The Ungrateful and Evil

Proper 19
Luke 15:1-10
Jesus said, ‘Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce ll that he has cannot be my disciple.’

A reminder that Luke is a book that illustrates discipleship. And disciples come from unexpected places: tax collectors and sinners. The outcasts and the unloved. Those who understand they are broken and end up changed and transformed by Jesus. Jesus tells three parables in Luke 15 that illustrate this point. Luke 15:1 say that the Pharisees are troubled that Jesus has been spending his time among tax collectors and sinners. He even has the gall to eat with such people. Throughout Luke the Pharisees say, ‘Rabbis are not to contaminate themselves in such a way,’ doesn’t he know who he is dealing with?’

And eating was the most intimate activity in the ancient world. It was a symbol of deep friendship and love. ‘He associates with tax collectors and sinners–and even eats with them!’

The three parables in Luke 15 are Jesus’ thoughts on the matter. Actually, what Jesus tries to drive at are God’s thoughts on the matter. So Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin and lastly, the lost son, aka the ‘prodigal son.’ The point is obvious, God’s heart is for the lost and there is great rejoicing when a sinner repents.

There is an underlying message in Jesus’ words that often get missed. His words are a comfort to sinners, but also they are a challenge to those who have a list of who is acceptable to God and who is not.

In the movie The Mission, Robert De Niro plays a man named Rodrigo Mendoza, who is a
Spanish slave trader and who captures South American natives and brutalizes them, trading them to the Portuguese in the region. Mendoza becomes embittered when his brother Felipe steals his one and only love. In a crime of passion, Mendoza ends up killing his own brother.

Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit priest who finds Mendoza in prison, staring at the wall, refusing food and drink, hoping to die of starvation or thirst. Fr. Gabriel challenges Mendoza to find God and to seek his forgiveness. Mendoza simply says, “I can’t do that. For me there is no redemption.”

There are those who walk around with this view of God and this view of themselves. “For me there is no redemption.” Their own sin or their own suffering has caused them to believe that there is no God out there looking for them. There is no God seeking a relationship. Perhaps you find yourself in that place. “For me there is no redemption.”

But the deeper question is, who, in your mind, is not worthy of God’s redemption? If you could have dinner with those who are not worthy of God’s redemption, who would be sitting around that table?

Is it someone or a group of someones who are a threat to you? An enemy of some kind?

Maybe it is someone with their hand out on the street or those who hold the signs on the corner. Maybe it is someone whom you have given a handout or a helping hand and you have received nothing but ingratitude in return.

There was a homeless man who visited us about a year ago. I gave him some cash and we got him hooked up in a great program to get him a bed and a job. Suddenly, after his visit, there were things around the church missing and there was even a break in. I am convinced by the trail of broken doors that it was the same guy. What was my response? Of course I was looking out for the church I was very angry and I wanted him found and arrested.

What is God’s heart, though? There is a twist in Luke that is very challenging to me that I just noticed recently. In Luke 6, Jesus is giving his famous sermon on the plain, similar to his sermon on the mount. He says something very familiar to us: ‘If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.’

Anything disturbing about that? The whole thing should be. But what struck me was the phrase, ‘for God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.’ When we encounter some in our world who take without ever giving thanks or even those who take advantage of the kindness of others, what is God’s heart towards them? He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

Then there is the ominous follow up: ‘be merciful as your Father is merciful.’

Now sometimes giving out cash is not the most merciful thing to do. Sometimes empowering others to work for themselves and to excel in their own skills is the answer. But look at the attitude of God. Mercy means kindness to those who are ungrateful for it and even those who are evil.

Moses, in our Old Testament passage, intercedes for those who are just that. Having been freed from slavery and brought out of Egypt, they then grow impatient and selfish and begin to worship the golden calf in revelry and chaos. Yet Moses says, ‘blot me out of your book on their behalf.’

Does not a true shepherd, who has lost a sheep, not leave the 99 to find the one who was lost?

In his book Listening to Your Life, one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner talks of a personal experience with a shepherd whom he grew up nearby. He says, ‘When I think of shepherds, I think of one man in particular I know who used to keep sheep here in Rupert a few years back. Some of them he gave names to, and some of them he didn’t, but he knew them equally well either way. If one of them got lost, he didn’t have a moment’s peace till he found it again. If one of them got sick or hurt, he would move heaven and earth to get it well again. He would feed them out of a bottle when they were newborn lambs if for some reason the mother wasn’t around or wouldn’t ‘own’ them as he put it. He always called them in at the end of the day so wild dogs wouldn’t get them. I’ve seen him wade through snow up to his knees with a bale of hay in each hand to feed them on bitter cold winter evenings, shaking it out and putting it in the manger. I’ve stood with him in their shed with a forty watt bulb hanging down from the low ceiling to light up their timid, greedy, foolish, half holy faces as they pushed and butted each other to get at it.’

Isn’t this what God is like? Will he not have a moment’s peace until he finds one of us who was lost? Would he not move heaven and earth to nurse us back to health? Doesn’t he take us in when our own loved ones have abandoned us? Wouldn’t he risk bitter cold to give us what we need?

Would he not send his Son to die?

The Prodigal son was not a part of our gospel reading but it most naturally follows the short parables of the shepherd and the coin. You’ve heard or read it a thousand times. More than spelling out the lostness of the younger son he is pointing to the love and mercy of the Father.

There is a twist in the parable that I had never seen before. Remember that text we looked at last week and the one I quoted at the beginning? Jesus said, ‘Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce ll that he has cannot be my disciple.’

The point is obvious, the decision is upon you. The king is invading, there is no time to putter about because the time of decision is at hand. ‘Now is the time of salvation’ as Paul says.

Jesus says that the wise king who cannot meet the challenge should seek peace ‘while the other is yet a great way off.’
Listen to these words from the parable of the prodigal son:
‘But when [the younger son] came to himself, he said, “how many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.’

I hope you caught the obvious parallel. ‘While he was still a long way off.’ ‘Settle matters with the king while you are still a long way off,’ says Jesus, but he uses the exact same phrase, and who is the one running from a long way off?

It is God. Don’t miss the parallel and the irony here. God is the seeker of the lost, he is the Father who will run to his son who has destroyed his life for the purpose of reconciliation and relationship.

Lastly, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son ends with the older brother in a state of grumbling and the father stating, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this brother of yours was dead, and is alive again, he was lost and is found.’

Jesus never says what happened to the older brother because he is offering a challenge to his hearers. Those who are all that and a bag of chips, those who have everything, those who do what is right and who have worked for every penny: is there anyone in your mind who is outside of God’s redemption? Is there anyone so unlovely and so unlovable that God does not love them? Is there anyone too evil that even God’s love has limits?

You remember the ruthless dictator of Uganda Idi Amin. Amin arbitrarily killed those who he thought were a threat to his power or those he just didn’t like. 300,000 people were killed under his regime, including the Anglican Archbishop Janni Luwum. I heard recently of one of Archbishop Luwan’s priests Festo Kivengere, who was the last person to see the Archbishop alive. The Archbishop was taken from his quarters one day, questioned, tortured and shot.

Father Kivengere, who also became a bishop himself was later asked to comment on the whole event and the brutality of Amin. Eventually, he wrote a book called I Love Idi Amin in which he wrote, “On the cross, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.’ As evil as Idi Amin was, how can I do less toward him?” How can anyone say such a thing? ‘He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful as your Father is merciful.’

I’ve shared this quote with you from Isaac of Ninevah :
“Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.
Be crucified, but do not crucify others. Be slandered, but do not slander others.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.
Suffer with the sick. Be afflicted with sinners. Exult with those who repent…
Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.
Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.
And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place,
do not destroy their character…that they be protected and receive mercy.”

This is God’s heart. To seek and save what is lost.

God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful as your Father is merciful.