There is a lot of depth to all the readings this morning. This morning’s parable comes to us from the most theologically rich chapter in Luke’s gospel. It’s a parable that Jesus tells to illustrate God’s mercy is found not only with the “insiders” but also the “outsider” as well.
In this chapter, I am always struck by learning something that I either didn’t realize with a previous study, or knew and kind of forgot. Today, we hear two of the three parables from Luke 15, the third we heard in March – it’s the beloved parable of the Prodigal Son. This week, however, we heard the two other parables that precede the Prodigal Son.
The first parable Jesus tells is more a question than a story. Jesus asks his audience, “Which of you, having 100 sheep, losing one, doesn’t leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” And when he finds it he returns to his neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” It’s implied that the answer will be, “yeah, I’d go out looking for a sheep because there is value in not having all my sheep. I’ll miss even one if it’s not there.
And then in a second parable, Jesus conveys a woman, who having 10 silver coins, losing one in the house, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches until she finds it. Again, Jesus is asking a question to which the expected response from the audience is “yes.” And when the women finds the lost coin, she says to her neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I lost.”
Finally, we receive Jesus’ point: “I tell you, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.”
The message for those gathered immediately around him was that every single person matters to God in the same way that every single sheep and every single coin matters.
Part of the reason parables are fun to study is because of the different interpretations that are possible in the story. My first question, I ask myself, when studying a parable of Jesus is, “Who is God in the parable?” Secondly, I ask, “Who am I?”
In the parable of the lost sheep, the Shepherd symbolizes God. While shepherding in Old Testament times was a respected vocation, by the first century shepherds were right up there with other despised trades like tax collectors. Jesus responds to the criticism over his acceptance of the despised tax collectors and “sinners” by telling a story that casts God in the role of the despised shepherd! It’s not at all what the tax collectors and the sinners would expect to hear from Jesus, really.
And then in the story of the lost coin, who plays God? The woman! Another equally unlikely character that would have been unexpected.
Here’s the deal, implied in these stories Jesus tells this group of unwanted people who have screwed up, or been outcast, that God cares about each person who loses his or her way. Everyone has value. The shepherd and woman are desperate to find what they’ve lost and God feels just as strongly.
Jesus says — I know there are people who will write you off, not eat with you, not touch or talk with you, shun you, hurt you, judge you and cut you down, but God isn’t like that. God wants to help find you, bring you back to yourself and into a relationship with the Divine and celebrate. God wants you to stop walking the path that takes you away from fullness of life and turn around!
The word we translate as “repent” really meant to turn around.
As for the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, Jesus lets them know that they are even more lost because they have forgotten to love. They have forgotten compassion and are stuck in the law and so draw further and further away from God. Jesus essentially says to them, “God is not writing these people off like you are. God is not judging them and shunning them, ignoring them, refusing to eat with them or be seen with them. God loves them… now what is your problem?”
Here is a wonderful little parable from the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary that seems to apply so well to the Pharisees who would rather hold people in their “lostness” instead of lifting them up and celebrating when they are found and back on the right track.
A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer.
The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God’s goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept. (NIB, Luke, p. 298)
Why do we want to have more than others? Be better than others? Why don’t we recognize the inherent value in every person? Why are we so quick to judge? And, why do we prefer to then hold people in that judgment? Why don’t we care when some get lost over and over again? Who are we as a faith community and as individuals who follow the teachings of Jesus? And what is our purpose? It seems like these are all really good questions for today.
God’s grace and mercy are extended to all. Sure we all want to claim that God has been merciful to us and we want justice for the “other” but the parable Jesus tells calls us to celebrate with God that God’s mercy has shown forth to, not only to us, but to others as well. Even to those who, we would deem, not welcome to connect with us.