BIBLE READINGS:††† 1 Timothy 1: 12-17 † Luke 15:1-10
We often get the parables of Jesus wrong. We pick them up, and we think that Jesus is telling us what we ought to do. You know, they're sort of lessons in morality (do good - be good). If we can master the lesson in the parable, we can turn out to be perfect people or something. But the point is that parables are not first of all about us. The parables of Jesus are first of all about how God works in this world - the mysterious, strange, bizarre, odd way that God deals with us, because the parables are very strange things. Jesus is a genius of story-telling and what you have to watch most of all with Jesus in his parables are the small twists, the little turns and the details you don't notice. I can read and preach on a parable for thirty-five years, and in the thirty-sixth year all of a sudden see something I never saw before; and it has been buried there all along.
So letís look at the parables of the lost sheep, and the lost coin. These are in the 15th chapter of St. Luke's Gospel. This chapter contains three parables about being lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, the great parable of the prodigal son. The first thing that Luke says when this parable begins, is that the tax collectors and the sinners were drawing near to Jesus to hear him. The scribes and the Pharisees grumbled about this. They complained about this and they said, "This man welcomes sinners, and he eats with them, and therefore he's a bad person."
Now, obviously Jesus, by many people's minds, was thought to be a perfect candidate to be the promised Messiah who would fulfil God's will for Israel and do all sorts of wonderful things in the world. People like the scribes and the Pharisees didn't think that Jesus was much of a Messiah candidate if he could associate with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were mostly crooks in those days, and sinners meant what it means now. Everyone's favourite sin is something sexual, and the sinners most likely were prostitutes. Jesus spent a lot of time welcoming those people, eating with them, talking with them, visiting them, and otherwise consorting with them, so they didn't like this. So Jesus tells parables about being lost.
"I want you to imagine that you have one hundred sheep," he says to the Pharisees and the scribes around him. "I want you to imagine that you have one hundred sheep and that you lose one of them. Now, wouldn't you, therefore, go out after the lost one until you find it?"
What's the real answer to that question? The real answer to that question is "of course not." Nobody in their right mind who has one hundred sheep, loses one, leaves the ninety-nine to the wild dogs, and goes chasing off after one. You cut your losses, forget about the lost sheep, and go on with the ninety-nine. So Jesus' question is perverse. It's odd. It's ironic. Who among you would do this? Who among you wouldn't go out and do this?
They wouldn't go out and do this sort of thing. And, therefore, then he says, "And when you found that sheep, what would you do with it?" You would put the sheep on your shoulder, but then notice what Jesus says. He doesn't say, "Then he goes back to the ninety-nine and gives this little sheep back to his mother sheep," or something else. What Jesus says is that he puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and goes to his house. He goes home.
In this parable, Jesus never goes back to the ninety-nine sheep. The ninety-nine sheep are a set-up. Jesus has divided the flock into one sheep and ninety-nine sheep, and he's not trying to make two different groups. You know, ninety-nine who don't get lost, and one who does. The real meaning of the one and the ninety-nine is that the one lost sheep is the whole human race as it really is. And the ninety-nine "found" sheep who never get lost are the whole human race as we think we are. And the ninety-nine; therefore, donít have a part to play except to set up the story.
The one lost sheep stands for all of us, and this says that the only thing the shepherd - God, is interested in, is going after the lost, and, if necessary, the shepherd will abandon his sheep to find the lost. God is not in the business of being the kind of God we turn God into - the God who's a bookkeeper, the God who's the divine "watch-dog" who's keeping records on everybody, and if you don't do it right, he's not going to bother with you anymore. God only wants to come and find sinners. He doesn't want anything else. And then Jesus says, "I say to you that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."
The irony of course, is this - did you ever meet any of those ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance? No, you didn't. There isn't one in the whole world. So this proves the set-up that Jesus is only interested in finding the lost; that God, in Christ, is only interested in finding the lost.
Now, he follows this parable up with the parable of the lost coin, and Jesus changes the image. The God character in this parable is not a shepherd. It's a woman. It's a very strange woman. As the shepherd is sort of crazy to go chase one sheep and leave ninety-nine to the wolves, so this woman is even crazier. It says this woman has ten coins, let\s say in a nice wooden case with red velvet lining and little recessed partitions for each of the ten coins. And every morning she gets up, and she looks in there and pats them and polishes them and puts them back down again.
She gets up one morning, and one of her precious coins is missing so what does this woman do? She is as crazy as the shepherd, if not crazier, because she stops her entire life. She stops anything she had to do that day. She stops whatever housework she was going to do, and she lights a light, and goes into all the dark corners. She sweeps, and sweeps, and sweeps, and looks under everything for the whole day until she finds this coin. And what does she do when she finds it? Interestingly enough, like the shepherd Jesus never says she puts it back in the box. It says she gets on the phone to her friends and her neighbours and says, "Come on over, I'm going to have a party. I found my lost coin."
And now I'm sure that these friends and neighbours say, "Gertrude, you found a coin, right? And we're supposed to come to a party?"
She says, "Yes. I have fruit punch, and I have party pies, and you're going to come over, and we're going to celebrate my lost coin."
Certainly they'd say, "Yes, Gertrude, we'll come." But they are not that enthusiastic. But the point is, she is. And this woman proves something. In the lost sheep, you can develop some pity for the poor, little lost sheep. You can feel bad, you know, that itís injured or hurt or fearful or something like that. But you can't work up any pity for a lost coin. A lost coin never knows it's lost. One place is as good as another. The point is that what these two parables put together say, is that what governs God's behaviour to us is not our sins. It's not our problems. It's Godís need to find us. These parables go by the need of the finder to find, not about the need of the lost to be found. That's obvious. We always knew that. We could have gone to our graves knowing that. The great thing is that the universe is driven by the need of the finder to find all of us who are lost.
We say Jesus, between when he died and when he arose, descended into hell. He descended to the lost. This is the last truth of these parables, that for all eternity God still seeks those in hell. If I go down into hell, Thou art there with me. We cannot get away from the love that will not let us go because God, who in these parables is represented by the shepherd and the woman, never ceases to seek and to find the lost.