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1 Timothy 1.1-2, 12-19a
I have a riddle for you – how does the lost sheep repent?
I’ll give you the answer at the end.
One of the difficulties of hearing very familiar Bible stories is that, quite often, we don’t in fact really listen to them. We often settle into the comfortable feeling of familiarity, and let the words we’ve known from childhood flow over us. It’s as if they’ve lost their sharp edges. The parable of the lost sheep is like that – for me it brings to mind an illustration from my Children’s Bible Stories book of a tall, blond Jesus carrying a rather cute woolly lamb on his shoulders as if to keep his neck warm. The parable of the woman who did a spring clean to find a coin she’d lost is a nice feel-good little story as well. And both stories end in a party.
However, Gospel readings like these present the hapless preacher with something of a problem, because they’re so familiar there seems to be nothing new to say about them, so everyone can switch off and hope it’s a good week for news in the pewsheet. Which, if nothing else, is a waste of considerable effort on my part preparing this sermon.
I’d like to suggest, however, that Jesus usually didn’t tell parables to give his listeners warm fuzzies. It wasn’t a cosy feeling of comfort that he was aiming for, but an invigorating, often disturbing, challenge. His stories did have sharp edges, and they still do, even when familiarity has softened the immediate impact.
If we look at our Gospel reading today, the first of the sharp edges is right there at the beginning:
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We keep finding that the Pharisees just didn’t understand Jesus. They were convinced that living a God-fearing life depended on obeying the innumerable laws that had accrued in the two centuries or so that their movement had existed. In their minds, the only explanation for Jesus’ behaviour in fraternising with sinners was that he was a sinner himself, otherwise he would have kept himself pure by avoiding them. But Jesus kept offending them by saying that God loved the lost.
He made it worse by sharing meals with the despised sinners. As I mentioned last week, in an honour-based culture like theirs, your social acceptability was immensely important and was determined by how other people saw you. The people you ate with showed who you saw yourself to be through the eyes of others. To the Pharisees, eating with sinners in particular proved that Jesus himself was a sinner. He should have been ashamed, but he obviously wasn’t. In fact, he kept saying that they were wrong.
In all four Gospels, we encounter a Jesus who has a burning compassion for those people who were relegated to the fringes of respectable community life. He reached out to what one preacher has called ‘the least, the last and the lost’.
The ‘least’: like little children, or the mentally ill; or the woman under a taboo who dared to touch the hem of his garment.
The ‘last’: like the crippled man by the pool of Bethesda, or the man living naked among the tombs; or the lonely woman by the well in Samaria.
The ‘lost’: like the despised tax collectors, or prostitutes – a term which didn’t necessarily mean a sex worker, but included any woman without appropriate male control.
The God of the Gospels loves the least, the last and the lost. They are the special focus of Jesus’ ministry. Nothing gave Jesus more joy than seeing losers recover their dignity as the children of God.
These two little parables, innocuous as they appear to us, were far more provocative than they seem. In both these stories, the lost thing, the errant sheep and the missing coin, are passive. They don’t actually do anything to be found. The action to find and reclaim them is all taken by the owners of the lost things, clear references to God in this context. It’s ironic and significant, in view of his audience, that he chose a shepherd and a woman as images of a loving God. Shepherds were amongst those whose work was considered dishonourable – it kept them from attending the synagogue, and they were suspected of dishonesty. Jesus started his little story of the lost sheep by saying to the already affronted Pharisees “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep” and so on – implying identity for them with a trade they despised.
Even so, most hearers would have put another value on the story. Both in Israel and in surrounding cultures the image of a shepherd had been used to speak of caring, mostly as the ruler’s responsibility towards the citizens. There are many passages in the Old Testament prophets condemning the elite for their neglect of the poor, their failure as shepherds of God’s people. Jesus claimed to be the Good Shepherd, the one who cared. Is Jesus linking his shepherd reference to the prophetic tradition, criticising the Pharisees and scribes for their inadequate care of the broken and the lost?
And the story of the woman who lost a coin. Again, the choice of a woman to represent God’s care for sinners is a challenge and affront to the beliefs of the Pharisees. Women were considered incapable of learning the Law – it was a waste of time teaching them. They were thought to be morally inferior – not capable of being a reliable witness in court, for instance. So again, Jesus is being particularly provocative in this little story.
The woman had lost one of her ten silver coins – most likely the ones sewn into her head-dress, as you can still see in pictures of Middle Eastern tribal women today. It would have represented her nest-egg, her dowry, her most precious possession. The loss of part of it was extremely distressing – she was a poor woman, if ten drachmas was all she had. So she searched her whole house, lighting a lamp to see better in the windowless interior, and sweeping the floor until she found the missing coin. Then, like the shepherd returning triumphant with his wandering sheep, in her relief and joy at finding what she’d lost, she called her friends and neighbours to celebrate – her joy was too great to be kept to herself.
This, says Jesus, is what God is like. Both stories end with a roundabout way of saying that God is overwhelmed with joy at the repentance of even one sinner. This wasn’t saying to the Pharisees that God didn’t love them – the point Jesus was making was that God loved sinners too. It was a very radical thought.
The shepherd and the woman in these stories evoke images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost — note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine and the ten — but also rejoices when they are found. This God isn’t a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, like the endless rules the Pharisees thought were essential to holiness. Rather it’s a God who actively seeks restoration: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:15, etc.).
Unlike the English word repentance, which implies contrition and remorse, the original Greek word metanoia has to do with a change of mind and purpose — a turning around, a shift in how we perceive and respond to life. When God finds us when we’re lost, our usual ways of perceiving and responding to life are transformed.
So what happens when the sheep or the lost coin are found? The verb used here has to do not with forgiving but with finding. The Greek word for “find” (eurisko) occurs seven times in this chapter. When the sheep or lost coin is found, there’s no mention of any sinful behaviour. But in the summary of each parable, a connection is made between God finding and rejoicing over what was lost, and “the one sinner who repents”.
And when this happens, there’s great rejoicing over that “one sinner who repents.” In the parable of the Lost Sheep, this phrase is contrasted with “righteous persons who need no repentance”, echoing the contrast that introduces these parables.
The emphasis here isn’t on a contrast between two different types of people: “tax collectors and sinners” versus “Pharisees and scribes.” Focussing on these distinctions misses the point of these parables. Obviously Luke isn’t praising the behaviour of sinners. In chapter 6, he describes them as people who only look out for what is in their own interest. Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes were the religious leaders of the day.
At issue here are two different types of responses to Jesus and God’s reign. Sinners repent because they know they’re lost and so can avail themselves of the transformation that comes with God finding them. By contrast, the righteous don’t need to repent (or change their ways) presumably because they don’t think they are lost. They don’t need God to find them – they’re ok.
The controversy with the Pharisees and scribes wasn’t over whether Jesus called sinners to repent. If that was all Jesus was doing when he spent time with sinners, then he would have been the hero of those Pharisees. Rather the issue was that he already demonstrated a willingness to value them as persons and enter relations with them as people of worth before there was any repentance.
This was an expression of love. This love was unconditional. But it was also very challenging, because he was inviting them as valued people to become part of the future vision. He wasn’t doing so in order to make them valued and worthy of love, but because they were valued and loved. The distinction is subtle but significant. Both ways involved repentance, but the Pharisees put the focus on the actions and the laws, and Jesus put the focus on the person and the possibility of transformation. One tends to focus on the fruit; the other, on the tree, itself. There’s all the difference in the world between telling the tree it must produce good fruit, and tending to its real needs which make such fruit bearing possible.
According to Jesus, there’s something more than getting people to repent. Much more fundamental is valuing them as persons. This makes sense of the fact that Jesus actually enters into close relations with tax collectors and sinners by dining with them. He takes them seriously as people. He values them as persons and meets them on their terms. He’s not prepared to write them off, as his critics did, or to say, as they would have: we will value you and welcome only if you repent. Until then we’re staying away or if we come near you it will only be to preach to you to change.
Earlier in chapter 13, Jesus had warned “unless you repent, you will all perish” — in other words, be lost. Later in chapter 19.10, he’ll state that he came not for the righteous but to “seek out and save the lost”. And then there’s the paradox in chapter 9.24 – “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”.
Who do we identify with – the 99 safe sheep, or the one who is lost? Who is the party for? Some people object to the thought of a God who rejoices more over the recovery of one lost sinner than over the 99 righteous people who don’t get lost. That wouldn’t seem fair.
But in fact, we’re all lost. The predicaments we’re in may vary. Some may end up dirtier than others, and some more bruised and torn, but in God’s eyes we’re all his lost children.
There are a lot of different ways in which we can be lost – missing, unable to be found, not knowing where we are, or how to get to where we want to go, unable to find our way back. We can lose our direction, our faith, or our faculties. There are also lots of changes as we go through life that can feel like overwhelming losses – the loss of youthful health and stamina, loss of loved ones and friends, loss of status and financial gain when we retire. We take a wrong turn, wander into difficulties, make mistakes. Most of us at some time have felt a long way from God.
Lost people bump awkwardly into each other, hurting those around them. Lost people make bad choices convinced that they are 100% right. The most brilliant mind is no more exempt than the humblest battler. What’s more, we find it extremely difficult to admit we were wrong, even to those who are most dear to us. We can deny our own lostness, but we’re still lost.
So these little parables are especially important to us. They tell us that however lost we are, God hasn’t given up on us. God’s love for us is unwavering. God is searching for us, and when God finds us, God brings us home, to much rejoicing.
How does the lost sheep repent? By allowing itself to be found.