Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and we’ve been hearing the past few weeks about the large crowds that are gathering to hear him teach. Chapter 15 begins with two interesting sentences: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The next phrase is especially important: “SO he told them this parable:” It was the criticism of the religious authorities, the ones who make and enforce the rules and judge who is and isn’t worthy, it was their grumbling and complaining that prompted Jesus to respond by telling these stories about being “lost.”
morning, let’s put ourselves in the place of the different characters in the stories. First, there’s the shepherd, who obviously represents God, made known to us in Jesus. This shepherd cares for each and every one of his sheep; each and every one is precious in his sight. As a model of God, then, the shepherd leaves the 99 and goes out looking, goes out after the one lost sheep. We don’t need to get hung up in pragmatic arguments about the relative value of 99 sheep next to one little old sheep. The point we need to get into our minds – better yet, into our hearts – is the extravagance of God’s love and care and mercy for each one of us. As my friend from seminary said this week, “The shepherd would have done the same thing for any one of the other ninety- nine, too.”
And then the shepherd, carrying the sheep on his
shoulders, rejoices, comes home and calls his friends together to celebrate the return of the one who was lost. He rejoiced over the finding, didn’t he? In the same way, the woman in the next parable searches everywhere for her lost coin, and when she finds it, she too calls her friends together to rejoice in the finding. Our way of identifying with the shepherd and the woman is to accept our call to partner with God in seeking in the same way, searching everywhere, going after the lost, and rejoicing when we find them. Two weeks ago, we heard the call to “invite the forgotten” to our table. It’s appropriate then, to add that phrase, and to seek out “the lost and the forgotten” before we gather around this table.
We can certainly
identify easily with the lost sheep. How many times in our lives do we stray away from what is best for us, from the love and care of God, who is our shepherd? How often do we stray, in body or in spirit, away from the “flock,” the church which is our home and the place in which we live out our faith? I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get uncomfortable with the way we do our confessing in church. I know it’s the good and right thing to do, at the beginning of our worship, to look at ourselves and our lives and to see the ways in which we have fallen short and turned away from God’s grace. It’s good to say, we have sinned. It’s good to say, Have mercy, Lord. And it’s good for us to hear an assurance of pardon, an assurance of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But sometimes I think it’s become a little too rote, and we say – and hear – it all too easily.
And then there are those ninety-nine
sheep. Do we have any doubt that the 99 sheep were the Pharisees and the scribes? There they were, with all their ducks in a row (I’m sorry to throw the ducks in with the sheep but I can’t resist the phrase), knowing the rules that shouldn’t be broken and the lines that shouldn’t be crossed, getting incensed that Jesus, this supposed religious teacher, a “good,” observant Jew, would let these unclean, sinful people near him, even let them eat with him. Remember that many people who were labelled sinners in those days, like today, were people who were no more sinful than the Pharisees and scribes themselves, but were considered outside the boundaries of the acceptable – women, lepers, tax collectors. Perhaps they had less to lose and more to gain in the words of Jesus, and for them truly the gospel was and is good news. But the proud Pharisees and scribes, with their self-righteous outrage at Jesus’ inclusive love for all people, saw themselves as not in need of repentance, and Jesus, in these parables, hit them right where they lived. We can almost hear a hint of sarcasm in the phrase, “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” What person exists, we ask, who needs no repentance?
Okay, I’ve beaten up on the Pharisees and
scribes and religious authorities in general enough for one morning. Here’s the hard part: we have to put ourselves in their place, too. How are we the 99, the ones who think we have it right, and it’s those other guys who need to repent before we can let them into our community or into our lives? And in what ways do we have to admit that we judge the repentance of others, instead of considering how deep and authentic our own contrition might be? Even better, do we find ourselves tagging along with Jesus as he heads out to look for the lost (maybe we can lend a hand), and do we rejoice when they are found? Are we willing to sit down at the party with all of God’s children, lost and now found, including us?
I know that we are all at times lost children..
Sometimes, we’re running away and need someone to care enough to come looking for us. And sometimes, even when we think we’re safely in the 99 righteous ones, we have lost our way in our pride and self- righteousness. The good news is that there is someone who cares enough to come looking for us, the one who loves us comes to get us, and brings us home. So, let us gather once again around the table and rejoice, for we were lost, but now we are found. Isn’t it amazing? Amen. Growing in God’s Love by Kathryn Matthews Huey