by the Reverend David Malek
According to the introduction to the Gospel of St. Luke in the New Oxford Annotated Bible:
In broad strokes, Luke tells the same basic story that one reads in the other three canonical Gospels: Jesus appears, ministers in Galilee, and moves to Judea and Jerusalem where he encounters deadly hostility that leads to his suffering, death, and resurrection. Yet, Luke’s story of Jesus has a logic and content that distinguish it among the four Gospels. In Luke’s remembrance of Jesus one finds the manifestation of divine compassion as Jesus reaches out to live and work among the marginal members of his society. Women, the less-than-pious, tax collectors, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and even noble Pharisees are present and interact with Jesus more prominently in this account than in any other.
Right from the get go, when we read Luke, we notice something very different about this Gospel. First it is extremely inclusive: whenever Luke relates the story of a man, he follows it up with a story of a woman. This, of course, begins with the Angel Gabriel appearing first to Zechariah to herald the birth of John the Baptist, followed immediately by the story of Gabriel appearing to Mary to herald the birth of Jesus. As we move through the Gospel, we will also notice that the narratives often couple together men and women, such as in the first miracle stories in which we read about Jesus casting out a demon from a man with an unclean spirit followed immediately by the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law from a high fever.
And if that were not powerful enough in itself, we quickly learn that for Luke’s Jesus, in the reign of God, up is down, the center is a bit to the left, and what we thought was east is really somewhere around southwest. In other words, the reign of God is substantially counter-cultural. And Jesus has been sent by God to show us what that looks like and how we ought to participate in it.
This is the backdrop for where we find ourselves today in Luke’s Gospel: sitting down for a meal with tax collectors and sinners who have come near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Now at this juncture in the gospel, this puzzles me because, by this time, besides the two healings that I noted earlier, Jesus
Then, as if to provoke them even more, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus challenges these religious elites by telling two parables. One involves a man – a shepherd – and the other involves a woman – a frantic widow. And, in typical Lucan fashion, having Jesus using these analogies for God is jarring to some of his hearers.
According to the Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels:
…Being away from home at night, shepherds were unable to protect their wives and children, hence they were considered dishonorable. In addition, they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people’s property. As for widows, the Hebrew word for widow connotes one who is silent, one unable to speak. In a society in which males played the public role and in which women did not speak on their own behalf, the position of the widow, particularly if an eldest son was not yet married, was one of extreme vulnerability.
So today, Jesus - with grace and kindness - is once again pushing the inclusivity envelope.
The good news for us today is that in the reign of God, everyone is invited to the party: everyone is welcome – no exceptions! This includes tax collectors and sinners, women and men, Pharisees and scribes, shepherds and widows. This is how divine compassion manifests itself in Jesus. This is also a message about how inclusivity equals wholeness. You see in a flock of 100 sheep; when one goes missing, the flock is no longer whole, no longer intact. In the same way, the number 10 in Hebrew is a perfect number, so when the widow loses one of her 10 coins, her wealth is no longer whole, no longer stable. The good news that Jesus shares with us this morning is that God can and does restore God’s people to wholeness and holiness.
Here I want to briefly share a personal story. In my late 20’s around age 26 or 27 I decided that I wanted to run marathons. In order to do that, I did all sorts of crazy training stuff. I am certain that the long distance runners in this crowd can relate!
One thing I would do on a regular basis was drive up to Pere Marquette Park on the River Road in Illinois, and run a 7-mile run that went 3 miles up a ridge, and 4 miles back to the car. It so happened that one day I somehow got myself lost by veering off of the marked trail such that I was not really sure of where I was. In addition, a late summer thunderstorm had also blown in and there I was in a panic aware that the tree canopy in the park above and around me was nothing more than a large grouping of lightening rods. As my anxiety mounted, I realized that I was lost and just needed to calm down.
So I stopped, took some deep breaths, and prayed that I could somehow find the trail markers again, and get back safely to my car. And, that is exactly what did happen after a bit more of my fumbling about on that ridge.
So here was my life lesson in that episode. Although I was fairly experienced with the park, somehow I got myself lost. Right then in the midst of a gathering storm, it didn’t really matter how I got lost; what mattered was getting back to safety.
I believe that we all have the potential to get lost in our lives. In our third baptismal promise, we say that we “will persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Note that we say "whenever," not "if." That can happen due to our willfulness, our carelessness, or just because we are wonderful, and at the same time often frail, human beings. It can be quite easy at times to dig ourselves into holes that are suddenly too deep to dig ourselves out of. And it is precisely then that we need to trust that Jesus – our sibling and friend – can and will help us find our way back to safety.
Again, it doesn’t matter how we get ourselves lost, what matters is that we have a God who loves us and wants to find us and restore us to wholeness and holiness.
To close, allow me to quote from Sr. Joan Chittister’s book The Rule of Benedict entitled "Insights for the Ages":
We will fail often, but God will not fail us and we must not stop. "God," the elder said, "is closer to sinners than to saints." "But how can that be?" the eager disciple asked. And the elder explained: "God in heaven holds each person by a string. When we sin, we cut the string. Then God ties it up again, making a knot – bringing the sinner a little closer. Again and again sins cut the string – and with each knot God keeps drawing the sinner closer and closer."
Sisters and brothers, siblings in Christ, let us pray that divine compassion and the reign of God may indeed be made plain in us and that we thereby may become hope to others. Amen
The Reverend David Malek serves as Curate at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, and is a former parishioner of St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org
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