Sept. 11th, 2016: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10 (shorter form)
AIM: To show the depth of God’s love for us, and our need of his love.
This parable, and the two which follow (about the lost coin, and the longer one about the Prodigal Son), are Jesus’ response to his critics’ complaint: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus’ association with such people was a scandal to his critics. To us, however, it is good news. We don’t have to gain a passing grade in some moral examination before the Lord will receive, love, and bless us. He welcomes us just as we are: not because we are good enough, but because he is so good that he wants to share his love with us.
The parable of the lost sheep begins with a question: “Who among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wasteland and follow the lost one until he finds it?” The irony of Jesus’ question is lost on us. Those who heard the parable for the first time would have recognized the irony at once — and laughed. None of Jesus’ pious critics would ever have stooped to tending sheep. They looked down on shepherds – people whose wandering, irregular life made it impossible for them to keep all the provisions of the Jewish law. Challenging his critics with a question which forced them to look at things through the eyes of someone they scorned is an example of Jesus’ use or humor.
The question also assumes agreement: any responsible shepherd, Jesus’ rhetorical question suggests, would act in the way suggested. In fact, acting thus — leaving the flock alone to search for a single lost sheep — would be the height of irresponsibility. That would risk turning a minor misfortune, the loss of one sheep, into a major disaster: the dispersal and possible loss of the entire flock.
What seems, by all standards of human and worldly prudence, wildly irresponsible, the story is saying, is precisely the way God acts. God will go to any lengths to rescue even one lost sheep. God’s love is not measured, prudent, reasonable. It is passionate, unconditional, unlimited: by human standards reckless. ‘That is why I receive sinners and eat with them,’ Jesus is telling his critics. ‘I am giving an example of my heavenly Father’s all-embracing love.’
The story’s conclusion seems even more illogical: “There will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.” Surely, we think, the ninety-nine should also be cause for joy — equal at least to the joy over the one repentant sinner. Indeed it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the joy over the ninety-nine should be greater than that over the one. How can Jesus make such a rash statement?
To answer this question we must ask another. Who are these ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent? Do you know anyone like that? I do not. I know many people who think they have no need to repent. But they are wrong. Before God we all fall short. We all need to repent. People who fail to recognize this need are mistaken about their true spiritual condition. How can there be any joy in heaven over people who are so deluded?
The lost sheep is a picture of helplessness and dependence, for without the shepherd’s care the animal’s life expectancy is short. The sheep has wandered off without realizing it, in search of the greener grass which is always farther away. Once separated from the flock, the sheep, an animal of limited intelligence and easily frightened, is unable to find its way back. The sheep’s bleating is a cry of helplessness. It cries for its companions. The shepherd knows, however, that the sheep is actually crying for him.
The lost sheep is a picture of the person who has strayed from God through mere thoughtlessness. We do not need bad intentions to lose our way. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” as the old saying has it. Many people stray through carelessness, lack of self-restraint, thoughtless seeking after the greener grass which is always farther and farther away. The lost sheep bleating pitifully on the moor in the night is an image of the person who has wandered from the shepherd’s care.
Jesus follows this parable with another, that of the lost coin. Jesus’ choice of a woman as protagonist for this parable has a significance that is lost on us. Jesus lived in a man’s world. Women were second-class citizens at best, the property of their fathers until marriage and thereafter of their husbands. As such, women were ill suited to serve as examples of God’s love. Despite occasional comparisons of God’s love to that of a mother, therefore, the dominant image in the Jewish scriptures, which we call the Old Testament, is of God as father. After shocking his pious critics in the previous parable by asking them to picture themselves as shepherds, he jolts them again by focusing on a woman. This disturbs the hearers’ preconceptions and assures Jesus of their attention.
The woman in Jesus’ story is poor. The value of all ten coins is modest. And the fact that she must light an oil lamp to aid her search indicates that she lives in a small mud hut without windows. She sweeps the floor, itself of mud or possibly of flagstones, hoping to see the flash of the coin in the dim light, or to hear its clink in the darkness.
Was there a personal memory behind this detail? Did Jesus recall his mother searching anxiously for a small portion of the family’s modest savings, and then inviting the whole village in to celebrate with her when the search was successful? We cannot know. Whether rooted in Jesus’ personal experience or not, it is clear, however, that the expense of the celebration may well have exceeded the value of the coin first lost and then recovered.
This little story is Jesus’ way of showing how utterly inadequate our ideas are for measuring the depth of God’s love for us. For the woman to spend on a party more than the value of the coin she had lost and then recovered was, by any reasonable human standards, the height of folly. But not for God! “I tell you,” Jesus says at the story’s conclusion, “there will be the same kind of joy” — reckless, immoderate, over the top — “before the angels of God over one repentant sinner.”
Once the coin slips from the owner’s hand it immediately falls. We were never meant to stand on our own feet, all alone against the attractions of evil. We were meant to be used by another, to be kept safe by a power greater than our own — a power coming from outside us, but active within us. Moreover, the coin, once lost, soon begins to collect dust and to tarnish. Though its real value does not diminish, someone finding it might mistake its value, thinking it base metal rather than silver or gold. God always sees our value beneath the grime even of our greatest betrayal and sin. To him we are infinitely precious. That is the story’s first lesson — and also its last.