Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
When it comes to designing logos, graphic designers can sometimes be a little too clever for their own good. Their main goal is to create an attractive, eye-catching, and memorable logo that easily identifies the brand. Sometimes though they include extra little details that are so smoothly integrated into the design that most of us tend to miss them completely. Perhaps one of the best known examples of this is the FedEx logo with a hidden arrow between the E and X meant to symbolize the direct delivery and speed of the service, but this is not the only logo with extra meaning hidden into the design. For instance the playful Baskin Robbins logo, also reminds you about their origins of offering 31 flavors with the pink part of the letters. The logo for Hersey Kisses, actually has a Hershey Kiss embedded between the K and the I. These little design features are hidden in plain sight, often we do not notice them but once we see them then we can never un-see them. I mention this because I have a similar feeling about this morning’s scripture. This morning’s scripture reading comes from a set of three parables that are all connected and are built around a similar point. We read the first two this morning and the third parable that completes this set is the well-known story of the prodigal son. This morning’s scripture is one that I am familiar with, and it is one that I tended to have read and understood in a specific way. Last year one of my devotional practices was to read a weekly devotional from a book called The Revised Uncommon Lectionary and one of the readings included this morning’s scripture. Much like some logos have hidden images that once seen cannot be un-seen, this devotional pointed out a small detail that is right there in the scripture but often overlooked. Considering this one detail does change the emphasis of the parable and it becomes one that can and should influence how we put our faith into action.
Jesus often told parables, in fact depending on who is counting and how they personally define a parable, Jesus told somewhere between 30 and 40 of them. Jesus intentionally told stories whose meaning is not instantly clear. The parables are more than sound bite illustrations to make a specific point, but often the parables have layers. Sometimes there can be multiple ways to understand a parable and I think this is true for this morning’s scripture. The first parable read is about a shepherd and a missing sheep. This parable has a fairly common interpretation, and I know it is how I have often read it. It is common to read this parable and cast God in the role of the shepherd and ourselves in the role of the lost sheep. We read this parable as illustrating God’s overwhelming, never ending, and reckless love. We read this parable as an example of how God’s grace works, that God will chase us down, fight till we found, and leave the ninety-nine just to find us. This understanding of the parable is powerful and it endures because it speaks to the life experience of so many people. There are many people whose faith story involves feeling like they were lost, that they had wandered too far away from God, but despite that God found them and brought the back to the light of grace, love, and forgiveness. There are people who no doubt see their lives and experience reflected in this parable by reading themselves into the role of the lost sheep is found.
I am not disparaging that understanding of this parable, because again parables have layers. The scripture is alive and active, the Holy Spirit can speak through it, and there is no doubt that this morning’s scripture has helped many people come to a greater understanding of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. Yet at the same time, it is important for us to try and understand scripture in the context it was written in. It is important for us to understand the intent and meaning of the scripture as written. While reading this morning’s scripture and understanding God as the shepherd who finds us when we are lost is meaningful, that is likely not the point that Jesus was originally making.
This is the detail that The Revised Uncommon Lectionary pointed out to me that I had completely been overlooking. When Jesus tells these parables he never states that God is the shepherd or that God should be understood as the woman who loses a coin. In fact, in telling the parable Jesus states exactly who the shepherd or the woman represents. This morning’s scripture states: “Then Jesus told them this parable: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.”
Jesus explicitly states that the people who should see themselves as the shepherd are the people he is telling the story to. Jesus continues in verse 8 with the story of the woman and the lost coins, but the idea is the same. The people Jesus is addressing should understand themselves in the role of the woman looking for the lost coin. So to really understand the point that Jesus is making in these parables we have to back up to the first couple of verses and see who Jesus is talking to. Verses 1 and 2 of this morning’s scripture state, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus told this series of three parables about lost things being found in response to the Pharisees and religious leaders being critical of him spending time with sinners. Jesus also told these religious leaders to imagine themselves as the shepherds. This makes sense because the religious leaders of Jesus, day the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, they were like the shepherds of the Jewish people. They were ones most entrusted with God’s law. The Pharisees and teachers of the laws were the ones who taught in the synagogues, they were the ones who were to help the people follow God, to use the metaphor of the shepherd they were the ones who were to look after God’s flock. And like the shepherd of the parable, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had not done so hot. A shepherd has one job, keep the sheep together. A shepherd is hired to keep track of the sheep, so it is kind of a big deal if the shepherd loses a sheep. In the event that happens, then a good shepherd is not going to write the lost sheep off as a loss, a good shepherd is not going to say well at least I still have these ninety-nine safe. No, a shepherd who does not want to get fired for losing a sheep is going to go find that missing sheep. The point that Jesus then makes that not only is this what the shepherd should do, but it is the most Godly behavior. To be very clear what Jesus is talking about, he is very blunt and states in verse 7, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Jesus makes it clear that sinners are valued in heaven, and just in case the point was not received Jesus then doubles down on the idea with the next parable. This time instead of comparing the Pharisees and teachers of the law to shepherds they are compared to a woman who has lost a silver coin. Specifically she has lot a drachma which was worth a day’s wages. In this parable the lost thing is literally an item of immense value. The point the second parable makes that if something of such value is lost, most people would not just shrug their shoulders and forget about it. Even today if one of us lost a $50 or $100 bill we would likely tear our house up trying to find it. Many of us would obsess over it until we finally found where it was and once we did we would be both joyous and relieved. Jesus states, “In the same way I tell you there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The lost things in these stories are the tax collectors and the sinners. The Pharisees and teachers of the law they are the shepherd and the woman. They are the ones who lost something. They are the ones who dropped the ball and were not doing what they were supposed to be doing. They are the ones who were entrusted by their culture to help others follow God. They were the ones who were supposed to keep the flock together, and when they did not instead of looking for who was lost they wrote them off as a “sinner”, and decided that they were no longer worth their time. Instead of trying to find the lost the Pharisees instead condemned them. Instead of rejoicing when they are found, they instead cast disapproving, judgmental glances.
Jesus told this story in response to the criticism of the religious leaders. He told this story to convict them of their behavior. We tend to read this morning’s scripture and put ourselves in the role of the one who has been found by grace and God’s love, but I think we have to be honest and realize that many of us are the in the role of the shepherd or the woman. The people who consider themselves good Christians today are the modern day equivalents of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were the ones who were to share how to follow God’s law with the people. Today, as followers of Jesus we are the ones entrusted with the good news and we are the ones who are supposed to share it with others. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day we have not done the best job at seeking out those who have gotten lost along the way. Unfortunately this is just a statistical fact. The United Methodist Church was formed by the merger of the EUB and Methodist Episcopal Church in 1968. Ever since then the United Methodist Church has lost members. In the United States there have been less members of the United Methodist church at the end of the year then there were at the beginning for 54 straight years. This is not just a United Methodist problem, it is an American Christian problem. In 1968 roughly 5% of the U.S. population identified as not having a religious population, today that number is 30%. That is roughly a quarter of the U.S. population lost in just two or three generations. I understand the kneejerk reaction is to blame it on young parents not doing their jobs, on the distraction of youth sports, and on kids today being more disrespectful. But that is the attitude that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had.
We should not be like the Pharisees and disaffiliate ourselves from those we disagree with, separating ourselves as “righteous believers” who are different than “sinner and tax collectors.” We should not focus on making church an environment where the righteous are comfortable but rather it should be a mobilization point to go from and find the lost where they are at. We also must do better than thinking that if people want to find us then they know where are and when our service times are. We should not be passive but instead have the same dedication as sharing the good news with others as person has tearing their house up looking for missing money.
The focus of this morning’s scripture is searching for the lost and joy of finding. This is something we all can engage in. Honestly, every single one of us probably know someone who is in need of being found by the good news. We probably all know at least one person, is like the sheep who has gone astray, who may have grown up in the church or have been part of a church but now, not so much. Now they are probably more aligned with that 30% who claim no religious affiliation. So I guess the question is what are you going to do about it? Are you going to leave the comfort of this room and all the other righteous people to meet them where they are? Are you going to put a lot of energy in sharing the good news with them? And if you know the answer is probably no, not really. Then why not? I think that is a vital question to really ask ourselves, because I tell you there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent; there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
May we find cause to join in that rejoicing. Because if you consider yourself a religious person, if you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, then the parables of this morning’s scripture are directed to you. This scripture is a call to action. May we not sit passively by and casually write off other people as an acceptable loss, because those people matter to God a great deal. They are valuable to God, they have sacred worth, so they should be valuable to us as well. May we take the good news of Jesus Christ-the good news of forgiveness- the good news of an overwhelming never-ending love to those who need to hear it. May we help other find God once again. May we share the good news with others so that the lost may be found, and so that there will be rejoicing in heaven.