“Rejoice with me”
The parables in
today’s gospel are powerful illustrations of the teaching in the epistle: not
only does “God resist the proud and gives grace to the humble”, but that
grace conveys us unto glory for God “himself shall restore, stablish and
strengthen you ... after that ye have suffered a while”. God is “the God
of all grace” and here is a wonderful illustration of the nature and the
immensity of God’s grace.
The parables come
as a response to an accusation. Christ is accused of receiving sinners and
eating with them, thereby identifying himself with sinners, being made sin
himself, as it were. But Christ’s response shows that he does, not so as to be
defined by sin, “him who knew no sin”, but for the sake of our redemption
“so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. He tells
three parables, two of which comprise today’s gospel: the parable of the lost
sheep, the parable of the lost coin. Beyond them but as the fulfilling of
them is the parable of the lost son, the so-called prodigal son.
Sheep, coins, sons.
There is a progression to these images. They belong together. If we
were to think about this artistically, we could say that they form a kind of
triptych of divine grace in which the centre panel would be the last, the
parable of the prodigal son. But we can only come to its central message
through these first two parables which stress the priority of divine grace in
our restoration. What is emphasised is God’s reaching down to us in the
gravity of our sins which separate us from God and from the community of divine
love. There is, after all, a kind of passivity to sheep and coins, but
this only serves to heighten the priority of God’s grace. Yet the effects
of that grace are to be realised in us which is what we are given to see in the
parable of the prodigal son. In him we see the motions of God’s grace in
us effecting our restoration to grace, our establishment in grace and our being
strengthened by grace.
The parable of the
prodigal son completes the illustration of the teaching about God’s redemptive
grace. It signifies, as the first two illustrations do as well, the
strong and exultant note of God’s mercy towards us. What, after all,
is the recurring theme here except the theme of rejoicing? “I once was
lost but now am found.” Here is the illustration of the “amazing
grace” of God that “saved a wretch like me.”
God seeks the lost
and God accepts the penitent who makes some motion of return to him for that
motion is the motion of God’s grace in him. The first two parables make
this point unmistakably clear. The sheep and the coins are utterly unable
of themselves to move towards God. It is God’s grace which literally picks
them up and carries them, gathers them up to himself and to the community which
his love alone creates. We are reminded that our joy is to be found in the
free gift of God towards us in the giving of his son.
These are communal
joys; they are the joys of the Church. They are not solitary pleasures.
They embrace heaven and earth, angels and men, neighbours and friends.
The note of
rejoicing is the meaning of our prayers and praises. It places us upon the
foundation of divine grace perfecting our natures at once in principle and in
process. The dialectic of sin and grace constitutes the pattern of our
lives, indeed our very identity in Christ means the acknowledgement of sin and
the greater acknowledgement of God’s grace.
sentimentality and judgementalism are but the two sides of the same coin.
They are both repudiated by the teaching of this epistle and the illustration of
this gospel. We are not to wallow in the easy acquiescence of our sins,
nor are we to presume upon our own righteousness. Jesus’ point against the
complaints of the Scribes and the Pharisees is that we are all sinners in need
of constant repentance. We are all less than what we should be.
tradition, in stark contrast to both Tridentine Roman Catholicism and
post-reformation Anabaptist spirituality which assert the static quality of our
lives in sin or grace, argues for the principle so wonderfully articulated by
Martin Luther, that we are simul justus et peccator, at once justified
and sinners. Our Anglican liturgy gives eloquent testimony to this
understanding, an understanding which in no small part derives from these three
parables. The pattern of contrition, confession and satisfaction runs
throughout the liturgy. It is the dynamic of the dialectic of sin and
grace. The creative tension or paradox in the awareness of sin and grace
leads us into joy. In no small way, it is the cause of our rejoicing.
We are sinners all
who stand in constant need of God’s redeeming grace shaping our lives into
holiness. We are lifted up out of the wilderness of our waywardness and
out of the dusty forgotten corners of our own spiritual self-neglect. “Humble
yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due
time.” It is what we are given to see in these parables. Like
the lost sheep and the lost coin we are lifted up into the joys of heaven.
We are returned into the fellowship of joy. Even more, in the parable
of the lost son, we are returned into the joy of the Father’s love.
Humility is the
simple recognition of ourselves as sinners and our grateful acknowledgment of
God’s redeeming grace given for us and at work in us. It is the condition
of our rejoicing. We rejoice in the mercies of God “to whom be glory
and dominion for ever and ever.” We rejoice with him who has reached
down to exalt us into his love. Jesus calls us to rejoice with him in his
love for us in his love for the Father.
“Rejoice with me”