The two parables we encounter today are sometimes called, “The Parables of Lost Things”. They introduce teachings of Jesus regarding the nature of God, particularly God’s nature to forgive and restore God’s people. The parables repeat throughout what forgiveness is like in terms of things lost and things found. Jesus challenges his hearers to consider what it means to be community and what boundaries, if any, community has. In so doing, he invites us to consider what God is like by considering our own experience. This is the power of a parable.
One thing we notice about God’s character is that God is a Seeker who celebrates every single one that is found. Each one is distinctive, individual, and significant. No effort is too difficult and no price is to high to pay for the redemption of a single human soul. Jesus makes this point when he talks about the great joy there is in heaven for every lost sheep who is found.
I want us to imagine this morning what it is like to be counted among “the found”; what does the celebration look like for you as “found”? Then, realize that you are indeed already found and heaven is rejoicing. Isn’t it wonderful to be the guest of honor at this kind of party!? God keeps chasing after us to be sure we don’t get lost again. No matter what happens, God will always seek us out.
These two parables speak about the character of God. We see God as the Divine Seeker who celebrates every individual who is found. We hear the promise that God cares for each one and that none is insignificant. We notice that neither the coin nor the sheep play a part here; it is God who is actively seeking. In some ways these parables speak to us in terms of the great gift we’ve been given as believers who have been found. In another way, however, Jesus is speaking to those “already found” who don’t seem to understand what it means to seek and save the lost.
Let us pray…Lord, we come to your Word today asking that you would take away the familiarity of these stories and help us engage them with fresh eyes. Help us to understand what you are doing as you seek each one of us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So, let’s begin by considering this idea that Jesus might be directing these stories toward the Scribes and the Pharisees. We might think of these religious leaders as the “already found”. It is their grumbling, after all, that motivates Jesus to tell these two stories. They are unhappy because Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them”. They are uncomfortable with the radical hospitality that Jesus demonstrates. It is helpful for us to remember who these guys are.
Renowned theologian N.T. Wright offers this understanding of who the Pharisees really were within their own context:
“The Pharisee was passionately concerned about the ancestral traditions, particularly the law of Moses and the development of that into the oral law, and about the importance of keeping this double Torah not simply because it was required, or in order to earn the divine favor, but because a renewed keeping of the law with all one’s heart and soul was…what constituted the appropriate and faithful response to the faithfulness of Israel’s God…The Pharisaic worldview was about the whole business of…being Jewish human;…of living with wisdom, integrity and hope in a threatened Jewish community; of living with zeal for Torah, the covenant and above all Israel’s faithful God within a threatened Jewish community.” (Wright, N.T., Paul and the Faithfulness of God, page 195-96).
The Pharisees were the ones who were intimately acquainted with the rules; the ones who drew the boundaries; the ones who enforced the holiness codes of clean and unclean. We have become accustomed to hearing the word “Pharisee” as a term of derision and contempt. That was not the perspective of 1st Century Jews. Certainly there was some resentment of this elite class who lived high off the Temple Tax and the sacrifice of others. But, they represented the historical authority on God’s Law that had governed Jewish culture for centuries. For Jesus to ridicule and criticize the Scribes and the Pharisees was shocking for the people; it was hard to hear. So what was going on here as Jesus continued to call-out the religious leaders? Furthermore, who are we in these stories? This is where Jesus steps on our toes too and challenges us to listen carefully.
These stories are not only about God seeking to bring every lost soul back into his embrace, They are also bold reminders of the dangers of classifying who’s on the inside and who’s out. When Jesus speaks to the Pharisees he is talking to the ultimate insiders. He is not condemning them as absolutely evil people; he is trying to get them to see themselves as God sees them and to realize that, for all their piety, they are missing the point. 2,000 years later we – the church – have become the insiders and Jesus may now be asking us to realize that we may be missing the point as well. We are the “already found” but we’re hiding from those on the outside. What is it that prevents us from engaging in the sort of “active seeking” that God shows us in these parables? What holds us back from engaging those are not yet found? If we really are the “already found” why aren’t we more eager to share? Maybe it has to do with not quite understanding what the search is FOR. The parables show us searches for something specific: a wandering lamb and a lost coin. Maybe we need to broaden the scope of the search and who God is looking for. I believe this may cause the lines to blur between who’s in and who’s out.
There is a sense of joy and celebration when the lost is recovered. Can we also feel that joy? Who among us has not felt lost, alone, and beyond the reach of God’s care? We have been the one who wandered off or got lost in the shuffle. These parables remind us of the joy of being “found” by the long reach of God’s love. This is the God who travels to find us buried in the thicket and pulls us out to safety. Here is God who searches in every dark and dirty corner and crawls into the hole you have dug for yourself to drag you back into the light. Again this week, I want you to notice the dirty hand in our bulletin graphic; this is hard work and God does it willingly, with tender love and care.
If we can see ourselves here, then can we also see others in these same places and realize the difference between how God “welcomes” the wandering one, while we insiders sometimes pride ourselves on “saving” a lost soul. There is a difference between “welcoming” and “saving”. Sometimes we may be more comfortable with the idea of “saving the lost”. There is a certain magnanimous quality to this. It may be easier than “welcoming” those whom we perceive as being lost. We may subconsciously view these as worthy of saving but not particularly welcome at our supper table. You see, saving is about power and welcoming is about intimacy; intimacy can be difficult.
Let’s be clear, this does not make us evil, it makes us flawed human beings to whom Jesus speaks a healing word. All of this helps us to realize that the sinners Jesus brings to the table are both “the lost” and the “already found”. The sinners in this story are anyone who needs to repent and that seems to include us. Jesus picks on the Pharisees because they are the leaders who are supposed to set the example. In his day Jesus finds these leaders have gotten caught up in the “good life” and have forgotten the truth of God’s Law: Love God, Love Others, Change the World. There are times when we all need our minds changed too. God rejoices when the insiders – that’s us – change their minds about who’s in and who’s out. Heaven rejoices every time we move the community closer to living like there is no such thing as “the one” or “the ninety-nine”. There is great celebration whenever we fail to notice “categories” or “classes” and only see “God’s people”. We cannot see God’s community completely whole until ALL are included and none are “lost”.
Friends, I feel very blessed to be counted among the “already found”. But I am convicted that this often leads me to forget where I’ve been, how I got here, and how easy it is to wander off. Being already found means that we are blessed to know that God took the trouble to seek us out and we are obligated to truly welcome everyone over whom God rejoices. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.