Gospel: Luke 15:1-10

God, the Fool

Have you ever done something good you knew would cause scandal? What was it? What happened?

No one is immune from criticism. No social life is complete without others' comments and back-stabbings. No matter what we do or don't do, someone, somewhere, will take a shot at our character. We're going to be fools in someone's eyes.

So, if we're going to be fools, let's be fools for the good of others. We'll be in good company. The Pharisees criticized Jesus. And Jesus accepted their criticism. But with a twist. He pointed out that even God was a fool. For the good of sinners.

Popular Translation

1 Once, the tax collectors and sinners crowded around Jesus to listen to him. 2 But the Pharisees and religious leaders there began to grumble, "This man is the friend of sinners! He even goes to parties with them!"

3 Jesus answered with a story. 4 "Imagine you had a hundred sheep. But one got lost," Jesus said. "Which one of you wouldn't leave the ninety-nine in the back country to go look for the lost sheep? 5-6 When the shepherd found the lost sheep, he would be so happy! He would put it on his shoulders, go back home, and call his friends together. "Let's have a party!" he would beam. "I found my lost sheep!" 7 In the same way, heaven will be happier with one sinner who turns back to God than with ninety-nine good people who don't feel the need to turn back.

8 "Or, imagine a poor woman who had ten small coins. If she lost a coin, wouldn't she light up the room, sweep it, and look all around until she found it? 9 When she found it, she would call her friends together. "Let's celebrate!" she would beam. "I found my lost coin!' 10 In the same way, the angels are really happy when one sinner returns to God."

In Luke's gospel, Jesus responded to the criticism of the Pharisees with two parables. These stories did more than answer their remarks. They defined the difference between the Pharisee sense of holiness and the Christian sense of ministry.

Literal Translation

1 (Once,) the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering to hear HIM. 2 Both the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This (man) welcomes sinners and dines with them!" 3 HE told them this parable, saying, 4 "Which man among you, having one hundred sheep and having lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine behind in the wilderness and goes after the lost (sheep) until he finds it? 5 And finding (it), he sets it on his shoulder, rejoicing. 6 Having entered (his) house, he calls his friends and neighbors together, saying, 'Celebrate with me, because I found the sheep that had been lost!' 7 I say to you in just that way there will be (more) joy in heaven with one sinner repenting than with ninety-nine righteous who do not have need of repentance.

8 "Or, what woman having ten drachmas, if she lost one drachma, would not light a lamp, sweep the house, and look carefully until she found it? 9 Having found it, she calls (her) friends and neighbors together, saying, 'Celebrate with me, because I found the drachma I lost!' 10 In the same way, I say to you, there is joy with the angels of God over one sinner repenting."

15:2 "This man welcomes sinners and dines with them!" Jesus deliberately identified with sinners and outcasts to the extent he became one with their company. Beyond its gossip value, Jesus' action violated religious sensibilities of the Pharisees.

The Pharisee movement arose in response to the Babylonian exile and its aftermath. Much of their outlook tried to answer the question: "Why did God allow that evil to happen?" The Pharisees observed the pre-exilic prophets decried the people's lax adherence to the Law and creeping influence of foreign idolatry. So, the Pharisee drew a direct cause and effect line between the people's sin and God's punishment.

How could the Pharisees insure such punishment did not happen again? Their answer was 1) strict adherence to the Law and 2) separation from polluting influences (i.e., sinners and foreigners). Both these tenets underscored the notion of "kosher" for the Pharisees. By welcoming and dining with sinners, Jesus violated that sense of religious purity.

15:4 The Parable of the Lost Sheep depends on the moral, not its logic. Jesus began the parable with a rhetorical question. Like many other parables in Luke, the question set the natural logic of society upside down. Who would leave a sheep flock to fend for itself, while the shepherd endangered himself to look for the lost sheep? Jesus' answer was everyone when the common wisdom would be "NO ONE!" The moral, of course, pointed to the dedication God had for his people, sinner or saint.

15:8 "than with ninety-nine righteous who do not have need of repentance." Is this a cynical comment from Jesus? After all, doesn't everyone need to turn back to the Lord? He seemed to indicate that the Pharisees did not need feel they needed to repent.

More important was God's view of the matter. If God were the shepherd who looked after the one sinner, what happened to the ninety-nine who felt no need to repent? They were abandoned!

15:6, 9 "Celebrate with me!" This again represented Luke's reverse logic. Which shepherd would brag about a sheep he found, when he abandoned the other sheep to the elements? Which poor woman would advertise she had money? To the general public, the characters of Jesus' parable would have been fools. But, the Christian community welcomed sinners and celebrated their repentance. Weren't evangelization and Baptism/Eucharist implicit in actions of the parable characters?

In these passages, the Pharisees and scribes ask a question to shame Jesus. After all, what holy man would lower himself to the level of the sinner? The answer to the rhetorical question, of course, is NONE. The Jewish sense of holiness emphasized purity, separation, and a unique Otherness. A brief overview of "kosher" in the Torah confirmed this fact. And as God was holy, so his people were expected to be holy. (See Deuteronomy 7:6) So, if Jesus shared fellowship with sinners, he implicitly rejected that sense of holiness. He was not holy.

Amazingly enough, Jesus bought into the notion of shame with two rhetorical questions of his own. Both the shepherd and the poor woman acted like dolts when they celebrated they found prizes. But, with the two images of fools, Jesus shifted the debate away from the idea of the Holy to the actions of God. In light of pending judgement, God would try to save the lost. This theme echoed the image of God in the prophet Amos (2:14-15) as the almost desperate groom trying to lure his bride back to him. In 54:5-8, Deutero-Isaiah picked up on the image of the husband seeking his wife. In a male-dominated, gender-segregated society, did this image make sense? Obviously not. But if Hosea and Deutero-Isaiah were willing to use an image that shamed the Lord to make a point, so was Jesus.

But the images Jesus used did more than reflect Hosea's theme. They delineated the difference in ministry between the Pharisees and Jesus. The Pharisees pointed the direction of their ministry inward. But Jesus pointed his outward. The chief focus of the Pharisees lie in the holiness of the people. As God was pure, unique, and Other, so should the people. In fact, their sense of holiness led to a lifestyle of self-quarantine. Even in the time of Jesus, Jews outside of Palestine lived in urban ghettoes. In the Roman Empire, many of these city quarters were autonomous, thus reinforcing a sense of separation.

Jesus and early Christians, on the other hand, evangelized. They went to preach the Good News to all who would hear it. They invited sinners, outcasts, the poor, and the sick, anyone who would believe in the name of the Lord. Certainly, Christians maintained a sense of holiness, but they focused upon inviting others to that holiness. Before invitation, however, Jesus and his followers needed to reach out to sinners and show them some respect. This was the point of divergence between Jesus and his adversaries. To the Pharisees, such outreach violated their purity and was criticized as a waste of time.

Did God have time for sinners? Are we, as Christians, willing to be fools to find out?

Catechism Theme: Solidarity (CCC 1939-1942)

Jesus took the time to treat others with respect, regardless of social status. In other words, he practiced the virtue of solidarity, a "social charity." Solidarity is a respect and love for others based upon their dignity as people. Solidarity means a sharing of material goods, and, more important, a sharing of faith and other spiritual values.

Have you ever seen solidarity practiced? What happened? How did the experience affect you?

In the world's eyes, treating others with respect can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. The world sees opponents as adversaries, strong and weak. Only the strong win and gain respect. The weak are to be shamed and oppressed. To the world, only a fool would show respect until it was gained or demanded.

Jesus accepted the world's criticism, only to show the shallowness of the world's outlook. Yes, he is the fool, but only to the selfish. And to those who are delusional enough to think they are strong. To the weak, he is the savior to the world that needs saving. And, since we are all really weak, he is our savior.

As he shows us respect, we, too, are to show others that respect. Even if we look like fools. After all, God did.

Acting for the good of others can cause us social discomfort. Reflect on the discomfort you have felt in the past. How can you overcome such discomfort for the good of others this week?