This morning we find ourselves in the part of Luke’s Gospel where everything is wonderful. Beginning with the story today of the lost sheep and the lost coin and ending in the next passage with the story of the prodigal son, it is all good news. The lost sheep is returned to the flock, the lost coin and the lost son are found, and an all-night party begins. God’s determination to find us, God’s talent for finding us, proves greater than our talent for getting lost, and there is joy in heaven and on earth.
These stories are beloved–probably because we like to put ourselves in the place of the sheep that gets found. I am the exhausted terrified lamb that is gently placed around the shoulders of the shepherd and carried home, so thrilled to be found and so full of gratitude that I never wander away again. Or I am the coin, stuck under the radiator and covered in cat fur and dust (maybe that’s just my house) until the good woman comes along, finds me, and fishes me out–bringing me from darkness to light. These are my stories and I love them.
In their original context, though, these stories would not have sounded like such good news. If you remember, the set up for these parables is Jesus being criticized yet again by the Pharisees for hanging out with lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes–and worse than just hanging out with them, he is eating with them. He has “received” them returning their hospitality and receiving them as any host would receive a guest. The sinners are fascinated–no one has ever treated them like this before, so whatever this man has to say, whatever he is going to do, they want to be there with him. They come closer as he invites them in and the Pharisees and scribes blow a gasket.
From our 2000 years after the fact perspective, Jesus is just being, Jesus-y. He is doing his good shepherd “thing”. And it is heartwarming and lovely to think of how many unfortunate souls he touches and helps–all those lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes, all those sinners. But what if we substitute some modern day outcasts for those of Jesus’ time? What if he was sitting in a booth at the Melrose Diner with a heroin dealer or an assault rifle seller –buying them dinner, chatting, laughing, clapping them on the back, while I am sitting in the next booth with some youth group members who look at the scene unfolding and say, “wait, is that who I think it is?” I imagine saying something like, “well, the good shepherd cares more for the one sheep that is lost than the 99 who are not”. But it sounds a bit “off” and I wonder if what they would hear is that to be lost is precious in the sight of God, and that their good behavior provokes less joy in heaven than the repentance apparently taking place in the next booth. How do you articulate that to a kid?
Because that is exactly how it sounds to the scribes and the Pharisees. They are true believers. People who do not merely talk about God but live according to God’s ways, scrupulously obedient to the law. It isn’t easy, but part of the reason they do it is to set an example. They are trying to offer a healthy, wholesome alternative to the ways of the world, showing people it is possible and pleasing to live according to God’s ways. They do think about sinners, but they think the best way to help them is to hold a high standard, inviting them to achieve it and pointing out to them where they fall short so they are challenged to be the best they can be. Some have what it takes. Some, sadly, just don’t. And mixing the two just isn’t helpful. We need to have clear rules, with clear rewards for those who obey. The winners are admitted to the ranks of the educated, employed, the righteous, and the sinners, the losers, well, they get to keep trying until they get it right. Everyone sticks with their own kind. The righteous know that they are giving heaven daily reasons for rejoicing and the sinners know that they are grieving the heart of God–if God even knows who they are.
Then Jesus shows up and starts messing around with all the carefully drawn lines, breaking all the rules. Starts treating sinners like special cases and making them think they are just as important as other people. Dangerously robbing them of any motivation to just do better–why should they listen to the Pharisees about how to earn God’s love if Jesus is just giving it away for free? All they need to do is whatever they want, wander wherever they want, and Jesus will come out to find them. Leaving all the good sheep to fend for themselves. This is not right. If you receive sinners and let the righteous fend for themselves what will happen to the community of faith? What about the good people? What about us?
One of the problems with these 2 parables is that they don’t seem to mean what Jesus says they mean. What he says is that heaven rejoices over the repentance of one sinner. But from my read neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin repents. They are both simply found. Not because of anything they have done but because of the shepherd and the woman, because someone is determined to find them and does. They are restored thanks only to God’s action, so how does repentance come into the picture?
I think there are 3 possibilities for repentance being thrown into the mix. First is that Jesus was simply telling a little story that means what it means and we shouldn’t get too twisted about it. Second is that he was deliberately ambiguous and wants us to figure out for ourselves what is going on. But that caused the Gospel writers, his editors, a nervous breakdown so they “fixed” the stories by explaining them. The third possibility is that these are not actually stories about sheep and coins but are about shepherds and sweepers. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…? Jesus is not inviting the Pharisees to imagine themselves as sheep or coins. He is inviting them to imagine themselves as shepherds, leaving their carefully tended flock in order to chase one stray through the wilderness. If you are willing to entertain this possibility, to think of yourself as the shepherd character in the story, then it sounds quite different. Repentance is not the issue at all, but rejoicing. The plot is not about changing evil ways but about seeking, sweeping, finding, rejoicing. The story is not about Jesus endlessly trailing around after us as we wander from one wilderness to another, but about us joining Jesus in slogging through wild places and sweeping endlessly, going after the flock and the treasure. It is about questioning the whole idea that the lost need to do something before they are eligible to be found or to meet certain conditions before we will go looking for them. It is about trading our high standards for a powerful flashlight and our good examples for a good broom. It is about the joy of finding.
Perhaps some of us are destined to be shepherds and others of us to be lost sheep, but when I am working so hard to find and stay found, it is difficult not to judge those who seem intent on staying lost, who seem to thrive on it. I want to believe that they are not lost, but bad–somehow deserving of lostness. People I can write off and save myself the grief of trying to find them, of worrying about them. I would rather focus on the righteous, the good people, the ones who are staying still in hopes of being found, or prancing in the field hoping that catches the shepherd’s attention. I think about heaven ignoring all of those good people in favor of one sinner who accidentally or possibly deliberately wanders off over and over again, and I want to give God a piece of my mind.
But then, then I hear someone behind me calling my name, I see big brown hands coming towards me, grabbing me by the scruff of my neck, hauling me through the air and onto shoulders that smell of grass and sunshine and home. And I am so surprised, so relieved to be FOUND that my heart feels like it is being broken into, broken open, and I find myself wanting to go with this shepherd, helping to find the lost. Meanwhile way off in the distance I hear the wild and raucous sound of angels rejoicing.
With thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor whose thoughts and words influenced this sermon.