LOST ARE ESPECIALLY
WELCOME 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Have you heard of a new scheme called Neighbourhood Return? It’s
a voluntary and independent initiative run by the Neighbourhood and Home
Watch Network although you might have heard about it through the Thames
Valley Police email alert system. If a neighbour of yours with dementia
had gone missing and you were free to help search for them in your immediate
vicinity, and maybe save their life, you might be prepared to help. You
can register and help if you are available and someone has gone missing.
Just think, if that were your relative or neighbour, wouldn’t you
want some way of being able to get help to find them and return them to
of lost and found
Jesus’ parables of lost and found are some of his best known ones.
After the lost sheep and coin ones comes also the one we often call the
“Prodigal Son”. They’re great for childrens’ Bibles
and are easy to understand on one level. But Jesus didn’t tell his
parables for entertainment or in a kind of vacuum – there was always
a reason, a point to them. Luke introduces the lost and found stories
by telling us that there were two opposite reactions to Jesus’ teaching.
Tax-collectors and sinners were attracted – they came near to Jesus
– but Pharisees and scribes grumbled and disapproved of Jesus’
acceptance of the people they found unacceptable. What was going on? Well,
the Pharisees and scribes were not bad in themselves. They were doing
their best to follow the laws of Moses and the prophets – their
Bible. They sought to be faithful to God and how they understood he wanted
them to live. They had high standards and were respectable people. But
Jesus had a problem with them because they could easily miss the point.
They were so focussed on keeping the letter of the law that they sometimes
missed its spirit.
came to a head when a different set of people got up close and personal
with Jesus – those often referred to as tax-collectors and sinners.
Unlike our professional and (we hope) respectable Inland Revenue employees,
the tax-collectors in Jesus’ day were seen as collaborators. The
Roman empire ruled over the lands of Judaea and Galilee where Jesus lived
and his people. They exacted taxes and used willing employees from amongst
the people they occupied. It’s as if a Palestinian worked as a civil
servant for the Israeli government in the Gaza Strip. In order to survive
or perhaps take advantage of their situation, tax-collectors would take
more than they were supposed to and keep some of it. They were cheats
as well as traitors in the eyes of people like the Pharisees and scribes.
Sinners may not necessarily mean those of a doubtful moral standing –
though of course, one of that class, prostitutes, were often found near
Jesus. But it may refer to those people who regularly transgressed the
strict religious laws like money lenders who charged interest which was
forbidden in Jewish law. Jesus wasn’t deliberately associating with
people who had no morals – many so-called “sinners”
were people driven to desperate measures in order to make ends meet. Those
measures meant that their way of life made them unclean or unlawful so
far as the laws of Moses and the traditions of the Pharisees were concerned.
They weren’t necessarily bad people in themselves. When Jesus did
come across the morally fallen he would urge them to improve their ways.
But there were huge numbers of poor and struggling people in Jesus’
day and he understood how difficult life could be for them. Jesus’
teaching and healing attracted those stuck in an endless cycle of poverty
and oppression – they felt they had a champion in him.
and found stories
The respectable but tiny middle and upper classes grumbled about Jesus’
popularity with the poor and struggling masses. They wanted to discredit
him, take away from his appeal by pointing out what rotten company he
kept. But Jesus’ spiritual authority shone through and gave him
a place from which to criticise his critics. Parables were powerful and
they eventually contributed to the plot against him. But through the parables
the poor could see light, could see things from the perspective of heaven.
Instead of intellectual arguments (which Jesus was quite capable of holding
his own in if occasion demanded it), he told stories with a twist. Shepherds
were unclean according to the religious regulations. But at least they
could earn some kind of living. Imagine! Jesus calls out to his hearers,
rotten and respectable. Imagine! This shepherd has a perfect flock –
it’s got exactly 100 sheep in it. One evening as the shepherd brings
them all back to the stone pen for safety against the wild animals and
the dark, he can only count 99. This shepherd cares for his flock so much
that he goes out searching for the missing one. Imagine again! Imagine
the party when he comes back with the errant sheep over his shoulders!
God and heaven are like that if a so-called sinner lets God look for him
and bring him home.
Jesus says. Women were of little or no account in his culture. But if
they were lucky, they got a dowry – often coins which they would
wear in a string around their heads. If they were widowed, at least this
was a form of life insurance. So how upset would a woman be if one of
her complete set of coins went missing somewhere? She spares no effort
to track it down. Imagine the relief of her friends and neighbours when
she finds it again! Do you know – God is like such a woman, Jesus
exclaims! God’s angelic friends and neighbours are delighted when
a missing person lets God bring them back to the light.
of the parables
We know the third of this set of three parables and Jesus changes some
of the details third time round in order to bring home the message of
the first two. In some ways it is a stand alone parable and can distract
us from the thrust of the first two, so we have not read it today. In
the third re-telling of the lost and found the searcher is a grieving
father and the searched is an errant son. The point about the first two
parables is that the searcher and the sought out have a key relationship
to each other. The shepherd and the woman can act, can take action –
the action of searching. The sheep is an animal and the coin is inanimate.
They are passive – they have gone missing for whatever reason but
they cannot find their way back. They have to “wait” until
they are found. It is only in the third parable that the one being searched
for contributes to his being found – comes to his senses and begins
to make his way back. Even then, though, he doesn’t expect to be
included inside the sheepfold; he doesn’t expect he could go back
on the string of coins on the woman’s forehead. The surprise for
him and in that story is his father’s attitude that includes him
completely and unexpectedly.
who got it
There was a Pharisee who got it. (Well, there were others as well), but
this one stands out especially because he tells us about his own journey
towards being found. Just listen to what this god-fearing, law-abiding,
upstanding and thoroughbred theological expert writes about himself: even
though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence….
I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief. Extraordinary!
And he goes on: The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,
that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom
I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that
in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience,
making me an example. It is a Pharisee who’s turned to Jesus and
is now saying that the one who was looked down on by the Pharisees of
the day is actually authorised by God.
What does all of this mean for us? The message is one of judgement to
all whether we are more like the Pharisee or more like the sinner. To
those who think of themselves as respectable the message is: take a leaf
out of St Paul’s book! To those who think of themselves as not being
good enough even to darken the doors of a church, God is searching for
you and longs to find you! You are the missing 100th sheep, the missing
10th coin: God will not rest until he has brought you home! Like the missing
person with dementia – sometimes we are not even aware of being
lost. God sends out a search party and can bring the ignorant wanderer
back to safety. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only
God, be honour and glory for ever and ever!
© Rev Paul Smith