Short Stories by Jesus

“Short Stories by Jesus, The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi” by Amy-Jill Levine is a book I would highly recommend for someone looking for a different perspective on the parables. AJ describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt”. After reading her book and viewing the DVD (and accompanying leaders guide and participant guide) as part of an adult education class, I can honestly say she has opened my eyes to a view point I would not have otherwise considered. She comes across on the DVD as someone I would love to have lunch with. The manner in which she presented the material is great for preachers and for lay leaders looking to engage in familiar passages from a different perspective.

I led an adult education class on this book in the fall of 2018 at Third Church and preached on one of the chapters on September 23, 2018. Reading the sermon again, I realize that at the time I wrote it, I was feeling the need to use her words more than my own, so the sermon has large quotes from her work. There are two reasons, one, being that I wanted to relay to the larger congregation how wonderful the book study is and get them to perhaps jump into it, two, being that sometimes I am afraid to use my own words because somehow my words aren’t adequate. Part of writing this blog is dealing with that second reason why I quote a little too much in sermons sometimes. That being said, I’m not going to rewrite this sermon just for the exercise of using my own words instead of the author’s words. I’m hoping to be braver later… don’t ask me when later is… I have no idea. I wanted to share the sermon (and the book recommendation) here so that it could be a resource for other feminists who are looking for view points outside of their own experiences. I’m working on finding those view points too. Leave me a comment on other feminists engaging with faith that I should be reading.

The following my sermon “Missing Something?” and the liturgy that went with it.

In adult education we are studying “short stories by Jesus, the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi” by Amy-Jill Levine.  She is a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies.  The introduction in the participants guide tells us that Levine “uses her scholarship on first-century Jewish history to hear Jesus as a Jewish teacher speaking to a Jewish audience.  Her point is not to dismiss any helpful Christian interpretations that have been made of the parables of the past two thousand years.  Rather, she seeks to recover their original provocation and so help to explain why people first deiced to follow Jesus”. 

Part of what our adult education group is discovering is that each person hears, understands, interprets, and remembers parables differently.  And that’s because each of us has different experiences and different gifts.  What we hope to find is that this study will help us to explore parables that we thought we knew and see them from a different perspective.  Levine points out that “religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” (page 6 Participants guide).  Generally speaking, we are all pretty comfortable.  And we are comfortable with our ideas about what Jesus’ parables mean.  So, my hope is that this book study (and accompanying sermon series) will challenge us to look deeper at the parables and at ourselves. 

The parable _________ read today is really the third part of a set of three parables in Luke 15.  The lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son.  Each parable has its own ways of challenging us but stacked together have even more impact. 

Luke 15:4-7 Levine’s translation: Which person among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one out of them, will not leave behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until he finds it?  And finding, he puts it up on his shoulders; rejoicing.  And coming into the house he calls together the friends the neighbors, saying to them “Rejoice together with me, because I have found my sheep, the lost one.”  I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven at one sinner repenting than at ninety-nine righteous, those who have no need of repentance. 

I over-identify with the lost sheep.  As a child, I would be lost about every few years.  I was lost on family vacations, while trick-or-treating, and after taking a “short cut” in the woods at Camp Crestfield as a young teen and I was lost in the rapids once after being tossed from a raft in high school.   While in college, I managed to get lost on some wild and wonderful West Virginia back roads.  I have even been lost as an adult.  I’ve accidentally wondered away from my photography group in station square and had to call the leader and get directions to wear the group had gone.  They were on the Smithfield street bridge.  I can’t even guess how many people have said to me, ‘I couldn’t find you anywhere’.  I’m always the lost sheep. 

When this parable came up at vacation bible school, I listened like a dutiful child, I thought about whatever example of me being lost is most recent, listened to the teacher remind me that God is the shepherd and we are his sheep and then we all sang, “I just want to be a sheep, bah bah bah bah bah”. 

When this parable was read at youth group, I choose to tell whatever example of me being lost was funniest, remembered that Jesus is the good shepherd and sang “amazing grace”.

When this parable was read during choir devotions, I rolled my eyes, and during the quarter rest in Handel’s “all we like sheep” I “bahed” loud enough to get the people around me to giggle and the melisma on “have gone astray” really went astray.

So now that I’m preaching on this parable, I’m going to choose to tell you about the first time I remember someone noticing that I was lost.

I was “lost” once while purposely hiding from my panicked Dad in the backyard of a house we only lived in until I was 7.  I was young when I did this, and I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember that he only turned his back for a minute and went into the house.  So, I ducked down in the kiddy pool, so he couldn’t see me, but I could still breath and I waited.  He called my name and I waited.  He called a couple more times and I waited.  Finally, when I popped up from inside the kiddy pool I heard, ‘don’t you ever do that again’ and got a big hug.  I thought it was hilarious.  That’s not how Dad remembers it.  It’s a memory that plays over and over again in my mind for no apparent reason.  I think it’s because at the time I didn’t understand why my Dad was so worried.  Where else would I go but my own back yard?  What danger lurks in the kiddy pool?  Lost sheep are always found, right?

I hope that I’ve told you this story in a way that you didn’t identify with me, but you identified with my dad, a man who had if only for a moment lost something very valuable.  I have no illusion that my dad is like God or that God is like my dad.  My dad is my dad.  And this parable is about him.  He is the sheep owner, that noticed a sheep (me) went missing, looked frantically for her, and rejoiced when she was found.  And the oblivious little (shit, I mean sheep)* sheep, did not repent, and did not understand what happened to the sheep owner. 

*This was in here to make me smile, I didn’t really say, “little shit” in church, I just thought about it.

Amy-Jill Levine asks, “If this fellow can experience such joy in finding one of hundred sheep, what joy do we experience when we find what we have lost?  More, if he can realize that one of his hundred has gone missing, do we know what or whom we have lost?  When was the last time we took stock, or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence?  Will we take responsibility for the losing, and what effort will we make to find it—or him or her—again?”[1] 

The second parable is like the first one.  Luke 15:8-10 Levine’s translation:

Or what woman, having ten drachmas, if she would lose one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek resolutely until she finds?  And when she finds, she calls together her (female) friends and (female) neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, because I have found the drachma, the one I had lost.”  Likewise, I say to you, there will be rejoicing before the angels of God at one sinner repenting.

Amy-Jill Levine observes, “After discovering the coin is lost, the woman searches, finds and rejoices with her friends.  “But there is a subtle shift from the first parable to the second.  The guardian of the flock speaks only of “my sheep, the lost one” (15.6).  He does not claim responsibility for losing it.  The woman mentions “the one I had lost” (15.9); she claims responsibility.  We are provoked again.  We can celebrate when what we have lost is found, but can we also admit our responsibility in the loosing?”[2]

After hearing the first two parables, we expect the same formula for the third parable.  The son is lost, the father searches, the son is found, and everyone rejoices.  But that is not exactly what happens. 

Luke 15: 11-32 Levine’s translation:

Some man had two sons.  And said the younger of them to the father, “Father, give to me the portion of the property that is falling to me.”  And he divided between them the life. 

And after not many days, gathering together all, the younger son took a journey into a far region, and there he scattered the property through excessive living.  And having spent all, there was a strong famine in that region, and he himself began to be in need.  And going, he became joined to one of the citizens of that region and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs.  And he was desiring to be filled from the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one was giving to him. 

And coming to himself, he said, “How many hired laborers of my father are abounding of bread, but I by famine here am lost?  Getting up, I shall go to my father and I shall say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; not still am I worth to be called your son; make me as one of your hired laborers’.”

And rising up, he went toward his father.  And yet when he was far off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and running, fell upon his neck and continually kissed him.

And said the son to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; not still am I worthy to be called your son”.

And said the father to his slaves, “Quickly carry out a robe, the first, and put it on him, and give the bring to his hand and sandals to the feet.  And bring the calf, the grain-fed one, sacrifice and, eating, we may rejoice.  Because this, my son, was dead, and he came back to life; he had been lost, and was found.” And they began to rejoice.

And his son, the elder, was I the field, and as he, coming, drew near to the house, he heard symphony and chorus.

And calling over one of the servants he inquired what these things might be.  And he said to him “Your brother has come, and your father has sacrificed the grain-fed calf, because he received him healthy.”

And he became angry, and he did not want to go in.  And his father, going out, comforted/urged him.

And answering, he said to his father, “Look, all these years I am slaving for you, and not one commandment of yours have I passed by, and for me not one young goat did you give so that with my friends I might rejoice.  But when your song, this one the one who ate up your life with whores came, you sacrificed for him the grain-fed calf. 

And he said to him, “Child, you always with me are, and everything that is mine is yours.  But it remains necessary to cheer and to rejoice, because your brother, this one, was dead, and lived to life, and being lost, even he was found.”

This parable is a good bit longer than the others in this section and it takes a while for us to find the pattern that the other two parables set up.  We get caught up with the younger son leaving, and the father rejoicing over his son that was lost but now found.  And we think, that’s the pattern, but it’s not quite.  The father never really searches for the younger son.  When the younger son arrives back home, the father was expecting to see him and in fact did see him while he was a distance away.  The father throws a party and everyone is there….well… almost everyone.  It is at this point in the story that this parable starts to resemble the others. 

Levine says this, “It will turn out that the urgent search will not be for the prodigal, but for the elder brother.

In the first two parables, feasting and rejoicing end the story; in the third, the feasting and rejoicing are left behind as the desperate father tries to make his family whole.  The story does not end with the party, but with two men in the field, one urging and comforting, the other resisting, vacillating, or reconciled—we do not know.”[3]

“The father is now in the role of the man searching for his sheep and the woman searching for her coin.  He needs to return the lost to the home; he needs to make his family complete.  But children are not sheep or coins; they are not property; they are people.  Unlike a sheep that can be lifted on one’s shoulders or a coin that can be picked up from the floor, returning the lost son to his home proves much more difficult.[4]

The sheep and the coin do not repent, we don’t expect them to, they are not people.  The father and the elder son do not repent either, they are only human.  Sometimes life is not as simple as being lost and then found, blind but then seeing, repenting and then forgiving, so if we can just hold off on reading repenting and forgiving into these parables for just another moment, I think there is something else we can glean from these parables. 

Levine writes, “Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household.  Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again.  Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one.  Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it.  Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.  Instead, go have lunch.  Go celebrate and invite others to join you.  If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better.  And if not, you still will have done what is necessary.   You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.  Take advantage of resurrection—it is unlikely to happen twice.”[5]

Call to worship:

Leader: And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God;

People: We have waited for the Lord, and God will save us:

Leader: This is the Lord, we have waited for God,

People: We will be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation.

All: Let us worship God. [Is. 25:9]

Hymn:  #132 Come Great God, of All the Ages

Prayer of Confession:

Eternal God, creator of the whole human family, you set us in a world richly endowed with material and spiritual wealth. Forgive us for wasting your treasures and always wanting more than we need. Have mercy upon us who never share as fully as you give. Heal our deafness to your call in our neighbor’s cry for help. By a clear vision of the community you intend for humankind, stir up in us the will to use our treasures and our skills for the advance of your realm of mercy, love and peace. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (not sure where I sourced this prayer from)

Scripture: Luke 15:11-32

Sermon: Lost something?

Hymn: #426 Lord, Speak to Me, That I may Speak

Offering:  We need to take count not only of our blessings, but also of those in our families, and in our communities.  And once we count, we need to act.  Finding the lot, whether they are sheep, coins, or people, takes work.  It also requires our efforts, and from those efforts there is the potential for wholeness and joy.  As we prepare to give our tithes and offerings, let us also take a moment to count, not just what we are putting in the offering, but let us count what is valuable to us. (page 20 leader’s guide)

Prayer:  You know us all, Lord Jesus, and you know those whom we do not.  Forgive us when we lose those who are precious to you, by what we do or by what we fail to do.  Send us in your Spirit’s power to them, that we may rejoice together as children of our father in heaven.  Amen. (page 21 leaders guide)

Hymn:   #434 Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples 

Benediction:

Take some time to evaluate what’s going on.  Count what is important to you and be sure nothing is lost.  And when you find what is missing, run. Be swift to love.  Make haste to be kind.  Don’t wait for the apology.  Don’t stew in anger.  Instead, go have lunch.  Celebrate.  You have another chance for wholeness.  Take advantage of it. 


[1] Levine, Amy-Jill, “Short stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi” HarperCollins Publishers New York 2014. Page 44

[2] Levine page 47

[3] Levine page 49

[4] Levine page 68

[5] Levine page 75

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