Chapter fifteen of the Gospel of Luke begins with tax collectors and sinners gathering around Jesus to listen to what he has to say. What an amazing way to begin. Those who are least likely to come to church, those who need to hear his message the most are being drawn in, they are listening, they are paying attention. But just as in many of our congregations, this rubs the good churchgoing, holy, God-fearing folk the wrong way.
The Pharisees and the scribes take umbrage at the quality of people with whom Jesus is surrounded, as well as their quantity. Jesus needs to find better people with whom to hang out, people who follow the rules, people who tithe regularly, who come to worship on Sunday mornings, prayer meeting on Sunday evenings and do their very best to make any mid-week services and activities there might be. These people eat and drink the wrong things, they sing the wrong kinds of songs, they do not participate in the socially sanctioned holidays, and they most definitely do not put enough distance between themselves and the holidays and observances which are definitely too worldly to be at all holy.
In reaction to their grumbling Jesus tells the three-part parable. I will note here, the passage does not tell us that Jesus told them three parables, it says that he told them a parable, just one. But this is a complex parable that has three parts, three episodes. The first two are really short and sound quite similar but each one seeks to teach something slightly different. The third is much longer and is one of the most well-known parables in the New Testament. Each of the three sections of the parable reveals a different truth which Jesus is attempting to teach all of those listening to him that day. They are like three variations on the same theme, each one building from what we learned in the form part and allowing us to see a different facet of the same thing.
Usually when I explore this parable, I go over the whole parable and spend the lion share of my time on the third, longest, most famous and in my opinion most interesting of the three sections. The lectionary passage this week only includes the first two sections of the parable, so for the sake of this commentary, we will only be looking at the first two thirds of this parable. And yet I wanted to point out that this is indeed one parable in three parts, and we are only looking at two of those parts and leaving out the third one.
The first section of this three part parable is the part which is often called The Parable of The Lost Sheep. A shepherd has 100 sheep. He loses 1. 99 of the sheep are fine, they are safe. They are happy and healthy and thriving within the sheepfold, but this one is lost. He leaves the 99 and goes and seeks the lost sheep. Upon finding it and bringing it back he calls his friends and relatives together to rejoice with him over the safe return of this one sheep. It ends with the statement of the joy in Heaven over the one lost sheep being found. In this section of the parable the shepherd does the ludicrous thing of seeming to value the lost sheep over the ones which are already within the sheepfold. All of the sheep belong to the shepherd. No one does not belong. They are all loved. Whether they are within the sheepfold or wandering outside.
The lost one is sought after because it is lost. The fact that it is not safe, not thriving, not healthy, and potentially in danger, does in a sense increase its value. It needs to be sought after. It needs to be restored to the community. It needs to be found, so that it may be safe, so that it may be healthy, so that it can be removed from any danger it is in. And the joy expressed in Heaven over its retrieval, is proportional. All that threatened it is gone. We all know this sheep is representative of the sinners and tax collectors over whom the scribes are complaining. Jesus is hanging out with them, because they are lost, they are in danger, their safety and health are threatened, they need to be restored to the community, therefore they need to be sought after.
The second section deals with a coin which is lost inside a house. A woman has 10 coins and loses one of them inside her home. She, like the shepherd, searches for the coin. She lights a lamp. She sweeps the house, and she keeps looking until it is found. Upon finding the coin, she, like the shepherd, calls together her friends to come and rejoice with her. And again, Jesus tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
There are lots of different explanations as to why this coin is so important to this woman. Some say it is part of her bride price, 10 coins that were often worn as a necklace or belt, which was hers if anything happened to her and she found herself alone in the world. Some say that this was the money she has squirrelled away bit by bit and represented her whole life’s savings. Still others say that this coin was just a lot of money plain and simple and therefore was worth finding simply for its value and worth. I don’t think that it matters really. What matters is that we realize that this coin was valuable.
The woman saw its worth and felt that the extraordinary measures she takes to find it were worth the effort it took. We also need to note that this coin is lost, just as the sheep is lost, but it is not wandering far and wide, as the sheep was, it is lost within the house. It is not gone off somewhere, it is here somewhere, the question is where has it gotten off to? This lost coin is not a tax collector or a sinner, it is a Pharisee or a scribe, who is just as lost as the sheep, but it is lost while having never left the house. The value of one lost in the home is not less than one which is lost without. Both are lost and there is joy when either is found. That hard thing is that many times those who are lost inside the house may not even realize they need to be found.
This parable tells us a lot about the tenacity of God, The greatness of God. It tells us that God loves the lost sheep, who is out there in the world is willfully wandering away from the fold. God loves a sheep who is unknowingly wandering from the fold. Most sheep know they are not with other sheep. They know they are somewhere else, whether they are enjoying the view, enjoying the freedom, or afraid and don’t know how to find their way back, they are usually aware of where they are, even if they don’t know or even care how they got there. Jesus loves sinners and tax collectors. Jesus loves people who are willfully, as well as those who are idly, or unwittingly living in ways that are contrary to God’s ways. Jesus’ desire is for these people to be found, to come back within the fold.
This parable also tells us that people can be lost in the house. That there are those who might not know they are lost, who firmly believe themselves to be righteous. People who have not wandered anywhere but are still lost. Jesus loves these people too. People who know the scriptures, who know what it means to be a Christian, what it means to live the way God calls for us to live, who know that we are called to love God and to love one another, but don’t, who are in some ways falling short of who God is calling them to be, living “righteously” but not living “rightly”. They are just as lost and just as loved.
This passage calls for us to be like Christ to be like God and seek that which is lost, to desire all who are lost, those among us, as well as those who are lost from us to be found, to come back into loving relationship with God. As Christians we know this, we know that lost people should be found. We know that sinners should come into relationship with God. We know that God loves all these people know matter how “lost” they are, no matter who they might be. God wants them to be found, to find community and relationship among the fold. It also calls for us to see own lost-ness to contemplate in what way we might be lost, even if we are not really aware of our lost-ness, to contemplate what it means for us, those who see ourselves as among the fold, to be lost; to think about what it means to be lost in the house, lost without going anywhere. And try to discover in what ways we ourselves might be lost; in what ways do we need to be found. Even if we know this, we don’t always act on this, we can know something but not act like we know it. Our lives, our actions, our words are not in line with this knowledge.
It also talks to us about Joy, God’s joy, and God’s desire for our joy. God desires for all those who are lost to be found. God longs for all the lost, the sheep wandering far and the coins lost in the house, all to be found, to no longer be lost to come home. And God finds joy when this happens, there is nothing that brings more joy to the heavens than one who is lost being no longer lost. People coming back into right relationship with God, people coming to a better understanding of what it means to be the people of God, how to be better disciples, how to better love God, love one another and love the World which God so desperately loves, with the love that God gives to us.
We can learn from that joy, we can experience that joy, can join in that Joy. The shepherd and the woman both call for friends and neighbors to share in their joy. God too wants us to share the joy. We can rejoice when God rejoices. Joy is a part of what we are called to as Christians, joy at our own found-ness, joy at others found-ness, joy whenever someone comes to better understand what it means to live this life we live as God desires for us to live it. Let us go today with these lessons in our minds, attempting to better understand ourselves, our God and our lost-ness and found-ness in this world.