The movement from resentment to joy is one of the most profound and necessary conversions of the spiritual life. Of any life. Resentment is the feeling that something is unfair, it is a paralyzing litany of complaints about the people and situations that surround us. It makes us frustrated and angry. But it’s an anger that is turned inward, that expresses itself not in outbursts, but in a deep feeling that life has let us down. It leads us to judge others, it makes relationships and community life difficult. Resentment is a thief which robs us of joy. And as Henri Nouwen points out, some people are more susceptible to resentment than others. “It is the curse of the faithful, the virtuous, the obedient and the hardworking.”
Often, resentment is so deeply hidden that those who are resentful don’t even realize it. But it has one unmistakeable symptom that is easily recognized. And that symptom is grumbling.
“Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
There it is. Grumbling. The complaint that something is wrong. That something’s not fair.
The scribes and the Pharisees probably don’t even realize what they’re doing. It’s so easy for those who are resentful to mistake their resentment for moral virtue.
But Jesus hears the grumbling, and he sees the resentment. And I have to think that he is filled with compassion for the scribes and Pharisees. Because they are caught in the grasp of a destructive way of being that they may not even be aware of. It’s not something easily dealt with head-on, so he talks to them slant. He tells them a series of three stories, with the real zinger delayed until the last half of the last story. The first two stories, the ones we heard today about the lost sheep and the lost coin are meant to soften us up, to change our perspective, to introduce us to what God is like.
Then, Jesus tells them the story of a lost son, the third story which we often call the Prodigal Son. It’s a story designed to open up questions of fairness and who deserves what. If you recall, it’s a story in which the younger son, who clearly doesn’t deserve it, is welcomed back with open arms by his father, and the father calls for a great celebration and feast. And it is only then, at the moment that everyone else begins to celebrate, that Jesus introduces the older son, the resentful one, the one who finally explodes from all the resentment and frustration that have built up over a lifetime. It’s just not fair! He’s angry! And it’s no coincidence that the older son’s complaint echoes the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees that kicks off today’s gospel.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Any one here ever feel like that older son, the one who is resentful when the younger son, the one who doesn’t deserve it, is treated better than he is?
I do. I’m a lot like that older son. If this was happening to me, I’d be grumbling. And if you’re like me, well maybe we really should pay attention to what Jesus has to say in these three stories.
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
These first two stories are meant to tell us something about what God is like. God is like the woman who lost the coin, or the shepherd who lost the sheep, who immediately set out to find what was lost. So far so good. But did you notice that both the shepherd and the woman are a bit extreme in the way they respond? The shepherd is so desperate to find the one lost sheep that he leaves the other ninety-nine not with his buddy, or in a fenced sheepfold, but in the wilderness! That seems a bit risky.
And the woman who lost a coin, she lights a lamp, which tells me it’s probably night. Wouldn’t it be better to wait for morning to look for the lost coin? I mean it’s not like the coin is going anywhere. And then there’s the curious matter of the celebrations. Both of them, when they find the lost sheep and the lost coin, they hold these huge parties with all their friends and neighbours. The woman’s party probably cost her more than the coin she found. Are these the actions of reasonable people?
I think that there’s a hint here that when it comes to finding what is lost, God is more like someone who is desperate and obsessive than one who is rational and detached. Any economic calculus of the search and subsequent celebration makes no sense. It’s not the response you would expect from someone who lost a sheep or a coin.
But it is exactly the response you might expect from a mother who’s lost her child. Panic. Desperation. Urgency. An obsessive focus on finding the child, doing whatever it takes. This is what God is like - not so much when it comes to finding sheep or coins, but when it comes to finding you and me.
Now, did you notice what Jesus did in the first two stories? He set up the stories in such a way that there was really no one to blame. The coin and the sheep were lost through no fault of their own. You can’t blame a coin for being lost or even a sheep for wandering away.
But when a person is lost, you can blame them, whether it’s justified or not. The tax-collector is a collaborator who is helping the Roman Empire oppress and extort money from his own people. Shouldn’t he be excluded from the community? The younger son has disrespected his father and squandered his property in dissolute living. Shouldn’t he be held accountable for his actions? Shouldn’t God hold them both accountable? Isn’t that what religion is all about? Do we want people like that as part of our community?
We make judgements. Judgements lead to polarization. Polarization leads to exclusion and marginalization. And when you are excluded and marginalized, you can be lost.
Is that fair? Maybe it is. Is the lost person to blame? Maybe they are sometimes.
But the stories that Jesus tells, and the company that Jesus keeps paint a picture of a God who doesn’t really care about all that. What God does care about, no let’s make that stronger, what God is obsessed with and desperate about is finding the one who is lost and restoring their relationship. In the third story, Jesus tells us that while the lost son was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion, he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then he called for a great celebration, and there was great joy.
That’s what God is like. That’s what Jesus is encouraging us to be like. People who rejoice when good things happen to people who don’t necessarily deserve it. People who see other people as fellow children of God, as siblings, not rivals or competitors. People who suspend judgement for the sake of love and grace and compassion and mercy. People who can experience joy with others and are not weighed down by resentment.
I sure hope that the elder son finally came in from the cold and celebrated his brother’s return. The story ends without telling us. I like to think that at least some of the scribes and Pharisees were able to move from their grumbling and resentment to a healthier place spiritually so that they could join in the celebration and the joy when Jesus eats with tax-collectors and sinners.
But I also don’t want to underestimate the challenge. Moving from resentment to joy is one of the greatest challenges that many of us will face in our lifetime. It requires a profound and difficult conversion, which of course is another word for repentance. The scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel were mired in resentment, and it came out in their grumbling. Though they may not have realized it, they were the ones who were lost. But there is good news for them as well. God is seeking them out. God is determined to find them. God is passionate about moving us from resentment to joy. And when that happens, when we are found, all the angels in heaven will join in the celebration.
Homily Yr C P24 Sept 15 2019 St. Albans
Readings: Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28; Ps 14; 1 Tim 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10