“Once there was a tow truck driver who on his way to a lucrative crash site saw an old guy fall into the gutter. So he stopped to help. He chose compassion over cash. God is like that tow truck driver.”
Many of us have low opinions of tow truck drivers. While convenient at times, they seem to be mostly into money not mercy, ‘stand over’ rather than ‘hand up’, making life miserable rather than better. We wouldn’t be surprised to learn of gang affiliations and shady deals. Would you trust a tow truck driver?
Luke 15:1-7 casts God in the role of a shepherd, the first century Palestinian equivalent of a tow truck driver. Forget the gentle, loving look of the longhaired saint in the recently laundered robe. Shepherds were low life, petty thieves, and not to be trusted. Calling God a shepherd was offensive in Jesus’ day.
Likewise calling God a woman was intended to offend. A woman in those days was either her father’s property or her husband’s, or she was a slave, or on the street. Every day the orthodox men prayed, “Thank God I wasn’t born a woman.” Women’s role was to have kids, cook, clean, and earn money.
The story of God as a sweeping woman was offensive. The inferior and subservient gender was being elevated to the heavens, there to reign over men. After all everyone knew God was male, otherwise God would be weak and lacking in authority and power.
We need to read these Jesus stories not only as tales of compassion for the disoriented and lost, but also as tales subversive of normative religion and cultural expectations.
Another key concept in both stories is that of repentance. To repent is to turn from the direction one is heading in. Sin, guilt, and sorrow may be involved, but the key is turning. Turning is what unlocks hope.
Who though is being exhorted to repent?
The scene is set in verses 1 and 2. Tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus and he was welcoming and dining with them. Tax collectors were bullying thugs, Roman lackeys hated by the Jewish public. Sinners were all those who fell outside of the strictures of the purity regulations. The lame, blind, poor, prostitutes, gentiles all fell within this genre. Jesus ate with them all.
The anthropologists Farb and Armelagos write:
In all societies eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships… Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among society’s members…
Jesus transgressed his society’s boundaries about who ate with whom. He did not exercise discretion. All those labels – like tax collector and sinners – were derogatory terms for those with whom association should be avoided. Jesus ignored them. He had a vision of a non-discriminating society that he enacted by practicing a non-discriminating table.
His critics, the religiously righteous and the lawyers, wanted him to repent. Jesus replied with stories, beginning with the stray sheep and missing coin.
On a casual reading it seems from verses 7 and 10 that it is the stray or missing who is doing the repenting. However, on closer inspection, the wandering sheep hasn’t done any turning. Rather it is the shepherd who has lifted it up and carried it – the language denoting care and concern rather than rebuke or scolding. More obviously in the story of the sweeping woman it is nonsense to consider that the lost coin repented or turned in a new direction. Rather, like the sheep, it was found and cherished.
The missing sheep and coin haven’t sat down and thought how bad they are, or how they miss the other sheep and coins, or even how they could possibly have got lost. Rather these stories are of an unlikely God seeking them out, finding them, cherishing them, and reconnecting them to the whole community. The strays aren’t asked to change their ways or confess their wrongdoings.
However there is one group who are being asked to repent – namely the grumblers. The text calls them ‘Pharisees and Scribes’. The term Pharisee is a very broad brush. Like the word Anglican it encompasses a range of religious views. Pharisaism was a widespread reform movement that sought to personalize Judaism, bringing God into every village, home, and heart. Jesus was a part of this movement. All scribes, or legal lawyers, likewise cannot be assumed to be critics of Jesus. Therefore it is more accurate to say these grumblers were religious fundamentalist nitpickers.
The power of the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin is that Jesus is re-imaging God as an impure outsider – that is a sinner. The sinner God exercises mercy not judgement in Her relationships with those who are vilified. The sinner God includes those who are lost, tenderly owns them, and rejoices in their presence. The sinner God and Her actions are anathema to the religiously righteous. Jesus says these grumblers are the ones who need to turn, to repent, and face the truths of this offensive God.
Today we have become timid in our imaging of God. We think it is radical and risqué to even call God Her. Our images of God as loving and inclusive do not do justice to the sinner God who is offensive to the keepers of the status quo, religious or secular. Indeed the concepts of God as transforming love or divine energy unless earthed in risky imagery and stories are a diluted insipid version of the offensive God Jesus was shoving into the faces of his opponents.
We also need to rethink our vision of inclusive love – not that tolerance, justice, and understanding between peoples, races, religions, genders and orientations is not a worthwhile goal. Yet the vision often has an underlying premise of us, the powerful, letting the powerless in; or us, the powerless, wanting the powerful to invite us in. To use the metaphor of a non-discriminating dining table with us all sitting around together: Where is this table located, and who has set the menu?
Or put another way, where and to whom is the sinner God gonna run to? This God leaves the 99 well-feed and respectable church and business leaders, and goes AWOL. This God doesn’t do normal, or expected, or civilised.
This God could be found on the banks of the Brisbane River three weeks ago when a group of gay friends grieving a young man’s death threw high heels into the water. God threw one of Hers too.
This God was blowing raspberries at the back of a meeting of the ruling council of the Northern Irish Free Presbyterian Church when they ousted this week their founder Ian Paisley for his tolerance of Gay Pride marches. She also danced for joy that such a dogged hardliner as Paisley could change, albeit a little.
Will we turn and face this offensive God? We will overcome the objections of grumblers, and the grumbling inside ourselves, to find and be found by this sinner God and Her wild ways?