Sometimes, Bible stories are so well known that we can take them for granted. I think the parables of the lost sheep and coin fall into this category. We’re so used to the story of the shepherd going in search of the one lost sheep that we don’t stop and wonder, “Is this really normal–or good–behavior from the shepherd?” I don’t think it is normal, or logical, behavior for a shepherd to abandon ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go in search of just one. And that’s the point. God’s love for us isn’t logical. It isn’t normal behavior. It’s extraordinary, tireless, and reckless. And thank God for that.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Which one of you,” Jesus asks, “that has a hundred sheep and loses one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until you found it?” Which one of you wouldn’t risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one?
Or, which one of you, Jesus continues, having lost a silver coin, a tenth of what you own, wouldn’t light the lamps and sweep the house until you found it? And having found it, which one of you wouldn’t call together your friends for a celebration that might cost more than the coin was worth?
Jesus poses these questions in a rhetorical way—making us think, who wouldn’t do this? But, when we pause and consider them, who would do this? Who would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the wilderness, in danger, all to find one sheep? Who would be so over-the-top excited at finding a coin that they would call all their friends together to celebrate? Is one sheep worth that much risk? Is one coin worth that much joy? This shepherd is actually pretty irresponsible. This woman is actually fairly wasteful. These characters aren’t the kind of people we’d put in charge of our flocks or our bank accounts.
These parables are two of three stories that Jesus tells in Luke fifteen. The third, taking up the rest of the chapter, is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Sometimes, people even jokingly call this the “Lost Chapter” of Luke. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Jesus tells all of these stories to address a very specific situation that’s described in the first three verses of the chapter.
He has been attracting quite a few followers lately, from many different walks of life. And it’s starting to rub people the wrong way. The Pharisees and scribes, in fact, are grumbling that Jesus “welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them.”
There’s a lot that we can miss here, because we don’t live in the same world as Jesus did. The Pharisees and scribes? Those are the good religious people of the day. They’re the church-goers, the service-project doers, the upstanding citizens, trying to do their best.
The tax collectors and sinners? Well, they’re not the upstanding citizens. When we’re told Jesus is eating with sinners, this isn’t sinners in the sense of “we’re all sinners, because we all make mistakes.” These are people whose habitual actions have put them on the fringes of society. It’s not that they’ve done something wrong once, or even occasionally. They regularly reject the cultural norms and rules of the good religious people. And the tax collectors, well they’ve sold out their own people to collude with the Romans.
And Jesus is eating with them! He is sharing table fellowship with those people. Eating together meant placing yourself alongside someone else. Our English word companion literally means someone you break bread with. Jesus is letting those people be his companions.
And the good religious folks just don’t understand. Why? Why those people? At the very least they should be made to clean up their act before they get a place at the table. They should change their behavior, stop being so objectionable. They just don’t see the value of those people. And if those people are invited, the Pharisees really don’t want to be at the party.
Whenever we read parables, we try to see who the different characters might represent. And the narrative setting for these parables can make it pretty easy. The tax collectors and the sinners are the lost ones—the sheep, the coin, the son. The Pharisees and scribes must be the ninety-nine other sheep, the older brother. They don’t need special attention, because they’re already part of the group.
Although, it’s interesting to turn the parable on its head. Could we not say that the Pharisees and the scribes are the ones who are truly lost? That they’re the ones who do not understand, while the tax collectors and sinners actually get what Jesus is all about? It’s the good, upstanding people who are cut off from what Jesus has to offer, who need to be restored to the community. I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant, but it’s fun to think about.
And who are we in this story? Are we the lost? Are we the ninety-nine? Do we celebrate with the shepherd and the woman, or do we feel resentful of all the attention that one troublesome sheep has gotten? These are all questions that we could have an entire sermon about! It’s part of the beauty of parables—in just a few sentences a rich and complex story develops, inviting us to see ourselves and others through new eyes.
But as much as we can ponder whether we’re the coin or the friends, the one sheep or the ninety-nine, none of those things is the main focus in our parables. These aren’t stories about a lost sheep or coin, really. They’re stories about a shepherd who risks everything to go look, and about a woman who sweeps all night long to find. It’s the shepherd and the woman who take center stage. These are parables that, while they can teach us about ourselves, are mostly about God.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees and the scribes—and is telling us—what God is like. God is like a shepherd in charge of a hundred sheep, who notices when even one sheep goes missing. God is willing to risk anything for that sheep. He picks it up and carries it back to safety.
God is like a woman who has lost something valuable, who will stop at nothing to find it. She turns her entire house upside down, possibly creating chaos and confusion, just for that one coin. God does everything in these parables, for the sake of the lost. God searches, God seeks, God finds, and God restores.
And God rejoices. God throws a party and celebrates, because the lost has been found! The community is whole and complete again. It’s not just the one sheep that has been restored, the whole community has been restored to the way it is meant to be. The ninety-nine were not complete without the lost one.
The shepherd and the woman go to a great deal of trouble to find something that isn’t worth very much to anyone else. Because to God, there is no such thing as a person with no value. To God, there are no “those people.” There are no insiders and outsiders. Jesus understands that those on the outside of the community are so important to what the community should be. Without them, the community is incomplete.
And everyone is invited to be part of the celebration. Wherever you find yourself in these parables—lost, found, begrudging, or joyful—God seeks for you.. Recklessly so, even. God risks everything for you, for me, for each of us. And God wants nothing more than to celebrate with the lost and the found. With the insiders and the outsiders. With the Pharisees and the tax collectors. Together. May we give thanks for a God who seeks. A God who searches. And may we celebrate together the joy that is found in community with God. No insiders or outsiders, but all of us. Together. Amen.