Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So He told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:1-4)
So begins one of Jesus’ best-known and best-loved parables, even for those of us who have never owned a sheep, let alone lost one. For those who do find this a bit inaccessible though, let me offer you my alternative story of the lost bunny.
It happened a couple of weeks ago. It was late at night, past midnight, and for some reason I decided to take the garbage out before going to bed. I guess it was the combination of me fumbling with the garbage bag and the fact that I was tried that allowed Honey (the bunny) to dart through the open door as I tried to reach the bin.
I appreciate that in any number of other households, bunnies are allowed to roam in their back yards with impunity. In our case though there is a cat living next door to us who always seems to materialise whenever our bunny makes an appearance, and so I spent a good half-hour, chasing the bunny around the backyard in the dark, and it was raining, and it was cold, and it was a miserable experience that more than once had me raising my voice at bunny who would regularly stop and start munching on some tasty grass and allow me to creep up right behind her. Then she’d wait until I bent down to pick her up and she’d dart off to the next clump of grass.
Eventually, bunny snuck through a crack in the fence and I abandoned my pursuit. I returned to the house, dejected, but left the back door open that night in the hope that she might find her way home. After a fitful night’s sleep, I awoke to find no bunny in the house, and then had to break the news to Fran, who responded, as expected, with uncontrollable sobbing – first in the bedroom, and then in the backyard, where she stood on the wet grass, calling out bunny’s name in between sobs.
Eventually, all the noise woke Imogen who quickly worked out what had happened and then joined us in the backyard, still in her pyjamas but wearing shoes. She announced that she might have an idea of where bunny was, exited the backyard via the gate in the fence that leads into the old rectory garden, and a few minutes later returned with an unharmed bunny in her arms. And there was much rejoicing.
Now, even for those of you who are not bunny-owners, I trust that you can see the parallels with Jesus parable of the lost sheep. Both stories start with the hapless beast wandering off into the unknown. In both cases the lost creature is in danger, and in both cases there is much rejoicing when the lost is found. There are also a couple of significant differences though between my bunny story and Jesus’ story.
Most obviously, Imogen’s quest in search of the lost bunny did not require her to abandon ninety-nine other bunnies while she went in search of the one (perish the thought). Also, while the effort we put in to rescuing the family pet makes sense in terms of the way families work, the effort the shepherd puts in to finding the sheep makes less sense, for the sheep is not a pet. The sheep is stock, and the effort put in by the shepherd makes a lot less sense in terms of the way businesses work.
Jesus begins His story, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4) and the obvious answer to that question, I would think, is that no business owner in their right minds would treat their stock like that, and the same question raises itself even more pointedly in the next story Jesus tells:
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8)
In the history of interpretation of this parable there have been numerous attempts to make sense of this woman’s behaviour by suggesting that the silver coin she was looking for must have been very valuable – a part of her dowry perhaps – and yet Jesus makes no suggestion of this. An alternative rationalisation involves supposing that she must have been very poor, such that even one coin meant the difference between life and death. Again, there is no indication of that, and the woman appears to own her own house, and she throws a lavish party with her friends after finding the coin, which makes no sense at all if she were that poor! In truth, in both stories, when it comes to profit and loss and the strictures of running a household or running a business, the main characters in these stories come across as sentimental fools.
The temptation, I think, is to try to make sense of these two stories by reading them in the light of the third story in the series that Jesus gives – the even better-known ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ – but it is interesting that our lectionary this week does not include this third parable, even if all three were originally delivered together.
I wasn’t sure what to think about that initially and, indeed, whenever I’ve preached on this passage in the past I’ve added in the third parable as I figured they need to be understood as a group. I’ve questioned that this time around. I note that the ‘Parable of the lost sheep’ is found in the Gospel of Matthew (18:10-14) as well as in Luke, where there’s no accompanying ‘lost son’ story, and so perhaps it’s a mistake to think we always need to interpret the earlier parables in the light of the third.
Forgive me if you don’t know the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ (Luke 15:11-32). I’m not going to read it out in full but it’s a story of a foolish young man who claims his father’s inheritance early, while his father is still alive, then takes the money and wastes it, finds himself impoverished and hungry, and eventually “comes to himself” (Luke 15:17) and realises that he would be better off as one of his father’s slaves than as a free man in the situation he is currently in.
It’s a beautiful story, and it has become an archetypal story for the church. It’s a story of a repentant sinner who realises his impoverished state, confesses his faults and returns to his Father to find mercy and forgiveness. Many say that the whole Gospel is contained in this story. Certainly, I’d say the whole philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and associated twelve-step programs are contained in this story.
We reach ‘rock bottom’, we recognise that we are unable to help ourselves, and so we reach out to our ‘higher power’. That’s the philosophy of AA, NA and the myriad of other 12-step programs, and for many people these are also the fundamentals of the Christian Gospel – God loves those who come to their senses, repent and turn back to the Father in faith. The question I want to raise today though is whether that’s really the message of these lost sheep and lost coin stories or whether we might do best to look at them independently of the prodigal son story and the subsequent history of interpretation that has been based on interpreting the first two stories in the light of the third.
The ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ is well named as it is indeed a story that focuses on the character of the son (at least in the first half of the parable). In the so-called stories of the ‘lost sheep’ and the ‘lost coin’ though, the focus of those stories is never really on the sheep or on the coin. The focus in those stories, respectively, is on the shepherd and on the woman who do the searching for that which is lost.
And unlike the prodigal son, the sheep does not ‘come to itself’ in any way, and more than our bunny suddenly came to it senses and started trying to find its way back to the house. No, in both cases, the lost beasts just continue to focus on mowing their respective lawns. All the work is done by those who do the searching. With the lost coin, the case is even more obvious. The coin doesn’t repent and turn from its wicked ways. The coin doesn’t do anything! It’s a coin!
The sheep and coin stories turn out to not really be stories about sheep and coins. When you look at who Jesus addresses these stories to that starts to make sense.
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. So he told them this parable …” (Luke 15:1-3)
The ‘them’ to whom Jesus addressed these parables were not the ‘tax collectors and sinners’. The ‘them’ He was speaking to were the religious people – the Scribes and the Pharisees – which means that these stories were not designed primarily to proclaim to us sinners that we are loved. They were designed to address the resentment felt by Jesus’ religious peers about the way He structured His priorities.
We can understand that resentment. When Luke speaks of the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ hanging about with Jesus we must resist romanticising this group as being ‘the humble poor’. Tax collectors were not poor. On the contrary, they were traitors to the national cause who had become rich off the oppression of their own people!
Likewise, when Luke mentions ‘sinners’ we must assume that these were what the old prayer book used to call ‘open and notorious sinners’ – convicted paedophiles and abusers of women and the like – the sort of people who would equally lead good religious folk like us to shake our heads and say, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)
For let’s be clear that Jesus was not baptising these people or leading them in the sinner’s prayer or even preaching at them so far as we know. He was eating with them, drinking with them, and having a good time with them.
Of course us good religious folk get resentful. If Jesus is a prophet sent by God, why isn’t He spending more time with us – with God’s own people? We have needs. We need pastoring. We could benefit from the love and the healing power that Jesus has on offer and, at some level, surely, don’t we deserve a bit of His time?
The very fact that Jesus was laughing and joking with these degenerates when He could have been (should have been) spending time with us is offensive. Of course these people were resentful, and so Jesus told them a parable. He told them a series of parables, in fact, each of which climaxes with the one great thing that can cure the curse of resentment – namely, gratitude.
The shepherd and the woman (and the father in the third parable) all end their stories by joyfully giving thanks, just as Jesus’ religious peers should have been joyfully giving thanks – not for what Jesus was doing for them, but for the changes that were taking place in the lives of those painful and difficult people whose lives Jesus was touching and transforming (if only they had the eyes to see it).
We have much to be thankful for here in Dulwich Hill. I was visiting a nursing home last week and unexpectedly bumped into my friend Lorraine. It turned out that we were visiting the same person, and that was a privilege to see her loving being extended in a difficult situation. On the way home I bumped into another member of our community – Adrienne – and we talked about her plans to head off and support an old friend who was similarly struggling. Again, it was love being extended in a difficult situation and again, it all left me feeling very thankful.
God is at work – that’s the bottom line. God is at work all around us. Even when it’s not obvious what God is doing in our own lives, if we can pause and take a good look at what’s going on around us, we’ll see the hand of God at work everywhere, and often in the lives of people we never expected God to bother with. We often can’t see it. Resentment blocks us from seeing God’s work. Any number of things can cloud our vision, but God is at work. There is indeed much to be thankful for.
Lord, give us eyes to perceive the movement of your Spirit amongst us. Heal us from all jealousy, bitterness and resentment such as might blind us to your presence amongst us, and give us grace at all times to celebrate your love with gratitude. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 15th of September, 2019