These “lost and found” parables that Jesus tells are familiar yet they may seem a bit strange to our post-modern, urban ears. Who cares if one small coin is lost? Pennies, even nickels are practically worthless. Just this week, I observed a young man (whom I know very well) kicking a lost penny across the floor in a restaurant instead of bending down to claim it. And sheep? What do we even know about sheep except that they have reputation for getting lost?
Luke sets the scene this way. Now all the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to his preaching, at which the Pharisees and the scholars murmured, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
It seems that everyone is gathered together: the religious leaders who believe themselves to be found and the tax collectors and sinners who are believed to be a lost cause. They are all gathered in one place, around Jesus. It seems like there might be great rejoicing at this. There is unity; none have wandered off. And yet the religious leaders are grumbling at the inclusion of these “sinners” who are obviously lost.
Jesus, the great storyteller, begins with “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…” and right there he has lost the religious leaders. Being a shepherd used to be a respectable job: the patriarchs were all shepherds, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. King David was a shepherd in boyhood. God is pictured as a good shepherd in the Psalms; in Isaiah the people are like sheep without a shepherd and God chooses good shepherds to guide them.
By the time Jesus is telling this parable, shepherds are no longer highly regarded. Remember the dirty, smelly shepherds that come to the manger when Jesus is born. Saying you are a shepherd is just a shorthand way of saying “unclean.” So when Jesus says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them…” this might connect with the “sinners” and tax collectors but those who are righteous and clean, well – their minds begin to wander.
But they come right back to Jesus when at the end of his parable they hear “rejoice with me” and then: Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.
That gets their attention, makes the religious leaders mad even – but there is no time to defend their own “foundness.” Jesus moves right on to another story of lost and found. This time a woman, playing the role of God, loses one of her coins. It doesn’t seem valuable on the face of it but it’s the idea that one is missing. She turns the lamp up high, moves all the furniture, sweeps under everything and then there it is, her lost coin! Again, a party is called for and there rejoicing that is like the joy of angels when a “sinner” repents.
Are the religious leaders hearing this yet? Have they figured out by now that the definitions of “lost” and “found” are not as obvious as they thought?
If they haven’t gotten it yet Jesus goes on to tell another story, this one much longer. We didn’t hear this one today but you probably know it. The rich family where there are two sons?
The younger son is so bold as to ask for his inheritance before his father has even died. And off the son goes, spending lavishly and wastefully until there is nothing left; with no money and no self-respect he is about to eat the food he is feeding to the unclean pigs. Then he comes to his senses and contemplates how he might get back home though he can’t imagine that his father will even receive him this way. He has become such a disgrace, lost all dignity. He practices the way he will grovel in repentance, the words he will use in asking for forgiveness.
As he approaches the house he is greeted by his father, already forgiven and welcomed back: “Celebrate with me. He was lost and now he is found!”
If they haven’t slunk away yet, here is where the religious leaders, grumbling about how Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, might see themselves written right into the story.
Now the elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then the brother became angry and refused to go in to the party.
His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Then the father said to him, “But my child, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. We have to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and has been found.”
When something that was lost is found there is joy, joy to be shared with friends, joy shared in heaven. But the religious leaders (along with the older brother) are still pondering the whole premise of these stories. How can a mud-smeared, wounded, weak sheep be brought into the fold as if there is nothing to stare at? How can a recovered small coin mandate a celebration? How can a wasteful, irresponsible, unclean son be a reason to party into the night?
This is Jesus, the master storyteller. Wrapped in the parables is the secret message. Those who see with their eyes are blind. Those who believe they are “found” are really “lost” and those who are lost will be found and welcomed with rejoicing. But in the end, it is not as much about which is what and what is who as it is about getting the lost and the found together, all in the same sheepfold. Getting all the coins together in the same coin purse. That is cause for rejoicing, when what was separated is reunited.
If you have spent any time reading the Mennonite press in the past few weeks you have probably seen the articles about that most famous of Mennonite theologians, John Howard Yoder. Even though he died in 1997 his writing continues to define what it means to be Anabaptist. People are still attracted to Mennonites through Yoder’s understanding and explanation of Jesus’ message. His brilliant thinking earned Yoder a lot of prestige, not just in the Mennonite church but ecumenically.
But that is not the whole story. In 1984, Yoder was terminated as a professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN. No reason was publically given until 1992 when Yoder reluctantly went through a discipline process and gave up his ministerial credentials as a result of the sexual harassment and abuse that had been part of his teaching method for at least the previous 20 years. The courage it took for a few women to come forward and name the abuse is incalculable. It took 20 years, and persistence, for the women to get a serious response.
For most of his career it seemed fairly obvious that John Howard Yoder was the “found” one. He in fact seemed to be the one doing the finding – of those lost souls who had not really understood Jesus and his politics until they read Yoder’s texts. The series of women, by some reports over 100 of them, who were subjected to his groping, inappropriate touch and unwanted sexual advances, these women were lost. Their voices were lost, their stories were covered up. They were forced to wander alone and afraid because what we wanted to see were the 99 safe and clean sheep in the pen.
Now 21 years after Yoder’s credentials were taken, 16 years after his death, it is not just one woman who is going after that lost coin. There is a whole group of women (and men) who are searching for that lost coin. Now there are many voices calling out to the lost lamb whose bleating voice has been ignored, who was left to die because we thought 99 were enough, because we thought we knew who was lost and who was found.
When one has the power to define “lost” as “the other” it is extremely difficult to see beyond our own understanding and situation. When we focus on the many that seem to be found it is easy to forget about the few that are lost. How do we listen for the voices that are silent or muted? Where do we look for the missing sheep? At what point do we wonder why she is gone?
Where is that little, worthless coin? Do we even have enough oil in our lamps to light the room so we can find it?
And what about that infuriating brother that squanders everything he has been given in an undisciplined, even unjust, romp through life? Can we really accept that if he returns, when he returns, he will be welcomed back with open arms? Do we have to rejoice? Or can we keep our distance, for own safety and sanity?
It is not easy to distinguish the lost from the found, even the parts within ourselves. Sometimes we can tell, after some time, with some distance. But what about here and now? Is the church a place for those who are “lost” or for those who believe themselves to be “found?” Can we even live together, the lost and the found?
It takes practice but we can get better at looking for the lost, even within ourselves, and identifying who we might be in relation to the found. With lots of practice and time and prayer, we might begin to understand the reasons there is rejoicing in heaven when the lost are returned and the whole flock is reunited. We might even get better at joy ourselves.
Whether we wander off accidently like sheep, or like the inanimate coin we don’t even know we are lost, or we deliberately leave a comfortable family and ruin our lives – in all these cases God is there, sometimes seeking us out and other times just waiting, with open arms, for our return.
God’s intention is to bring the whole herd back together. God wants the coin purse full, hopes the whole family will be reunited. And then there will be rejoicing. “Celebrate with me; what was lost is now found!”