When I looked over the scriptures for this week in preparation to preach, I found that the Exodus passage and the Luke passage presented an astonishing juxtaposition. The Exodus scene has God downright disgusted by the Israelites he led into the wilderness. The Israelites, perhaps out of impatience and boredom, created a golden calf to worship. When God speaks to Moses about them, his anger is palpable: he calls them names and then, sounding rather adolescent, tells Moses to leave him alone so that he can fume. God says that only after he destroys the offending Israelites will he make Moses into a great nation.
But amazingly enough, Moses does not accept God’s proposition. Instead, he tries to remind God of who God is, and of the promises that God has made. Remember what you said, God? Remember that fuming and destroying is not who you are? Remember that you promised Abraham, Isaac, and Israel to make their descendants numerous? Besides God, Moses says, you’ll ruin your street cred if you annihilate them. You don’t want the Egyptians saying that you brought them to the mountains just to wipe them out, right? No, you’re better than that. Then we are told, “the Lord relented and did not bring on the people the disaster he threatened.”
By Luke, we get a very different picture of how God treats those who’ve strayed. Here, Jesus is sitting with tax collectors and “sinners.” He is telling parables about heaven and talking about the sacrifice that is necessary to be a disciple. Meanwhile, the Pharisees are grumbling because Jesus appears to be far too accepting of people who, they think, do not deserve his company. Jesus meets this complaint with the parable of the lost sheep. He says, “if a shepherd has 100 sheep and loses one, won’t he go looking for the lost sheep? And upon finding it, he rejoices and calls all of his friends to come celebrate with him.”
These scriptures represent two fairly different paradigms. In the first, God burns with anger towards the Israelites and decides that they’re not worth saving. We are told that they are spared only because Moses appealed to God’s more ideal self. In the second paradigm, the portrait of God—as Jesus—couldn’t be more different. In Luke, it is Jesus reminding the Pharisees of the right and good way of doing things. When recounting the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus says, “Does [the shepherd] not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” The phrase “does he not” seems to indicate that finding the lost sheep is the obvious calculus. God in Exodus might have decided the lost sheep was a lost cause, better to put resources into the good sheep, those who were obedient and safe. That makes sense, after all. But Jesus’ parable suggests that the right thing to do is to risk the 99 (leaving them in an open field as possible prey, we can surmise) to find the one. In Exodus, God reasons that the way to progress—to make Moses and the Israelites great—will come only after destroying the idolatrous Israelites. In Luke, the way forward is not found in cutting one’s loses but in seeking out the one lost sheep, even at great risk.
I want to use these paradigms to talk about something that has been on my mind for a while, namely, the polite calculations we all make in the process for caring for others and in being cared for. Last week I got a nerve-wracking phone call. My mother was sobbing on the other end, bracing me for bad news. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her quaking voice made evident the depths of her fear and sadness. As if she had not been punished enough by the diagnosis, she admitted, “I don’t want to be a burden.” It stung a bit to hear this, because as someone who deeply loves my mother, it was obvious to me that I was going to do everything I could to help her. How could she be a burden?
But I knew what she meant. She knew that her condition would require extra time and energy on my part, and that the time and energy I would need to use on her would be taking away from something else—perhaps time spent with my children, cleaning the house, etc. She was afraid, I think, of taking too much without being able to reciprocate. I knew what she meant because I’ve felt that way before too—anxious to not be burdensome, both when I’m the one who needs care and when I’m the one looking to care for others.
When I’m the one needing care, I tend to calculate what I can and cannot ask, and I might ask for help with something I’ve deemed not too burdensome. But generally, I don’t want to be beholden to anyone. I don’t wish to owe anyone something, especially if I know I might not be able to repay it. Sometimes, the desire to not feel beholden to someone comes from a place of love for one’s caretakers, and a respect for their time and energy. Carefully adjudicating what can be asked for (usually with the qualification, “no worries if you can’t do it!”), maintains the proper boundaries necessary for a sustainable social life. Here I can’t help but think of French sociologist Marcel Mauss’ seminal work The Gift, in which he framed gift-giving as not an altruistic act of generosity, but as a phenomena that maintained much-needed systems of obligation in society, holding it together. When a “gift” is given, it is tacitly expected to be reciprocated at some point, and these expectations allow societies a healthy dose of interdependence. The natural order is thus maintained by an even give-and-take; taking more than your share is burdensome and disruptive.
I also worry about being burdensome when I’m the one looking to care for others. I worry about contacting a person too much or offering the wrong kind of care or saying the wrong thing. I worry about being a drag instead of a source of renewal.
I think that the scriptures I mentioned earlier have something to say about the negotiations implicit in this particular polite, business of caring and being cared for. Each set of scriptures reflects a broad paradigm, as I said. The first paradigm, in the Exodus passage where God initially calculates that the Israelites are wasting space and should be wiped out, generally represents the kind of social and economic calculations that we all make, nearly all the time, when trying to determine how to spend our energy, money, and time. This is the paradigm of give-and-take. When caring for others, we ask ourselves, do I have the time? Can I afford to expend the energy to help? What resources of my own will helping require? When we’re the ones needing care, we consider what goods or services are appropriate to ask for. And, whether we’re aware of it or not, each of these considerations are often accompanied by the thoughts of how our efforts might be compensated in the future, or of how we might pay others back.
The second paradigm, found in Luke with the parable of the lost sheep, represents a completely different calculus. The formula is simple enough: a sheep is missing/something is awry/someone needs help, the answer is to drop everything and go find the sheep; go help. This parable, like many others, is maddeningly simple. We are not told, for example, how the shepherd or the 99 sheep felt. We’re also not told how the lost sheep felt. If sheep were more sentient than we take them to be, I could imagine a lost sheep in polite society dreading the consequences of being found, if the efforts to find it were tremendous. I could imagine a sheep, motivated out of love, not wanting the shepherd and the other sheep to risk their lives in the effort to find it. Perhaps some of the other sheep would resent the lost sheep if it couldn’t prove its worth upon being found. I could imagine that being found might be quite a heavy load for a lost sheep. I could imagine my mother feeling a bit like this.
But the parable is maddeningly simple in another way too. Frankly, the idea of a shepherd who would risk the lives of 99 sheep to save one sounds to me like not a very good shepherd. What if five sheep were lost in the efforts to save one? Would it have been worth it?
But in Luke, we don’t get these questions. In fact, what we do get is the same paradigm, this same calculation, repeated, in different stories. After the lost sheep parable comes the parable of the lost coin. After that is the parable of the lost son. All of these tell the same story: something is lost, every effort is made to find it, even, sometimes, at great personal risk, and then there is rejoicing.
But there is another common denominator in each of these stories that sheds light on how this kind of reason-defying calculus might be made. In each of these parables, the lost son, the lost coin, and the lost sheep were not just misplaced tokens or matter out of place. They belonged to someone. And because each was considered to be personally owned and beloved, great sacrifices were made to find them.
And in every story, the grand picture of resolution turns on the entire community being made whole again by the return of the lost one. Each story ends not with the lost party having to prove its worth upon being found, but with a celebration of completeness once again. In this way, what we think of as the natural way that order is restored—a way of give-and-take—is upended. The entire economic system of calculations is traded for one glorious vision: that of reunion and restoration.
In Exodus, Moses has to remind God of this vision, and he does so by reminding him first that the Israelites belong to him; they are not just some misguided people who are beholden to God and can thus be tossed aside for not reciprocating. He reminds God of the promises that God made to the Israelites, the kinds of promises one makes to a beloved. He reminds God of the Israelites’ beloved lineage, through Abraham, Isaac and Israel. The Israelites, God remembered, belonged to God.
How might this kind of remembrance of belonging look like for us today? While I think that most of the polite calculations we make in asking for care and in caring for others is generally a good thing and borne out of a healthy respect for boundaries, (and I can’t shake “my way of being in the world,” as Matthew Ross put it in last week’s sermon), I think sometimes our politeness has the unintended consequence of making our love less bold and less helpful. The scene in the garden of Gethsemane offers some insight regarding how belonging might embolden a person’s expectations of care. When Jesus was anxiously waiting to go to his death in the garden, he stayed up all night praying. He had asked the disciples, some of his closest friends—those he belonged to– to stay up all night with him. When they fell asleep instead, Jesus didn’t say, “that’s ok, I know you’re tired. It’s a lot to ask.” He essentially wondered aloud why their care for him was so tepid, asking, “what? Are you still asleep after I asked you to stay up with me?” He expected more of them because he knew they belonged to each other.
When it comes to being more bold in our care for others, I’ve found the following recent example instructive in my own life. When a friend entered the hospital as a patient, I spoke with another friend who had visited. I asked how the visit had been accomplished, and the church member just said that he’d gone over to the hospital, looked up the room, and dropped in. I thought to myself, “you didn’t call first? You didn’t do the careful dance before to ensure that your visit was wanted?” Surely, there is a time and place for such considerations, but there are times like this one when negotiations like these only get in the way. Sometimes, a bit more boldness, borne from claiming another as a lost coin or sheep, as a beloved, as one who belongs, sometimes that is what is needed.
Exodus and Luke both encourage us to ask ourselves, who do you belong to? Whose lost sheep are you? And who belongs to you? What communities, societies, cultures, do you consider to be your lost coins? When we forget the answer to those questions, may we meditate on Moses’ sentiment to God: Who are you? Do you remember?