Lost and Found:
Reflections on Luke 15:1-10 The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin
September 15, 2019 Michael Barrett
The Pharisees and religious scholars were not pleased, not pleased at all. They GROWLED (complained, bitched, grumbled, bemoaned snarled), “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.”
These are two of those parables that require us to remember the audience Jesus is targeting. While there are tax collectors and sinners present and yes, they are listening intently to Jesus’ words. they are not the focus of his response.
The center of Jesus’ attention is that censuring group of Pharisees and scribes. The stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, as well as that of the prodigal son, which follows in Luke 15, are reactions by Jesus to the direct and harsh criticism from these “church” insiders. It is their aspersions that trigger Jesus’ remarks.
The concern of the Pharisees and scribes is that those people are coming too near. Those people are a threat, not just because they are following and staying around Jesus, but because they are accepting Jesus’ invitation to dine together. According to the purity codes embedded with the Law, purity involves not only what you eat, but also whom you eat with. The perceived danger is that the bad and reprehensible reputation of these tax collectors and sinners is impugning the good reputations of these religious leaders. Those people are coming too close. Those people don’t belong to our inner circle. Those people might displace us and diminish our power. Those people may even endanger our safety.
Tax collectors are especially despised. They are fellow Jews who are detested as traitors because they have chosen to become collection agents for the hated Romans and the Herodians. Tax collectors have regular contact with unclean gentiles and they work on commission – they keep a percentage of what they collect. They are licensed to do violence, they harm the innocent without retribution, and their greed is legally sanctioned. They are not allowed to attend Temple, their alms are refused, and they are barred from testifying in any Jewish court.
Sinners, on the other hand, may have broken major commandments, but more likely are guilty of inadvertently and unintentionally breaking other requirements of the law by not keeping pure or missing a prescribed ritual. There are at the time over 640 ways in which to sin under the Law. Tax collectors and sinners have not atoned, have not purified themselves, and they are unclean. Yet, they are here as Jesus’ invited dinner guests.
Now Jesus responds with the three tales we find in Luke 15. Today we’ll look at the lost sheep and the lost coin. Their structures are uncomplicated in their sameness. First, Jesus asks, ‘what man or woman would not . . . ? ‘ Then he tells a story of something lost, then found, and then recovered. Finally, there is a joyous celebration with friends. Jesus repeats things only when they are important. Jesus repeats several things two or even three times in Luke 15.
We’ve heard these stories so many times that they may seem quaint, even simple, perhaps even prosaic because we know that all turns out right. Have we lost the edge of anxiety here? Is that akin to watching those Disney movies – by the second time we know that the wicked witch will get hers, that both Pinocchio and the Beast will be transformed, and that the prince will someday come? How many of us have misplaced a set of keys, lost a contact lens or pair of glasses, or watched an important word document disappear? How about that pet that goes missing, or the wallet that’s gone, or the child that wanders off at the department store. How simple, how prosaic did living through that experience seem at the time? Remember the panic, the frustration, and the dread; and then imagine what God feels when we are lost.
The Image of the Shepherd as God
One shepherd and one sheep (out of one hundred) form the first tale. Why that particular image? Yes, there are many blissful bucolic metaphors about shepherds and shepherding as an analogy of God, in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the Psalms. But King David has been dead for over 970 years. Times have changed and the religious leadership in word and writing has denigrated shepherds to the level of camel drivers, donkey herders,
sailors, tanners and dyers, gamblers using dice, and tax collectors. Shepherds are held as shiftless, thieving, trespassing hirelings. Maybe the Pharisees have lost the God as shepherd imagery. 1st Century shepherds are nothing like God!
The Pharisees and scribes are self-identified as the most religious of people. We don’t consume shrimp cocktails and stuffed pork chops, we don’t curse, we attend Temple regularly, we tithe faithfully, and we sit on church councils and committees. We’re the insiders. We’re better than shepherds and all those other people!!
But, the scholars and scribes with their extensive knowledge of Scripture may have been shocked at the possibility that Jesus was referencing, not the Psalms, but instead, Ezekiel 34 with all his shepherd talk.
I am against the shepherds (1). Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not bought back, the lost you have not sought (2). I will reach out to my sheep. I will rescue them (11). I will set over them one shepherd (23). If God is indeed like a shepherd and we insiders aren’t acting like that, are we still His agents? Are we still His under-shepherds? Is there a new shepherd in town?
Is Jesus perhaps saying, that the real lost sheep, the tax collectors, and the sinners, are already near, they’re in the house; they’re at the table? Is Jesus saying that those people are redeemable because that’s the kind of shepherd God is?
The loss of one out of one hundred sheep is not going to economically bankrupt the shepherd. Coming next April there will be at least 60 or 70 new lambs cavorting about. What drives this shepherd to search diligently, high and low, persistently until the sheep is found? Nowhere does Jesus say that this sheep is the wooliest or the whitest or the most resonate “baa-er” or the best nuzzle. It is lost and it is frightened and it does not know how to struggle to get back and it feels the horrible emptiness of being alone. And God, the shepherd comes then, in those instances. Our shepherd is a God whose very nature is overpowered and driven by care and compassion and concern no matter the economics or cost.
The courage of the Shepherd
The reality is also that there are true dangers for good shepherds. If you travel to southern Africa you will sense that the wilderness out there is more than thorny bushes and deep dark crevices. The wild hinterlands are replete with both predator and prey. In coming between predators and prey, the shepherd may endanger not just his own safety, but his life, as well. Jesus came between the Romans and Herodians and much of the temple establishment and the people upon whom they preyed, those outsiders, unredeemable or expendable. Those folks rose together in a moment of unparalleled evil and killed Jesus. And then they placed him in a tomb. But, in the ringing lyrics of Sandi Patty –‘could they keep him in the grave? Could they keep him in the grave? When at last they took from him what willingly he gave, could they keep him in the grave? Hallelujah! They could not.
The Image of the Woman as God
The Pharisees and scribes are probably still grumbling, so Jesus tells them a second story. This time a poor woman and a lost coin form the basis. Note that the stakes have risen sharply as has the anxiety level along with them. It is no longer just about care and compassion, this is not one out of one hundred, this time it is one out of ten. In the next parable, it will be one son out of two. The value of what is lost becomes increasingly important.
In a patriarchal society, using a woman as an allegory for God would have shocked the audience. Women have little power, can be divorced at will, can inherit nothing if they have sons, and have little career opportunity beyond housework. This is one of the few times in a parable where we are told God is like this woman. This woman lights a lamp, scours the house, and looks in every nook and cranny. She is thorough, deliberate, highly organized, and impelled to immediate action. This story is about value. This is her treasure, a dowry, life savings that she wants to recover. What is lost to God is precious to God and it has unique value. It is worth the world to God to recover that coin. My friends, each of us is that coin.
In Africa, you do have to look far to find a woman such as this one. Miles and miles of small corrugated metal 10×10 huts with open windows and doorways. Women with laundry baskets balanced on their heads and walking hand in hand with children. Other woman tilling garden patches no larger than a coffee table. Other women sweeping the ground. The lack of graffiti and litter was stunning until the realization that there is nothing to waste – everything is of value. If any of these women lost a coin they would do just what Jesus’ woman did. He knows. He lived a life among such woman.
Implications for Discipleship
Like that shepherd, God is caring and compassionate and concerned and persistently and continuously seeks us when we are lost. Like that woman, God values us and as treasures just as we are, yet wants to make us into so much more. But, God wants us also to strive to treat each other in those same ways as that shepherd treats that sheep and the woman treat that coin. The poem Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson and Psalm 139 are meaningful readings that point to God’s true nature in this way.
Celebration as a Joyful Welcoming Party
Then both the shepherd and the woman celebrate the recovery of that loss with a party among friends. Jesus adds, ‘ there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue’ and ‘That’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.’
There is a difference between saving and welcoming. Saving almost always focuses on the individual and involves the use of strength, especially God’s power. Welcoming focuses on the community and involves intimacy, especially God’s love. God wants us to remember to celebrate with Him and all heaven when the outsider becomes an insider. God wants us to do both – help Him save others by finding them and help Him keep others by welcoming them into the community.
The reason why those ninety-nine are not celebrated is that they feel they do not need to be rescued. They feel they are beyond the need to repent. They are arrogant and proud and self-proclaimed righteous, independent of the need for God’s compassion. God has to value them because they have earned their place at the celestial altar. For them, repentance is coming into line and obeying the letter of the Law, especially in terms of ritual and purity. It is surface repentance and it stops there. Repentance for Jesus is about changing one’s mind and heart and striving to change one’s behavior by following him in action. This is internal repentance that is manifested on the surface by Christian action – by caring for those people, respecting those people, and bringing those people into our community.
Being Lost, Being Found, and Becoming One
How do we avoid falling into the trap of the ninety-nine?
Continuous repentance. Checking in from time to time and recognizing that
for most of us, repentance is not a onetime thing. For most of us, repentance needs to be repeated and practiced and revisited.
Do we ever feel lost from God?
Do we ever feel we have lost significant contact with God?
Do we fail to sense God’s nearness?
Is it time to stop and turn around and look for God?
Is it time to reach out for the hand of that good shepherd or good woman?
Is it time to walk together and pray together and love and celebrate and share life, together?
Is it time to be found again?
Then maybe it will be time again to rise up and strive to help God save others and celebrate each other. The family of God made one! Amen.