Jesus and community... a subject near and dear to my heart as we face such division in America today.
Jesus gives us a familiar but powerful parable about how He has come for the one:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:1-7)
After this parable, Jesus goes on to tell about a woman who lost a coin:
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
Repentance of the lost one was celebrated by the finder--a reminder to Jesus' audience that “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Jesus' mission was to offer a deep relationship with His Father to those who longed for mercy. He moved passed the ruling elites and all of their impediments--excessive rules and a focus on justice, with little or no mercy--and went out to find the lost ones. The sick ones. The estranged ones.
I love how the return of the one is celebrated in community--the shepherd doesn't return to his flock with the lost sheep, who he had left in "open country," but he "goes home." There, with the sheep lovingly carried on his shoulders, he shares his joy with his "friends and neighbors."
The same with the woman: She gathers her "friends and neighbors together" and celebrates with them her finding of the valuable coin.
The community--the Body of Christ--is a place for celebration. We gather to honor God and praise Him for the work He is doing in His people. Just last week in church, a woman came forward to share with all of us how God had touched her. Her joy was contagious. She could have kept the good news to herself; just as the shepherd and woman with the coin could have remained silent, thanking God and returning to their lives. But all three (the shepherd, the woman and my church sister) wanted the community to know of the goodness of God.
Jesus tells of His mission in this last parable, crafting it, however, in more somber tones. We, as an audience, can smile at a shepherd and a woman with a coin, but a struggling family hits much closer to home.
Then and now.
The last parable is a sadder one, and shows how division in our spiritual family can be painful and stunt the joy of others. It's so familiar. Jesus told it last, and perhaps this parable resonated best with His audience:
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
"The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’"But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
"‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:11-32)
Jesus tells a rather different celebration story here. Friends and neighbors are not invited in--does the father have any? Had he been socially ostracized because of his fallen son? Were there whispers when he went into town about that son of his? A son who fraternized with prostitutes and ate pig food? Or was the community unaware of how profoundly the son had fallen--all they knew is that he took his inheritance and left his father. Either way, the pain in the father's heart was unimaginable. He was, in effect, in a tiny community: He is surrounded by his servants (two, three?) and his other son.
The celebration commences with the return of the repentant son and a feast. But the story says nothing of the neighbors joining the father and his servants.
Why was the father so alone in his celebrating? His other son won't even join in the celebration. His angry words put a damper on the whole proceedings, for he has judged his father and brother. The father has to plead with him and explain why (how sad) they all are celebrating. The parable ends on a somber note: a repentant son, a happy father, a celebration, an angry brother and a father's plea to justify a celebration.
No community here. Just a family in grief and joy, laughter and anger, return and emotional exile.
The community of believers right now in America strike me more as being in the third parable. Though God is working in individuals and we can rejoice, there are many angry brothers and sisters out there (who can justify their anger, to be sure) who may need to learn from this angry brother in the parable: We need to humble ourselves before God, and allow Him to celebrate the lost in His way, while we embrace His lost and forgive them.
Let James have the last Word:
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:7-12)
And all the people said, "Amen."