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The Parable of the Lost Sheep
(Mt 18:10–14)
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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?
5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
6 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.’
7 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.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 “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?
9 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.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Tax collectors and sinners, come near!
Saddle up to the table, all you prostitutes and lepers.
Gather ‘round talk show hosts and drug dealers.
Alcoholics, opioid addicts.
Sit down for the meal.
You there, depressed, anxious, pondering whether life’s worth living any longer?
You’re welcome here.
Rich man, estranged parent, welfare mom — please, join us.
The table of Jesus is for the ones we least expect.
The ones that society tells us are outsiders, the down and out, the harmful, the broken, the not-quite-put-together.
Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners — the ones who his community, his religious circle, would have called unclean or at least “bad influences.”
Do we take this for granted, the welcome that Jesus offers at his table?
I hope we have not become like the Pharisees — expecting only a certain kind of people to be able to partake in the feast.
Only the ones who speak the religious language, wear a suit and tie, whose kids behave and who show up on time.
I hope and believe the church is the place for us to radically challenge any holier-than-thou religion, any pretension that says the other does not belong.
We have plenty of that outside these walls.
But the challenge Jesus faced and many of us face today is that the religious leaders of the day end up being the ones who judge and turn people away from the table.
There’s an impulse among these leaders that says “we’ve got it figured out and we’ll be rescued from judgement and that’s all that matters.”
Perhaps they had such a limited view of God’s power that they were feeling protective of the fullness of welcome they would be willing to offer.
Nevertheless, Jesus seizes on this opportunity to poke, prod, and provoke the status quo.
He eats and drinks with sinners and guess what, God rejoices as the lost are found, the hopeless find hope, the estranged are brought home.
This is a very familiar parable to many of us who grew up hearing the stories of Jesus.
One of my son’s favorite sections of the storybook Bible we read him is where he can search the illustrated page for the lost sheep!
What joy to find that one!
But if its familiar, it is easy to ignore its teaching when we hear it.
It is easy to miss the deep wisdom it calls us to, the more excellent way of God that it illuminates.
Before diving into the parable directly, let’s open our eyes to a key word in the opening verses.
The Pharisees grumble and say that “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The word for welcomes is prodeschomai — which is also translated as “seeks out” — Jesus doesn’t only welcome these folks to his table — he seeks them out.
There’s a difference between saying, sure, sinners can sit at my table (which could be laced with the underlying understanding that they must abide by my rules at my table).
There’s a difference between this and those sinners being “sought out.”
Not only are they welcome at the table, but Jesus has gone looking for trouble, looking for them, looking to invite them to the table.
Remember the parable from a couple weeks back, where Jesus encouraged us, that “when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
() At our tables, we invite the ones who cannot repay or who don’t play by the rules or who don’t “deserve” it — because…wait for it…we don’t deserve it either!
Jesus is seeking out the ones who don’t have the credentials to qualify for his table.
And he’s welcoming them.
Ok, is that pretty clear now?
So with this in mind, think about the two stories he tells — these are about the one who is doing the seeking, not the one that is sought.
You have 100 sheep and you lose one — you go seek that sheep out and you don’t stop until you find it.
You have 10 coins and you lose one — you scour the floor, you look in each crack, you search until you find that coin.
By the way, we all know how this feels.
I may have all my clothes on straight, my bag packed, lunches made, coffee in hand.
But if I can’t find my keys…
The one who seeks can rest assured that the 99 and the 9 are doing fine.
They are where they need to be.
Like the prodigal son’s older brother (who is found in the parable immediately following these), we know that the one who is in the Father’s house is taken care of, the gifts of God belong to them.
But it is the one who is lost that is sought after, searched for.
Lock up the 9 coins in the piggy bank and go out to find the one that is lost.
Put the 99 sheep in the pen, resting safely, and pursue the one that is lost.
The seeker does the work because the seeker cares, loves, is obsessed with the return of that which is missing.
Ok — with me so far?
At this point, where do we sit?
Are we comfortable with recognizing that we have been found, most of the time, and we can rest in the joy of being in God’s house?
I hope so.
Feel the freedom of that.
You are beloved and God knows you so deeply and you belong in this house and you are safe.
But our safety leads to complacency.
We start to worry if the Seeker is out seeking others, maybe we’re not actually loved any more.
So we start to question it, we start to grumble.
“I wish they’d make church a bit more like it was when I was younger — that’s what makes me feel loved.”
“I’m not sure why Jesus is out there trying to change the lives of those people — I never lived in that kind of sin.”
We can take these parables down this road and hear the call in each of us to check ourselves for what we criticize, what we want to be more comfortable, what we miss or grumble at why the Seeker is not paying that much attention to us.
We can do that and, for some of us, we need to be checked and awakened and rattled a bit to consider our grumbling.
The parables should, for those of us in that boat, remind us of the great celebration of the ones that are being restored.
Check yourself and remember that you were once lost too!
Rejoice at being found and rejoice that sinners are being welcomed to the table today, too!
But I want to take this a bit further today.
A bit deeper.
For those of us who recognize that the church is a place where God’s identity as seeker is so lovely, so glorious, so worthy of praise — this parable rings of the good news, the euangelion of God’s love for all people.
The problem is, while we are among the sheep who are safety, the coins in the bank, we have forgotten that that sheep out there hasn’t been found.
Or that there is a person out there who hasn’t heard that the Seeker is looking for them, that they are, too, beloved and belong in the fold with us, that there is good news for them.
The Good News has not been shared and, actually, the sinners and the tax collectors, the atheists and the doubters, the criminals and gangbangers, addicts and abusers — they’ve actually been told a story that the church, that Jesus — is too good for them, that they can never belong, that they’re too messed up and are a lost cause.
I have to wonder if the term lost cause doesn’t have a close tie to the heart behind these parables — almost as its antithesis.
Because what Jesus is saying is that the 1 sheep is never, ever, ever a lost cause.
And the evil one would try to make us think that it’s just not worth it, that those folks can get written off.
Here’s where I’m going to make the pivot to thinking about a world in crisis.
Our common home, this earth, our global community faces some dire, cataclysmic possibilities ahead.
We face them in the future and we feel them even now.
Climate change is displacing people, changing our habitat and the prospects of future generations living in safety as we have.
The lost, among us, are the refugee, the poor, the displaced.
And we have heard that God seeks out the lost.
I hope we can all agree that one clear application of this text is our participation in seeking out as God seeks out the ones who are displaced and without homes.
To be people of refuge, to welcome at our tables.
But the pivot or the deepening thread here is this: Who has been scoffed at, pushed away, dismissed from our tables because they are too different, seemingly incompatible with our ways of righteousness?
Who have we played Pharisees to?
Try this new translation on for size: “Now all the scientists, the meteorologists, the climate policy activists, the Green Peace volunteers, the clean water advocates, and a whole bunch of children and youths were coming near to listen to him.
And the Pharisees and the scribes, the denominational leaders, the ordained elders, the people whose names are on plaques on the backs of pews, the religious bloggers and podcasters, the prayer breakfast politicians, the comfortable pastors with their pension and their pulpits, were grumbling and saying, “This fellow, Jesus, welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
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