“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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
In today’s Gospel we get two parables: the lost sheep and the lost coin. Luke actually puts them into a group of three, with the Prodigal Son coming right after these two.
So often, when we look at Jesus’ parables, we are quick to assume what they’re about. Of course, they’re about what we were taught they’re about since childhood! As Christians with 2,000 years of interpretive history behind us, we immediately approach the parables from a Christian perspective. We associate the “searcher” in each story with God or Christ, just like we were taught in Sunday School. That’s the safe interpretation. It makes us feel good. If we make it about God, we don’t have to DO anything. It puts the story at arm’s length.
But we need to look a little closer. You see, parables were not meant to make anyone feel good about themselves. From the parable of the trees in Book of Judges to the prophet Nathan going after King David for the murder of Uriah right through to Jesus, parables were meant to challenge, to unsettle, or even to accuse. So, if you interpret a parable and it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, chances are…you’re doing it wrong.
And we do have to be careful. If we’re going to consider the shepherd, the woman, or the father of the Prodigal Son to be God, we may end up with some some pretty weird ideas about God.
Take the Shepherd. He actually leaves the other ninety-nine sheep there in the wilderness to go out looking for just one! What shepherd in his right mind does that? The story never even mentions him taking the one sheep back to the flock, he goes home instead and calls his friends to celebrate. As far as we know, the other 99 are still out in the wilderness. So does God abandon the 99% percent to go after one?
The woman’s story makes a bit more sense. She, at least, takes responsibility for losing the coin.
I think maybe we look at these parables the wrong way. Luke gives them to us immediately after the scribes and Pharisees criticized Jesus for hanging out with the wrong people. Jesus often told parables when provoked. And they tended to be aimed right back at the people who provoked him.
What if we’ve been looking at it wrong? What if these parables aren’t primarily about God at all. What if they’re about…us? What if they’re about what we should be doing?
That might be a little uncomfortable.
The Pharisees and the scribes were complaining that Jesus was hanging out with people they didn’t like. Sinners were…well…sinners. Not good people. Tax collectors were people who collaborated with the Roman occupation. In the words of the British upper class of the early 20th century, they were “NOCD,” “Not Our Class, Dear.” And Jesus responded first with a parable that addresses them directly: “Which of YOU, having 100 sheep…” Now it’s doubtful that any of the scribes or Pharisees actually kept sheep, but they could get the point.
Jesus was telling them that these prostitutes and tax collectors, people who were not in their in-group, were exactly the people they should be concerned about. I think Jesus is telling them, “this is what you should be doing.”
In each case, when what is lost is found – sheep, coin, and later a son – a party ensues. And in each case, the party is an overreaction to the finding of what was lost! A party because you found one sheep out of a hundred? Ridiculous! This is Jesus saying, “not only should you be out looking for these people, including them, you should be throwing a party for them.”
Sometimes we lose people. They leave us for a variety of reasons. Maybe they don’t feel welcome. Sometimes they may feel we are actually hostile to them because there’s something about them we just don’t like. Something that we feel “doesn’t belong here.” They wander off (like the sheep), they just disappear (like the coin), or they leave because the grass seems greener elsewhere (like the Prodigal son).
Sometimes we go look for them. Sometimes we just wait for them to come back. Sometimes we just don’t bother. We SHOULD be looking.
Who do we lose? Who do we need to go out and look for? Is it that gay couple, or that trans woman who visited? Is it that guy who came one morning that looked like he’d slept in his clothes? Is it the woman with piercings, or tattoos all over? How did we treat them? Did we ignore them? Say something that wasn’t quite welcoming? Did we make a snide remark to a fellow parishioner that might have been overheard?
Jesus always found room for the poor and the marginalized, the people who just didn’t fit in to the “standard model” of society. That, you see, is how you build the kingdom of heaven.
We can’t build the kingdom of heaven by throwing people away. We must find them, bring them in. Whether we find them or they show up on their own, we must make sure they know they are valued, loved, accepted. That we were looking for them.
And then…let’s throw them a party.