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Lost & Found - a Sheep & a Coin
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
7/10 Trinity 3
Jer. 31:1-14; Ps. 27; 1 Jn. 3:13-24; Lk. 14:16-24
The first few verses of the Gospel from Luke introduce the two parables which Jesus speaks to those assembled. A crowd of publicans and sinners drew near to hear Jesus. He typically spoke words which made them wonder about this man, Jesus, and perhaps wonder about their own condition – with perhaps a bit of hope. Jesus will tell the two parables, of the lost being found, to a group of persons who were reckoned by the official Jewish leadership as hopeless, outside the pale of God’s concern.
The sinners were those who did not pay proper attention to the official Jewish law. The publicans were persons who had sold their souls to work for Rome, collecting the taxes for the conquerors and tyrannical occupiers of the Jewish land. Rome was a tyrant, ruling by force of arms. The the ruling Jews had formed for themselves often favorable arrangements with their occupiers which put them at the top of the power pyramid. They had often done no less than the publicans to sell out to Rome, but they had the advantage of being at the top of the Jewish pyramid.
The parables were occasioned by the presence of a group of Pharisees and scribes, some of whom remarked that “This man received sinners and eats with them.” It was bad enough to hobnob with the sinners, but to eat with them was much worse. Our word, ‘companion’, comes from the Latin ‘cum’ (with) plus ‘panis’ (bread), as in Panera, the bakery/restaurant. To partake of bread with someone implies being a close friend – a com-panion. Jesus, by eating with the sinners and publicans, was implying that they were His close friends – and thus made Himself a target for the barbs of the Jewish leaders.
Jesus went where the sinners were, whereas the Pharisees wrapped their robes about themselves to avoid contamination from the unholy.
A Jewish commentator, perhaps a Christian, wrote the following:
The virtues of repentance are gloriously praised in the Rabbinical literature, but this direct search for, and appeal to, the sinner, are new and moving notes of high import and significance. The good shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, and reclaims it and rejoices over it, is a new figure, which has never ceased to play its great part in the moral and religious development of the world. Montefiore, Int Bible 8:265
In the Incarnation, God seeks us in our lostness. Or, as another commentator says:
A doctor cannot set a broken limb from the other side of the street. Love cannot cure our lovelessness from the other side of the sky..... God has come to the “other side of the tracks”, and voluntarily shares the prison house which remorse and defiance have built for themselves, that he may set free the prisoners. When the creature showed no reverence for the Creator, the Creator stooped in reverence before the self-disfigured soul of the creature.
Such implies Luke’s short but amazing two-verse introduction to our two parables.
Here is an apt description of the lost sheep.
The farmer came down the lane. “Got a stray,” he said. “How do they get lost?” asked the city man. “They just nibble themselves lost”, said the farmer, “they keep their heads down, wander from one green tuft to another, come to a hole in the fence – and never can find a hole by which to get back again.” The city man answered, “Like people, like every generation of foolish men”. Lost tells the tragedy of human life. 8:265
It is hard to draw an accurate line between an unwitting, ignorant fall (being lost), and rebellion (running away). But sin is there somewhere in the mess. We are creatures given a moral responsibility by God for our lives. We are required to keep track of our behavior, and to hold ourselves accountable for how we choose – for God or against Him.
“Man has more intelligence than the sheep, but his wisdom is still folly unless he obeys the Shepherd.... ’Seek’ tells the pursuing love of God. The phrase, ‘man’s search for God’ is a misnomer; for no man seeks God until he has first heard the Shepherd’s call.”
Many have sought for answers to the troubles of their lives. Socrates began his quest for truth and wisdom by seeking to discover the meaning of man “as man”. What is man for? What is man all about? That began the extraordinary quest of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle for “the Good”, and most of the great Hellenic tradition of philosophy which dominated Western civilization until the 19th century
. The Greeks never found the meaning of man as man -- because they knew nothing of a Creator God who loved His people. No such God appeared until Abraham was called out of Babylon. And none other has appeared since then.
Perhaps you are familiar with Francis Thompson’s, The Hound of Heaven:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
from those strong Feet that followed, followed after
But with unhurrying chase,
and unperturbed pace.
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
“All things betray thee who betrayest Me.“
God initiates, and we respond. We run from or toward.
In the parable, the sheep had nibbled its way, oblivious, through the hole in the fence, and found itself lost in the wide, wide world of wolves and other prowlers after a good meal.
Jesus asks, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it”. Jesus is attributing to them, perhaps even the Pharisees, a potential concern and kindness which is remarkable.
I do not know what to make of leaving the 90 and 9 others, presumably alone in the wilderness to pursue the one lost sheep. A hundred sheep would have been a very large flock in Palestine at that time, so it perhaps was assumed by Jesus and His listeners that there would be helpers to keep the sheep. But there it is. It is a sign of the immense value which Jesus places on one lost creature – the value He places on you and me.
In our fallen mindset, it is nearly impossible to imagine God having that kind of love for us individually. The trouble is that you cannot receive what you cannot imagine. The fallen world does not teach us that kind of love. Many times our parents and family do not teach us that either. It remains unimaginable until the Son of God comes to show us, face to face.
When he finds the sheep, he lays that sheep on his shoulder and carries it home. I have heard (but never had it verified) that the shepherd would break a leg of the sheep, which is why he had to carry it home. He would break the leg not to punish the sheep, but to ensure that the sheep learned to stay close to the flock and would not run off again. It would not venture far with a bad leg, and, as the leg healed, would get used to being with the flock.
The point of the story is the ending, that the shepherd would call his friends so that they could rejoice with him in the return of the lost sheep. Apparently that was a very recognizable kind of event for sheep herders. So Jesus could make His point that there is likewise such joy in heaven over one sinner repenting and returning to the flock. Even the Pharisees might get the point.
To say that there was joy in “heaven” is to say that that joy was in the heart of God. So Jesus did not come to earth to get more notches on His pistol handle, but because His heart yearns for each and every one of us personally and individually.
That is the hard thing to believe, that God Himself cares for me in that way. But that is the message of this parable, and of the Gospel.
But Jesus makes reference to the built-in compassion within us – against which the latent demonic side makes war. “Which man of you having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them... does not leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one which is lost...?” Parables are told to make one point, not to provide fodder for debate about subsidiary points. The point is the value of “that one”. There are times when all else stops for that one.
You may recall many years ago of a small girl who had fallen down a mine shaft in one of our southwestern states. There was no safe way to go down the shaft to rescue her. The rescue team had to dig a parallel shaft down to her level and then go laterally to get her. The whole world watched in suspense. People literally from all over the globe wrote and spoke about it. Toughened rough men who were digging the shaft would break out in tears, sobbing, and have to stop work. The child within us wept. People the world over, from friendly and unfriendly countries, stopped, prayed, sent money, whatever they thought they might be able to do. God had tapped into that same innate compassion which can respond to Him and His love, or which can be sidelined and buried down a spiritual mine shaft by other “more-important” concerns.
One wishes that those thoughts of giving, of love, of compassion would survive for a month or two after such an event is over. But we usually get back to the same old latent despair and paranoia, back to withdrawn within ourselves. Only if Jesus rescues us from our own mine shafts can we make substantial changes, only if we pursue the Way of the Cross with Jesus – can we become the kind of shepherd, parent, brother, or friend that Jesus is to us.
Jesus will not bury His compassion, not at any price, not for any excuse. We mean that much to Him individually.
The parable of the lost coin carries the same message – the importance of an individual in the Kingdom assessment of such things, and the rejoicing over one soul being saved. The sentimentalism of the cult of the “happy ending” is overcome by the reality of the love of God – and the best of all possible worlds becoming more and more real right before our eyes. The ending cannot get more joyful than that.
We have here the interplay between individual and community. The whole community focuses on the one lost individual – thus raising the value of all individuals and of the community itself, and tying each to the other in an eternal bond. If there were no individuals, there could be no community. And if there were no community (family, Church), there could be no individuals.
In both parables, act 1 is the tragedy of loss, act 2 is the grief-laden search, and act 3 is rejoicing at the recovery of the lost. The rejoicing rises as high as the grief runs deep. Our commentator again:
Jesus said that all heaven’s energies are turned to find one lost man. Earth’s only treasure is personality – the person.
This faith is the wellspring of democracy, for democracy otherwise is worse than an empty form: it is the clash of selfish interests and the breeding ground of demagoguery. This faith is the only warrant for philanthropy: it saves mankind from a [pseudo-] scientific contempt for life. This faith is the answer to the soul’s longing on earth: it speaks pardon and promise of fulfillment. This faith makes heaven homelike: persons are not there absorbed into some vague sea of being, as if they were worth no more than drops of water, but are recognized and loved.
“One of them” [that phrase] is every man’s name. So every man should reverence the mystery within him, and yield himself to God. 8:267
Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is not hostile and vindictive, not even toward the Pharisees and scribes. His attitude toward the lost sheep is warm and welcoming. His attitude toward the spiritually elite is warning and disciplinary, not hostile. A big difference. He desires their repentance that they might repent and live, just as much as the lost sheep. But He knows that that reaching the self-appointed elite will take a stronger approach, forcing hard decisions to draw them into the open.
Jesus bring with Him the attitude of the Father. Jesus is the Self-revelation of the Father toward His creation. “I and the Father are one... If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.”
We here at St. Luke’s have varying degrees of lostness among ourselves, varying degrees of being withdrawn, being closed off, being self-centered, addicted, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator. But the same Shepherd seeks us all. Individually, for our own sakes .
And we all struggle with believing that, being able to cast our dependency and need into His care and provision. So I challenge each of us, as we nibble along, to look up regularly to see where we are and where we are going. Most of all to see where the Shepherd might be. And to stay by His side with one another. And listen for the bells of heaven ringing as we are united more deeply in one holy bond of fellowship.
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