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Readings: 16th Sunday after Trinity

06 September 2013

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Proper 19: Exodus 32.7-14; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

WE ENCOUNTER humanity in all its perversity in all this week's readings - quick to abandon God's way, stiff-necked, foolish, blaspheming, persecuting, violent, ignorant, sinful, grumbling.

What response does this litany of waywardness evoke from God? It is two-fold. In the Gospel, Jesus did not disagree with the Pharisees and Scribes about the sinfulness of humanity; he differed only in his response to it. Yes, people were sinful, but whereas the Pharisees grumbled that Jesus ate with sinners, he rejoiced with the angels that even one sinner who repented.

We see the same two-fold response in the Old Testament: on the one hand, the people were sinful, and God's wrath "burned hot"; on the other hand, God withdrew his judgement when Moses pleaded with him.

Similarly, Paul knew himself to be a sinner, but a sinner who had received mercy and grace, having been judged faithful and been made an example of the utmost patience of Jesus Christ, in turning him from violence and blasphemy to become an example to others.

Paul's phrase, "the utmost patience" of Jesus Christ can act as a frame for the Gospel's stories. It takes patience to eat a meal with someone, especially in Middle Eastern culture, where meals cooked from scratch were long, drawn-out affairs, occasions for much conversation. Similarly, it takes patience to turn a house upside down, looking for a small coin.

Tax-collectors and sinners were "coming near to listen to Jesus", to the dismay of the Scribes and Pharisees. Luke is often specific about whom Jesus is addressing; in this case, the complainers, not the crowds. Jesus praised two people as examples of patience in action, patience in searching until what was lost was found, before further time was devoted to rejoicing at the outcome.

Sometimes, we forget to rejoice. I was delighted when, recently, someone came to ask me to give thanks to God for a good outcome to a very difficult situation he had been patiently plodding through.

While the psalmist rejoiced to call God his shepherd, by Jesus's time, shepherds were social outcasts because their duties kept them from proper religious observance. So, provocatively, Jesus compared religious leaders to shepherds, challenging them to give priority over their religious duties to searching out just one of God's lost sheep.

Piling on the agony, he followed that parable about an outcast man with a parable about a woman, another inferior person in society, holding her up to the Pharisees and Scribes as an example of diligence. The shock value of God's being described as a woman searching for something lost cannot be underestimated.

The woman's coin was probably part of her marriage dowry. In the Old Testament, God's relationship with his people was expressed as marriage, and the coin in the parable thus represented something lost in that relationship with God. The coins could be drachmae, and one coin probably equalled the value of one sheep, thus linking the two stories, and underlining Luke's habit of balancing a story about a man with one about a woman.

Jesus was patient with the tax-collectors and sinners, seeing their potential to repent and change. Moses persisted patiently in imploring God to have mercy on the wayward people. Paul's life was transformed by the patience of Christ towards him, which overturned a career dedicated to persecuting Christians, and made an apostle of him.

Few of us, in the shoes of the early Christians, would have been able to see Saul, the zealous persecutor, as a potential candidate for grace. Ananias, when told to go to Saul, rightly feared him and his reputation (Acts 9.13), and needed further encouragement from God to imagine that the patience of Jesus Christ had opened an entirely new future for Saul, and thus for the Church.

We pray this week to perceive and know what things we ought to do, and to have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them. In all the stories we hear this week, someone had to take patient action, action that was inspired by a greater vision of what sinful humanity can become in God's gracious hands. It is one thing to know what we ought to do; it is another to do it. As Hamlet said: "Ay, there's the rub."

Forthcoming Events

20 September 2021
Online book launch: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer
Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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