal.
Let me tell you about a shepherd, says Jesus. Few of us, perhaps, are shepherds (although, as it happens, I was just speaking to someone this week who keeps a few sheep on a croft). But those of us who live in the Highlands can, with a bit of imagination, imagine what the life and work of a shepherd in ancient Israel was like.
Sheep and shepherds are favourite metaphors in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. The Old Testament compared God to a shepherd looking after his sheep. The most famous example is in the twenty-third Psalm, but there are other places where that turns up. A flock of sheep scattered across a hillside needs care and protection. The shepherd is there to lead and look after the sheep. Without the shepherd’s care, the flock becomes hopelessly lost and scattered, prey to wild animals, thieves, and the perils of the mountains. The Psalmist sang that God was his shepherd, who kept him safe and led him through perilous places.
This was, of course, a mostly rural community. Most people made their living off the land. If you didn’t keep a few sheep yourself, you certainly knew somebody who did. So Jesus speaks to his hearers:
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?
For those who first hear this story, it is a familiar situation (even if Jesus exaggerates for effect, since only a very wealthy shepherd would own a hundred sheep). Many of them might well have been in this situation- or even if they hadn’t they would know what to do.
If you lost a sheep, of course you will go looking for it. Livestock is valuable. So if a shepherd counted his sheep and found he was one down, of course he would go searching for it. Perhaps it has been stolen. Perhaps it has been attacked by a wolf or a bear. Maybe it has fallen down a ravine, or swept away in a mountain river. But when he goes off to look, he hopes to find it safe and well. Perhaps it wandered off on its own, into some green pastures, and is now lapping at some still waters.
So Jesus challenges the respectable religious people: ‘If you lost one of your sheep, wouldn’t go and look for it? And if you found it safe, wouldn’t you rejoice? ‘Of course they would.
This tale is, as I have suggested, a tale about a wealthy farmer- someone who owned as many as a hundred sheep. But Jesus now tells the same story in a different way. This time, the hero is a poor peasant woman. Somehow, she has saved up ten silver coins. But now she loses one. I think she would have been even more desperate that the farmer, for her loss is proportionally much great. He had lost one sheep in a hundred; she has lost one coin in ten, ten percent of her life savings.
So she lights a lamp- she will use some expensive lamp oil to illuminate the darkest corners of her wee house. She will sweep the mud floor of her humble dwelling in the hope that that will uncover the precious coin. And when she finds it, she rejoices. She had lost something very valuable to her, and now she has got it back.
At the end of both these stories, Jesus makes to his listeners what he is talking about. Just as human beings rejoice when they find something, don’t you think there is rejoicing in heaven when a lost soul is found? You think that it’s a bad thing that the unrespectable, the sinners, the outcasts are the people who are drawn to my teaching. You can’t imagine that a religious teacher could be respectable, and yet share food and fellowship with such folk? But how many of those have you brought back to God? You like to avoid the sinners, not talk to them. What if each lost soul is someone of infinite worth, immensely valuable, to God?
Jesus remind us that we are divided from God. None of us are perfect- in the language of the Bible, we are all sinners. And yet that is not the last word, in these parables or in any of the teaching of Jesus.
God does not just condemn us for our faults. That would be the attitude of the scribes and the Pharisees. No, the God of Jesus Christ is a God who wants us to return to him. As Pope Francis has been reminding us recently, mercy is defining characteristic of the God of Jesus Christ. You may be a sinner, says Jesus. But when you return to God, there is rejoicing in heaven. For every human soul, every human being, is of infinite worth to God. Both today’s parables are stories are ultimately about the infinite worth of every human being.
No wonder Jesus was popular with those whom everyone else thought were worthless. Here was a man who, in straightforward language, had a message for all people, without exception: you are all important to God.
And are not many of the problems we face in our world today down to us forgetting that all people are valuable, important?
Many people today feel like leftover people. Too many people feel that the benefits of modern life pass them by. I think, I have to admit to our European friends, that is possibly why so many people in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Although many of us believe that there are great advantages to staying within the EU, we have to recognise that many of our neighbours had been convinced that, at the very least, Brexit couldn’t make their lives any worse.
Most of us probably react in horror at the thought of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States. But I think the same sort of dynamic is going on there as well. People convinced they are being treated as leftovers, people who do not see that they are benefitting from the current economic and political set-up in the United States- they are the ones who, rightly or wrongly, think that Donald Trump has a positive message for them.
Yet too often, these movements of people who believe they are forgotten or are not valued, place the blame on others. The leaders of these movements find scapegoats- migrants, asylum seekers, foreigners. They will play on the fears that people have, that their lives are being made dangerous or poorer by people from different cultures.
And sometimes, people who were are already feeling leftover, forgotten, become victims a second time. Men, women and children, fleeing atrocity, war, murder, rape, from countries have become totally unsafe for them, struggle to reach Europe, where they think they will be safe.
While some are welcomed, many are not. Europe feels overwhelmed by the refugee crisis seems to overwhelm us. Still, the boats come across the Mediterranean, and still the drownings happen. We cannot solve it by building walls and fences across our continent again. It can only be solved by patient diplomacy in the war zones, and by compassion for the victims, and a welcome to the refugees.
For war, poverty, injustice, murderous ideologies which are fuelling wars across the world today- these things flourish when we lost sight of the fact that every person is of infinite worth in God’s sight. The Judeo-Christian tradition which has done so much to shape Europe teaches us this. Right at the start of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, we learn that human beings have been made in God’s image. And then Jesus comes, and teaches us that God rejoices when anyone finds their way back to him.
Eight centuries before Christ, the prophet Isaiah was reminding the people of Israel of their responsibilities. He said that the situation had got so bad, that God was no longer listening to the prayers of the people. The people of Israel, he said, were holding out their hands in prayer to God, but their hands were stained in blood. And so, on behalf of God, the prophet urges the people:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
The prophet is very specific about saying what God wants of his people. In ancient, patriarchal societies, widows and orphans were at the bottom of the pile. With no-one to earn for them, they were absolutely dependent in the generosity of others. And when the rest of society did not look after those at the bottom, when injustice was left to fester- that was something God would not accept. The prophet is saying that worship is hypocritical if it is not accompanied with practical care and concern for those in need.
Yet, says God, if you do turn, your sins which are scarlet like blood on your hands can be washed away. Just as Jesus teaches that lost souls can be found again, so Isaiah is saying that a society which turns to God and does justice will find forgiveness and mercy.
Very often, politics seems to work for the benefit of those who have it all already. Or it creates scapegoats- people who are not like us. Or, as Isaiah says, we become indifferent to the plight of those who have little or nothing. We build walls against refugees. We ignore those who cannot get jobs in a changing world. We discriminate against people because of age, gender, sexuality, race, religion or social class. We fail to ensure that our elderly and our most vulnerable children are well looked after.
Many of us have it good in our city of Inverness. Yet even here there are pockets of poverty, there are young people who feel helpless and hopeless, there are people without work who feel they have no stake in society, there are lonely elderly people, there are foreigners who sometimes encounter prejudice. And, yes, there is excellent good work going on to help. But we absolutely must never lose sight of the fact that it is wrong and dangerous for us to create a situation in which there are leftover people. Every person is a child of God, and deserves our respect and solidarity.
So let us build a city, let us work across Europe for a continent, let us pray and hope and struggle for a world in which the value and worth of very person is celebrated and not ignored. That is the practical outcome of the Christian message, and an outcome which even in this more secular age all of us involved in public life should be working towards.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the News Revised Standard Version of the Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo