Who isn't here?
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
March 31, 2019—Lent 4C
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The respectable people were grumbling about Jesus again, wondering why he would share a table with those they considered beyond the pale. So Jesus told a parable. Actually, he told three parables. Three stories about lostness. Three stories about God’s ability to see who’s been left out, and bring them in.
A shepherd has 100 sheep, and somehow realizes that one of them is missing (pretty impressive, that, with all those sheep jostling about). Off he goes, leaving the 99 with who knows what to protect them, in order to bring in the one who is alone and scared and in danger. And when he finds the lonely sheep, he brings it home and invites his neighbors to rejoice with him.
A woman loses one of her ten silver coins, and spends who knows how much oil to search all night to find it, and when she finds it, spends even more money to rejoice with her neighbors.
And now, a man has two sons, and he loses one. But not necessarily the one we think. Jewish scholar Amy Jill Levine notes that the story doesn’t necessarily hinge on the younger son. We focus on him because we see this as a story about repentance. And fair enough. But in the context of the lost sheep and the lost coins, Levine suggests that the central question is what has been counted, and what has been found to be missing. And in this story, that moment comes when the father looks around at his joyous party, and realizes that he has TWO sons, and it is the elder who is missing.
I love this. Because, when it comes to stories of siblings in the Hebrew Bible, the favor always goes to the younger son. Which in itself was odd, right? Elder sons had preference, had inheritance rights, had all the favor in the world. So, all those stories in Genesis about siblings turned that paradigm upside down. Now, the younger son got the love and attention. The younger son, through trickery or smarts or the assistance of the mother, got the blessing. And a tiny nation, with no global significance, became the chosen people of God.
The Hebrew Bible is an underdog story. A David and Goliath story, if you will (David himself was the younger child, a shepherd who was nonetheless chosen as the first king of Israel). It’s an underdog story, which is great.
But Jesus isn’t just preaching a kingdom for the underdog. Here, he also calls our attention to the older child. The one who didn’t strike out for parts unknown. The one who didn’t make mistakes, or fall prey to famine in a faraway country.
Sure, the younger son was lost, in his own way. But he was never forgotten by his father, who immediately ran out to greet him when he chose to return. The one who was forgotten was the older child: the responsible child; the one who was still out working in the field when the celebration began. HE was the one the father suddenly realized was missing. He was the one the father left that party to go and seek.
As Amy Jill Levine notes, it’s about God’s ability to see the whole, to realize who’s missing, and seek them out.
It’s about the grace, the lavishness, the prodigality of bringing in what’s lost. Of taking the time to notice what’s missing, and then doing WHATEVER is necessary to bring them in. To leave the other sheep, to burn the midnight oil, to throw the celebration.
And like most parables, it’s absolutely shocking. Seriously, this is almost terrifying in its excess, in its lavish abandon! It’s absolutely crazy. All that oil burned. All those sheep left unprotected? Who would do this? What does this say about God? What does it say about the nature of the kingdom?
Nothing sensible. Nothing pragmatic (and I have to tell you, I am a HUGE fan of pragmatic. I hang a LOT of my worldview on pragmatism). This parable challenges us to a larger, crazier, braver vision of things. God’s vision of things.
God’s vision, which is always looking to see who isn’t there. To see who’s been left out, who’s been lost or forgotten or excluded. And then to risk whatever is necessary, to pay whatever is necessary, to bring that person in.
A shepherd noticed a missing sheep. A woman noticed a lost coin. A father noticed a lost son. Not the troublesome younger one, the one who had probably ALWAYS gotten the attention. But the responsible older child: the one who didn’t see himself in any of the biblical stories. Until Jesus told this story, and assured him that he too had a place in the kingdom. He too was noticed and loved by God.
The respectable people had criticized Jesus for who he ate with. Suggesting he was too indiscriminate. Jesus responded: this is what the table of God’s kingdom looks like. And this is God’s constant question: who isn’t here?
It is the question of the kingdom of God. Who is missing from around the table? Who is missing because we don’t know how to reach out, or because we are afraid their presence will change things, or because we are secretly afraid there isn’t enough to go around? Who are the aliens and refugees among us; who are the new kids in school? How do they make us feel? Does it feel like there’s too much to lose? So much that is ours. So much that is safe and familiar and we want to protect it. And yet. And yet, the kingdom of God breaks through, whenever a kid gets up from his table of friends and starts walking towards that young person sitting all alone. The kingdom of God breaks through, when our response to the alien and the refugee is compassionate and generous and grounded in the knowledge of our common humanity.
Who isn’t here? Who has been excluded, because they are too different, because they are lacking in some way, because we find them threatening? Who lies across the gap of culture, of race, of political party? Who challenges our ideas of respectability or normality? How do they make us feel? Are we unsettled and uncertain, because we suddenly don’t know the rules any more, suddenly aren’t all following the same expectations? And yet. And yet, the kingdom of God breaks through, when we sit and listen to the story of someone else’s experience. When we eat their food, when we sing their songs, when we hear their vision for the world, and marvel at how different and how much the same it is.
And still we ask: Who isn’t here? Who have we forgotten because we take them for granted? Who are the quiet ones, the shy ones, the sad ones? And how might we stop and pay attention? What would it cost us to seek them out and bring them all the way to the table?
Who is missing from the table? Maybe it’s you, in which case: know that God is seeking you out and will spare no expense to bring you home. At which point you will know the joy that sends God’s people out on that same mission: to seek the lost and the missing, and to bring them ALL home. No matter the risk and the cost. May it be so, Amen.