There is a video on Facebook of a sheep that has found a badger hole or fox den, or some other hole that is just big enough for her to walk into and be totally swallowed up. Israel’s terrain is naturally full of holes and crevices. She is either unwilling or perhaps just hasn’t figured out how to back-up to get out of the hole and so the shepherd reaches in and grabs her by the hind feet and pulls her out of the hole almost as though he is helping her be born again. The silly sheep looks like she is just about to nose-dive back into the hole she has just been rescued from until the shepherd gently turns her head and redirects her vision, at which point in time she frolics back to the herd.
I suspect many of us can relate to the sheep and today’s passage is comforting to us to know that Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd who is willing to go after his sheep at any cost. The challenge in today’s lesson is to recognize that Jesus was not primarily talking for the benefit of the lost. Jesus was speaking to a great degree to those who already considered themselves part of the flock. While we may have been lost at one time, we are here because we have heard the voice of the shepherd and followed. The sheep who are falling into pits and are being chased by wild animals are for the most part still outside the walls of the church building. These are the 1 sheep that Jesus is ready to leave the 99 sheep to go and find.
As usual, Jesus makes his point by telling stories. Who has never lost something very important or very dear to you? I suspect most of us have. If it is something important, life stops until you find it. You can’t focus on your work, you can’t enjoy any entertainment, and you can’t even sleep for worrying about what you have lost. Sometimes, it is an item necessary to do the things you need to do, like keys. Sometimes it is something that you don’t want to tell someone you lost like a piece of jewelry, or an important document. Sometimes it is a person. If you have every lost a child in a store, you know how terrifying that can be. Sometimes it has nothing to do with what you have done, sometimes it is their choice, like a divorce or a child that leaves home and doesn’t call. Sometimes it is just part of life, like the death of a loved one.
Jesus has been speaking about some heavy stuff: hating your family, selling all your possessions, taking up your cross. Crowds have gathered around him, and those sitting right up front are the tax collectors prostitutes, and terrorists. In Jesus day they called terrorists zealots because they were fighting on the side of the local people and against the Roman Empire. These folks not only have the front row seats, they have been sharing food with Jesus, which was a scandalous boundary violation. Standing around the edges are the scribes and Pharisees, the church lawyers and their legal secretaries. Jesus can hear them gossiping to each other about who Jesus is hanging out with, so Jesus tells three stories to teach them a lesson.
Suppose a shepherd lost one of his sheep. It didn’t matter that he had 99 other sheep, each sheep was important and it was his responsibility to keep them safe, so he goes out looking for the sheep and doesn’t give up until he find it. When he comes back with the lost sheep he is so excited that he tells all his friends. Today he would post it on some form of social media and anxiously wait for the “likes.”
Jesus looks right at the scribes and Pharisees and says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner repenting than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” I suspect this was said quite tongue in cheek, because as Paul has told us, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) The Pharisees and scribes were not righteous, they were self-righteous. Jesus notes that they didn’t get the pun.
What if a woman had 10 drachmes, 10 silver coins each worth one day’s wages and she suddenly realized she had lost one of them. It doesn’t matter that it is time to go to bed, she lights a lamp and starts frantically searching the house. It doesn’t matter that she has 9 more, that is a lot of money to lose and so she does not rest until it is recovered. The next day when she is sharing with her friends, she shares her joy at finding what she thought had been lost. This time Jesus looks at the tax collectors and prostitutes on the front row and says, “There is joy in the presence of God’s angels when one sinner repents.”
This is a tough crowd. The Pharisees and scribes are not getting the value of a sheep to a shepherd or a coin to a poor woman, so this time he picks something to which they can relate.
There was a man that had two sons. The older son always did the right thing. He said the right things, he was faithful and loyal, but his heart was cold. The other son was wild and impetuous, frequently getting in trouble, always getting on his brother’s nerves, and with a sassy and disrespectful mouth. One day the younger son told his father to “drop dead.” He demanded his share of the family estate and left. The father did not hear from the son, but every day he prayed for his safety and watched for his return. The older son grew bitter. He now had to do his brothers chores as well as his own. He now had full responsibility for taking care of his father who spent his days praying and watching the horizon for his lost child. Then one day, the younger son returned. He had hit bottom, used up all his inheritance, and realized that his father’s servants lived better than he was living in his much longed for independent state. His father didn’t care why he had come home or what he had been doing while he was away, he was just happy to have his child back that had been lost to him, and so he through a big party.
His brother was not so overjoyed. The son who had never been disrespectful to his father, could not bear this final insult and accused his father. “How dare you throw a party for my brother? He is dead to us and he should stay that way. He has brought dishonor on the family and does not deserve this party. I have always done what I was told, but you never threw a party for me.”
Now Jesus looks directly at the scribes and Pharisees. “Son, you have always been at my sided and everything I have is yours, but it is right that we should celebrate. Your brother was lost and is now found. He was dead and is now alive.”
It is appropriate to note that this story follows immediately after the previous two weeks lessons where Jesus talks about commitment and the cost of discipleship. Jesus never says it doesn’t matter what we do, in fact, he says following him is the most important thing we will ever do. What he does say is that if you wander off, there is always a light on in the window and the door is unlocked.
Some of us are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost child. We have wandered away from truly following Christ. The message is it is never too late to return. There is nothing that you can do that God is not willing to forgive. The only time Jesus said someone was beyond redemption was when they looked into the face of Jesus and saw Satan rather than God. You don’t have to find your way back to God by yourself. The sheep and the coin did not even find their own way home. We are expected to seek God in community. If you have wandered off or know others who have, realize that all of God’s attention is focused on finding you. You may feel lost or abandoned, but God will never stop looking for ways to get you back.
Some of us may find we are hanging out on the back row with the elder son and the scribes and Pharisees. We are determined not to have fun. Discipleship and worship is serious business. Jesus never said it wasn’t serious. In fact he said it was deadly serious, but part of discipleship is learning to rejoice when others are reconciled with God. We are given the chance to actually help God look for those who have strayed and to gently redirect them back to the herd. Where are you in these stories today? How is God calling you to respond?