I am not sure society or the religious community has changed much in 2,000 years. The sinners still host the best parties, and the religious leaders are still the expert grumblers. Notice that Jesus likes hanging out with the partiers and the sinners—the fun bunch. He is perpetually criticized by those in power for enjoying too many meals and too much fellowship with people with bad reputations, questionable career choices, and who were always being turned away at the worship door. The “holy” people thought they knew better.
Since Jesus is portrayed as the Good Shepherd in Scripture, it’s hard to get away from the image in these parables we are the lost sheep and the lost coin and Jesus is the persistent shepherd and seeking woman who will do whatever they can to find us and save us. And of course, God’s intention is to save us, no matter the cost—that’s why Jesus is here, after all—he has come to save all of us, not matter what. We trust that Jesus came to show us God’s never-ending love, to forgive us, that he conquered death and rose again, that we might live eternally. But is that what these parables are really about? I think at least in Luke’s version, we might look at them a new way today.
I noticed a word in this passage I have overlooked before, “you.”
“Which one of YOU, having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
The YOU Jesus is talking directly to are the grumblers—to the religious leaders—or more broadly, to the church folks—who do not like to let in the riff raff—tax collectors who colluded with the Roman oppressor, the sex workers, and others on the low rung of society—or today, maybe someone with multi-colored hair, or face tattoos, someone with addiction, an obvious mental illness or who is homeless --whatever sort of person makes us slightly squirm in our seat.
“Which one of YOU,religious folk, having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Jesus does not want us to imagine ourselves as the lost sheep, but as the shepherd. The pharisees and scribes then have to think about everything they know about the job of the lowly shepherds:
Every shepherd is financially responsible for their sheep even though they are not the owner—if they lose one—it will come out of their pay. So, if one strays, a shepherd will do everything they can to find that one sheep. Sheep normally stay with the flock—but they can wander off, chewing a patch of yummy grass, and soon they’re over the hill by themselves. The countryside has bushes with thorns that grow inward, so if sheep get stuck in them, they can’t get out. They must be rescued, or they will just die of thirst or get eaten by a predator. Now, the shepherd is not really leaving the 99 alone to be eaten by predators either—because shepherds work in groups. The biggest flock each shepherd would have is about 40 sheep, so if there were 100 sheep, there was probably the Lead Shepherd and two others. A good shepherd is going after the lost sheep—they won’t rescue themselves--while the other shepherds watch the rest of the flock, because it is too costly to lose even one.
Then Jesus changes the metaphor from sheep to coins, and from a shepherd to a woman. He does not ask the male religious leaders to imagine themselves as a woman with 10 coins, which would be an insult in their culture, but I like to think it’s implied because he just had them imagining themselves as a shepherd. I love to picture Jesus digging in just a little as they listen to a story about a female, wondering how in the world she got 10 coins, and then identifying with her behavior. Of course, like her, they would sweep the house and turn it upside down until they found the coin they had lost. Because lost coins don’t find themselves, they must be searched for and found, just like the sheep.
Again, Jesus does not want us to imagine ourselves as the lost coin, but as the woman who has lost something of great value, and who is willing to work hard until she finds it and restores it.
So, if the lost are not us, who are they? Any person not in a relationship with the living and loving God. Jesus was always hanging out with people who were excluded from religious life to bring them into relationship with God. These two parables invite the religious leaders—the church—(us!) to get out of the “judgment and grumbling business” and instead, to move out into the world and get into the “saving the lost” business. And the first step is to see the people called “tax collectors and sinners”—the unworthy or untouchable, or those who are homeless or ill, or whatever—as the valuable treasures they are to God—someone of great value whom Jesus wants restored to community and to forgiveness and to love.
And when this happens, the real party starts! People throw a party when their lost sheep is restored to the flock, and when the lost coin is found! Friends and neighbors are called for great rejoicing and parties and celebration because something of great value that was lost has been found! “But there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!” Imagine the joy in heaven with all angels when someone who was lost to God and far off, is brought into relationship; who felt unloved, is welcomed; who felt unworthy, experiences forgiveness; who felt totally alone, finds community.
No one talks about this set of parables as a reversal, or trading places, but I think it really is. Jesus is telling the religious folks to take the precious gift of their faith, get out of the Temple and into the streets and use it like a diligent woman searching for precious and valued lost souls, shepherding people into a relationship with God! And Jesus wants to take the fun and fellowship, the joy and the parties, the excluded know how to have, and bring them into the church!
Jesus is really doing asset-based community organizing! He is taking the assets of the religious faith—a relationship with God—and bringing them where there is separation from God, and getting them out into the community; and then taking the assets of the community—fellowship and joy—and bringing them into the church where there is too much focus on rules, worthiness, and grumpiness! Do you see it?!
This is the kind of faith community I think Jesus was really after -–religious folks letting go and seeking out the lost, joined together with the formerly excluded, who , as saved sinners, join together all in one place, with complete joy in their faith, having one big festive, awesome party! Can't you see it?
There are 15 allusions across the 4 Gospels to eternal life as a feast, a banquet, a party, a wedding feast, the marriage feast of the lamb— Jesus keeps telling us over and over that when we gather together as saved people, it’s a party! One person coming into a relationship with Jesus makes the angels sing for joy! —There are 2.6 billion Christians worldwide—that’s a lot of parties! The saints who have gone before us into heaven are having one big constant party!
Jesus wants us to have joy on both sides when all these assets are shared! More people being brought to faith in God! Such joy for the religious! And Joy for those who had been excluded at being included and experiencing forgiveness—talk about a reason to celebrate! And the promise of less grumbling when the party planners arrive!
This means there is joy in our faith, in our singing, in our worship, in the fact that we are saved by Jesus. Why do you think I am always trying to get you to dance in church? Our faith is joy because of what Jesus has done for us, and what Jesus has done for the person next to us, and the people we are mission to reach!
Now if you are not feeling joy in faith, if you are feeling lost—like you are the lost sheep or the lost coin spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically—in anyway at all, then please let me know—put an SOS on your attendance slip, write to me on Facebook Messenger, text, call, email, so I can help Jesus find you again. And I will walk with you until you know that God searches for you and has found you, chosen you, loves you and claims you as his own.
Because God is giving away love and forgiveness and joy, freely and without merit. God has found us and given these gifts to us, filling us with Christ’s Spirit at this table every week, so we can be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world—a shepherd searching for the lost, a diligent woman searching for a coin—seeing all of God’s people as a valuable treasure that God wants us to help love and redeem.
This is why our church, the ELCA's motto is God’s work, Our Hands. We don’t just do service—we accompany people and look for the assets they bring to our community as well.
So I want you to find one way to share your faith this week, and as you do, look for the assets and the gifts others have and can bring to our community:
• Pick up a Hunger Helper lunch to pass out; and think about how much trust it takes for that person to believe their needs will be provided for. Every person on a street corner is an example for us of what it means to live the petition, “give us this day our DAILY bread”—they don’t have a refrigerator full of food. Or
• Invite someone to join you for online worship at home, or in person worship here—see if they’re good at parties or if they can dance! Or
• Pray for the Lord to lead you to someone with whom you can share what God has done for you and listen to their story and gifts
• Do one random act of kindness this week and add the simple words, “God loves you.”
• Someone in your circle of influence is lost, and this week, I am praying that God will use you to be the diligent woman who searches, and the good shepherd who notices them and reaches out for conversation
As you do one of these things or something else the Lord leads you to, know that there is joy in heaven in the presence of the angels over one person who experience God’s love through you, and I promise, next Sunday, there will be dancing!