Years before I was out to my congregation, Friend A approached Friend B, and said, “I think Pat R. is gay.” Friend B, who knew full well that I was indeed in a relationship with another woman said, “Well, what makes you think that?” Friend A replied, “I saw her at the Pride worship service!” Then she paused, and said, “On the other hand, I was at the Pride worship service.”
In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables in response to grumbling by religious authorities about the people he has been seen hanging out with. “This man is friendly with sinners. He even eats with them” (Luke 15:2, Contemporary English Version- CEV). We hear the most famous and heart-tugging (and maybe controversial) of these in Lent of year C: the parable of the two sons and their prodigal father. The other two parables– the first two, the ones that set up that third one– are on offer this Sunday. The passage can be found here.
In the parable the CEV titles “One Sheep,” a shepherd famously leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one who has strayed from the flock. I recently came across the suggestion that this would have been a strange decision for a shepherd to make. Certainly, from those outside the world of sheep and herds, it seems counterintuitive, until one takes into consideration the notion of relationship. The description of the Good Shepherd that informs our contemporary understanding foregrounds that relationship; it has its roots in both Christian and Hebrew scriptures, including Psalm 23. The parable does, too, with the description of the great joy of the shepherd, and the tender gesture of carrying the sheep home…. not to mention, the party. There is a celebration!
The second parable is called “One Coin” by the CEV. If the two major characters in the first parable are the Good Shepherd and the sheep, in this parable they are the Diligent Woman and the Coin. According to Amanda Brobst-Renaud at Working Preacher, each drachma represents either a full or a half-day’s wages. They may be the woman’s entire life savings, or she may be a wealthy woman, who owns her own home. She sweeps and searches and looks high and low, until she finds the coin again. Then, like the shepherd, she throws a party.
I have often wondered how Jesus interprets both of these parables as being about repentance (the marvelous Greek word metanoia, which means, literally, the mind-after, or to change one’s mind, get a new view) when neither a sheep nor a coin is capable of it. In her Working Preacher Commentary, Brobst-Renaud places the responsibility of the loss of sheep and coin squarely on their care-takers– as is the recovery. After noting that “Commentators frequently associate the shepherd and the woman with God…” she goes on to ponder: “If God is the one who searches, is God also the one who loses the objects?”
Other questions raised by the passage:
What do these parables say to our notions of salvation if being found is not, in fact, contingent on repentance?
What is the significance of the fact that each of the three “lost and found” parables ends with a community celebration? What prophetic word does this speak to a culture that regards religion as personal and private? In the words of Basil of Caesarea, if religion is just a private matter, “Whose feet will you wash?”
How committed are we to identifying both the Shepherd and the Woman as God? We are cautioned against turning parables into easy allegories. Is there another scenario playing out in this story, perhaps one about the responsibility of a community for its members?
What was served at the party thrown by the shepherd?
To prepare us for the gospel reading, the Revised Common Lectionary offers up either Psalm 14 (Fools say in their heart, there is no God!) or the beautiful and problematic Psalm 51 (the equation of cleanliness of heart with whiteness; for an alternative translation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Psalter offers: “Wash me, and I shall be purer than snow.”). I’m currently leaning towards neither of these and favoring Psalm 23.
Also on offer this week are Exodus 32:7-14 (Moses talking God down from smiting the Israelites in the wake of their creation and worship of a golden idol) and 1 Timothy 1:12-17 (in which the author of the letter offers their own life as an example of sinfulness followed by repentance, highlighting the sure and abundant grace of God). Abundant commentary is available at Working Preacher as well as The Text This Week.
We would love to know where you are today, sister and brother preachers. What stories call to you? How will you highlight God’s love and grace for your people? Please join us in the comments, and blessings both on your preparation and your proclamation this week.
Pat has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007. Pat is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is a mother of two young adults (Ned and Joan) and happily partnered to Sherry. She loves swimming, reading, writing, and film. A native of the Jersey shore, and in love with the New England coastline, she misses the ocean every day.
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