I know over this year, I keep repeating that there is a theme of Joy in the Gospel of Luke. Well, because there is! But is that what you heard when the Gospel was read?
Our pharisees are once again grumbling against Jesus for flying in the face of tradition and spending time with those whom society considered inappropriate to fraternize with. Jesus actually eats with them. Eating was specifically a way to show that you were in communion with others. You sit down to eat with equals and people you care about.
Here we are with Jesus, standing up to the Pharisees, not in order to defend his actions, but to teach about the reality of God, the reality of the Universe. The Pharisees present are part of a Jewish sect who observed strict law and considered themselves religiously superior. The scribes are here too. They are the teachers of religious law. Later in Luke, Jesus warns…
“Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and who love respectful greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.”
We know how the Gospeler Luke feels about the Pharisees and the scribes: self-righteous hypocrites!
Jesus goes onto tell these grumblers two short parables to make his point about who God is and what God does. First we have the story of the shepherd who has gone after the lost sheep. He has left the rest of the herd (99 of them) in the wilderness in order to find the lost one. In fact, he basically challenges them, which one of you doesn’t do this?! And Jesus is poking fun at them. When he tells this story about rejoicing in finding the lost, he adds “that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” That’s just a little jab there wrapped in a compliment…
Plus the ninety-nine are not safely in a sheltered pasture or in a barn… no, they are in the wilderness (the wilderness which is traditionally not safe space.) Jesus is poking just a little more fun at the pharisees and scribes. The lost majority with all of their righteousness and human-made rules. Jesus had a sense of humor. There is a lot of double meaning in his remarks. We often overlook how artfully he is wielding language through “word play.”
There is joy in the presence of Jesus.
Joy is used twice in both of these parables. In the second story about the woman who finds her lost coin, like the shepherd, there is also rejoicing with friends and Joy as a source that has been established in Heaven.
The lost sheep and the lost coin are symbols of reunion and communion with God. This is a source of rejoicing in "the here and now” with friends, but also as a source of joy on an eternal level: That stream of True life - the Well that Jesus speaks of, that is never empty. To be tapped into this everlasting communion is joyous. God searches us out and knows us.
While the story frames the situation in terms of sin and repentance, the theme & emphasis is about everlasting joy. Jesus knows we are only human. Right? As in another story he suggests, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone…” We all have our issues. The theological definition of Sin really is our separation from God. To “Repent” as Jesus says “metanoia” … is literally to change one’s mind. Theologically we think of it as turning our minds and hearts toward God. Turning toward that Well of Love that Jesus offers us. It is not about beating ourselves up over what we’ve done, but turning our minds and hearts anew: to communion.
The Christian lens sees Abundance in communion. Sometimes we hear the phrase tossed around that the “universe is abundant” in a kind of superficial understanding… I usually hear it from more well-to-do individual’s who don’t want to concede that there is a correlation between wealth and poverty that has more to do with power structures than with hard work. I can cringe when I hear a “spirituality of abundance" especially in the World right now; especially in the midst of the climate crisis. We haven’t been able to manage our planet’s resources very well. Our passage from Jeremiah is so apt for today with its imagery of desolation. “the birds of the air had fled.” How poetic in its language; “the earth mourns.” My people “do not know me.”
Today is also the anniversary of 9/11 with all of its destruction and the aftermath of more and more war, we can hear Jeremiah’s judgement “my people are foolish.” Most of our children, did not grow up with 9/11, but are reeling from what they’ve been told about the future of the planet. Jeremiah and most Scripture reminds us time and time again that humans can make such a muck of things. But it also reminds us that we are in the midst of things. Jesus’ message about communion, is not abundance as if our resources are unlimited, but rather abundance in terms of what is possible… the potential for hope, sharing, and communion: Our potential.
The visible potential in our passage today is offered up in the very first line. The group of tax collectors and sinners are coming to Jesus. They are drawing near to listen. In doing so they are already turning; looking for this healing relationship - as opposed to the group who stand aside criticizing and grumbling with their sense of human righteousness. Jesus knows we are human. We all have facets of our life, relationships that are out of union and essentially work to drive a wedge between us and God. We have pieces of ourselves that are lost. And we see this manifest in society and on a global level through destructive choices and misuse of our resources. Repentence is about making new choices based on a higher love for our families and for creation. God does not solve our problems, but helps us to move into them.
The visible potential manifested today also shows up in the letter to Timothy. We are reminded of Paul’s conversion, (his metanoia) his turning. And Paul represents more than just one man’s change of heart and mind. He offers us hope that society can change. Before Paul saw the light, Saul (as he was called) represented the very elite of society who benefited from the power structures that persecute and victimize; intolerant social structures that discriminate; agencies who monopolize economic resources and damage natural resources. 
Paul was lost and then he was found. Like the woman’s lamp, God illuminated Paul. The woman looking for the coin lights a lamp. We know this is a metaphor for God who searches for us without limit, with every effort and in the middle of the night, in the darkness of our own journeys to illuminate our hearts…. And to change our minds.
One way to grapple with this passage (which seems so simple and clear on a basic level) and to take it deeper, is to wonder where you might be situated in this story?
Where do you find yourself in the story today?
Are you a grumbler? Are you missing the joy?
Are you feeling lost?- Or found?
Are you drawing near?
Are you one of the friends who shows up to rejoice!
As we come together to the communion rail, we offer the ultimate expression of our desire to draw near: for unity, for reunion. We eat with equals across the very globe. It reminds us of our potential. The Lord’s table is sacred and serious, but don’t forget the eternal joy manifest there as well. As we say in the Eucharistic prayer:
“It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”
1. Yang, Sunggu. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24-3/commentary-on-1-timothy-112-17-5, Sept. 10, 2022.