What does it mean to be lost? Too often we view this passage from Luke as a message about God’s unfailing love. While the message of this love is true, this passage speaks to more than God’s desire to seek us out when we are lost. Stopping there removes any action on our part.
Our passage challenges us to reflect on the individuals who we think of as lost. It also asks us to acknoweldge that others may view us as lost. Both of these instances require the work of restoration and reconciliation in order to bring fullness and healing.
Scripture: Luke 15: 1-10
Kendra Mohn tells a story about this passage. She writes, On a recent trip to the dentist, the dental assistant asked me about the significance of the tree in the Bible that has 99 leaves. As someone identified as a religious leader, I’m used to obscure or intense questions. But this one had me stumped. There were trees in Genesis and Revelation, prophetic trees, and fig trees in my mental database, but no trees with 99 leaves.
“He said he heard about it from a worship song, so I finally just asked him to sing it. “He leaves the 99.” I then recognized the song “Reckless Love” and we had a good conversation about the parable on which it is based: the lost sheep in Luke 15.” (Kendra A Mohn)
Context matters. The perspective from which we approach the story matters. Context and perspective form our interpretive lens. A common message that we receive from our passage in Luke today is that no matter what happens to us, no matter how bad we might screw up, no matter what mistakes we might make, no matter how lost we get in life, God will come looking for us. It’s a powerful and comforting message.
While I believe it to be true, I’m not actually convinced it’s the message of this passage. If I can be honest, that’s a good Sunday school lesson for this passage. It works, it’s comforting. However, if this is the message we relay out of this passage we’re missing out on a lot.
Here is why I don’t think the message of this passage is that God will rescue me no matter what. We attribute the role of the shepherd that Jesus speaks about as being God. But it is the shepherd who loses the sheep and I struggle with the image that God loses me. Maybe I wander from God, but that’s not what the passage says. The passage says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them…”
So, what is this passage about? The clues are at the beginning and the end: Tax collectors, sinners, and repenting. Also remember the context and perspective that we read this passage in matters. We can’t read it in isolation. What’s the major theme we’ve been looking at for the past few weeks? Divine mercy, the wonderful display of God’s grace. Think back a few weeks to the dinner party that Jesus was invited to. It was a Pharisee that held the banquet and Jesus taught those present about the importance of honour and being elevated. He ended by reminding would be hosts to invite the poor, the lame, the blind.
Fast forward to today and Jesus is having dinner with some of the people he indicated we should be inviting to our functions in the parable of the banquet a few weeks ago.
Why do I not think this passage is about God never giving up on us, again I believe that is true, I just don’t think it’s what this passage says. The context of what Luke has been telling us, the individuals present, the emphasis on the shepherd and the woman losing something, and on repentance.
What is sin? How do we define it? That definition colours how we understand this parable. For far too long sin has been defined as anything that anyone else lists as inappropriate. This definition of sin, causes us to judge others and is usually absent grace. Douglas John Hall indicates that sin has too often been a list of misdemeanors. He argues that sin is a profound biblical concept that relates at its core to broken relationships.
Repentance is a literal 180-degree turnabout. We might also think of it as a restoration or as reconciliation.
Have you ever lost something and searched for it the way the shepherd looked for the sheep or the woman looked for the coin? For some of us that might be a daily occurrence, where is my phone, where did I leave my keys. Have you ever lost a friend due to a disagreement or simply due to distance or the passage of time? Did you ever long to have that friendship restored?
This parable challenges us to reflect on how we associate with individuals we identify as being lost. It’s possible we are one of the lost ones, in fact we likely are. But with the work of restoration and reconciliation how do we approach those for whom cultural forces have identified to us as being lost?
How do we react to individuals we’ve long identified as sinful? Whether it’s because we don’t approve of a life style, we feel the individual is corrupt or arrogant, the individual has harmed us or others? What happens when we realize that perhaps we are the one who has become lost to someone else? You might ask yourself, which character do we identify with in this story? Then ask why? And then try to understand the story through a different perspective.
If sin is broken relationship, then there is cause for celebration in seeking restoration and finding reconciliation. Kristofer Phan Coffman writes, “Perhaps Jesus wants to tell us the same thing: in the midst of our distractions, we may have lost a dear brother or sister in Christ. It may be time for us to get looking for them.” (Kristofer Phan Coffman)
Jesus is the literal Word of God. He came to reform the law and teach in the tradition of the prophets. Neither of these things did him any favours, however there is much we can learn if we have eyes to see and ears to listen.
Jesus is speaking to those who have been cut off by society, have been judged as sinful by the Pharisees and is saying God hasn’t given up on you. Jesus is teaching the Pharisees, that God’s purpose for creation is restoration and reconciliation. Living in harmony with one another. When that happens, there will be cause for celebration.
And there is Jesus. Sitting with the ones identified as lost, searching for them, spending time with them. Acting as the shepherd to them. Offering them the love, grace, and mercy that everyone else in the community should have been showing them. There is Jesus offering restoration and a place in God’s kingdom.
There are three primary characters in this story we can identify with. We aren’t Jesus, so that leaves us with two. Are we the scribes and Pharisees? Maybe sometimes. Are we the tax collectors and sinners? Probably.
Thanks be for a God, who says you are welcome here. Who offers reconciliation and restoration. A God who offers Divine mercy and grace. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
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