In every marriage or relationship, there are things your partner helps you get better at. Sometimes it’s cooking or baking; sometimes it’s fixing things or being handy around the house. And I’m no exception to this fact. There are a few things I didn’t know I was bad at until I got married. I made a quick list for visual reference. I didn’t want to list too many things up here, so I just put a tenth or so of the list. And finally, at the very end, is “finding things.” According to my wife, I’m about as good at finding things as a blind person. I mean, I don’t know how many times I’ve told her I couldn’t find something, and the response I’ve gotten was the classic, “well, did you even look?” Like, no – I didn’t I just went in the other room, stood there for 30 seconds, and then came back and lied to you.
In my defense, though, Amy may be good at finding things, but she’s also really good at losing things. I mean, she loses stuff better than anyone. One might even say she’s good at losing things to a fault – I wouldn’t say that but someone might. In any case, our text this morning – the first installment of our series on the parables – focuses on these famous stories of things being lost and things being found. Now, these two stories are actually the first two out of a set of three very similar parables. The third story in the series, The Lost Son or (as it’s better known) The Prodigal Son, is kind of its own thing. We’ll be talking about the Prodigal Son in a few weeks. But these two really belong together, and we’re going to be talking a bit about that today.
Now, at the beginning of our passage, we’re told, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” One of the commentaries I was working with this past week used an image for this that I thought was really helpful. He talked About these concentric circles forming around Jesus – in the innermost circle, we have the tax collectors and sinners, and in the outermost circle, we have the grumbling Pharisees and scribes, who say “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This would have been a slap in the face to the Pharisees and scribes because only one chapter ago, in chapter 14, we see Jesus welcoming and eating with them. And in this time, to have table fellowship with someone is basically to create space for them in your life and say that you approve of them. So, not only was Jesus implicitly affirming these tax collectors and sinners, but also, he was putting them into the same category of the Pharisees and scribes.
Now, let’s pause for a second. This context is pretty far removed from us, right? Tax collectors and Pharisees aren’t categories we typically deal with on a daily basis. But if we collapse the cultural distance, remove the unfamiliar categories, and extract the kernel of the action being talked about here, then we quickly realize that it’s something we actually do all the time. Put another way, who are the people that occupy the world around you that you know you should be creating space in your life for, and yet don’t? Who are the people you’re afraid of being seen with because you’re afraid of what it will do to your reputation? Is it the atheist? Is it the people on the other side of the political aisle? Is it the poor or undocumented? Whoever it might be, I want to take this opportunity to encourage you to simply, simply try. Strike up a conversation with them; patronize their businesses. There’s a business in town whose owner I’ve gotten to know well over the last several months. And we totally disagree about virtually everything,from politics to religion. But I believe, especially at this time in our society, that it’s incredibly more important to be building bridges instead of walls. There’s a tax collector in your life; if you want to pick up your cross and deny yourself, then one good place to start would be denying yourself the tendency to inflate your own ego and elevate yourself above people you think you’re better than. Jesus hung out with the tax collectors; we would be foolish not to do the same.
Now, coming back to our text, we know all these people are coming near to listen to Jesus, but the question still stands as to why. And, to answer that, we really have to go back to the end of chapter 14, where it says “let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Fun fact: in case you’ve ever wondered what this tattoo is behind my right ear, it’s actually this Greek word for “listen!”: ἀκουέτω (it’s where we get the word “acoustic” from). Anyway, you may wonder why the translators and organizers of our modern bibles would put this phrase at the end of chapter 14 instead of the beginning of chapter 15. It, at least, seems clear that it should be a call to all those standing around to come listen to the parables Jesus is about to tell, but some interpreters think it’s a closing statement of Jesus previous teaching.
And to understand why, we first have to understand that our current translators often have to make judgement calls because ancient Greek manuscripts aren’t always clear. Now, why aren’t they always clear? I’m so glad you asked. This is an up-close look at an ancient biblical manuscript of the 4th century. It actually depicts part of Luke 15, which we’re looking at today. And, as you can see, the norm of the day was to write, 1) in all capital letters, 2) without spaces or punctuation, and 3) in long columns. There are no page numbers, no chapter numbers, no verse numbers – all that came hundreds of years later. So, when we’re translating these texts in the current day and age, it’s not exactly clear where sentences and paragraphs and thoughts begin and end, and we have to make decisions to the best of our ability. And, personally, I think placing this famous phrase, “let anyone with ears to hear listen!”, at the end of the chapter 14 and not at the beginning of chapter 15 seems a bit constructed and inorganic, but that’s just my opinion.
Regardless of where it should be placed, the text says that people are gathering around and listening, first the tax collectors and sinners, and then the scribes and Pharisees. And Jesus tells them this first 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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” He then goes on: “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? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”
Now, in true Lukan fashion, there are, of course, some parallels here which can clearly be seen. There’s a pretty clear pattern of losing—searching—finding—rejoicing. In the first story, we see the main character being a man, and in the second it’s a woman. But there’s a detail much more compelling in the story that’s often peddled in churches. And that’s the nature of the thing that’s been lost. Being “lost” is a term Christians often use to label and alienate people. We usually use it to describe those who are going through a season of struggle, those whose understanding of Christianity or faith tradition we don’t understand or approve of. And our solution to this is usually to “witness” to those people; to tell them about God and Jesus and hope that they’ll be so moved that they’ll want to change their lives. And I’m all for talking about Jesus. I think if more people had a correct understanding of Jesus, the world would look a lot different. However, it’s well worth pointing out something about the sheep and the coin, and that’s the fact that neither the sheep or coin had a choicein being lost.
There was no conscious decision made by the sheep or coin to wander away or to disobey their owners. And yet, the owner of the sheep and coin aren’t necessarily at fault, either. Notice that Luke doesn’t say the shepherd allowed the sheep to wander, or that the woman dropped the coin. Maybe the focus of these stories shouldn’t be the absolute lost-ness of the sheep and the coin; maybe it should be on the extraordinary effort put forth by their owners to find them. Especially when you consider what exactly it was they lost in their greater context. In our first parable, the man has 100 sheep and loses 1, so he leaves the 99 and seeks out the 1. Now, if we think about that in practical, real world terms, the guy is taking a MUCH bigger risk by leaving the 99 than he is by just leaving the 1 to wander. I mean, losing 1 out of 100 sheep wouldn’t hurt him very much, economically or financially. Leaving his whole flock of sheep to search for a single one who’s gone missing is completely irrational. But maybe that’s the point!
Maybe the point should be that the owner of the sheep and the owner of the coin are so irrationally, unbelievably attached to and in love with what they lost, that their searching has become all-encompassing. Maybe it’s that their love for what they’ve lost has so completely overflowed that it’s affected every other aspect of their existence, to such an extent that they can’t be anything other than the one who searches for what they’ve lost.
Now, let’s take a step back, because if we push parables too far, they break down, just like any metaphor or analogy. Jesus realized this too, and that’s why he added this line: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Now, keep in mind whom Jesus is talking to here: 1) tax collectors and sinners, and 2) scribes and Pharisees. And, in this statement about the rejoicing in heaven, Jesus implicitly addresses both of them. He basically says, “there’s more joy in heaven over one tax collector or sinner who repents, than over 99 scribes and Pharisees who don’t need to.” Now, obviously everyone needs to repent, but Jesus is getting at not only their need to repent, but the scribes and Pharisees legalism in feeling like they don’t need to.
It’s a radical claim for Jesus to turn the social order on its head and place these peasants above the religious elite, but that’s exactly what these parables are meant to do. And these two little stories pose a question to us that we need to answer, and that’s: which of these circles do you fall into? Are you one who feels disqualified from grace because of the life you’ve lived or something you’ve done in it, like the tax collectors and sinners, or are you one who feels like you’re too good for all this?
I just want to say that, wherever you are in this diagram, it’s okay. You’re still loved and wanted and a child of there’s something really beautiful about this story, and that’s the fact that it never identifies or names the one who repents. It could be a tax collector, or it could be a Pharisee. Both are in need of repentance — the question is which one will bring themselves to do it. Wherever you are on this diagram, there’s nothing that says it can’t be you; there’s nothing that says it can’t be me; there’s nothing that says it can’t be any of our crooked politicians or world leaders; there’s nothing that says it can’t be a criminal or a police officer. All of us are lost and we all need to be found. Another book I was reading this week spoke about repentance like this: “[Repentance] is the discovery of a new perspective on one’s relationship to God, who has reached out to reconcile the world already through the ministry of Jesus…The discovery of that new way of seeing and being is, in a profound sense, a being ‘found.’”
This “repentance”, this “being found”, which causes joy in heaven is none other than the event in which we realize that it’s not all about us; that we belong to God and, thereby, to one another. It’s the moment we realize that there are 99 others that God loves just as much as us, who could get lost any second and, for whom, God would seek just as fervently. Being found just means we realize that, despite our being lost, we never stopped belonging to God in the first place; that, no matter where we wander, our rightful place is not somewhere out there, away from the rest of the world, but it’s right here in the midst of it. I’ve said this a million times: the thing I love most about this church is that we don’t pretend to be anything we’re not. We’re a bunch of punk sinners, saved by grace, who’re just trying to radically love this world like Jesus did. The only thing that sets us apart is that we’re the ones who realizethat we’ve been found. And our mission is to go out and help other people realize that, too. Let’s pray.