Continuing our sequential tour through Luke: this will be the Third Sunday in Lent on the calendar, and we’re using lectionary readings from the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Where are we?

Exodus 32:7-14 comes in the wilderness, while Moses is up Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God. The people have given up waiting for him and ask Aaron to make them a new god. He takes the people’s gold jewelry, melts them down, and creates a calf to serve as their god.

Luke 15:1-10 comes another chapter down the road from last week’s reading. Jesus has just turned up the heat one more time for his disciples, talking about how difficult it will be to follow him all the way to the cross. The passage acknowledges that it doesn’t necessarily follow directly after the preceding verses.

What’s going on here?

We know the Lord is jealous and refuses to put up with his people worshiping other gods. At this point in history, monotheism was still very much a work in progress, so this act of creating a new god wouldn’t have seemed so strange. Archeological evidence shows that Yahweh was depicted early on as a bull, similarly to depictions of Baal, Zeus, and other near-eastern storm gods. However, the Law of Moses insists that its ethical, invisible deity is clearly distinct from those other gods.

This isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last, when a human prophet has to stand in the way of God’s wrath when humanity screws up. Moses strikes the same deal with God more than once. In Genesis, Abraham interceded on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, succeeding at least at saving his nephew Lot and family. If we can identify this dynamic without falling into a problematic idea of how Jesus relates to the God of the Old Testament, the same thing can be said to happen on the cross and in Jesus’ ongoing work of intercessory prayer. Much of this theme depends on older, less comforting ideas of who God is and how he works. It would take some work, or at least some acknowledgement of history, to work with it today.

With all due appreciation for the translators of the Good News Bible, the word in Luke 15:1 and 2 is not ‘outcasts.’ It’s ‘sinners.’ These aren’t people who have been excluded for unfair reasons; they’re people whose own behavior has excluded them from the “proper” people of God. Jesus does great work to problematize that idea, but it seems important to know where we stand. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law are not grossed out by “those people,” they’re acting from deep within their understanding of the value of the Law. And when Jesus tells the stories he’ll tell this week and next, he’s implicitly challenging the idea that God is primarily concerned about the keeping of the Law.

Paul Nuechterlein suggests that the “lost sheep” is in fact the scapegoat, the one animal that would ritually be sent off into the wilderness to carry away the people’s sins. Jesus, then, would be the one who comes into the world to reclaim those who are driven away on account of sin. I had always thought there was something lacking in Jesus’ farming skills, and this idea would imply that there’s something “wrong” with his religious logic. That is, there’s something wrong with our assumptions about what is most important, and Jesus puts us back to rights.

Whatever we think of the one sheep, leaving the other 99 unprotected to go and look for the one is a patently silly idea. If we can’t spare the one we lost, how much less can we spare the rest of them on its account? But of course that’s Jesus’ point: God doesn’t do math the same way the rest of us do.

So what?

Gandhi, a Hindu, was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist, for getting too close with the Muslims on the other side of India’s internal conflicts. Martin Luther King was assassinated after he started speaking about economic justice and campaigning against the war in Vietnam. In both cases, you could argue that they were killed for building bridges with the wrong people. Jesus said all sorts of interesting things to challenge Rome, but it was his religious peers who really got violently upset with him. In what ways do we prefer to cast Jesus out of our “inner circle” for connecting with the wrong people?

The economics of sheep-seeking are very different depending on whether you view the sheep from the perspective of their owner, seeing them as livestock, or from the perspective of the sheep, seeing them as unique, individual, existentially needful creatures. The economics of people-seeking are very different depending on whether you view the people outside the church as “other” and different or as beloved and known to God. In his work with people experiencing homelessness, Hugh Hollowell points out that if we loved our neighbors (i.e. didn’t see them as statistics), homelessness would disappear. It gets even more clear next week, but Jesus is making the point that God isn’t just an owner of property who makes economic decisions about how hard to work at keeping his stuff; he’s a parent who is boundlessly invested in the lives of his children.

Perhaps this is another sermon, but I’m also struck by the way Moses has to argue with God in Exodus, or perhaps the way that God goads Moses into arguing. This portrayal of God, as a character who needs to be talked down from the brink of cosmic annihilation, just fascinates me. For the time being, the upshot seems to be that God insists on having love and faithfulness lived out in human community. For that reason, God will needle us until we finally take some responsibility for each other.

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