Lesson: Luke 15:1-10
I must have been younger than 4 years old when I got lost in the grocery store, because we moved to a new neighborhood with a different grocery store around my fourth birthday. It’s easy for adults to forget how the world looks when you’re eye-level with people’s kneecaps or belt buckles. It’s easy to lose track of the right pair of knees. Somehow I didn’t notice that my father had moved on to another aisle, and he didn’t notice that I didn’t notice. All of a sudden I was lost. What I still remember is my sense of panic. I ran and threw my arms around a pair of knees that I thought were my father’s but they weren’t – so then in addition to being lost, I was humiliated. Odd, isn’t it, that we feel shame even when we’re doing the best that can be expected of us? I don’t even remember what happened when I found my dad, or he found me – the panic at being lost is what I’ve retained ‘til this day.
This morning’s two parables explore what it means to be lost, and what it means to be found. The set up for the parables is important. The Pharisees and scribes notice the company that Jesus is keeping. The genuinely admirable life work of these faithful men is to be holy, to achieve holiness. Choosing the right people to share a meal with them is one way to do that. In Jesus’ time, in the ancient Middle East, to invite a man to a meal was an honor. It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in other words, sharing a meal meant sharing life, just as it does today. So the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Why do you always hang out with sinners and tax collectors? That’s no way to be holy. If you hang out with these unholy people, it might rub off on you.” Maybe they’re thinking, “After all, what’s the point of religion except to separate the sinful from the righteous?”
Jesus’ response is amazing on so many levels. First, he asks the scribes and Pharisees to imagine themselves as a shepherd who was unclean, and then as a woman who was inferior. “Which one of you,” he says, and then tells the story so that they have to imagine what the world might look like and what their response would be as people they try very hard to avoid.
Then, Jesus poses his questions as though there is only one obvious answer. But there isn’t. Doug Adams illustrates this with a variation of the shepherd parable he used at a conference of army officers: “Which one of you commanding a company, if one soldier goes AWOL, does not leave the ninety-nine on the battlefield and go after the one that is lost until he finds him? … And when he comes home, he calls together his fellow officers and commanding officers, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my soldier who went AWOL.’ One captain at the conference responded, ‘My general would say sternly, “Where are the other ninety-nine members of the company under your command?” and I would end up in the brig!’”
So Jesus says, “I want you to imagine that you have one hundred sheep and that you lose one of them. Now, wouldn’t you go out after the lost one until you find it?” The real answer – the answer the scribes and Pharisees would give to that question is, “Of course not.” Nobody in his right mind leaves the ninety-nine to the wolves and the coyotes to go chasing off after the one. You cut your losses, forget about the lost sheep, and go on with the ninety-nine. So Jesus’ question is ironic. Who among you would do this? Nobody would! And he goes on: “And when you find the sheep, wouldn’t you put the sheep on your shoulder, and rather than return to the ninety-nine, go home and throw a party?” Jesus’ audience knows that’s crazy, too. Jesus is suggesting not only that they’d confess this foolish decision to their friends, but celebrate it? I kinda think Jesus is messing with the Pharisees and scribes a little bit. I can picture them, looking puzzled, their brains clicking and whirring.
People sometimes get offended about the ninety-nine being left to the wolves. Especially people who don’t think of themselves as “lost.” You can imagine the scribes and Pharisees heading down this trail, thinking, “Wait a minute, what about me? I always try hard to do the right thing.” It’s precisely the response of the sulky older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which follows these two parables and which really completes the set of three. All three parables challenge us to define who is “lost,” and what it means to be “lost.” This is a tricky question, because it’s easy to confuse being “lost” with not going to church. It’s equally easy to confuse being “lost” with not being Christian, and being “found” with being converted to Christianity. But when Jesus told this story there was no Christian church; there was no Christian movement – in fact, he was talking to Jews that he didn’t expect to be anything other than faithful Jews.
So who is lost? What does it mean to be lost? In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris notes that the word “wretch” has become so unpopular in recent years that some hymnals have removed it from the first line of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” and replaced it with the word, “someone.” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved someone like me.” Norris writes, “Is there a fabled ‘someone’ who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh-unforgivable things that he or she has done? … Maybe there are people who are so thoroughly at home in themselves that they can’t imagine being other than comfortable, let alone displaced or wretched in spirit. But I wonder. I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness – exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance – has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human. … It seems to me,” she continues, “that if you can’t ever admit to being a wretch, you haven’t been paying attention.”
I’m really okay with it if you don’t like the word “wretch” or “sinner,” because they’re labels that have been used and abused by the wider Church to exclude, separate and manipulate people, just the way the scribes and Pharisees try to do in this passage. In Jesus’ time, “sinners” just meant people who didn’t follow the law closely, or at least not as closely as the Pharisees thought you should and believed they did. There were all sorts of reasons people might not follow every last one of the 613 laws of Torah, and some had to do with economic situation. Affluent people could afford the proper sacrifices, the proper tithes, the exacting Sabbath expectations, the dietar