Based on Psalm 14 & Luke 15:1-10
Of recent years, I have grown to really appreciate the wisdom and writing of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest. He writes “It is really shocking how little Jesus is shocked by human failure and sin. In fact, it never appears that he is upset at sinners at all. He is only and consistently upset at people who do not think they are sinners. This momentous insight puts him centuries ahead of modern psychology and right at the center of rare but authentic religion. So much so, that most Christianity itself never notices or addresses this pattern. It is an “inconvenient truth.”
Early-stage religion is largely driven by ego needs: the need to be right, the need to feel morally superior, the need to be safe, and the need to project a positive image to others. At that point, religion has little to do with any real search for God; it is almost entirely a search for oneself, which is necessary—and which God surely understands. But we do this by trying to repress and deny our actual motivations and goals. These are pushed into the unconscious and called the shadow self. The shadow is not the bad self, but simply the denied or rejected self, which is totally operative but allowed to work in secret—and never called to accountability from that hidden place.
In my 42 years as a priest, it is clear to me that most people (not just religious people) focus on denying their shadow self—to keep feeling good about themselves—and their ego then enjoys a perpetual holiday. It is a massive misplacement of spiritual attention. You can be a (priest, a minister, a Pharisee) … with a totally inflated ego, while all your energy goes into denying and covering up your shadow—which then gets projected everywhere else. What you don’t transform, you will transmit.”
And so it seems, as I read Luke 15, that Jesus is dealing with some well- meaning rule-makers who very unaware of their shadow side. But Jesus has a way of bringing the shadows into the light of day and exposing them for what they are.
I could learn a thing or two from Jesus… for one thing, he never justifies his actions; he never complains that the Pharisees just don’t understand his job, or explains that God wants us to be nice to each other. He tells a story that is more like a slap-stick cream pie in the face of his opponents. He has a certain `coolness’ factor.
In response to the complaint that Jesus wasn’t keeping with the high and holy, but hanging out with and eating with the undesirables in society, he tells stories of lost sheep and coins, and children gone astray. The prodigal son story follows directly after the story of the lost coin. He appeals to their compassion.
He doesn’t say, “I know these are the sinners, and I’m hanging out with them in the hopes that one of them will repent.” He just says, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than in 99 who have no need of repentance.”
I’m not a farmer, so I need to ask, is it reasonable to leave 99 perfectly healthy and obedient sheep unguarded, and go off looking for one little stray? He tells a second story of a woman who loses a coin that is precious to her. In a society where nearly every daylight hour was spent in doing chores, she takes the day to search for this coin, and when she does find, throws a party for all the neighbours, so they can celebrate with her. Sounds a bit excessive doesn’t it? And that, my friends, is the point. God’s love is excessive, extravagant, and unreasonable. And we need it so badly. Sometimes we’re just so lost that we don’t know that. Maybe Jesus is hoping one of the Pharisees will `get it’ and repent of self-righteousness, so he can be found.
I invite you to bring to mind a time in your life when you lost your way, or at least felt lost – it may be in the literal or metaphorical sense. Some questions to ponder in silence, or share in community.
■ Who or what helped you get back on track?
■ What was the experience of being lost and found like?
■ What difference does it make to you now?
I wonder – does it soften our hearts a bit when we think of people being `lost’ rather than being `sinners?’ Does it help to think of them as being blind or in darkness, but with the potential of seeing the light? – And yes, we will get to sing the perfect hymn about that in a few minutes – (Amazing Grace).
A year ago in July, Jim and I got to revisit one of my favourite places in the world. It is the tiny island off the north-east coast of England, called Lindesfarne, or simple, the Holy Island. I first went there in 2004, with a group of spiritual pilgrims. When the tide is low, you can walk across the sand to the island about two and a half miles away. There are poles stuck in the sand, about every 100 yards or so, so that if the fog rolls in, you can see just far enough ahead to get to the next pole. And isn’t that how it often is, as we recover our spiritual sight, we see just a bit at a time, a new aha, a lifting of the veil of fog that has obscured our way for a time.
There are also, along the pilgrim poles, a couple of `crows-nests’ along the way, so if you are foolish enough to set out at the wrong time, and get caught as the tide rolls in, you can climb up into the nests (I’ll pass my photo album around so you can see) and wait out the high tide. In 2004, when Lynne and Gerald, our pilgrimage leaders told us of the crows-nests, they also told the story of the parish priest from Lindesfarne, who, as if reading the minds of those who would say to themselves, ”Well, I’m certainly not so stupid as to not read the tide schedule, and get myself stranded and have to be rescued,’ said, “ If you’ve never had to be rescued – get a life!”
God longs for our rescue, our enlightenment. Jesus uses the image of a party – three times! – for the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost child. It’s not like the angels are standing around, arms folded, glaring and say, “Well, it’s about time you cleaned up your act. That’s far too much like a self-righteous human response; it’s where it’s easy to go if you’ve never had to be rescued yourself. No. Jesus says, God throws a party – and we are all the guests. Thanks be to God!