I know I gripe about this too much, but why to the lectionary’s editors cut out two whole blasted parables from this week’s reading? Have attention spans waned to the point where we can’t tolerate 30 verses of the Bible? Ah, well. At least, I suppose, there’s a better chance that folks will hear the Bible read with a lectionary than without.
Luke presents this trio of parables as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem. That datum is important precisely because Jesus’s rivals in the region, the Temple authorities and the Pharisees, are watching his every move and listening to his every word, and those who have been through more than a few seasons of Lent know how their fear and hatred of Jesus is going to shake out. I think preachers have done some genuine good treating these parables as texts of healing, a call to the faithful to see themselves as the lost sheep and coins and sons of the world, and I won’t say that the sermons I’ve heard that use those texts that way are wrong. I will suggest that the texts present another kind of challenge if we see them as subverting and confronting the minor powers of the occupied region.
First, as I always say when I teach the canonical Gospels in Sunday school settings, tax-collectors and sinners in the twenty-first century aren’t quite the same thing as tax-collectors and sinners in the first century. “Sinners” does not stand as a name for all of humanity, as Paul would teach us to think, but a caste of untouchables. Because of what they must do to feed themselves and possibly their families, “sinners” could neither join their countrymen in the Temple for festivals of sacrifice nor join in as a real member of the Synagogue for the sake of hearing the Torah. In other words, the Pharisees’ (think Synagogue) and scribes’ (think Temple) grumbling at Jesus in this episode’s beginning signals that his keeping company with these “sinners” is not merely “running with a bad crowd” but disqualifying himself from the ritual life of Israel, as the Pharisees and scribes thought of that life, and thus disqualified him from being the true king, as many had come to call him.
Tax-collectors were even worse. If sinners passively stood disqualified from the life of Israel, tax-collectors actively kept Israel itself under the power of occupiers and Gentiles and pagans. In big cities the Roman Empire, like the Persians before them, used big Temples as sites for collecting their taxes. In Ephesus no doubt the Artemisium was such a place, and in Jerusalem, when a widow put her two pennies into the coffer, she was funding neither Israel’s sacrifices nor the priests’ families but the very Roman garrison that oppressed Rome. (This is one reason why the people were scandalized when Jesus related in a friendly manner with centurions, and this is one reason why the standard sermons about “the widow’s mite” and “the soldiers and John the Baptist” usually miss the points of their passages.) In regions like Galilee, where there was no central shrine but a network of Synagogues where the faithful gathered, Rome would employ local gangsters, often with small private armies, to shake down the locals (usually their own countrymen), turn over Rome’s share to local governors, and keep the rest to keep paying their small private armies. As a reasonable person might imagine, folks did not much like tax-collectors, and their reasons were far more legitimate than the AM radio listener’s disdain for America’s IRS.
So when Jesus tells his parables, he knows full well that he’s been behaving badly, and his stories do not apologize for that bad behavior but revel in it and even enlist God as the true driving force behind the bad behavior. God, in the first parable, is not a responsible shepherd who takes measures to protect 99 sheep in order to retrieve one; God leaves the 99 in the field, where robbers and wolves and the sheep’s own self-destructive stupidity stand to destroy the flock that, by all accounts, the shepherd should be watching. By the time the gospel of Luke takes its written form, those hearing the passage would not doubt have the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem in mind when they heard this story of this parable. Likewise the woman and the coins (and by the way, if we confess that God is a shepherd, and if we confess that God is a father, then shouldn’t we also confess with joy that God is a woman?) shows the same disregard for economy that the parable of the sower does: this is a God who will throw a party, which costs many denarii, because one denarius has been found. And once more, the father who welcomes home the son who wishes him dead (in what circumstances do people actually receive inheritance from their parents, folks?) no doubt sends a message to those who hold sway in the souls of Palestinian Jewry that, although God will take nothing from them that’s rightfully theirs (note that, at the end of that parable, the father says that all he has remains the elder son’s property), God’s family will celebrate the one who returns so long as the family remains intact.
When we read these parables in the season of Lent, we get a handy reminder that our own salvation comes as an outpouring of that divine madness, that the normal economy of gods and their favored tribes goes out the window when the sinners whom God saves become more important, in real and historical terms, than the respectable older brother or the coins that the woman spends in celebrating the one missing coin or even–perhaps especially–in the case of the ninety-nine sheep left to be destroyed as God pursues the one, lost sheep.
Looking at things sub specie resurrectionis is a tempting way to take the crazy out of things, to say that in the end the respectable and the lost both get saved, and perhaps that’s where theology should eventually land. But as we read these passages, let us dwell at least for a moment on the possibility that God really might let ninety-nine sheep fall to their fate, that the elder brother might really have to watch as his brother, who wished their beloved father dead, gets celebrated with music and feasting. In this time between the times, when the resurrection is a hope unseen, God’s favor for the sinner in these parables and in the ministry of Jesus is just what the Psalms most fear, that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, that God’s way in the world is deeply immoral.
(Yes, I’ve read Romans, O Reader. Put your hand down for a moment and let the scandal sink in. It’s good for you.)
Perhaps Lent might serve as a moment for us to hear the parables as the tales of madness and scandal that they can be if we dwell in them on their own terms. And perhaps such a dwelling is just what we need really to recognize what it means to say “I once was lost but now am found” without being in too much of a hurry to render grace something less than amazing and something less than astounding.
May our Lenten meditations take God on God’s own terms and revel in the grace that makes the good folks grumble.