Luke 15:1-10 CEB
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
After last week’s difficult words from Jesus, it looks like we caught a break! Here we just have two stories about Christ going out and finding those who have strayed and bringing them back, or are they…? These are not stories but parables, and when we look deeper we see that these parables will challenge us as much as if not more than Jesus’ words last week. As we journey into our second week of “Having Words with Jesus,” we are confronted by parables we think we know, and a message we think we get. We think we are getting stories about who is lost and who is found, those lost in sin and found in grace. A lost sheep and a wayward coin are the tips of the iceberg, as there is a larger third parable sitting just below these two: usually called “the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Yes, in these three rests the potential to wreck any possibility of a comfortable conversation with Jesus. Instead, Jesus invites us to ask ourselves: are we aware of who is missing, who did the losing, and what must be done to make ourselves whole again?
Parables, unlike stories, ask us to invest ourselves in the journey, one with no clear endings or meanings. For you see, parables resist easy answers and simple interpretations. With few exceptions, they have no set meanings for Jesus did not give us any. Gospel writers, like the author of Luke, have often tried to do that task, but in so doing, take the bite out of parables, reducing them to easy allegories. I call them easy because allegories do have set meanings, ones we can avoid if we do not like them. For instance, many of us might have heard Aesop’s fable about the Ant and the Grasshopper, where the Ant works diligently through the spring and summer to store up for the coming winter while the Grasshopper lazes about enjoying the brief season of plenty. When winter comes, the Grasshopper, now starving, begs the Ant for help, but the Ant will not give him any of the food he was too lazy to work for previously. It is a story meant to impart the importance of hard work and future planning. However, if we are already Ants, the story then is not for us, so we can avoid it, sure that it does not apply!
In turn, let’s take a look at the first parable, about a lost sheep, to see if it is different from one of Aesop’s fables. Jesus addresses the story to his audience, the sinners and the tax collectors as well as the Pharisees and scribes, and he asks them to imagine if they had 100 sheep. What would they do if one of them lost one of their sheep? Jesus asks them to insert themselves into the story. Already questions must be swirling. For instance, maybe they are thinking, “What must it be like to have that many sheep?” For in those days, 100 sheep would make you a person of means. Maybe they are asking themselves, “What did I do or not do to lose one of the sheep, and would I have even noticed that one is missing?” Look again at how Jesus phrases things: “‘Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them.’” It’s not, “Suppose one of the sheep got lost” or “Suppose one of the sheep went astray,” but rather, Jesus tells them to imagine that they lost one of their sheep. Not only that, but Jesus says they noticed that 1% of their flock went missing. Now, missing one out of 100 sounds like an easy thing to do and to overlook. Jesus asks his audience what it would be like to be this man who goes, leaving the 99, to find the one. Do you see what is happening to us already? We are more engaged with this story. We are inserted into it and have to ask questions, something which does not happen anywhere else other than in a parable.
Parables get us to ask ourselves questions, uncomfortable questions, and we have to search for answers which may well look different for each of us as we journey through Jesus’ telling. Since we have to get off our rumps and delve into the story rather than hanging back to simply listen, parables make us do the work. Jesus has this ability through stories about a sheep, a coin, and a man with two sons to make us feel afflicted where we are comfortable. Are we ready then to step into these parables with Jesus? Are we ready to journey through to the other side, forgetting what we think we know, to find what Jesus might be trying to tell us today?
Now, we have already done some digging into the lost sheep, so let’s turn to our woman who has lost a coin, a drachma. Now, here we have a woman, but not just any woman, but one of means. She has ten drachma, worth ten days’ wages total, so she’s not desperate for money. However, in losing just one she begins her search, as her nine other coins are incomplete without this missing one. Here, just 10% is missing, but that’s enough for her to scour the floors, lighting all the lamps to banish the shadows so she can look in every nook and cranny. When she finds it, she holds a party for her female friends, probably spending more than one drachma she found! What I find most interesting is she asks her friends in the NRSV translation to “‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” She admits that she did the losing. The challenge is explicit, can we admit when we are responsible for something or someone becoming lost?
Now, we turn to the parable we did not read today, but which cannot be left out from the other two, the one concerning a man who had two sons. Most of us may know the story, this father has two sons, and the younger one demands his inheritance early and leaves to travel to a faraway place, only to end up squandering everything. When the younger son hits rock bottom, he goes to beg for a job from his estranged father, only to be surprised to instead be warmly welcomed by his dad with food and celebration! Meanwhile, the older son, the one who did not leave, is still in the fields and comes back to find a party underway for his once lost, now-found brother. The older sibling is furious at his father who he accuses of neglect, and the story ends without resolution, with father and son left standing in a field. We think we know this parable especially. The father is God, the younger son is all of us, the lost Gentiles, and the older brother becomes the Pharisees grumpy that Jesus eats with sinners rather than with the chosen people. Except, Jesus again never says any of this, for we instead have done our best to sanitize an uncomfortable parable.
Look at the evolution of these three parables, all about lost things and the celebration of finding them. The first asks whether we would notice if 1 out of 100 is missing, then 1 out of 10, and finally 1 out of 2. How much needs to be gone before we notice that we are not whole? There is also a question of responsibility. In the first, the shepherd does not admit that he lost the sheep, in the second the woman does, and in the third, we are left wondering who is the lost son. We imagine that the shepherd, the woman, and the father are all God looking for the sinful lost, but what if they are in fact, us? Let’s take another look at the end of the third parable here. Now, the father races out to embrace his younger son, feared dead. He clothes him in fine robes and throws him a party. What’s missing? Does anyone, including the father and younger son remember that there is another, the eldest son and older brother? Unlike the missing sheep and coin, no one notices that one out of two is missing. The father only realizes it because the older son comes back from the field and is confronted by a party to which he has no invite. The father attempts to reconcile, but restoring a lost coin or a lost sheep is one thing, restoring a person is another entirely.
To reconcile must mean we were looking for them in the first place, and this is the challenge Jesus delivers to his audience then and all of us now. Who is missing? Not just in our pews but in our communities and in our families? Who is missing, and perhaps, are we responsible for their loss? What is an acceptable loss to the body of Christ, to this family of God that is the human race? Who can we afford to leave on the margins, in corners, out standing in the field and not feel the loss? What’s the figure that’s unacceptable, is it 50%, 10%, or even just 1%? We are people of diverse opinions, different political and theological views, and differing life experiences. To be whole will be challenging, as we will have to work to reconcile what seems irreconcilable. It does not mean we will all be on the same page, but it will mean that our neighbor will matter more than our own personal preference and gain. If we cannot do this now, what hope do we have for the day that is coming when we will all be with one another for eternity with our God? We, the people of God in this community of Christ, are supposed to be a sample of that future day, so who is missing, and what won’t we do to find them? Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman