I learned recently that Johann Sebastian Bach inscribed the title page of his Little Organ Book with some words I would like to say about my own work – so I offer them now as a prayer before this and every sermon that I offer. He wrote “To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbor may be benefited thereby”. So be it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Let’s begin with a question. Are you always successful in making a clear and coherent connection between or among the several Bible readings each Sunday? I’m not. But maybe that’s because I don’t always listen to God as attentively as I should. Occasionally, however, I’m given a common theme for the appointed lections – and that happened almost instantly with the stories in today’s readings from Joshua, 2 Corinthians, and Luke’s gospel. I know that most peo-ple think there are only three stories in these readings, but I think there are at least five – and pro-bably a sixth story that transcends all of the others. And I further think that each of these stories is about a new beginning – a second chance – and this is why.
In the first story from Joshua we have the familiar account of how the Israelites’ wander-ing in the wilderness is ended and they form a circle of 12 stones to make an altar at Gilgal. The stones signified the 12 tribes of Israel and the circle signified the end to their 40 years of haphaz-ard traveling in the wilderness. They had meandered aimlessly in the desert for two generations, but now their pilgrimage is over and God has brought them to their first Passover and a new be-ginning in the Promised land. It’s a second chance for them; a fresh start, the beginning of a whole new life. It’s what golfers call a ‘mulligan’.
Something similar then occurs in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth. But v. 15 has been left out and we need to include it because it contains the one word that makes sense of the entire passage. That word is therefore. It appears twice in the Greek text ((Ùóôå and óôå) – and if we had pew Bibles I’d invite you to read it with me – but it may still make good sense if you look at today’s epistle in the bulletin as I read my transliteration of the verse that immedi-ately precedes it. “One man died for everyone and put us all in the same boat…He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his resurrection life….And therefore – accordingly – that’s the reason we don’t evaluate people from a human point of view, by what they have or how they look…We once looked at the Messiah that way and got it all wrong…But when we look at him now we get a fresh start and see that the old life is gone be-cause anyone united with Christ is a new creation.”
Paul, like Joshua, is proclaiming a radical new beginning – a new creation that is the work of God – and he is explaining that Jesus died for us so that we might live as people who are united to him in a new creation. Therefore – for this reason – consequently – because Christ died for us we must stop living for ourselves and value no one from a merely human point of view. The old order has gone away – the first creation has been replaced by a new creation – a new world has been born – a new age has been inaugurated – and therefore there is a change in the actual situation be-tween you and me because there has been a change in the relation between us and God. So it’s a new start – a fresh beginning – a second chance. And all this because God has reconciled us to himself through the work of his Son, Jesus. Of course all this is old news for us, but because fa-miliarity breeds contempt we need frequently to be reminded of it.
Then, second chances are perhaps nowhere more beautifully – or more familiarly – illustra-ted than in today’s gospel where, in all three stories, there is undiminished joy and celebration when what has been lost gets found. First one sheep in a herd of 100 is lost and the shepherd does not rest until he finds it. In the next story a woman has 10 silver coins and loses one of them, but she sweeps the entire house and looks in every nook and cranny until she finds it. And finally, in the longest story, a son is lost and then found.
This long story begins when a younger son asks for his share of his father’s wealth. He gets it and with the money in hand heads out to a distant country, some place where he can do and be whatever he wants. Once there he wastes everything he has. And then a terrible thing happens. He runs out of money at about the same time the economy collapses – and because it’s a job so disgusting that nobody else will do it, he gets hired to slop pigs. Greeks and Romans sacrificed pigs in their worship rituals, so the Israelites associated pigs with paganism and apostasy. Pigs were therefore ritually unclean animals that should not be eaten and even touching a pig’s carcass was prohibited. But things were so bad for this poor boy that ritual gave way to sur-vival – and he not only fed the pigs but was grateful to eat their slop. Jesus says it was at this point that it sudden-ly dawned on the boy that his father’s servants had plenty to eat – and that maybe he could go home and persuade his dad to hire him as a field hand. So he repented, confessed his sins against God and his father, and headed home – and when his father saw him approaching, he ran to meet him. And even before the son apologized, his dad kissed him as a sign of his forgiveness. Luke then re-peats words of the father that reflect those of Jesus (15:7, 10) when he proclaims the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Then to celebrate his child’s homecoming, the father orders new clothes and plans a blowout party for him because “the one who was dead is now alive, the one who was lost is found”. And the prodigal son gets a do-over, a mulligan!
Then the story shifts to the older son. It’s only when he returns home from the fields that he finds the party in full swing – so it’s little wonder he feels that he’s been badly treated – and he’s embarrassed to be dirty and tired and dressed in work clothes. He says he has ‘worked like a slave’ for years and always been obedient to his father – and now, to add insult to injury, nobody even bothered to mention the party to him. Then the finishing touch comes when he learns that the party is for his dissolute brother. He’s angry and alienated – he sulks – and when his father invites him to join the party, he contemptuously refuses. But the father doesn’t rebuke him for his resentment. Instead, he extends compassion and mercy to both sons, and Luke’s point is that this story reflects Jesus’ mission to offer mulligans to everyone whether they accept them or not.
These stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin don’t pose a serious problem with interpre-tation. They just offer straightforward good news. As for the found lost sheep “there ‘s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescue than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue” – and as for that lost coin, “in the same way… there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”. But the third story about two sons and their father is frequently taken to be more provocative when the older son appears to be unrepentant and rejects reconciliation even after his father reaffirms his love for him and explains why it was right to celebrate the younger son who was dead and lost and is now alive and found. Jesus doesn’t elaborate and just leaves it there.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.