November 3, 2016: Luke 15: 1-10.
“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 question 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. Before God we all fall short. We all need to repent.
Jesus follows this parable with another, that of the lost coin. 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.
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. 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.