Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nasty Neighbors at the Lost and Found

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

My favorite quiz show moment came years ago on the late, lamented “Tic Tac Dough”, hosted by the effervescent Wink Martindale. A map of the United States was displayed on the screen, with one state lit up in red. The contestant was asked to identify the state. With that peculiar confidence born of complete cluelessness, he answered soberly, “I believe that’s Ohio, Wink.” While memory fails me as to precisely which state was in fact lit up, I do remember that it was one of the most un-Ohio-like of the fifty – perhaps California, Texas, or Montana.
Sometimes apparently easy questions can trip us up. Imagine, for instance, that Wink Martindale were to pop into your living room just now and ask, “For fifty points: what is the unifying theme of the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel?” Most of us would immediately reply, “I believe that’s, ‘lost things get found’, Wink.” And we would be correct. Mostly.
I say, “mostly”, because when you look a little more closely at Luke 15 as a whole, you will see that God’s love for the lost is, strictly speaking, the premise for Jesus’ main point, rather than the main point itself. Notice how the chapter begins: Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable.”(Luke 15:1-3 NIV). We would expect the parables that ensue to be directed as much to the Pharisees’ grumbling as to the fact that sinners are coming to Jesus.
This is exactly what we find. About half of the parable of the lost sheep takes place after the little lamb is already safe and sound: “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” (15:6-7). The parable of the lost coin ends the same way: “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” (15:9-10). And we are all familiar with the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son, whining that he never gets to have a party with his friends.
It is not difficult to see Jesus’ point: rather than grumbling like the elder son, the Pharisees and teachers of the law ought to be like the neighbors who rejoice with the shepherd and the woman. We don’t lose the familiar blessings of the parables by noting this: the fact remains that God really is on the hunt for sinners. It is still perfectly appropriate to wrap up an evangelistic meeting with a thoughtful reflection of the prodigal son’s return home (though even there we might ask whether in the world of the parable the son is driven more by pragmatic food-based incentives rather than a heartfelt longing for dear old dad).
What we gain, meanwhile, is a valuable lesson for all of us who have been in the fold for a while. While we would of course never come out and grumble, “Why are all these sinners becoming Christians?”, it is all too easy for veteran saints to slip into the habit of downplaying the “shallowness” or “emotionalism” of new converts. Just as parents have to make a concerted effort to remember what it was like to be child, so older believers have to make a concerted effort to remember the undercurrent of pure joy that accompanies a genuine turning to God. May we rejoice with God and his angels for his continual work to seek and to save the lost.

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