Proper 19, Jeremiah 4:11-12-22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10, Brooklyn, 09/16/07
Is it really true? Does God come after you like this? Will God come after you to find you, like the woman looking for her coin, like the shepherd for the sheep? You are just one of several billion people, and our planet is only one small speck in the galaxy, and our galaxy is one of billions in the universe, and are you to believe that God is so aware of you? Does God get that specific?
It is really true that God gets happy when God finds you and brings you back? So as to throw a celebration with invitations? Is God so emotional? Does God get that personal?
Would you like it to be true? Would you like God to notice when you’re missing? Would you like God to come and find you? Do you want God to be so personal? Or do you prefer it if God is more objective, less emotionally involved, more distant?
But if God is God, then how can God ever lose us in the first place? If God is God, then God already knows where the coin is, and God already knows where every last sheep is.
I suspect these riddles offended the Pharisees. Comparing God to a woman would have been, shall we say, uncongenial to their sensibilities. But picturing God as so passionate and emotional risks a sentimentality inappropriate to the creator of the worlds and the fearful judge of the nations. This kind of God lacks dignity and righteousness and holiness. And self-respect.
That’s their general problem with Jesus. He lacks self-respect and holiness, as with his inappropriate closeness to sinners, eating with them, contrary to the biblical laws of kosher, and with the tax collectors, who not only extort God’s people but show far less interest in the kingdom of God than in the empire of Rome. That Jesus cavorts with them displays a lack of standards and boundaries and discretion, not to mention wisdom and righteousness.
Of course Jesus also ate with Pharisees and scribes. He accepted invitations to their tables too. What’s remarkable about Jesus is how he treats everyone the same, saint or sinner, pious or polluted. He’s not against your being a spiritual success or an ethical paradigm, a regular Mother Teresa, that’s great, but he’s going to treat you just the same as he treats a bum. And he means that God does too. Every single last person has the very same value to God. Infinite value.
It feels unlikely, doesn’t it, that an ordinary person should have infinite value to God. Good grief, I only weigh 93 kilograms, how could I have more relative value than the planet Jupiter? Maybe it made sense five hundred years ago, when people thought the planet earth was the center of the universe.
But, on the other hand, infinite does not necessarily mean vast. That’s a category mistake. And so if God is neither limited nor conditioned by the categories of space and time in which we live, then at least it’s conceivable that God is so aware of you, that God finds you that important, and that God is so personally invested in you.
But doesn’t God abandon some people anyway? Isn’t it our experience that God allows some people to get lost and stay lost? Why didn’t God save Joseph Stalin? Little Joseph started out a lamb like everyone else, and in his youth he studied to be a priest, so when he wandered off, why didn’t God go find him and bring him back? You are acquainted with some people whose lives are unfortunate or miserable, and you are saddened by their bitterness and loneliness, but God just seems to let them go.
"Jesus, isn’t this picture of God a little doubtful?" If it makes God so joyful, then why doesn’t God save absolutely everybody? Why does God let anybody go?
These riddles would offend the scribes and Pharisees for their aggressive anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is describing God in terms of human qualities. Now some level of anthropomorphism is unavoidable, but there are limits. They will have felt that Jesus went too far, that the woman and the shepherd conveyed a God who, for being more human, was less god.
It’s not just pharisaical to be careful of easy anthropomorphism. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that we ought not think of God as having emotions. Emotions are attractive, but emotions are passing and fluid and changeable. God is eternal, and faithful, and absolutely consistent and dependable. God is perfect and perfectly spiritual.
Aquinas agreed with Aristotle, and Luther and Calvin agreed with Aquinas, that God is the "unmoved mover." But in these riddles Jesus describes a God who is certainly moved. The God of Jesus here is passionate. And takes things personally.
One of the hardest issues for people today is whether God is personal. People tell me that yes, they believe in God, but as sort of the spiritual energy of the universe. When I ask them if God is a person, they say No, and they don’t see how that would be a good thing. That kind of God is a jealous God, like in the Ten Commandments, or a wrathful God, like in the stories. No thanks.
It is a problem. There is no question that the God of Moses and Jesus and Paul is in some sense a person, if not a person in the ordinary sense of a human being, which I guess makes God too small, then at least a person in some extraordinary sense. The point is that God is such as to be able to say "I want" and "I desire" and "I prefer" and "I choose" and "I will" and "I do" and "I love" and "I love you." Do you want that to be true, do you want to believe in a God who can talk like that?
Maybe what turns people off from a personal God like this is the implication that such a God can also say, "I do not want" and "I do not desire" and maybe even "I do not love." Someone who can love can also get angry. Someone who can desire can also judge. And a god that is simply the spiritual energy of the universe does not judge and has no anger. Passion means heat.
What if God has to burn me to save me? What if God has to judge me to rescue me? God seeks out the lost sheep, will God also seek out a lost wolf? That’s what the Apostle Paul was. That’s his testimony in the epistle, that he was the worst of sinners, a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and yet God sought him and found him. And knocked him down and blinded him and sent him off to the desert for a few years first. Paul always regarded his salvation as a surprise, a wonder, he never took it for granted.
I cannot explain to you the riddle of why God apparently lets some people stay lost, why some coins don’t get found and some sheep don’t get rescued. I can tell you that it’s not a matter of how good or bad the coin is, or how much the sheep is worth the rescue. Worthiness is immaterial, as in the case of Paul. We are all worth it, infinitely. But why some, and not all?
What we should not infer from this is that God doesn’t care, that God doesn’t passionately care. That it’s immaterial to God. That God doesn’t love them too, I mean, the coins that are not found and the sheep that are not saved. Many things are not explained to us, and this is one.
Maybe salvation is like physics, that when you get certitude about one thing, that forces uncertainty on something else. We’re at the boundary of successfully inferring one truth from another.
So even Jesus tells it in riddles. But if the riddle leaves the head in circles, it goes directly to the heart. From God’s heart to your heart. That your little life is huge to God. That God chases after you fanatically. That God is the woman with a broom in her hand, and she’s moving the furniture of history to find you, she is sweeping the dust of your life to expose you and to grab you.
Can you be so childish, so silly, as to regard yourself as the center of God’s universe, if only for yourself, and even momentarily? It is what Jesus is inviting you to believe.
But why else repent, why do such a risky and vulnerable thing as repent, unless the sacrifice that Jesus made of his own life represents the deepest truths of existence? When you repent of your sinfulness you are opening yourself to that great and infinite and passionate being, person, whatever, that we call God, who is behind all the matter and energy of the universe. Your repentance is part of the joyfulness of the universe.
Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.