Thursday, September 12, 2013
September 15, Proper 19, Contradictions 3: If God Finds Us, How Did God Lose Us?
Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Jesus poses these two parables as questions. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep,” and then, “What woman, having ten silver coins.” To the second one the answer is obvious: “Any woman would.” But to the first one the answer is the opposite: “No one would.” No one would stupidly risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. Realistic management simply writes off that last sheep. A one percent loss is not so bad, and it’s way less than standard depreciation.
The answers are contradictory, so you have to work the parable back and forth. You use the second answer to reverse the first answer, as in, “Any woman would, who having a hundred sheep,” and you feel like the parable is playing with you, and then it finally hits you that Jesus is saying, “I’m with the woman, I would too.” This Messiah would. This Messiah would because he thinks God would. Every last, lost person is of inestimable worth to God, the most despicable, the least acceptable, the most unfit. To bring in such a one is what God rejoices in.
Is it really true? Does God come after you like this? Will God come hunting high and low to find you? You are one of seven billion people, and our planet is one speck in the galaxy, and our galaxy is one of billions in the universe, and is God so aware of you? Does God get that specific? Does God get that personal? Do you, your little self, make God happy?
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 should God be more objective? More the like spiritual energy of the universe? Less sentimental, more philosophical?
How can it be true? 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. These parables are contradictory to the doctrine of God’s omniscience and omnipotence.
There is another contradiction underneath. Let me draw it out. Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. And we saw two weeks ago that he also eats with scribes and Pharisees. Jesus does not discriminate, he treats everyone the same, saint or sinner, pious or polluted. He’s not against your being a good person, it’s good that you’re good, but he’s going to treat you the same as he treats a bum. He believes that every single last person, irrespective of performance, has the very same value to God. And that value would be immeasurable, infinite.
How can that be, really, that any one person should have infinite value to God. How can this balding primate weighing 93 kilograms have more relative value than, say, the planet Jupiter? Maybe that made sense 500 years ago, when we thought the planet earth was the physical center of a very much smaller universe, but not with what we know about the universe today.
It might help to remark that “infinite” does not necessarily mean “vast”. That’s a category mistake. The interior of an atom is also infinite. Some scientists suggest that the size of the human body is about half-way between the size of an atom and the size of the universe. It might help to remember that our categories of space and time do not apply to God, God can enter space and time but is outside them, so God is neither conditioned nor limited by the laws of time and space in which we live, so 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 what about the contradiction of our life experience. Doesn’t God abandon some people anyway? All the suffering millions we pray for every week, the starving children and their dying mothers? 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, especially before he caused the death of seven millions? And you have some acquaintances whose lives are unfortunate or miserable, and you grieve their loneliness and bitterness, but God just seems to let them go. If it makes God so joyful, then why doesn’t God save everyone? Why does God let anybody go?
These parables attract us and resist us, positive and negative, because they suggest a God who is passionate and emotional, a God who reacts. You see it in our first lesson, how God reacts to the quick and easy idolatry of the Israelites, and it’s Moses who is the steady one, the more mindful one, who gets God to settle down. So which is it? Does God react and change his mind, is God passionate and personal, or is God constant and faithful and ‘unchanging as light”? Most of our friends and neighbors prefer a God who is impersonal, that spiritual energy of the universe, more mystical, less historical, less hysterical, less jealous, less angry, less passionate.
It is a problem. The Christian doctrine of God has built-in contradictions, and Our Lord Jesus only adds to them. He allows the contradictions in order to protect this truth: that whatever else does not add up, this has to be maintained, that this God is such a God 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?
The down side is 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. Whoever can desire must also judge. The god that is just 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? If God seeks out the lost sheep, will God also seek out a lost wolf? As in the case of the Apostle Paul. He confesses in our 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. Paul always regarded his salvation as a surprise, a wonder, he never took it for granted.
I cannot explain to you why God lets some coins not get found and some sheep not get rescued. I can say that it’s not a matter of the value of the coin or whether the sheep is worth the rescue. Worthiness is immaterial. We are all worth it, infinitely. But why some and not all?
We should not infer from this that God doesn’t care, that God doesn’t passionately care. That God doesn’t love them too, the coins not found and the sheep not saved. Many things are not explained to us, and this is one. Salvation is like physics, that getting certitude about one factor forces uncertainty on something else. We have to hold up the contradiction, that God loves everyone infinitely, and that it is you whom God is coming to find.
You are left with this promise: Your little life is huge to God. God chases you fanatically. God is the woman with the broom, 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, unless the sacrifice that Jesus made of his own life exposes the deepest secret of the universe? When you repent of your sin you are opening yourself to that infinite person, that passionate being whom we call God, the one who is behind all the matter and energy of the universe. Your repentance gets at the joyfulness of the universe. The joy that God has over you is the excess of the God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.