The Third Sunday after Trinity


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O Lord, we beseech Thee mercifully to hear us;…
1 Peter 5:5-11
Luke 15:1-10

Although they are almost invariably joined together, as they are in today’s Gospel, the stories of the shepherd and the housewife are very different. Money was a rare article in the peasant lives of First Century Palestine, barter being the norm except for Temple offerings and major transactions such as land transfers. The most widespread and frequent use of money was for the payment of dowries; and because peasant homes lacked secure storage the safest place for money was to sew it into the bride’s garments. We can therefore readily understand how a woman would have worried and searched if she lost part of her dowry and how she might have celebrated when she found what was lost. The story of the lost sheep, on the other hand, is totally irrational. A shepherd with 100 sheep, all of which led precarious lives, would have been courting catastrophe if he had abandoned 99 for one that was lost. Here is the shepherd, sentimentally returning with the lost sheep over his shoulders, to find the remainder of the flock ravaged and scattered! The absentee landlord will sack him; his life is ruined! The only thing lower than a shepherd is an unemployed shepherd.

The very irrationality of the shepherd reinforces the message in the Collect and Epistle of our need, respectively of God’s “mighty” aid or “mighty” hand. The Epistle then goes on to describe the devil’s threat in the form of a prowling lion, thus completing the vivid antithesis in the readings between the predatory lion and the helpless sheep. The Collect and Peter both emphasise that our best defence lies in steadiness. Perhaps the Collect is somewhat optimistic when it says that we have been given “an hearty desire to pray” but we can at least recognise the need to be “sober and vigilant”.

Again we are confronted with the problem of the connection between behaviour and salvation. The Collect does not specifically link our desire to pray with our benefiting from the “mighty aid” which will defend us from all dangers and adversities but Peter complicates the issue somewhat by saying that God gives grace to the humble which would seem to indicate some kind of link between behaviour and heavenly favour. We might at this point also notice the preamble to the Gospel stories where Luke sets the scene so that the two lost and found stories are specifically aimed at “Publicans and sinners.” It is all too easy to become sentimental about the crowd and the lost sheep but Luke means to set the opposite tone: it is precisely because those listening to Jesus are not virtuous—and might best be represented by an almost worthless, scrawny, errant sheep—that they need the irrational love of God, irrational because it does not depend on a transparent, predictable formula.

Any starting point for grasping the import of all three Readings is for us to count ourselves with the publicans and sinners and to see the scrawny sheep as our personal icon. Only then can we put our own worth, represented by our faith and works, into perspective. In the face of our own inadequacies in both it seems somewhat futile to debate which of the two is more likely to secure salvation as the answer, surely, is neither.

The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes, denouncing Jesus for mixing with and eating with sinners, is both predictable and depressing. Steeped in The Law, their religion was one which values fixed rules which, when broken, required fixed atonements. It was this mechanistic approach which Jesus and, later, Paul much more vehemently rejected. It would be a mistake to put contemporary words into Paul’s mouth but when he says, echoed by Peter, that we are totally dependent on Jesus for our salvation he is surely invoking the image of humanity as broken, not necessarily in the extreme language of “original sin” but in the sense that imperfection is a necessary human attribute which enables us to exercise the function for which we were created, to love God freely.

The connection between imperfection, or brokenness, and freedom is the most fundamental dynamic in our lives which is why its interpretation spans the whole range of philosophical and emotional possibility from Pelagian positivism to fatalism. The tendency in the 16th Century immediately after Luther was to emphasise the imperfection rather than the exercise of freedom and there are large numbers of Christians today who yoke freedom and imperfection but in a negative way, seeing perfection as conformity with ‘plain’ morality whereas yoking the two positively shifts the balance from fear to love. Further, if we do not allow ourselves to see past our condition to its consequences we are falling short. We were not made to languish in our imperfection but to take risks for love, for a necessary consequence of imperfection is that there is no love without risk.

In a way which it is impossible to understand, in abandoning the flock for the one sheep, Jesus was taking a risk for us so that we might take a risk for him. We should therefore neither take comfort in the routine of the Pharisees and scribes on the one hand nor in the abjectness of being publicans and sinners on the other. We should learn from Mary that to be humble is not to be passive; to exercise the freedom to love in our imperfect state is as good as it gets.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Compare the stories of the shepherd and the housewife
  2. Tell contemporary stories conveying Luke’s message
  3. Discuss the proposition that neither faith nor good works is the route to salvation
  4. How far has Christianity escaped from the Old Testament formalism of The Law to which Jesus and Paul so strongly objected?
  5. Is human imperfection a necessary precondition for exercising our freedom to love?

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