The readings today bring about a need to understand the duality of everything. There are two sides that need to be considered. In general, we understand the warning of Jeremiah, the prayer of Paul, and the parables of Jesus from an Us and Them perspective.
The central theme for today – the golden thread connecting the readings – is Sin. The Judeans were sinners. Timothy was a sinner; and Jesus welcomed sinners.
As Christians, WE see all the errors of THOSE times. That is the Us and Them duality of which I speak.
In the sayings, “walk a mile in my shoes” and “when the shoe is on the other foot,” the aspect of two sides is understood and one is always more able to see sin in others, while one’s own sins are ignored.
From the US perspective, we can sit back – 2,700 to 2,800 years from the times of Israel and Judah – and say, “How stupid they were!” Jeremiah wrote how God told him to write, “Now it is I who speak in judgment … for my people are foolish … they are stupid children.”
We read a perspective of God and accept it as our own – “Yeah! Stupid children!”
From that holy perspective, where we recognize Jesus as Christ, speaking for God, we see the Pharisees the same as we saw the children of Judah – “Fools! You are stupid for rejecting Jesus!”
When we do actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or when the shoe does actually get on the other foot, the part we so often forget to consider is this: We are flawed human beings.
We do not have the luxury of pretending we are gods.
The Pharisees are always among us, as we are the Pharisees.
We have the opportunity to live like Jesus, but as the saying goes, “When opportunity knocks we still have to get up to answer the door.” This means we are only a few missed opportunities away from being exactly like the Judeans of Jeremiah’s time.
In the cartoon strip Pogo, the famous quote was coined, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The tendency is always to see the enemy as THEM, not US. The shock always comes when one realizes, “I am my own worst enemy.” The mind has a way of defending against such reality – the technical name for that defense is DENIAL.
Addicts use this once they are addicted to a way of life that even they – if they could see someone else acting like they themselves were – would deem wrong … sinful. As such, the Pharisees and the Judeans were addicted to a sense of piety. They were addicted to the power that piety brought them. They thought only others were filled with sin and it was their role to purge the sinners from the midst of the people.
In the prayer by Paul, we find one who gives thanks for having been saved from sin. Paul stated he had been a sinner, where he had persecuted those who he saw as sinners, and where he had acted violently in those persecutions.
One can imagine Paul as one who honored the Pharisees, if he himself was not one. When he said he had been a blasphemer, one can imagine he condemned others … sinners in the eyes of the self-praised righteous … and stoned them … all in the name of God. He was admitting himself to have been a sinner for playing the role of god on earth.
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he confesses to having acted ignorantly in unbelief, because – like the people of Judah – he did not know God, he had no understanding of goodness. He was a stupid child of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. When Paul wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” he is restating the Gospel reading; but Paul said he himself was the foremost sinner.
The word “foremost” comes from the Greek word “protos,” which can translate as, “first, in time and order of importance, chief, principal, and most important,” such that the meaning is there are no other sinners ahead of Paul. This is not a statement of how much sin Paul committed, as it is instead a statement of how important it was for Paul to admit to himself that he was a sinner, before he went pointing the finger at someone else.
They say the first step for an addict’s recovery is admitting that a problem does indeed exist. Recovery begins when that person realizes the root cause of that problem is self-centered. Paul admitted he was the sinner he needed to be concerned about, not the sins of others.
In the Gospel, the Pharisees grumble about Jesus welcoming all the sinners, like the disliked tax collectors. Jesus overheard the complaints and told two parables, each differently focusing on something lost, being searched for until found. The recovery was reason for celebration.
The first parable told to the Pharisees was about being a Good Shepherd, and leaving the flock to search for one lost sheep. The second parable was about a woman who had lost one silver coin, from the ten she had in total. The two can be seen as saying the same thing, but there is a difference in the loss of a living creature and the loss of a valuable material.
To find the living creature – the lost sheep – the shepherd was required to leave 99 sheep unattended in the pasture, while he went off looking for the 100th sheep. The pasture can be seen as the church, where there is safety in numbers, and where the flock protects each other while the master is away. This is why the Apostles wrote letters to the heads of different churches. They had left their flocks behind, in search of lost sheep – those who did not yet know the Gospel, who did not yet have the influence of the Holy Spirit within them.
Jesus told this parable to ask the Pharisees, “Why are you not tending to the flock of Jews that come to you for shepherding, instead of scaring them off in fear?”
The woman who had lost one of ten silver coins (10% of her wealth) must be seen as not selfishly hoarding material things; but, instead, she supports a ministry of disciples – whether it is the Temple and its tithes (10%) or the “all-in” church of Jesus. She seeks hard for the lost coin so that others will not suffer from her loss. The ministry of the LORD is sustained through such material sacrifices, and such urgency of dedication.
Jesus told this parable to ask the Pharisees, “Why are you asking poor women to give more of their possessions, which they gladly do, when you give a lesser percentage and expect more of God in return?”
What were the people of Judea getting from their priests and rabbis? As lost as they always were, thirsting for someone to come save them, to show them the way, one would think they needed someone to tell them – step by step – how to stop being sinners.
The point of one sinner repenting and being brought back to God is the true work of a priest, of one dedicated to the LORD. This was something none of the Pharisees were doing. It serves no purpose to point out the flaws of others, if you do not seek out the aspect of yourself that is lost and return it to the fold. If you cannot lead by example … if you cannot explain – like Paul and the other Apostles of the Epistles – how to let the Holy Spirit save you, then is that not the blind leading the blind? Isn’t that what was going on 2,700 – 2,800 years ago? Isn’t that still going on today?
The purpose of the children of Israel, those of David’s House of Israel and those of Jeremiah’s Judah and Jerusalem, was to serve the LORD. They were meant to seek out the sinners and return them to the sheep pen. They were chosen to be God’s priests. They failed in that regard.
God told Jeremiah, “I will not make a full end. I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.” – There is purpose and need, so they will always be some flicker of hope left burning.
David’s song sings, “The LORD looks down upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise, if there is one who seeks after God.” – Those are the hope for the people, for all who are lost.
Paul says the answer is yes, to the question, “Who seeks after God?” There is Christ Jesus who seeks after God. – We receive the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
And, when the sinner’s eyes are opened by Christ and the foremost sinner is seen for who he or she really is, another will be forgiven and allowed back to the pasture … to also seek God and tend the flock.