The parables of Jesus have been referred to as “holy jokes.” When he tells a story, there is a punchline that his listeners don’t anticipate. Those who are “in the know” wink and grin, while the butt of his jokes – most often the religious establishment – blush with anger and embarrassment.
The most obvious example of this is Luke 15. The preachers and politicians (often found together) were horrified that Jesus spent so much time with the “sinners” and socially unacceptable of his day. In response, Jesus told a series of tales about lost things: A lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (whom we commonly call the “Prodigal Son”).
In each case, the joke was on the religionists, as Jesus painted the picture of a God who pursues those who have wandered away, not waiting for the “lost” to change or make the first move. God is the initiator, the catalyst for recovery, who launches a restoration movement that seeks those far from home.
Seemingly, this puts God on shaky ground with religion, as it appears that God’s standards are lower than the establishment’s; and that’s the joke. Those who feel so offended by the wrongdoers and “sinners” around them, don’t get it. God loves, values, welcomes, and seeks these very people; God rejoices over their redemption while the clergy (and I’ll include myself with these my brothers and sisters) stand around looking like they are pallbearers at a funeral.
But back to those “holy jokes” in Luke 15: Each story ends with a party – check it out for yourself. A shepherd celebrates with his friends for he finds his lost sheep; a woman calls all her neighbors for a barbecue because she has recovered an invaluable keepsake; a father throws a shindig for the entire village because his wandering son returns; and God “rejoices in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents.”
Don’t miss that. This is not the joy of singing, dancing angels, as this text has many times been misapplied – though certainly I would think that to be an angel would mean being happy. No, this is the joy of the One who shares company with the angels. This is God who is doing the celebrating. God is gleeful, downright giddy, and grinning from ear to ear when those who were once lost have been found.
Those who have wasted their days; those who have wasted the love shown to them; those who have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity: If just one of these can be recovered, then heaven’s champagne bottles uncork, the angels strike up the band, and God rejoices; even at the expense of his representatives on earth.
Those representatives in Jesus’ day had a beatitude. “Blessed is the man,” they said, “who seeks after God as if searching for something lost.” But Jesus showed us that it is God who does the seeking and searching. That’s not a joke, it’s grace, and we laugh with joy.