I once had a thoughtful and intelligent young man ask me during a confirmation class to please explain this passage that is our Gospel reading for today about seeking the one lost sheep while leaving behind the 99 in the wilderness. For this young man, this parable made absolutely no sense as it seemed for him to be foolish to risk the lives of 99 sheep to save the life of 1 sheep. And certainly, if you look at sheep from a simple economic perspective, he is right. The same could be said of the woman who spent hours in her house looking for one coin and then most likely spent far more than that coin was worth celebrating with her friends. From a pure cost-benefit analysis, the shepherd and the woman are very foolish. They risk and waste more than they protect and save. But not everything in life should be looked at from a cost/benefit perspective.
I asked that young man what he would want his mother to do if he, his sister, and his mother were on a hike in the wilderness and his sister wandered away from them and got lost in the woods. Would he want her to say, “Well, I still have one child. If I go looking for his sister, I put him at risk and might lose them both. I’ll just let her go. Better to lose one child than to risk losing both. A bird in the hand after all is worth two in the bush as the saying goes.” His response was, “Of course I would want her to go looking for my sister.” I said, “So it would be worth the risk?” He smiled and said “Oh, now I get it.”
Jesus, through these two parables, is telling us something about the character of God. God created every person who walks on the face of this earth and loves each person like a parent loves their children. Actually, God loves each of us even more than parents love their children, because human love is limited and imperfect, and God’s love is limitless and perfect. And just like human parents, who will do anything they can to find their child if they are lost, God will do anything to find His children who are lost. Every person has worth. Every person is worth finding. This is the Good News of the Gospel. This is the Good News of the Incarnation of God in Jesus. Every person is loved by God and God is seeking to bring every person back to Him.
If you look closely at the beginning of this passage, Jesus is telling these parables to two very different groups of people. In his audience that day were “tax collectors and sinners.” Those deemed by good God-fearing people to be lost, those who were excluded from the Jewish community because they transgressed the ethical norms of their society. Also, in his audience were “Pharisees and Scribes.” Those who were the upright God-fearing citizens of their society. They were the teachers, lawyers, doctors, tradespeople, vestry members, church-attenders, farmers, and the like of their day. They were the ones who were doing everything they were supposed to be doing.
Jesus’ message was for both groups. He wanted the “tax collectors and sinners” to understand that contrary to what they had been told they were loved by God and God was seeking them no questions asked. There was nothing they needed to do to be brought back into the fold. Jesus doesn’t tell them they are bad. He doesn’t tell them to repent. He just tells them that God is looking for them and when God finds them God will rejoice. He also wanted the “Pharisees and Scribes” to understand that God loves the “tax collectors and sinners” and that God is seeking to bring them back into community with the “Pharisees and Scribes.” He wants the Pharisees and Scribes to understand that God’s love is unlimited and unconditional. The sheep and the coin are not responsible for becoming lost. They are just lost. The shepherd and the woman don’t require anything from the lost sheep or coin when they are found, they simply rejoice and celebrate. That is the character of God.
And we, who are made in the image of God, are to strive to have the character of God. We are to strive to seek those who are lost with love and acceptance just as God seeks us with love and acceptance. Even those who do all the right things and live life in line with all of the expectations of our community and culture, are lost from time to time. And God loves us without limit and without condition and continually seeks to find us and bring us back into that love. When we can grasp that truth, we can do nothing less than to seek to love others who are lost with the same love and acceptance. This is the way of true life. This is the way of the Kingdom of God.
And this is hard. Life feels simpler and easier when we create a list of rules that must be followed and people who follow them are deemed good, acceptable, and worthy of love and participation in community, and those who don’t follow them are deemed bad, unacceptable, and unworthy of love and participation in community. It is less complicated and a lot clearer.
But see, life is complicated and very unclear. I’ll give you an example. A woman once asked me to visit her 17-year-old nephew who was in prison without parole awaiting trial for murder. He had plead guilty. He had committed the crime. In a black and white world where people are either good or bad depending on whether or not they follow the rules, this young man was bad. He did a horrible thing and deserved to be punished for the rest of his life or perhaps even more fairly, he should be put to death, as he had taken the life of another person. Certainly, the family of the person he murdered wanted him to be convicted and to receive the death penalty, at least at first. But life is not as black and white as it seems.
The aunt of this young man told me his story. Both of his parents were drug addicts. He grew up in a very chaotic and unstable home. He was placed in foster care for several years where he was moved from home to home and experienced physical and sexual abuse. When his aunt turned 18, she tried to get custody of him, but because she was so young and didn’t earn much money, she was unable to get custody. As a young teen he sought community in a gang. At the age of 16 he participated in an armed robbery for the first time. He shot and killed the owner of the store when the owner attempted to defend his property.
Did this young man do a terrible thing? Yes. Was he lost through his own fault? No. A whole bunch of people, a whole community, a whole society failed him long before he shot and killed that store owner. He wasn’t born a murderer. He didn’t choose his family or all the abuse he experienced throughout his young life. You could argue that all of us have some culpability in the murder of that shop owner by that young man, because we are all part of this society that fails to provide for young people like this young man. Did he need to take responsibility for his actions? Yes, of course. Do we need to take responsibility for how we all failed him and millions of other young people like him too? Yes, of course, we do. Does God love this young man? Absolutely. Is God seeking to bring this young man back into the fold? You bet God is. And we, who are made in the image of God, need to seek to bring this young man, and others like him back into the fold too, without condition, without judgment, and with love.
I did visit that young man. He understood what he had done wrong and had tried to kill himself because of it. He hadn’t yet come to understand that God loved him fully and unconditionally, though he would eventually come to understand this. Fortunately, the family of the man he killed was willing to participate in a restorative justice program. He did go to jail, but together restorative justice folks worked with the family of the victim and this young man to bring about healing and reconciliation. After his conviction, the family of the murdered man regularly visited him in prison. They decided that they didn’t want the tragedy they had experienced in the loss of their family member to be extended through the loss of the young man as well. They wanted to end the cycle of violence and loss. It was these visits that help this young man heal and come to understand that he is loved by God too.
And this is what God in Jesus is all about, healing and restoration of what is broken. South Africans have a concept you may have heard of called Ubuntu. We are human only in relation to other humans and any tear in the fabric of connection between us must be repaired for us all to be made whole. God seeks the one who is lost because we are all incomplete if anyone is missing. God seeks us when we are lost, and we are to seek others when they are lost. It is as simple as that.
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”