Reading Luke 15.1-10
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Everyone loves a party – or so they say. But, as with anything involving human beings, things are rarely that simple. Parties can be difficult if you’re on the shy side of the sociability spectrum. And you need to be pretty confident socially to go to a party where you don’t know anyone else. At parties people may be determined to put their best side forward but they are still people. They blurt out silly or offensive remarks. They take offence or nurse disdain in their hearts. The usual human silliness.
And what about those who aren’t invited?
I remember an incident when I was in my final year at university. A group of us lived in a house. It was a big house, so there were other tenants besides us – you know, normal people. We decided to throw a party on the top floor, which was where most of our group lived. The party duly took place – nothing too riotous or unseemly, you understand. A bit of music, a bit of what passed for dancing in those days. I can’t quite remember but it probably finished at about one in the morning.
It was only later that we discovered that the old lady in the room directly underneath where the action took place had been quite distressed by it all – the noise, floorboards creaking and moving etc. We hadn’t thought to tell her in advance. We hadn’t thought about her at all, to be honest. Such is the carefree carelessness of youth.
Anyway, for whatever reason, not everyone always enjoys a party.
Jesus sometimes likens the kingdom of God to a banquet, which I guess is a party but with more than just crisps and salted peanuts. The reality of banquets probably also leaves something to be desired but Jesus, as often, is taking something human – and therefore flawed – and using it as an image for something in the divine sphere. Such images are always going to be inadequate. Human language has developed to describe our reality not divine reality. But words and human experience are all we have.
So banquets and parties figure prominently in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. They also figured prominently in his life on earth as he went about teaching in the towns and villages of Palestine.
He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard and he drew the contempt of the Pharisees and scribes for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and the scribes certainly didn’t enjoy the kind of get-togethers that Jesus was wont to be present at. Nor did they approve.
One thing needs to be made crystal clear. Jesus loved these people but he wasn’t consorting with them because he approved of tax-collecting and sinning. I mean tax-collecting in the New Testament sense. I’m not casting aspersions on the Inland Revenue or whatever they call themselves nowadays. Jesus may well have enjoyed the company of tax-collectors and sinners but these get-togethers weren’t an ‘I’m OK, you’re OK, let’s all build up our self-esteem whatever it is we get up to’ kind of event.
Mind you, he may have appreciated their lack of self-righteousness. That was Jesus’ main problem with the Pharisees and scribes. Ironically, by their self-righteousness they showed themselves to be even greater sinners than the people they were criticising Jesus for consorting with
Jesus’ main concern was to draw people to repentance, to win them for the kingdom, which brings us to the main point of these two parables – that of the lost sheep and that of the lost coin.
Their subject is fundamentally divine mercy. The divine mercy is relentless. If it weren’t relentless, it wouldn’t be genuine mercy. God is after us whether we like it or not.
The Bible isn’t the story of our quest for God. Our quest for God is true and valid but it’s not what the Bible is primarily about. The Bible is primarily about God’s quest for us. And he never gives up. Maybe that’s a little unnerving, but it’s also what gives us hope.
The shepherd hunts for the lost sheep until he finds it. He doesn’t just look in the usual places and then give up after a few hours. He keeps on looking until the sheep is found. The same goes for the woman who has lost her coin. She searches and searches and searches again until she finds that coin.
And notice another thing. The shepherd isn’t tempted to think that ‘Well, 99 out of 100 isn’t bad going. Let’s just forget about that last stray sheep. There’s always going to some natural wastage after all’.
What a terrifying phrase that is in a human context – natural wastage. On a par with collateral damage. People wouldn’t talk so glibly about natural wastage or collateral damage if they were that wastage or that damage.
Thankfully, God doesn’t think in such terms. Every individual is infinitely precious, infinitely worth taking infinite trouble over. That includes tax-collectors and sinners. It includes scribes and Pharisees for that matter.
One last point: it would be easy to conclude from these parables that it’s the individual that matters above all. The shepherd searches for the one sheep, the woman searches for the one coin. But we shouldn’t conclude that the 99 other sheep don’t matter or that the 9 other coins don’t matter.
These parables are about salvation – spiritual health, if you like. And Jesus’ images for what constitutes salvation are always communal: the kingdom, the banquet, the sheepfold, the vine and its branches. It’s worth noting that both of our parables end with a party. The woman calls together her friends and neighbours so that they can all celebrate. As does the shepherd who has found his lost sheep. Let’s hope mutton wasn’t on the menu.