Yesterday we talked about the familiar parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10). While I’ve heard these a hundred times, the “living” word proved itself once again this time around. You know, Jesus was so good that these parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin contained messages for his audience of tax collectors and sinners (the lost) as well as the Pharisees (the even more lost, though they didn’t know it) lurking on the sidelines.
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The message for those gathered immediately around him was that every single person matters to God in the same way that every single sheep and every single coin matters.
Here is an interesting aside about who gets to play God in these parables. In the parable of the lost sheep, clearly the Shepherd represents God. While shepherding in Old Testament times was a respected vocation and was the basis of the economy in Palestine, by the first century rabbis were listing shepherds right up there with other despised trades like camel drivers, sailors, gamblers with dice, dyers, and tax collectors. Jesus responds to the criticism over his acceptance of the despised tax collectors and “sinners” by telling a story that casts God in the role of the despised shepherd! It’s beautiful, really.
And then in the story of the lost coin, who plays God? The woman! Another equally oppressed person by the male Jewish patriarchy. Don’t tell me Jesus didn’t have a sense of humor.
Here’s the deal, couched in these stories Jesus tells this group of unwanted people who have screwed up, or been outcast, that God cares about each person who loses their way. Everyone has value. The shepherd and woman are desperate to find what they’ve lost and God feels just as strongly. Jesus says, “I know there are people who will write you off, not eat with you, not touch or talk with you, shun you, hurt you, judge you and cut you down, but God isn’t like that. God wants to help find you, bring you back to yourself and into a relationship with the Divine and celebrate. God wants you to stop walking the path that takes you away from fullness of life and turn around!” The word we translate as “repent” really meant to turn around.
As for the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus lets them know that they are even more lost because they have forgotten to love. They have forgotten compassion and are stuck in the law and so draw further and further away from God. Jesus essentially says to them, “God is not writing these people off like you are. God is not judging them and shunning them, ignoring them, refusing to eat with them or be seen with them. God loves them… now what the heck is your problem?”
Here is a wonderful little parable I found in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary that seems to apply so well to the Pharisees who would rather hold people in their “lostness” instead of lifting them up and celebrating when they are found and back on the right track.
A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God’s goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept. (NIB, Luke, p. 298)
Why do we want to have more than others? Be better than others? Why don’t we recognize the inherent value in every person? Why are we so quick to judge? And, why do we prefer to then hold people in that judgment? Why don’t we care when some get lost over and over again? Who are we as a faith community and as individuals who follow the teachings of Jesus? And what is our purpose? It seems like these are all really good questions for today.