His name was Tyler. He was without a doubt the proverbial thorn in my side the entirety of my 4th grade year. He was unquestionably the “bad kid” in our class. The one who always talked in the hallway and made us all lose extra recess. The one who didn’t line up when he was supposed to, resulting in scolding for all. The one who chattered during the School House Rock educational videos, squashing everyone’s hopes for a quick replay of “I’m Just a Bill.” And through some horrible twist of fate, Tyler was assigned to my desk group. There goes our shot at a pizza lunch with the teacher for being the best-behaved desk cluster. If ever a kid fit the profile for being a “wayward sheep”, Tyler did. And if I were honest, I wouldn’t have worked up a sweat seeking him out if he had ever strayed from the flock.
In Luke’s parallel parables of the lost sheep and lost coin, addresses this same less-than charitable attitude in the Pharisees and scribes who are miffed that Jesus would sully himself by keeping company with “tax collectors and sinners.” Not only does Jesus welcomes sinners; he also eats with them, a shocking offense to any self-respecting Jew. To break bread with someone of ill repute, to share the intimacy of meal fellowship with a law-breaker reflected poorly on the character of everyone at the table, Jesus included.
And so, Jesus tells them a parable. He confronts their malformed images of God, not through lecture of exegesis, but through the telling a story about a sheep and coin.
In both stories, the character of the seeker is front and center. The shepherd goes after his wayward sheep until he finds it. We imagine a young man scouring the countryside, with only the light of the moon to guide him, driven on by his devotion to the sheep in his care. And when he finds it, he celebrates! He shares his joy with friends and family. In the same way, the woman searches high and low for her lost coin. Her need to light a lamp to search her home is probably indicative of a very small structure with little natural light. The loss of one coin is not on inconvenience. It is potentially devastating. And so, she moves heaven and earth to find the coin and, like the shepherd, rejoices in its recovery.
With these simple yet profound stories, Jesus makes it clear God’s steadfast, never-failing love seeks out the lost at all cost. These brief parables remind Luke’s reader that this God proclaimed and embodied by Jesus is a God that is for the sinner and the outcast. This undying love for the outsider is such an integral part of the Reign of God that all of heaven bursts into rejoicing at the repentance of a single singer, ever more so than over the “99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”
My 4th grade self would have been quite irked at the thought of heaven rejoicing more in the repentance of naughty ol’ Tyler than in my daily “life of righteousness.” I was troubled by God’s seeming neglect of the 99 obedient, good sheep that never lose recess for the class with their bad behavior in order to search for that sheep, the sheep that nobody really wants in the flock anyway.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? The righteous scribes and Pharisees are so blinded by the perceived injustice of Jesus’ stories that they are oblivious to the fact that Jesus’ reference to their righteousness is ironic. Luke makes it clear, both in the Gospel and in Acts, that all are in need of repentance. Insiders and outsiders alike. All stand in need of God’s ever-pursuing, never giving-up gracious love.
As we preach this text, we can stand in three “pairs of shoes:” the seeker (God), the lost, and those who consider themselves “unlost.” We must help our congregation remember that this story is not about a sheep or a coin (namely, us). It is about God. These parables primarily serve as revelations of God’s character to us. Secondarily, they hold up a mirror to our lives, revealing the kind of sheep or coin we might be. Typically, it is not difficult to call out the obvious markers of a wayward sheep in our preaching. And just as typically, a wayward sheep is usually well aware of their waywardness.
It can, however, be very difficult to break through the walls of perceived righteousness around our parishioners, and perhaps around us, that prevent the radically inclusive message of the Gospel from penetrating our hearts. Perhaps the litmus test for the state of hearts in this matter is our level of rejoicing at the repentance of the one sinner, found by God. Do we join in the celebration of heaven, so characteristic of the Reign of God? Or do we sulk, question, categorize and look on with general skepticism at the turning of one from death to life?
May we live into our Reign of God identity, giving thanks for the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Good Shepherd who never stopped looking for us, and celebrating with all of heaven as God continues to seek and save the lost.