Kingdom for the Lost
by Catherine Thiel Lee
September 15, 2013
Tonight we are going to look at two stories, parables that Jesus told. They are simple stories. Nice stories. Things get lost, but they are found, and then there are parties. The parables aren’t long, so I’m going to read them again so you have them in your ears. So gather in, listen closely for a minute, see what stands out:
[read Luke 15:1-10]
The scene: tax collectors and sinners are gathering around Jesus. They want to hear him. They are all drawing in, coming close, stationing themselves physically around his body. They are scrambling, actively trying to close the distance between themselves and Christ. In the verses just before this Jesus declares rather dramatically, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Lk 14:35). And here we have it: those with ears, listening. Attentive sinners.
But the sinners are not alone, there are others. Pharisees and teachers of the law are present too. We don’t know where they are standing, how close or far from Jesus they are or are trying to be. Our gospel writer Luke simply tells us what they are doing: muttering. Like the Israelites in the desert. Grumbling, complaining. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they say (Lk 15:2).
Though Luke doesn’t elaborate further on any of this (remember, simple stories tonight…), I am trying imagine the postures of all these people: the open, upturned faces of those gathering to hear; the curled, inward bentness of those who mutter, brows furrowed, eyes shadowed.
The casting and the staging for this scene is a little backwards. There are two groups, but it almost seems as though Luke, our writer, has mixed up the roles. Tax collectors and sinners, you see, were a rather notorious bunch in Jesus’ time, not the attentive-to-the-preacher types. “Sinners” would likely include a wide variety of people who were, in one way or another, living lives rather actively apart from God, perhaps including some sort of illicit behavior, dishonest or immoral in an obvious, public way. We’re not just talking people who lack social graces, or backsliders, or people who don’t go to church on Sunday. We’re talking the people you don’t want your kids hanging out with, the rough crowd. You know: bad influence, riffraff…
Our other group, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. They loved God’s word, the Jewish Scriptures, and they worked really hard to study it, know it, and live in accordance with it. They were learned, upstanding citizens. Respectable folks.
So you see what I mean about role reversal—you would think it was the studious, religious leaders who were hanging on Jesus’ every word and the riffraff who were scowling in the back making trouble. But not here. No, it is the unsavory “sinners” who gather around Jesus to hear, and the Pharisees who mutter.
The Pharisees’ complaints amount to a full-on accusation. Jesus has been doing some things that aren’t OK. He has been welcoming and eating with sinners. Regularly. In the eyes of the Pharisees, he has been breaking all kinds of important religious rules and crossing social lines. The Pharisees are asking Jesus to defend himself, to defend his associations with sinners, to defend their inclusion at his table, in his ministry, in his life.
So Jesus, being Jesus, defends himself not with an apology or an argument or an explanation. He tells them stories.
A story about a man who has 99 sheep and loses 1. The sheep is fairly valuable. So the man searches for the one lost sheep until he finds it, joyfully puts it on his shoulders, carries it home, and calls together his friends and neighbours. “Rejoice with me,” he calls to them, “I have found my lost sheep!”
And another story, this time about a woman who has 10 coins and loses 1. The coin is fairly valuable, worth about a day’s wages. So the woman searches carefully for the one lost coin, lighting a lamp and sweeping the whole house until she finds it. And she calls together her friends and neighbours. “Rejoice with me,” she calls to them, “I have found my lost coin!”
These parables are stories we can understand. We can relate to the frustration of losing and the celebration of finding. At a very basic level Jesus’ stories draw us in, leave us saying, “I get that. I know what it is like to lose something, something of value, and need to go and search for it, and then, when I find it, to have this great, overwhelming feeling of—‘yeah!!!’” We think of losing a beloved pet and combing the neighbourhood at night with flashlights, putting up signs with pictures, knocking door-to-door. And of course, of the happy reunion, full of hugs and slobbery kisses. We think of children, who when they lose, well…a coin, who will tear up the house in a frantic tear-filled search (trust me on this), and literally jump for joy when they find it. We know what this is like, this losing and finding and celebration.
That feeling, that intuitive knowing, represents an important, valid way of reading and interpreting parables—to take them at face value. When Jesus tells a simple story, accept its simplicity. Go with it.
But there is a problem if we leave it at that, because for all of their simplicity, parables are rarely so simple. The intrigue of a parable, the reason it sticks in our craw, the reason we continue to tell it over and over isn’t just because it represents a basic, normal, relatable experience of everyday life. We have lots of everyday experiences that, truthfully, aren’t all that interesting or story-worthy. The reason Jesus’ parables are so rich and infinitely re-tellable is not only that they are so simple. It is that they are so challenging.
Take the story of the lost sheep. It begins with a question: “What man among you who has 100 hundred sheep and loses 1 doesn’t leave the 99 in the open country and go after…?” Well, yes, it is good to go after a lost sheep, that’s very kind, I get that…but, wait, back up a minute Jesus, what did you just say? That part about the leaving the 99? And that word you used, “open country.” As in “wilderness,” “wild place,” “desert.” Sheep are awfully vulnerable, not very bright, prone to injury, easy prey for other animals and thieves, and Jesus: your shepherd is leaving 99 out in the “open country” where they could so easily be killed, or stolen, or, you know, get lost. Whatever we might say about the compassion of the shepherd in this story, we can hardly interpret it as “a helpful hint for running a successful sheep-selling business.”
And the woman? Well, yes, it is certainly a good idea to search the house if a day’s wage goes missing…but, wait, Jesus, I can’t help but wonder, does the woman end up spending the value of the coin she’s found? I mean, by the time she burns the oil in her lamp and invites her friends and neighbours for a party…? Is the evening a monetary wash, or even a loss in the end? This is a culture that takes hospitality seriously (Jesus’ hospitality is what has gotten him in trouble in the first place…), so throwing a party probably isn’t cheap.
I know, I know, perhaps I’m just being miserly here, gripping over details, worrying about money. Perhaps I’m just muttering, being grumpy in the face of parables of grace. But I’m trying to listen closely, and I can’t help but wonder, do these “simple” stories even make any sense at all? And I can’t help but wonder if I’m meant to wonder…
See, I think we often think of parables as: children’s sermons. Object lessons. Benign puzzles. Cute stories. Emotionally connective illustrations. Especially, the “nice,” simple parables, like the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. But I don’t think Jesus told parables to be nice, or to entertain, or to make “simple” points. Jesus isn’t known for mincing words or being polite. He’s more likely to say things like, “Get behind me Satan” (Mk 8:33) and “I have come to bring fire on the earth” (Lk 12:49) and “deny [yourself] and take up [your] cross [which involves dying…] and follow me” (Mk 8:34).
Jesus was not afraid to offend and confront, and his stories often did both, even as they welcomed those with ears to hear into his fold. When Jesus spoke, he was announcing the reign of God, upending social and political and religious structures, redefining and gathering to himself the people of God. Rarely were his words and actions less than revolutionary. We must remember this when we listen to him, even to the simplest of stories.
Hebrew prophets used parables to confront the nation, warn of judgment, and bring about change. Jesus learned about parables, if he learned from anyone, from the Hebrew prophets. And now, here, Jesus is telling parables too, a whole series of parables (including these two and others that follow in Luke) in a context where he is being challenged about one of the central practices of his ministry: welcoming and sharing a table with sinners.
So it might not be far-fetched to suppose that these are not just nice stories, to suppose that there is some element of confrontation to national and political and religious interests involved. Jesus’ stories about the lost sheep and the lost coin are rife with the drama of exile and restoration—that is, the drama of Israel’s national story, repeated throughout the Old Testament: the story of Exodus and the Promised Land, the story of Exile and Return. The story of leaving and being lost and of God’s gracious acts of seeking and finding and bringing out of the dark, of bringing home. The sheep and the coin are lost and restored. Just like Israel.
Which is where Jesus makes his move.
Jesus ends both parables with these explanations: “In the same way…there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.” “In the same way…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:7, 10). “In the same way.” Jesus draws a direct line between that which is lost—sheep, coin—and “sinners.” He draws a less direct, though not invisible, line between that which is lost and found and beloved of God—sheep, coin, Israel—and “sinners.” The Pharisees mutter about Jesus welcoming sinners, and he turns around and says that those sinners now are the true Israel. They are the ones for whom God and the angels throw parties, they are the ones for whom there is so much rejoicing.
The parables of Jesus are not just nice stories. He uses them to confront the powers of the world. He uses them to defend his welcome of and eating with “sinners.”
But he does even more than that. Jesus isn’t much for playing defense. He doesn’t let the Pharisees draw him into name-calling games. Instead he clears the whole board, he redraws the lines of who is “in” God’s kingdom. Jesus doesn’t just allow sinners at his table, he declares that they are welcome in the kingdom of God. He continues his program of repeating that the kingdom of God is resolutely for the last and the least and the lost. The party around the table on earth and in heaven is for them.
I think, among other things, Jesus uses these parables to tell us something about the nature of the kingdom of God. They reveal that God’s kingdom is, perhaps to us, a strange, even non-sensical place. A place where, so what if a woman blows her lost coin on a party? Jesus—who turns water into wine and lets women anoint him with expensive perfume—Jesus doesn’t seem to have a problem with lavish hospitality. God’s kingdom might be a place where, so what if 99 sheep are left out on their own? Perhaps they will be OK, not because they are safe alone in the open country, but because even if all 99 are lost, “it [won’t] be a problem for this bizarrely Good Shepherd…[who] is first and foremost in the business of finding lost sheep.”
Jesus’ parables also reveal to us that God’s kingdom is a place where we will be confronted. Where we—who love God’s word and work really, really hard to understand and live according to God’s teaching (like the Pharisees), we who are responsible and respectable (like the Pharisees), we who live and move in places of power and prestige (like the Pharisees)—we will be challenged to be open to new ways of seeing how the kingdom works, who is included, and what we may have to give up.
And the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin reveal to us an invitation into Jesus’ kingdom. “In the same way there will be rejoicing in heaven…” (Lk 15:7). The difficult condition to the invitation, of course, is the lostness involved. We have to be lost, to admit in some way to our lostness, in order to be found.
But we need not worry. Lostness, apparently, is not a problem for God. Jesus seems to say as much. The lostness gets taken care of, so quickly that there’s not even space in his parables between the stages of “seeking” and “finding.” In both stories the words run straight into each other in a breathless stream of action. Listen: “[the shepherd] go[es] after the lost sheep until he finds it and when he finds it…” and, “[the woman] search[es] carefully [for the coin] until she finds it and when she finds it” (Lk 15:4-5, 8-9). In Greek there is no punctuation, nor space between letters, so the quick run to “finding” is even more striking, the words for “find” literally stack up on each other with hardly anything in between: the stories read like, “until-he-finds-it-when-he-finds-it,” and “until-she-finds-it-when-she-finds-it.” There’s not even any dramatic tension. What was lost is found before we have a chance to imagine any other possibility.
And in the finding…there is so much rejoicing. Whatever we do with the lostness, it is clear enough that these are parables about— joy. The shepherd and the woman both throw parties, and whole neighbourhoods are invited. God and the angels, in the same way, can’t help but join in when lost ones are brought home. “These things I have spoken unto you,” Jesus once said, “that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (Jn 15:11). There is so much joy, for those who have ears to hear.
May we all know our lostness.
That we all may be found Rejoicing,
in Jesus’ good kingdom.