Jesus is that guy, the guy that is always telling stories. At least that is how Luke writes his version of Jesus’ life. You probably should read it for yourself to make sure I have it right. Well, ok, he is not always telling stories. Sometimes Jesus steps away to be by himself but what can you say about that? (Jesus went to a hillside to pray. How exciting.) So what we get in Luke is Jesus telling stories, parables, a lot of parables.
Maybe it is how Luke situates the parables in his re-telling of Jesus’ life but it seems like Jesus tries to fit the parable to the people and situation. When he is invited to dinner at the home of a pharisee, he tells parables about where to sit at a banquet – and who to invite to the next dinner. As he walks with the crowds that follow him, he tells them that it is not enough to walk with him just for that day. They have to leave everything to follow him, every day. And in the text today, when the group is gathered all around him, he talks about a flock of sheep.
This is not just any group, it is a special group: the tax collectors and “sinners.” The tax collectors are not well loved in Jesus’ day. They live with an uneasy power as they work for the Roman oppressors and collect taxes from their Jewish siblings. Sometimes they add a little extra to what is owed the Romans and skim it off for themselves. But here they are, eagerly gathered around this rabbi Jesus, with the other “sinners.” (Of course it is better to use person-centered language, not have the person be defined by their sin. But stick with me here.)
Who are the “sinners?” Anyone that doesn’t quite fit in might get called a sinner. But the real sinners, the “true” sinners, are the people that just keep on sinning, that are unrepentant. The sex workers, the tax collectors that skim off the top, the pay day lenders that charge exorbitant interest. Of course, this definition of sinners doesn’t begin to address systemic sins, like sexism or slavery or economic structures that keep people in positions where their options for work are limited, where they have to “sin” in order to provide for their families.
Who gets to define sin anyway? Clearly the religious leaders think they do, as they sit on the outer ring of this gathering, throwing shade at Jesus and his listeners, “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.”
(Let’s take a pause to check ourselves for anti-semitism. It is important to remember that Jesus is Jewish, most of the people gathered around him are Jewish, the religious leaders are Jewish. The religious leaders are not displeased with Jesus because he is Christian. Jesus is Jewish though he may be interpreting the sacred texts differently than the leaders. He is an itinerant prophet, in the tradition of other prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah and Hosea, living on the edge of mainstream religion. Prophets often say things that upset the established religious order. What we read about in the gospels, this conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders, is an internal disagreement among Jews. Two millennia later, we are the outsiders – without much understanding of the Jewish tradition. Perhaps we might better understand this kind of struggle if we think of the internal conflicts within the Mennonite church or the arguments over what it means to be Evangelical.)
So in the midst of these ongoing tensions, between the religious leaders and the crowds that follow Jesus, Jesus invites them into a thought experiment. “Which one of you, with your one hundred sheep, wouldn’t go looking for one if it wanders off? Of course you would leave the 99 in the open pasture, and go looking everywhere for that one that has gotten lost.”
Are we getting a peek at Jesus’ perfectionistic streak? “Don’t settle for 99%, go for 100. Don’t accept just nine out of ten, collect the whole set.” That is probably just me projecting my perfectionist, competitive side on to Jesus. Then Jesus takes a turn: “When you finally find that lost little sheep, when the flock is complete, you throw a party.” Really, a party just because you find one sheep? Or is it the complete set that is being celebrated, the whole flock back together again. Surely that is worth a celebration.
In case the gathered group, and the religious leaders listening at the edge, don’t catch his drift the first time around, Jesus tries another example. A woman has ten coins and one of them goes missing. She looks and looks, sweeping the whole house. And when she finds it, she is so happy she calls her friends over to rejoice with her. For one, little, insignificant coin. She must spend more on the party than the coin is worth.
And then the kicker at the end – “I’m telling you, there is joy among God’s angels when one sinner repents.”
I wonder if the religious leaders find the angels’ jubilation over something so small as a sheep or a practically worthless coin or a single “sinner” to be scandalous?
I wonder what shocks the “sinners” more, that the searcher is so insistent and dedicated, or that the found one is welcomed back to the whole flock with rejoicing.
My own most persistent questions as I ponder these parables this time are these: What does it mean for the one sheep to be brought back to the group? And why does only one person search?
In some Anabaptist circles, parties and celebrations are the search. I have a friend who grew up as a conservative Mennonite in Greenwood, Delaware. She talks with (almost) fondness of the “spring frolics” they would have. The women would gather at the appointed home and together they would clean the house, top to bottom. The work became a party, almost a celebration. Surely all kinds of coins could be found with that many people searching.
Of course, sheep can’t go searching for other sheep. And coins can’t search for other coins. But is it only up to the shepherd or the householder to look for the one that is lost? And, are the sheep and the coin too insignificant for the shepherd and householder to ask their friends for help? Afterward, they call their friends in to celebrate. I wonder why they don’t ask the friends to help with the search.
It makes me wonder if the one lost sheep, or the one lost coin, leaves a gap that not everyone notices, yet it is a gap that must be filled. I wonder if the other sheep notice the absence of the wandering one.
A week or so ago, I read in the Post about a funeral on a sidewalk in downtown DC. It was held under the awning of a department store where a man, nicknamed Chino, had lived for several years. With his criminal history and his unconventional sleeping situation, some might label Chino a “sinner.” But Chino was seen, Chino was found and when he died, people gathered on the sidewalk to remember the man who was admittedly difficult and insisted the sheets on his sidewalk cot be clean. It was not just the job of the Rev. Linda Kaufman to remember Chino. Dozens of folks gathered, told stories, shed a few tears and remembered him. In his life and in his death, Chino may have seemed lost and yet because people looked for him, and looked out for him, he was found. https://beta.washingtonpost.com/local/he-should-have-died-in-a-home-of-his-own-curbside-memorial-honors-homeless-man-in-downtown-dc/2019/09/05/9fa2d0e4-cffc-11e9-a404-e15db72a7921_story.html
Too many politicians in this country (and those who call themselves Christians) want to label people who cross the border, fleeing from danger in their home countries (or fleeing hurricane damage), as “sinners,” as “lost.” Certainly these desperate and brave folks have lost a lot. They have probably lost family members, their livelihoods, their homes. But are they themselves “lost?” In order to be found, must they be imprisoned in cages? Tied up in red tape and for-profit prisons and ankle monitors? For years on end?
I wonder how the religious leaders in Jesus’ day hear these parables as they sit at the edge of the gathering, listening in. They are probably pretty sure they know who the lost are. Are the other listeners, the “sinners” and tax collectors, equally certain of how they fit into the story? Do they hear it as good news?
What about us? Where might we find ourselves in this parable? Do we wonder if we are the coin, or the sheep? What does it mean to be lost? Is it like other cryptic sayings of Jesus, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” or “I have come so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Are the ones who are already “found” actually lost in some ways?
Or maybe we are sure we aren’t lost. We are just one of the flock, blithely munching in the pasture, totally unaware that one of us is missing, oblivious to the fact that the flock is incomplete.
Maybe we see ourselves as the searcher, hiking up and down the craggy cliffs, looking in caves, taking risks, in our attempt to save just one sheep. Is it worth it? And, we might wonder, given the way Jesus tells this story, is that even our job? Are we supposed to see ourselves as the sheep herder? or the woman sweeping her house, chasing after coins that roll away on their own?
Or maybe we are the neighbor called in for the party? We are just taking care of our own household and flock when we get an invitation to join in rejoicing because the neighbor’s flock is complete again, there has been restoration next door.
These questions may be pushing way beyond what the parables are saying. And it is not the last thing Jesus has to say about things that get lost. His next parable is “the prodigal son,” who gets himself lost – and then found.
While the details differ, the thing these lost and found parables all have in common is the party at the end, the rejoicing with friends.
It is good to ponder the parables, to wonder together. And no matter where we find ourselves in Jesus’ story, let’s show up for the rejoicing. Let’s accept the invitation to be part of the party when the whole flock is together again. Let’s be part of the celebration when what was lost is found.