Next week's readings: 14th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 19)

by
02 November 2006

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Exodus 32.7-14
1 Timothy 1.12-17
Luke 15.1-10

 LOST AND found: this is the theme of Luke 15. A pair of short parables (of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin) builds up to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Luke has inherited a form of the Lost Sheep; Matthew knows of it, too. Luke has paired it with the Lost Coin. Once more, he ensures that his stories give equal weight to a man (who has lost the sheep) and a woman (who has lost the coin).

Luke’s Jesus is losing the sympathy of the establishment, and winning the attention and gratitude of the outcasts. A Pharisee had invited Jesus to a meal (14.1); Jesus had urged him to offer his hospitality to those who could not repay it. Pharisees now object to the company that Jesus is keeping: tax-collectors and sinners (15.1). Luke himself will soon denigrate the Pharisees: they love money and jeer at Jesus’s teaching on its use (16.14-15). As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, he will contrast the self-righteous Pharisee and the contrite tax-collector (18.9-14); and will bring salvation to the house of the tax-collector Zacchaeus (19.1-10).

The shepherd, in Jesus’s parable, has lost one sheep from 100. We readily envisage a sweet lamb, once found, resting placidly on the shepherd’s shoulders. Jesus’s listeners will more probably have thought of a heavy, smelly, dirty sheep, frightened and obstinate, stuck fast in the consequences of its own error. That is an image (as Archbishop Tutu has never tired of pointing out) which far more closely represents our nature and our reaction to God’s offer of rescue.

Now Jesus raises the stakes. The shepherd had 100 sheep; the woman has only ten coins. In a windowless house in Palestine, she needs lamp and broom for her search. This time, Luke’s Jesus draws the friends and neighbours into the allegory, as the angels of heaven who rejoice with God at the recovery of a single sinner. And so to the Prodigal Son: it is no longer property that is lost, but a child.

A follower of Paul writes 1 Timothy in his name. “This saying”, he insists, “is trustworthy and deserves to be accepted by all: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15). The author is countering distortions in the gospel and its application: a reliance upon “myths and endless genealogies” (1.4), on the law’s observance (1.7), and on an ascetic renunciation of marriage and of certain foods (4.3). He denounces the teaching role taken by some women (2.11-12).

Our author names his enemies: Hymenaeus and Alexander (1.19-20). According to 2 Timothy, Hymenaeus and Philetus were proclaiming that “the resurrection has already taken place” (2 Timothy 2.17). From this may have sprung their disagreement with Paul’s followers.

But Paul’s preaching fertilised the ground for their mistake. Some of Paul’s converts in Thessalonika were easily persuaded that the day of the Lord was already upon them; some in Corinth appear to have believed themselves already so near to the life of heaven that they were beyond the need for resurrection (2 Thessalonians 2.2; 1 Corinthians 15).

In Corinth, this had led both to a rigorous asceticism and to a status for women that Paul will then resist (1 Corinthians 7; 11.1-16). We are hardly liable, ourselves, to the errors of Hymenaeus. But perhaps we have lost as well that excitement to which Paul’s gospel gave rise: his converts’ vivid sense that they were on the threshold now between earth and heaven.

The author of 1 Timothy calls effectively on Paul’s self-understanding. Paul urged his converts to imitate him as he was when they knew him (1 Corinthians 11.1, Philippians 3.17); 1 Timothy dwells on the character of the example that Paul had set by his conversion.

This Paul describes himself as having been, in his ignorance, the first of sinners, “so that in me first Christ Jesus should show forth his full forbearance, for a pattern or model of those who are going to have faith” (1 Timothy 1.15-16). This Paul is more than just the first or a typical convert; rather, in his life and experience he embodies the gospel. Those of us who claim to be Paul’s heirs in apostolic ministry bear a heavy charge.

The Prodigal Son is an unforgettable allegory of God’s love and forbearance towards us. But it is more than that. The father is given words (twice over) that reveal in the son far more than a pattern for our own restoration. “This son of mine”, says the father, “was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15.24). In this third parable in Jesus’s series, the father’s joy is once more joy in heaven. For the Son himself had come with us into the far country, and had died our death. He is restored now to his Father; and so restores us to that Father, too.

@churchtimes

Sun 28 May @ 18:52
In a new joint book, @BartCampolo - now a humanist chaplain - & famous pastor father @TonyCampolo seek common ground https://t.co/2xAQrZ9pAW

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