In this morning’s readings, we encounter people some would refer to as perverse and sinful, but who I’d call typically human: quick to abandon God’s way, stiff-necked, foolish, blaspheming, persecuting, ignorant, grumbling, and the rest…
What response does this litany of human waywardness evoke from God? It is two-fold. In the Gospel, Jesus did not disagree with the Pharisees and Scribes about the sinfulness of humanity; he differed only in his response to it. Yes, people were sinful, but whereas the Pharisees grumbled that Jesus ate with sinners, Jesus, by contrast, rejoiced with the angels that even one sinner repented, and turned their life around.
And we see the same two-fold response in the Old Testament: on the one hand, the people were sinful, and God’s wrath ‘burned hot’; on the other hand, God changed his mind and withdrew his judgement when Moses pleaded with him. It took time, but Moses was patient – unlike the people who were waiting for him to emerge from his meeting with God, who decided enough was enough when it came to a God they couldn’t physically see in front of their own eyes, so made a golden calf, which they obviously could see, to worship instead.
In one of his letters to Timothy, St. Paul refers to ‘the utmost patience’ of Jesus Christ in turning him round from being a persecutor of Christians to becoming a leading exponent of the Gospel of Jesus. He admits he was a blasphemer and a man of violence, but he credits God’s mercy in Jesus for his conversion to a different kind of life and living. In many ways, ‘the utmost patience’ can act as a frame for the Gospel stories. In today’s, for example, it takes patience to search for a lost sheep, or to turn a house upside down, looking for a small coin.
Tax-collectors and sinners, we are told, were ‘coming near to listen to Jesus’, to the dismay of the Scribes and Pharisees. Luke is often specific about whom Jesus is addressing; in this case, the complainers, not the crowds. He praises two people as examples of patience in action, patience in searching until what was lost was found. Once it was found, yet more time is devoted to rejoicing at the outcome. Sometimes, I guess, we get so impatient, so into the culture of complaining, that we forget to make time for rejoicing.
While the psalmist rejoiced to call God his shepherd, as in Psalm 23, by Jesus’ time, shepherds were social outcasts because their duties kept them from proper religious observance. Besides that, their work was dirty and they were smelly. So, deliberately and provocatively in today’s story, Jesus compares the religious leaders to shepherds, challenging them to give priority not to their religious duties, rules and regulations, but instead to going out to search for the lost sheep, for the one person who has lost their way in life, who is wandering aimlessly and in isolation, having no one to turn to. Piling on the agony, he follows that parable about an outcast man with another parable about a woman, another inferior person in the society of that time, holding her up to the Pharisees and Scribes as an example of diligence. The shock value of God being described as a woman searching for something lost cannot be underestimated in the culture in which Jesus lived. The woman’s coin was possibly part of her marriage dowry. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with his people was expressed as marriage, and the coin in the parable thus represented something lost in that relationship with God. The coin probably equalled the value of one sheep, thus linking the two stories, and underlining Luke’s habit in his Gospel of balancing a story about a man with one about a woman.
So – Jesus was patient with the tax-collectors and sinners, seeing their potential to repent and change: his real criticism is reserved for the supposedly righteous religious leaders. Moses persisted patiently in imploring God to have mercy on the wayward people of Israel. Lost Israel, lost sheep, lost coin. In both readings this morning, someone had to take patient action, action that was inspired by a greater vision of what wayward humanity can become when the grace of God permeates. It is doubly and memorably reinforced in the next story that follows in Luke’s Gospel, the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son, a story which illustrates the common human dilemma of knowing what we ought to do, while finding it altogether more difficult actually to do it.
These stories in Luke 15, found only in this one Gospel, are among the most popular in the NT. I wonder how many of us identified with the 9 coins or the 99 sheep safe and sound, and how many with the 1 that was lost? My guess is it’s nothing like 99:1, or even 9:1, but closer to the 50:50 split of the Prodigal Son and his elder brother. Because many of us will at some stage in our lives have blown it and made the sort of mistakes we later regretted and would be embarrassed by now if they came into the light of a Sunday morning: being judgemental about others, while glossing over our own weaknesses; contravening our own moral codes; saying one thing and doing another; harbouring grudges; contributing to the breakdown of relationships; potentially destroying others and, in the process, probably ourselves as well; feathering our own nests at the expense of others; ignoring or rejecting the outsider, and so on. That knowledge, and the knowledge that such things are possible for all of us, is a very good reason to be generous in our judgements about others who go off the rails in life. These are not so much stories about the really bad sheep or the occasional lost coin. These are stories about what it is to be human, to be lost and found. They are the stories of all of us. Thank goodness the Christian understanding makes it clear that God cares about us even when, especially when, we are bad. And these stories in Luke 15 are extraordinarily unconditional. There’s nothing here that assumes no coin will ever be lost again, or that wayward sheep will now forever conform. Even the story of the Prodigal Son is left hanging with no attempt to resolve things for the older brother. We don’t even know if the Prodigal Son was reformed. What we do know is that in spite of all his mistakes, the love, compassion and embrace of his father welcomes him back. So let’s rejoice that mercy and forgiveness lie in the heart of the God we encounter in Jesus, for, at some time or other, all of us will be dependent on it.
Christians can focus rather too much on guilt. It is forgiveness that sets us free. I don’t know about you, but I have sometimes thought that if and when I meet my Maker face-to-face, the first word I will have to say is, ‘Sorry’. Somehow, though, the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the Prodigal Son assure me that ‘sorry’ will probably be enough. According to Jesus, this repentance, this turnaround, this conversion – call it what you will – will bring joy to the angels of God. But it isn’t wholly down to our own initiative. God, Jesus says, in his love and mercy, seems willing to go to extraordinary lengths to find and rescue the lost. He does not wait for them to repent and find their own way home, like those moral policemen, the Pharisees and Scribes, and all their latter day successors, would do. The divine love constantly reaches out to us even – especially – in our darkest, most isolating and unbearably difficult places. Just how extraordinary that is is illustrated in the almost overwhelming image of the shepherd putting the sheep on his shoulders and carrying it home. Thanks be to God!