The Self-Centered Reading of Luke 15

I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian. Please note that many, many fundamentalists are not judgmental and punitive, but have evangelistic motives and methods that are based solely on love. Nevertheless, guilt and fear are usually foundational in their beliefs and their methods.

As a fundamentalist, I knew that Jesus was my savior. I took the Bible literally. I don’t know whether or not my parents did, but I did. When I was only in the second grade, I worried about whether or not I had committed the unpardonable sin!  Perhaps only a few of you have even heard of such a thing, but that was the religious environment I grew up in – sin, fear of hell, and the need to repent and accept Jesus’ death on the cross as the only means of salvation.

When I was 14 years old, I felt called by God to preach. One of my school teachers had given us statistics on the numbers of adherents of other religions. I was shocked and knew that “they could not possibly be happy without Jesus!” I needed to spread the Word.

Shortly after that I, a 14-year-old girl, began a correspondence with an 82-year-old agnostic man, trying my best to get him saved so he would not spend eternity in hell. My religion had a strong basis in guilt and fear. I know he enjoyed this unusual correspondence with a teenager, and he said I would make a good lawyer! Like many other people, I knew the truth and I had it!

With maturity and more education, I came to understand the Bible quite differently and also to believe that God provides many opportunities to other cultures and other religions to experience God’s grace and to know God personally. But without the threat of eternal damnation and without trying to bring people under conviction of sin, what did it mean to be an evangelist, to lead people to Christ?

Jesus reveals God as passionate about seeking us in our lostness and ecstatic in rejoicing when we are found.

We’re so self-centered that we have mis-named the great parables in Luke 15.  “The Lost Coin.  The Lost Sheep.  The Prodigal Son.”  Our names reflect our concern with ourselves! Eventually someone came along and re-named the Parable of the Prodigal Son to the Parable of the Forgiving Father.

But the main character in the entire chapter is God – God’s persistent, seeking love and God’s own joy! Did you ever notice that?  The chapter isn’t about a sheep, a coin, or a son at all!

Moreover, the lost sheep had no moral responsibility for being lost. Sheep cannot sin, so this story is not our sinful lostness. It’s about joy and rejoicing! Verse 6 describes God saying:

“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost…. there will be more joy in heaven…”

The lost coin also had no moral responsibility for being lost – in fact, the coin is an inanimate object! The parable is about joy and rejoicing! Verse 9 describes God saying:

“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost…. there is joy in the presence of the angels of God….

Although the parable of the lost son describes our wandering, even here the main character is God – It is the forgiving father (God) whose longing has him recognizing the younger son from afar and running to meet him, and whose joy leads God to say to the elder brother:

“… get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate…. And they began to celebrate…. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

I was so excited to come to this insight about the character of God!

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About Nancy Smith

Nancy Smith has 20 years’ experience in technical writing and management in software companies. She also has more than 20 years in Christian ministry as an educator, course designer, retreat leader, spiritual director, pastor, and coach. A United Methodist Deacon, Smith has her M.Div. from Boston University. She is a graduate of the Guild for Spiritual Guidance, and is certified in Spiritual Direction and Retreat Leadership from Boston College.
This entry was posted in Lectionary, The Joy of God, Year C and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Self-Centered Reading of Luke 15

  1. Frank Ober says:

    Cool! I like it! Frank

  2. Sue says:

    This is the first time I have read your “blog”. So glad I did! Members of my family and I have experienced “being lost” in various ways for a few years and little by little things are turning around. Also, on the topic of fear and punishment for sin: I began reading “Theology of Fear: by Fr. Emmett Coyne (retired) which speaks to the church’s (RC in this instance) longstanding use of fear to control the “believers”. This is by far the main message, more so than the love, joy, acceptance/forgiveness, etc. of God as shown to us through Jesus. Coyne points out that the church is more closely modeled on the Roman Empire than the life and ministries of Jesus. I am 62 years old, a life long/very active UM who is becoming very suspect of the institutional Christian churches as a whole. Self preservation seems the main goal which overshadows the following of Jesus and connecting with God. I can only imagine what the well informed, free-to-choose younger generation is thinking.

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