It’s an M&M question

Luke 15:1-10 (Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17)

This devotional is my way of confessing to Amy that I ate all the mint M&Ms that she bought just the other day. They’re all gone now – but it’s not my fault – it’s because of this Gospel text – I swear!

You see, behind the familiar parables of lost sheep and coins, is a fundamental question: are we focused on relationships of mercy or merit? It’s an M&M question.

The Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling. (I think we’re being asked to remember the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness – Exodus 16:2.) The cause? Not only are they hot and bothered by Jesus associating with tax collectors and sinners, they seemed even more disturbed by the fact that these very people are coming to faith. How dare this fellow lead people from sin, to righteousness! How dare he redeem the irredeemable! The religious authorities are behaving a wee bit like Jonah:

When God saw what they [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 3:10-4:3).

The most reasonable explanation for the hard-hearted response of the Pharisees and Scribes seems to be that they base their relationships on the concept of merit. From such a perspective, God loves only the well-behaved; the clean, nice people; the folks just like us, who play by the rules; the long-term righteous. From that vantage point, any notion that God could love “those people” – the ones the Pharisees assiduously avoided, and loudly condemned – seems ludicrous and offensive. “They” don’t deserve God’s love, and our friendship! Merit trumps mercy.

God’s mercy is epitomized by the lost:

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? … Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? (Luke 15:4 and 8).

You might, perhaps, have noticed something rather obvious: sheep and coins are incapable of repenting. So, the focus here is on the mercy and compassion behind the search, and the joy that comes from the finding. In fact, even heaven rejoices when the lost are found (see vs. 7 and 10). That’s because the shepherd and the woman are analogs for God. (In fact, this is the only instance in the New Testament in which a woman is such an analog!) The apparently gratuitous love God shows (leaving the 99 to go after the one who is lost), and the persistence of God in such love (lighting the lamp, sweeping the house, searching carefully), describe a divine mercy that is astoundingly extravagant.

It is this extravagant mercy that the religious authorities find objectionable, because to them it makes absolutely no sense. However, for Jesus, it is the mark of a disciple. Since the end of Chapter 9 in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has “Set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus teaches his followers what it means to be a disciple; including the cost of discipleship on which we focused last week. This week, in a 180-degree turn, the focus is on joy and rejoicing. Perversely, for the Pharisees, the cost of joy is too high. Called to turn away from a merit-based mindset and toward one that is mercy-based, they grumble. Called to rejoice when one that is lost is found, they instead close their ears to the Word.

Jonah sat and sulked when Nineveh was spared saying to God, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8). The Scribes and Pharisees seek the death of one who teaches inclusion, love and mercy. It seems that some folks would do anything, rather than live life joyfully. Wouldn’t we.



Pastor Ken+