The Company God Keeps
Text: Luke 15:1-10
What preacher does not love the fifteenth chapter of Luke? What preacher worth her salt cannot soar like an eagle with the rousing, recurring, rhetoric of “lost” and “found” that frames this chapter?
The problem with parables, though, is that they should come with the equivalent of those yellow cones that are often placed on newly waxed floors. Parables are by nature “slippery when wet” and they are always wet, even when they look perfectly dry. They lure us out onto the floor and before we know it, our feet are up in the air and we are looking at the room from an entirely new, and often not so comfortable, angle.
It is even harder to understand parables when we skip over their introductions, as I tend to do with all those manuals and legal documents that come with new appliances and I stuff unread into busy desk drawers. In Luke’s introduction to the three parables that follow, he removes the “slippery when wet” cones just before we hit the biblical floor. Luke wants us to fall. He wants to disorient us. He wants to bring us down from the balcony where we watch the parables performed from a safe distance and then politely applaud.
Long before Chapter fifteen, Luke trips us up. He begins with the song of a teenage girl who finds out the always life-changing news that she is pregnant. Mary does not say what most anyone would say to such news, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do.” My hunch is that young girls who found themselves pregnant and unwed in those days did not find such news a moment for singing. Yet, in Luke, Mary sings with thanks, “my soul doth magnify the Lord.”
Mary’s is a summersault song of how following God and God’s son will transform us. Mary’s is a song that most of us who have more than a few bucks in our pockets either spiritualize or analyze or rationalize until we can turn our world back upright. For those, though, who were sleeping over an exhaust grate on the downtown mall last winter or are dodging gunfire in Syria or are trying to figure out how to pay their latest medical bill, Mary’s is a summersault song that requires absolutely no adaptation.
Luke knows that Jesus cannot be understood from the balcony and discipleship can never happen from a safe distance. For Luke, Jesus is “slippery when wet,” and he is always wet, always turning over our most cherished assumptions and challenging our most comfortable attitudes. Luke insists that we read his introduction before we hear the first parable from Jesus. Luke says: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (15:1-2).”
From that introduction, Jesus goes on to tell three parables about “lost” and “found.” If you preach or have made it a habit of listening to sermons, you already know that this is a chapter heavily weighted toward the back end. The first two parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are often treated as warm up acts for the main feature that follows. Well, today, they are the main feature.
The first of the three parables is about sheep and a shepherd. Unlike Al and Jeanne who raised sheep for years, I will confess that I know precious little about them. What little I know, though, has left an indelible memory that makes me smile and groan.
Some years back, Jennell, Erin, Josh and I were heading to Loch Katrine in the Trossachs region of Scotland. It was an idyllic drive with every passenger adding helpful advice to the driver. No cross word was ever spoken and joy radiated from every seat. Well, not exactly. Actually, directions flew like pieces of paper in a windstorm from both the back and front seats, and pretty soon this driver was focusing less on the road and more on who was going to get invited out of the car first!
After driving along an increasingly narrow road for a half hour, we discovered that we were hopelessly lost, skirting beside Loch Tay, not Loch Katrine. When I stopped to let Josh and Erin climb down a hill to the banks of Loch Tay, a group of sheep came heading toward our rental car. This rebellious flock gave new meaning to the biblical image: “sheep without a shepherd.” Some were heading east, several others heading west, one or two looked like they might head back down the hill, but most were headed right at us. I thought to myself: “I sure am glad that I don’t have to gather this herd.”
Now, back to the first parable that Jesus tells in Luke 15. Jesus asks, “Which one of you shepherds who owns 100 sheep, and found that one had strayed away, would not go searching for that 1 and leave the 99 on their own?” After my experience in Scotland, my answer would be easy: “No one in their right mind would go searching for just one, lost sheep.” It makes no sense. It is not cost effective and frankly, it is irresponsible. Lord knows what might happen to the 99 sheep during the search for the one. But, in this story, Jesus tells us about a shepherd who does go searching for the lone, lost sheep and “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.”
In the next parable, a woman turns her house upside down, burning expensive oil, to find one lost coin. Her behavior is overkill at best, a bit like sending in U.S. marines to protect the National zoo. About this parable, Charlie Cousar writes: “[It] depicts a woman who, having lost one of her treasured silver coins, lights a lamp and sweeps her house carefully until she finds the lost coin. She is overjoyed and calls her friends to celebrate the finding of the lost coin. No doubt her coin was a drachma, worth the price of a sheep or one-fifth the price of an ox. She has thus invested a great deal in the party she has thrown for her friends . . . God is depicted as a searching woman, who rejoices over finding her lost coin” (Charles Cousar, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, p. 71).
I suspect that Jesus tells these two stories to defy any of us to try to explain the goodness and grace the God, to make rational sense of the fact that God cares for us with the same loving, almost reckless, abandon that the shepherd cares for the lone lost sheep and the woman searches for the lone lost coin. And, then both the shepherd and the woman celebrate.
The God we meet in Luke 15 reminds me of a travel article years ago in the NY Times on pubs in Oxford, England. It commented that “a good pub is a ready-made party, a home away from home, a club anyone can join” (Henry Shukman, “A Pub Crawl through the Centuries,” NY Times, April 13, 2008).
These two parables from Luke 15 point to that kind of celebratory, inclusive love that God has for us and the kind of love God makes possible in us and has given to us. That said, the Pharisees refuse to be the villains in this story. They are not pleased with the company that Jesus and his friends are keeping. They quote the Bible to state their objection. In the first chapter of Proverbs, we hear: “My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent . . . my child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths” (Proverbs 1:10,15). In others words, be careful of the company you keep. The first Psalm admonishes: “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread.” (Psalm 1:1). Translation: be careful of the company you keep.
The Pharisees knew that they lived in a dangerous world and so do we. We live in a world where terrorists fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, where gangs demand the most heinous acts in the name of loyalty, where guns are nearly as easy to purchase in America as our weekly groceries. In my own, righteous, way, I have told my children what my parents told me and what the Pharisees told Jesus, “Be careful of the company you keep.”
As soon as you and I have said those words, Luke motions us out onto the dance floor. And, like an old storyteller from the country, he says, “Let me tell you stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin.” For Luke’s Gospel is all about taking a hard look at the company God keeps and the company therefore that God invites us to keep.
Luke 15 invites us to live our lives knowing that God has found us and loves us and rejoices in us. When we know that, there are no extremes to which you and I will go to find and to love and then to celebrate with all the company that God keeps.