Posted on July 6th, 2014
How did they get lost, the sheep and the coin in today’s parables (Luke 15:1-10)? We’re not told, so we have to think about the context. What prompts Jesus to tell these stories? “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’” The complaints were about Jesus being merciful, Jesus forgiving the wrong sort of people. Jesus speaks these parables not to tell us about lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons, but to tell us something about Himself, which is to say, something about God: filled with joy at the return of His lost love.
The stories have as their subject not the thing lost, but the one who has lost what was valuable. Each story that Jesus tells begins with the subject. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” The story is about a man who has lost his sheep.
Then the woman: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” It’s not a story about a lost coin, it’s a story about a woman who lost a coin. Do you see the difference?
There’s a certain mystery to the stories. On the one hand, sheep and coins have value. But on the other, it is foolhardy to leave ninety-nine sheep to look for one. And it seems a terrible waste of time to spend the night searching for a lost coin. All the money was in coins at this time, I think. And Jesus usually gives us a monetary unit (like a denarius or a talent), even when it seems to have nothing to do with the story. So the omission of the value here seems deliberate. If you lost a penny, you’d move on and not waste time. What if it’s a nickel, a dime, or quarter? Still not much to bother with. A dollar coin? What if you’re in Europe and have a €2 coin? You need that, you’d look. But if you can’t find it and it’s time to go, you cut your losses and move on. What if the coin was worth a hundred dollars? A thousand? The hunt is on, you won’t stop.
But we are not told the value. Why? Value to us is relative. A rich man loses a hundred dollars, it’s no problem. A starving person loses a dollar, it’s disaster. But with God, the value is not relative. It’s all valuable. The sheep and the coin represent people, and the owner represents God. He wants the thing that is lost back. He wants His lost people back. Which means, He wants you back.
We look at people and make calculations, cold and brutal: Are you useful to me? Do I have to be nice to you because not doing so will threaten my job, my reputation, my agenda? What are you worth to me?
God doesn’t look at people this way. Every human being has value to Him, from the tiniest human being just conceived inside her mother, to the frail old man no longer in his right mind. Society discards such people and counts them worthless. To God, they are worth everything, and He will risk all, sacrifice all for their rescue.
Learning the attributes of God is worthwhile, but they can be deceiving. It is true that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc. It is also true that God is angry over sin, and that God is merciful and loving. But what these parables reveal is that God also suffers. It’s hard to think of God this way when we only think of Him as an all-powerful supreme being. He is – yet somehow, in the mystery of the divine counsel, God chose to give freedom to His creation. And His creatures, our first parents, wandered away. They became like sheep lost in the wilderness, a coin that has rolled into a gutter, covered with filth, and finally a son, who seized his inheritance and ran away, blowing the whole thing on fast cars and fast women until he was destitute.
But the father still loves his lost son, the woman still loves her lost coin, and the shepherd still loves his lost sheep. The pain of their loss grieves the father, the woman, the shepherd. Which means God feels pain, sorrow, agony, perhaps even regret. I don’t understand how to put that together with God’s omnipotence and omniscience, other than to say we have a very hard time understanding our own minds, our own selves; and we have a hard time really understanding, truly communicating, even with spouses, parents, children, people with whom we share homes and years and lives. So is it surprising that there are things we cannot grasp about the God who is beyond us immeasurably?
But what He wants us to understand is that He loves us. He made us, and wants us back home, out of the wilderness, out of the gutter, out of the pigsty.
So we miss a major point of the parables when we call them “The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son (prodigal son).” What happens if we call them, “The shepherd who lost a sheep, the woman who lost a coin, the father who lost a son”? Then we’re thinking about the God who lost something – the God who lost humanity to sin and death – and wants His people, His creation, the object of His love, back.
That’s why Jesus was happy to eat with tax collectors and “sinners.” They were coming back home.
So now we, who are in the position of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to be back home? Or is there something out there, out in the wilderness, in the attractions of the city, that make us still yearn for the life that leads to destruction?
If you were quiet, and had a moment to sweep every distracting thing from your mind, every immediate obligation, how would you answer the question, “What do you want?” What do you really want from life? What are you pursuing?
Now look at the collect of the day that we prayed earlier. This prayer of the day changes with each Sunday or festival, and it gathers up, or “collects” the various Bible readings and Psalms into one concise prayer. That prayer is often a helpful way of seeing the theme for the day. Think about this prayer again in light of that question I just asked, “What do you really want from life?”
O God, the protector of all who trust in You, without whom nothing is strong and nothing is holy, multiply Your mercy on us that, with You as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.
That’s what we should want: to “pass through things temporal” (the things of time, this world) – to pass through that in such a way “that we lose not the things eternal,” the things of God and His kingdom.
Is that what you want?
To the extent that you answer, “Not really,” that’s where you must specifically repent. Robert Farrar Capon wrote, “The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God.” That’s what was going on in the introduction to today’s Gospel reading. These tax collectors and sinners had not yet demonstrated “proper human behavior.”
But that’s not repentance. It’s much deeper. Christianity is not ethics and morals. It’s never less than that, but more. The entire heart is in need of, not a remodel or update, but a radical transformation. A new heart and a new spirit. That’s the desire of the repentant.
Before we can turn, God must turn to us. When there is conflict, we sometimes have trouble looking someone in the eye. We turn our back, turn our face. In His wrath, God’s face is turned from us. “Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.”
God has turned Himself toward us in the incarnation. A fleshy God, a present God, Jesus is not an abstract spirit far removed or discerned only through feelings, but He made Himself really present in the cradle of the virgin. The Shepherd searching for His sheep is a picture of what the incarnation means. The woman down on her hands and knees searching for her lost coin is a picture of the Church searching us out, and welcoming us into her embrace like a loving mother. The father welcoming home his lost son, that’s how God sees you. He’s happy you’re home. That’s what He wants. It’s what He’s always wanted: to love mankind, and give us every good gift. +INJ+