4. Lost and found
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Let us pray. Holy and gracious God, may your Holy Spirit give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know the hope to which Christ has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance among us, and the greatness of his power for those who believe. In his name we pray. Amen.
Life is just a mess most of the time! Well, maybe life isn’t a mess most of the time but people are usually a mess! At the very least they were hard to deal with. The Pharisees had figured out a way to deal with this. They came to the conclusion that God had no use for messy people and because God had no use for them, the Pharisees could dismiss all those messed up people as not worth the bother.
Then Jesus comes along and does the unthinkable. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus had just enough credibility among the common folks that his actions created problems for the Pharisees.
This is a text that ought not to preached in March. Many of us hear the word tax-collector and either we start to twitch because our records are not even close to being ready for the accountant or we have seen in undeniable black and white how much we owe to the CRA and to say that any thoughts we have toward tax-collectors are uncharitable is about the kindest thing we could say. We might just find ourselves on the side of the grumbling Pharisees in this argument.
To begin let’s remember that tax-collectors today are somewhat different from tax-collectors then. They were not official servants of the government, like tax- collectors today, but hired private entrepreneurs who made their money by overcharging and extortion. They had gained the reputation, quite deserved, of being exploiters, amassers of slush funds, and also spies for the Roman government. Let’s be honest—one of these fellows is #31 on the list of the 30 people most likely to be invited to Easter dinner at the Normans. It is not right for me to tar you with the same brush that I’m using on myself; let’s just say that given who these people were that were enjoying a meal with Jesus, I may have thought the Pharisees had a point to make.
The other matter that should be mentioned is the significance of sharing a meal with someone. Perhaps this story will shed some light on this part of our text. One of the things I have experienced as a pastor is that on a few occasions when I have visited in the home of someone new to the congregation I was serving at the time, I was expected to have supper with the family. The idea was that in them having me sit at their table, and me eating with them, our acceptance of one another was being expressed.
Those of this congregation who have had the joy of visiting with our Baptist sisters and brothers in Bolivia have had the experience of being the guests at a meal all the while realizing the family or the church put more money into this event than they could likely afford. However, again their hosting this meal and our receiving their hospitality was an important symbol of our acceptance of one another. And that, said the Pharisees, was the problem with what Jesus was doing. Those he eats with he accepts.
In response, Jesus tells a couple of stories and they are meant to go together. Some of us are old enough to remember and perhaps to have sung one of the gospel hymns written in the late 19th century, “There were ninety and nine.” My apologies if it brings back great memories or if it was one of your favourites, but the opening two lines are inaccurate.
“There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold.”
Look at the text. “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?” The 99 are not safe in the shelter of anything; they are in the wilderness. I think there is something going on in this parable, there is a little twist here that unless we see it we miss something of what Jesus wants to say.
So let me ask you, what’s the answer to Jesus’ question? “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?” I think the answer is none of us.
Here is the issue. Sheep are wanderers. There’s a bit of grazing land over there that looks promising. I think I’ll just wander over. Sheep are not like dogs. Most dogs, if unleashed, will race away from their owners for the sheer joy of it. I’m always wary of attributing too much intelligence to Peanut, but she seems to know just how close she can get to me without any risk of my grabbing her. Then she runs away. Not a sheep or lamb—it’s just that the grazing looked that much better over there and then over there. That sheep just wandered away and then it was lost. You might go after it if the 99 were safe in the sheep fold but if the 99 are in the wilderness, after finding the one there might be several more lost. No, only one lost, but 99 where you can see them. Time to cut your losses, after all it’s only one wandering sheep.
I think Jesus is pointing to the scandal of God’s outrageous grace and desire to find the one who is lost. I use the word scandal quite deliberately because I think this is part of what so offended the Pharisees. They could easily believe that God was favourably disposed toward them because they kept the rules and were recognized as being righteous. In other words it was the Pharisees who did the work. They had earned their place in the flock of God.
I believe that what Jesus is saying about the shepherd who goes after the one is that he is like God and not like us. You see we only have so much capacity for caring. It is impossible for one human being to care for an infinite number of others. At the very least you run out of time. But before you run out of time, you will likely run out of patience, you will run out of wisdom, you will run out of energy. So we extend our limitations to God and think that if he is caring for us perhaps that’s all God has the time and patience and energy to do.
But God would leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the 1. And when God returns with the 1 and finds that another sheep has wandered away, God takes the 1 found from his shoulders, tenderly puts it down with the flock and sets out to find this other wanderer.
There is another story. A woman has lost a coin. The stories are alike and yet they are different. We are meant to understand, I think, that the sheep had wandered away. The coin cannot have wandered. The woman loses the coin. There may be more to this story than first appears. William Barclay tells us that in Palestine the mark of a married woman was a head-dress made of ten silver coins linked together by a silver chain. Perhaps she had scrimped and saved for years to acquire the ten coins; it is more than the loss of one coin that is represented here.
It is also possible that this money is the dowry that this woman has brought into the marriage. Whichever is the case, it is clear that something important has been lost. No indication of how it happened, but the coin is gone and the woman will not rest until it is found.
Remembering that these stories are told in response to what is said about Jesus—This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them—let’s spend the rest of the time we have discovering the word from God for us that can be found here. I think it is significant that the loss of the sheep and the loss of the coin must have happened in different ways. I believe I am supported in that opinion by the third of the three stories, the best known, the story of the prodigal son. He does not wander away, he is not lost because of the carelessness of another, he gets himself lost. The point, I think is that no matter how any of God’s creatures are lost, God is intent on finding them and will not rest until every effort has been made.
The second thing is that this finding of the lost has the highest of priorities in heaven. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” I was thinking about this. I know there are all sorts of things that bring joy to heaven. We believe that God takes joy in the praise of his people. But when I put the phrase “joy in heaven” into the biblegateway.com search engine, the only place in Scripture where that specific phrase is used is in our text. We treat the words of Jesus with great care; Baptists are “people of The Book.” It needs to be important to us that it is finding the lost that is a source of great joy in heaven.
The third thing is that there is what Tom Wright calls a “sting in the tail of this story.” This is not a story about Jesus wanting to include anybody and everybody in the kingdom of God. The joy that erupts among the angels in heaven is over one sinner who repents. Like a shepherd seeking the lost sheep, like a woman desperate to find that one coin, like a father who waits for his son to return to the family, God is always ready to receive those who are willing to give up their status as lost through the repentance that turns them from walking away from God to walking in God’s direction.
Here is another place where I at least need to be reminded that God is not like us. You see I think heaven ought to take joy in people like me—the righteous. This story reminds me that what gives joy to heaven is the turn that I make from trusting in my own will and purposes to seeking the righteousness and justice of God. I have a sense also that while repentance is a one-time event, like the sheep in the first story I am prone to wander in my own direction and it is when, time and time again, that I repent and turn toward God that there is a song of joy sung in heaven.
The last thing is this—if this or any church is going to be faithful to the mission of God we must continually strike a delicate balance. Remember these two stories are told in response to the criticism that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. The church must always then be extending the welcoming grace and mercy of God. However, we do that not because God wants anyone and everyone in the kingdom but because God wants the lost to be found and sinners to be saved.
Someone has put it like this: God loves you just as you are and because God loves you God has no intention of letting you stay that way. This is our mission—let the lost know they can be found, let the sinner know they can be saved. And let us remember that this is such a high priority for God that there is more joy in heaven!