Monthly Archives: September 2022

Crime, Punishment and Justice


Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Psalm 37:1-9

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
   and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
   and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
   and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
   strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
   and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
   therefore judgement comes forth perverted. Habakkuk 1:2-4.


Do not fret because of the wicked;
   do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
   and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
   and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:1-4.

So who are we to believe? The prophet who tells us justice never prevails or the psalmist who tells us it always does? The psalmist advises us not to get worked up over the outrages of the wicked. Habakkuk is nothing if not worked up. I have to confess that my sympathies lie with Habakkuk. I will not waste my breathe reciting how often in recent times I have seen, in the public realm and in my own personal life, wickedness rewarded and righteousness punished. And this from a white, straight, solidly middle class man who has lived and breathed privilege for all his days. Unless you are living under a rock, you cannot escape the reality of justice denied in the work place, in our schools and in our justice system to people of color, women and LGBTQ+ folk. So what are we to make of the psalmist who seems to think that the triumph of justice is just as sure and predictable as the next sunrise?

As it turns out, Habakkuk and the psalmist are not as far apart as one might think at first blush. The Lord finally answers Habakkuk, though what God has to say is probably less than what he might have hoped for:

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
   Their spirit is not right in them,
   but the righteous live by their faith. Habakkuk 2:3-4.

In short, justice will prevail. But it will not happen with the clocklike regularity observed by the psalmist. Habakkuk might have to wait for God’s justice to be revealed. In fact, the “appointed time,” might come well beyond the horizons of the prophet’s life. The righteous, says the Lord, must live in expectation of justice being done even though they see no evidence of it. That means one can expect setbacks, miscarriages of justice, failed efforts at reform and preaching that falls on deaf ears. Every step forward might well be followed by two steps back. Forgiveness, compassion, speaking truth to power and non-violent resistance in the face of aggression may not yield results-or at least none that can immediately be seen. Yet it is possible to persevere under such conditions because we believe that what we can at best begin, God will finish in God’s good time.

That puts the psalmist’s words in the right perspective. The psalmist is not suggesting that the righteous should ignore evil and oppression, leaving to God the task of establishing justice. The psalmist does, however, warn the righteous not to “fret” or obsess over retribution for the wicked. That some people seemingly escape the consequences of their evil deeds is no concern of ours. As Paul reminds us, “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Romans 12:19. The psalms, of course, are filled with cries for vengeance. The psalmists are not shy about telling God exactly what they would like to see done to their enemies in cringeworthy terms. Yet, in the end, they leave the business of actually punishing the wicked in God’s hands where it rightly belongs. As the prophet Jonah had to learn, God’s determinations concerning who should be punished for what, when and how severely frequently differ from our own ideas on that score.

It is tempting to believe that we are able to “make the punishment fit the crime.” But I wonder if that is really so. We might conclude that a serial killer of innocent children deserves the severest sentence we can legally impose. Yet a killer’s depravity is seldom made in a vacuum. What about the parents who abused the killer as a child? What about the doctors, social workers and teachers who noticed the bruises and cuts on his body, but failed to report them? What about the neighbors in the next apartment who heard the noise of the screams and beatings, but didn’t want to get involved and so turned up the volume on the TV? What about voting people like us who don’t want our precious tax dollars wasted on social programs designed to intervene with dysfunctional families? To be sure, criminals bear responsibility for their actions, but are they the only ones responsible? Do we really want perfect retributive justice? Or is this a case where we need to be careful about what we ask?

Justice is not the same as vengeance, though we frequently speak of it as such. Vengeance does not result in justice. More often than not, it merely perpetuates and deepens ongoing cycles of retribution, giving birth to further injustice. God’s justice is not simply or even chiefly about punishment. In God’s view, justice is restorative. It aims not merely to redress wrong (though that is surely and indispensable piece!), but to make things right between the conflicted parties. In our justice system, a case is complete once the judge or the jury renders a verdict determining who is entitled to what. But God is concerned with what happens after the verdict and what the affected parties do in response. God’s judgment is designed to bring about repentance, restitution and reconciliation-in exactly that order. Thus, the people of God are encouraged to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” Micah 6:8. But the task of punishing the wicked lies with God alone.  

Reconciliation is the end product of justice. But justice, divine justice, restorative justice is a long process. Sometimes I believe that our resort to violence against our enemies is the fruit of our impatience with this slow justice, an attempt to make peace by skipping the hard work of justice. Here is a poem by Agnes Lee in which God’s justice appears to have been achieved through the sojourn from emnity to friendship.


For many a year

A sordid grudge we bore,

But now when he comes down the street

He lingers at my door.

For Time is closing in,

And age forgives its debts,

When family falls away like mist,

And memory forgets.

Now, as we sit and talk

Under the mulberry tree,

The only friend I have in life

Is my old enemy.

Source: Poetry, July, 1930. Agnes Lee (1868 – 1939) was an American poet and translator. She was born in Chicago, but educated at a boarding school in Vevey, Switzerland. Lee wrote a collection of children’s verse and published her first poem in 1899. She subsequently wrote several other books of poetry and translated Théophile Gautier’s Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems in 1903. In 1926, Lee received the guarantor’s prize from Poetry Magazine. You can read more about Agnes Lee and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Capitalism-A Sickness of the Soul


Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Psalm 146

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Luke 16:19-31

Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, you look with compassion on this troubled world. Feed us with your grace, and grant us the treasure that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“….if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” I Timothy 6:8-9.

“God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” Rev. Joel Osteen.

Only in America, where the religion of capitalism is far more deeply ingrained than anything most children learn in Sunday School, could the kind of Christianity preached by Rev. Osteen gain traction. His perverted travesty of our faith and the rhetoric of the so-called “American Dream”[1] are regularly invoked to sanctify greed, long recognized by Christian tradition as one of the seven deadly sins, and make of it a cardinal virtue. In a 1986 commencement address Ivan Boesky, stock trader subsequently convicted of insider trading, remarked that “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”[2] According to capitalism’s creed, the engines of economic growth run on the fuel of greed, ruthlessness and selfishness. Only the weak, the timid, the lazy and cowardly whine about equality, fairness and compassion. Such folks are, in the eyes of capitalism and the words of a disgraced former president, “losers.”

The religion of capitalism is a lie. To the extent that it has become entwined with Christian faith and teaching, it is heretical. It is high time we said so in no uncertain terms. Capitalism was roundly called out and denounced by Pope Francis in his proclamation, Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”). “Today” says the Pope, “everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” He goes on to point out that “as a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” Human persons are treated as consumer goods “to be used and then discarded.” The sad truth of these words is born out in the incriminating evidence of refugee camps throughout the world, displaced and homeless people living in the shadow of wealth and the ruined, dying communities scattered throughout the American rust belt. Capitalism is about generating ever more wealth for the wealthy at the expense of the earth’s fragile ecosystems, its workers, their families and their communities. Pope Francis had some hard words for the defenders of this death dealing economy:   

“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

None of this is to say that commerce is evil or that markets valuing the goods and services businesses produce are hopelessly corrupt. But like all things human, they become demonic when deified. The markets cannot protect our hearts from greed, our neighbors from oppression or the earth from exploitation. When we cease to view markets as tools for determining the fair value of things sold and afford to the “Market” unregulated independence and a near supernatural power to regulate human economic relationships, we fall into the sin of idolatry. Like all false gods, the Market demands a blood sacrifice in payment for its supposed benefits. As the Pope points out, that tab is picked up by the poor, the homeless and the starving. The rich, too, pay for the benefits they receive in the coin of an ever diminishing capacity to care for their neighbors and thus lose their humanity inch by inch.

That, of course, is the tragedy of the rich man in Jesus’ parable. There is no learning curve for him. He has seen with his own eyes how what Mary the Mother of our Lord foretold has come true with a vengeance. The “the powerful” have been “brought down from their thrones” and lowly “lifted up.” The hungry have been “filled with good things” and the rich “sent away empty.”  Luke 1:52-53. But the poor fool has not figured that out. He does not realize that the great reversal has taken place. He still thinks he is a big shot who can hobnob with father Abraham. He still thinks Lazarus is his “boy” who can be ordered about. He thinks he can buy favors for his rich relatives by sending Lazarus to “put the fear of God” into them. But Abraham wisely replies that they have all the warning they need from prophets like Amos, who in our lesson today gives about as clear and concise a warning as any thinking person needs. Moreover, he points out that, even if a man should rise from the dead and appear to this man’s wealthy brothers, they would be no more likely to change their selfish and unfeeling ways. Turns out that Abraham was right on the money. Jesus has risen, but the gulf separating the rich man from Lazarus has grown to global proportions.

The false gospel of wealth and prosperity threatens not only the lives of the poor, but as well the souls of the privileged. It is not for nothing that Saint Paul warns us that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” I believe that, though we may deny it, many of us mainline protestants have been at least subliminally infected with the prosperity gospel. I think it is killing us without our knowing it. There is something deeply wrong with a people incapable of weeping when the images of starving children flash across our television screens. Only the most lethal spiritual sickness can explain our blindness to the poor and homeless living in close proximity to our comfortable homes. We are on the rich man’s side of the divide-which is opposite that of our Lord. We are fast losing our capacity to feel empathy and compassion. The good news is that there is for us still time to close the gap. There is still time for our hearts to melt and our minds to open. We have not only Moses and the prophets, but the testimony and call of the risen Christ.  

[1] Just what is meant by the “American Dream” is open to interpretation. If by that term one simply means the opportunity to earn a decent living, raise one’s children in safe neighborhoods with good schools and be free from persecution and discrimination, then I have no quarrel with it. That is pretty much what most of us want for ourselves and our families. Frequently, though, the American Dream is simply rhetorical shorthand for the freedom of industries to exploit the earth, the power of the strong to dominate the weak and the rationale for tolerating poverty and exploitation of labor. As such, it represents a decidedly non-Christian spirit.

[2] This speech was subsequently parodied in Oliver Stone’s movie, Wall Street. Stone’s fictional character, Gordon Gekko, says in a speech to shareholders of a fictional corporation, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

Here is a poem by Jerome Rothenberg I have previously cited. It reflects all too well the prevailing conditions of our time and the sickness of greed against which the Apostle Paul warns us.

A Poem for the Cruel Majority

The cruel majority emerges!

Hail to the cruel majority!

They will punish the poor for being poor.
They will punish the dead for having died.

Nothing can make the dark turn into light
for the cruel majority.
Nothing can make them feel hunger or terror.

If the cruel majority would only cup their ears
the sea would wash over them.
The sea would help them forget their wayward children.
It would weave a lullaby for young & old.

(See the cruel majority with hands cupped to their ears,
one foot is in the water, one foot is on the clouds.)

One man of them is large enough to hold a cloud
between his thumb & middle finger,
to squeeze a drop of sweat from it before he sleeps.

He is a little god but not a poet.
(See how his body heaves.)

The cruel majority love crowds & picnics.
The cruel majority fill up their parks with little flags.
The cruel majority celebrate their birthday.

Hail to the cruel majority again!

The cruel majority weep for their unborn children,
they weep for the children that they will never bear.
The cruel majority are overwhelmed by sorrow.

(Then why are the cruel majority always laughing?
Is it because night has covered up the city’s walls?
Because the poor lie hidden in the darkness?
The maimed no longer come to show their wounds?)

Today the cruel majority vote to enlarge the darkness.

They vote for shadows to take the place of ponds
Whatever they vote for they can bring to pass.
The mountains skip like lambs for the cruel majority.

Hail to the cruel majority!
Hail! hail! to the cruel majority!

The mountains skip like lambs, the hills like rams.
The cruel majority tear up the earth for the cruel majority.
Then the cruel majority line up to be buried.

Those who love death will love the cruel majority.

Those who know themselves will know the fear
the cruel majority feel when they look in the mirror.

The cruel majority order the poor to stay poor.
They order the sun to shine only on weekdays.

The god of the cruel majority is hanging from a tree.
Their god’s voice is the tree screaming as it bends.
The tree’s voice is as quick as lightning as it streaks across the sky.

(If the cruel majority go to sleep inside their shadows,
they will wake to find their beds filled up with glass.)

Hail to the god of the cruel majority!
Hail to the eyes in the head of their screaming god!

Hail to his face in the mirror!

Hail to their faces as they float around him!

Hail to their blood & to his!

Hail to the blood of the poor they need to feed them!
Hail to their world & their god!

Hail & farewell!
Hail & farewell!
Hail & farewell!

Source: Rothenberg, Jerome, A Paradise of Poets, (c. 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999 by Jerome Rothenberg, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corp.). Jerome Rothenberg is an American poet, translator and anthologist. He is the son of Polish-Jewish immigrant parents and was born in New York City. He attended the City College of New York and received his master’s degree in literature from the University of Michigan in 1953. Rothenberg served in the U.S. Army in Mainz, Germany from 1953 to 1955, after which he did further graduate study at Columbia University. He published translations of German poets, including the first English translation of poems by Paul Celan and Günter Grass. He also founded Hawk’s Well Press and the magazines Poems from the Floating World and some/thing. He currently lives in San Diego, California. You can read more about Jerome Rothenberg and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Life After Getting Fired


Amos 8:4-7

Psalm 113

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

Prayer of the Day: God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another. Keep our feet from evil paths. Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Luke 16:9.

Andre Dubus’ novel, House of Sand and Fog, is all about Massoud Behrani, a refugee from Iran living with his family in the United States. Behrani was formerly a colonel serving under the Shah of Iran. As an officer of the Shah, Behrani enjoyed a life of wealth, prestige and recognition. But the Iranian revolution changed all of that. Behrani was forced to flee the country. He was granted refugee status by the United States government and so settled in California with his wife and teenage son. The only work Behrani can find is a job with the state public works division collecting trash along the roadway. He is determined, though, to maintain for his family the style of living they knew in Iran. With the ever diminishing supply of money Behrani managed to get out of Iran, he rents a luxury apartment for his family, telling his wife that he has obtained a prestigious and high paying position. Every day he leaves home in a pressed suit and dress shoes, only to change into his work clothing in the lavatory of a nearby hotel and proceed to the site of his trash collecting job.

Behrani knows that his money is running out and that he cannot keep up the pretense of wealth and privilege for much longer. So he makes one last desperate attempt to escape his predicament. He cashes out what is left of his savings to buy a home sold at a sheriff’s sale for far less than market value. His plan is to renovate and sell it for a profit. Unknown to Behrani, the home belongs to a woman who, as it turns out, was wrongfully evicted. She and her boy friend return to the house armed and hold Behrani and his family hostage. Their intent is only to intimidate Behrani and frighten him into selling the house back to them, but the plan goes horribly wrong ending in tragedy for all involved.

The manager in Jesus’ parable is in a similar plight. One minute he is a high level manager for a rich and powerful land owner. The next he is just one more unemployment statistic. Because he was fired for incompetence, it is not likely he will get much in the way of a reference from his former employer. Like Colonel Behrani, this manager’s life of wealth and privilege is over. But very much unlike the Colonel, the manager does not waste any time in denial. You do not see him desperately clinging to his old title, dropping the names of all the important people he used to know who no longer care about him. Neither does he wallow in self pity and complain to anyone who will listen about how unfairly he has been treated.  This manager understands that his world has been turned upside down and that nothing will ever be the same again. He can see clearly that the last are now first and the first are last. There is no going back and the only way out is forward. So the manager does not waste his last days on the job, pleading with his employer for a second chance or trying to find out who ratted him out so that he can get revenge. This manager understands that he has more important business to attend to.

Whatever you might think about the manager’s ethics, you have to admire the way he lands on his feet. He knows full well that he is now on the same level with his master’s debtors, the people he used to squeeze, the people to whom he once turned a deaf ear when they pleaded with him for more time to pay and wearied him with lame excuses. Lazy deadbeats, he used to call them. Soon, however, they will be his neighbors, his peers. Perhaps one of them will be his new employer in a job that will surely be at a lower pay scale. He will probably need credit to get himself established. So the time is ripe for seeing himself for who he now is, re-evaluating who his friends are and understanding who it is that can really help him. The manager, soon to be former manager, accepts his new place on the margins of the society in which he was once near the center.

This parable might not have much to commend it in the way of business ethics or personal integrity. But there might be a lesson for the church here just the same. After all, we are not so different from this manager. Time was that belonging to a church was as much a part of good citizenship as voting and paying taxes. We were as much a part of the American landscape as the flag and the county fair. The steeple and the cross dominated the Americana landscape. But not anymore. Contemporary society has effectively fired the church. We are no longer essential to what it means to be a good person or a good citizen. The church’s position in the public square has all but evaporated. It is hard for most of us to escape noticing the discrepancy between the huge houses of worship in the heart of towns and cities testifying to the big part we used to play and the decimated, aging communities that worship there today. Despite what our buildings, our venerable history and our past contributions to society might indicate, the church is no longer a towering institution. We are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things and there is no telling how much smaller we will get. Generally speaking, the smaller you get, the less you count and the less clout you have. The day may come when clergy are no longer invited to pray and bless civic events. The day may come when our churches lose their tax exempt status under law. The day may come when we lose our sanctuaries, property, schools and offices. Why, the day may come when we find ourselves with nothing left except the word of God.

But come to think of it, maybe that is not such a bad place to be. Perhaps the margins of society are where the church should have been all along. Rather than fretting over how we are going to maintain our real estate, perpetuate our institutions, rebuild our membership and regain our place of dominance in American society, we should be thinking about how we ought to live among our neighbors at the margins. What can a diminishing institution do with its wealth in the time it has left? I believe that, for overwhelmingly white churches like my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reparations to black communities and churches for the benefits we have gained historically at their expense is a good place to start. For more on that, see my post, Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe. What would it mean for our churches to place their vast stores of wealth at the service of the homeless, the undocumented, the imprisoned and the oppressed? What would it look like for those of us who have always viewed ourselves as the “helpers” and the marginalized as the “helped” to begin viewing each other as partners, allies and friends? Perhaps having its prominent position in American society taken away from it is the best thing that ever happened to the church.  

Here is a playful little poem that gives us an inkling of what joy there may be in losing everything. Perhaps the church needs to become poor enough to realize how rich it really is!

Net Worth

I own the golden sunlight
breaking o’er the pines.
I own my neighbor’s pansies
growing neatly in spaced lines.
I own the orange harvest moon
that hangs above the hills.
I own the sparrows come to feed
at seed troughs on my sills.
I own the pathway through the woods
that leads down to the river.
I own the song the waters sing,
the pebbles they deliver
as on their journey to the sea
they run their endless course.
They haven’t time for worry,
nor the patience for remorse.
I own the nighttime sky
and every star on its dark vale.
I own the mighty ocean
where the ocean liners sail.
Someday I will be through
with checkbooks, funds and property.
I’m sure that once I’m broke
the world will have no use for me.
Creditors will seize my goods,
the tax man take my home.
And once they have these trifles,
then they’ll leave me on my own.
With all distractions gone
and not one penny in my plate,
at last I’ll have the leisure
to enjoy my vast estate!

Source: Anonymous

God’s Impractical Economy of Redeeming the Lost



Exodus 32:7-14

Psalm 51:1-10

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Luke 15:1-10

Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“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?” Luke 15:4.

I, for one. Look, I know that all of us urban types get misty eyed about lost sheep. But anyone in the business of keeping them knows that they are not cuddly little pets. They are commodities, like cantaloupes. When a cantaloupe falls off the truck, you don’t expect the driver to stop his eighteen-wheeler on the interstate to retrieve it. So, too, a shepherd who manages to get ninety-nine out of one hundred sheep safely through the wilderness and to market has done a pretty good day’s work. The loss of one or two, whether of sheep or cantaloupes, is simply an expected cost of doing business.

The same cost benefit analysis is made with human lives on a daily basis. When someone has been lost at sea for an extended period of time, the search and rescue effort is eventually terminated, whether or not the poor lost soul is found dead or alive. A person can only be expected to survive on the open ocean for so long. Of course, it is always theoretically possible that a person cast upon the sea will find a piece of driftwood or some floating refuse to hang on to and arrive days later at the shore of some uninhabited island to eke out a lonely existence with little hope of rescue. But the probability of anything like that happening is close to nil. The expense of continuing the search and the danger it poses to those involved in the rescue mission are very real. Thus, at some point the lost sailor is “presumed dead” and life for the rest of us goes on.    

Sacrificing the life of one for the good of the many is a common societal practice. In ancient civilizations, human sacrifice was practiced to placate the gods. While we might judge this conduct barbaric, it seems imminently sensible from the standpoint of a community convinced that its survival dependeds upon placating the gods who control the weather, the growth of crops and the migration of animals essential to the life of the tribe. I am not convinced that this ancient form of human sacrifice is any different from a government’s decision to undertake a public project, such as a bridge, tunnel or large building. No matter what precautions are taken, fatal accidents are statistically certain to occur. The cost of such fatalities is written right into the budget proposal in the form of insurance premiums and projected benefits to survivors. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are making a determination that the benefit of the public project to all of us is worth the cost of the few lives likely to be lost in building it.

Of course, there are costs involved in not proceeding with public projects. If the bridge or tunnel is not built, how many people will lose their lives because emergency vehicles are forced to travel further in order to reach certain parts of the city? What if the proposed building houses a medical clinic for an underserved population? Unless we resign ourselves to some form of fatalism that denies the efficacy of human agency altogether, we need to make informed decisions and take responsibility for the inevitable risks involved. That brings me back to Jesus’ parable. It seems to me that leaving ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and at the mercy of wild animals, thieves and the sheep’s own proclivity to wander off, all to find one lost sheep that is probably already dead, defies logic, prudence and plain common sense.

The the parable, however, reflects God’s logic, God’s providential purpose and God’s wisdom. As the Prophet Isaiah reminds us, God’s way of reckoning is quite beyond our own.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9.

Jesus would have us know that his Heavenly Father thinks differently than we do about the value of each human life. For God, no life is expandable. That is why the father in Jesus’ parable races down the road to embrace his estranged son. It is also why that same father pleads with his resentful elder son to join the celebration of his brother’s return.[1] The parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin were not written chiefly for the benefit of the sinners and the outcasts. They are not lost. They are drawing near to Jesus. It is the resentful son, the incensed religious leaders who stand aloft who are lost. Jesus would have them know that the gentle reign of God cannot come until they, too, are drawn into the circle of God’s redemptive love. The greatest good for the greatest number of people is not good enough. God will not accept any losses. God will continue calling, cajoling and pleading with us until God is finally able to weave all of our lives into the fabric of a new creation-for as long as it takes.

So to all who tell me that guaranteeing health care for all people, ensuring safe shelter for all people, creating programs ensuring that no one is food insecure is too costly and burdensome for society and that we simply cannot afford it, I respond that, if we hear these parables rightly, it is too costly not to provid these lifegiving services. For those who justify their greed, selfishness and indifference by blaming the poor for their plight, I ask you to point out to me any instance in the New Testament where Jesus inquired into the worthiness of anyone he fed, healed or forgave. For everyone who thinks that saving the lost among us will end in economic ruin, I would recommend that you begin fearing God a bit more than inflation. For there is more joy in heaven over one child fed, one recovered addict, one refugee given a home than there is over the best day Wall Street ever had.

Here is a poem/prayer by Michel Quoist for one who is lost and for all those caught up in his lost condition. Here, too, is an expression of the extent to which God will go and to which Jesus calls us to go in order to find and redeem the lost.

I found Marcel Alone

It was about noon when I knocked at his door.

I found Marcel alone, still lying on the bed which was now too

big for him;

His wife had left him a few days ago.

It hurt me, Lord, to see that poor fellow so discouraged, that

          house half empty.

A presence was lacking,

A love was lacking

I missed the bunch of flowers on the mantelpiece, the powder

          and lipstick on the wash-basin, the bureau scarf on the

          bureau and the chairs properly arranged.

I found the sheets dirty on the bed wrinkled like an old face, the

          ash-trays filled to overflowing, shoes scattered on the floor,

          a rag on the easy-chair, the blinds closed.

It was dark, dismal, and stuffy.

It hurt me, Lord.

I felt something torn,

          something unbalanced,

Like a mechanism gone wrong, Like a man with broken bones.

And I reflected that what you had planned was good,

And that there can be no order and beauty, love and joy, outside

of your plan.

I pray to you tonight, Lord,

          for Marcel and for her

          and for the other one

          and for the wife of the other one

          and for his children

          and for the families involved

          and for the neighbors who gossip

          and for the colleagues who judge.

I ask of your forgiveness

          for all these lacerations,

          for all these wounds,

          and for your blood poured out, because of these wounds,

          in your Mystical Body.

I pray to you tonight, Lord, for myself and for all my friends, Teach us to love.


It is not easy to love, son.

Often when you think you love, it is only yourself that you love.

          and you spoil everything, you shatter everything.

To love is to meet oneself, and to meet oneself one must be

          willing to leave oneself and go towards another.

To Love is to commune, and to commune one must forget oneself

          for another.

One must die to self completely for another.

To love hurts, you know, son.

For since the Fall-listen carefully, son-to love is to crucify self for another.

Source: Quoist, Michel, Prayers (c. 1963 Sheed & Ward, Inc.) Translated by Agnes M. Forsyth and Anne Marie de Cammaille. Michel Quoist (1921-1997) was ordained a priest in1947. A French Catholic of the working-class, Quoist reveled in presenting Christianity as part of gritty daily reality, rather than in forms of traditional piety. He was for many years pastor to a busy city parish in Le Havre, France serving a working class neighborhood and developing ministries to young people through Catholic Action groups. Prayers, the book from which the above poem was taken, has been translated from the original French into several languages including Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and English.


[1] I believe that the two parables in Sunday’s lesson find their meaning in light of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The tragedy of the elder son-as of Jesus’ critics-is that he does not understand that he is lost.