I hate losing things. One of the worst is books. A few weeks ago, I was looking for a book I had used regularly when I was teaching. I went through the shelves in my office several times and finally gave up. I have no idea where it is. Perhaps it’s in a bookcase at home, perhaps it’s in Corrie’s office. It may even be that I lent it to someone years ago who never returned it.
It’s even worse with paper documents. Grace lay leaders and staff know better than to give me hard copies of important documents. It will land in a pile on my desk and stay there, perhaps for years. Much better to send it electronically. Then I will have it, and can easily find it by conducting a simple computer search. Year end financials from 2010? Sure, just give me a second. Still, I remember what it’s like when you are looking for something; you can’t find it. As you keep looking for it, your anger and frustration grow; you start lashing out at everyone and everything. And finally, that moment of discovery—relief and happiness that overwhelm you. It might be a valuable object, a document you need, or some cherished memento of a loved one.
We all have had such experiences, so when we hear stories like the two we just heard in the gospel reading, we regard them as commonplace, ordinary tales, and put ourselves in the roles of the shepherd going back for the lost sheep or the woman searching for the lost coin, and overlook the strangeness of the stories themselves, and the possibilities that there might be other ways of connecting with the stories than by connecting them with our own experiences of search for lost items.
In fact, I think we allow our own experiences of searching for lost things to so dominate our minds as we hear these parables, that we interpret the story about the shepherd in light of the story of the woman with the lost coin, and overlook the introduction to both which might put a completely different spin on things.
Luke’s introduction to the parables strikes one of his overarching themes: sin and forgiveness. The Pharisees were once again complaining that Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners. Remember that these two groups were reviled by most first-century Palestinian Jews. Tax collectors, not because they worked for the federal government but because in the Roman system, their profit came by being able to extract more money from the people whose taxes they were collecting than they had send on up the pipeline to Rome. And in this instance, sinners doesn’t mean people who made the occasional mistake, but rather notorious sinners, whose lifestyles put them outside of the community—especially people who were ritually impure.
So think of the people most likely to be excluded from polite society, from our community gatherings, from our church—that’s who Jesus was hanging out with, and if he were among us now, it’s likely we would be the ones complaining, not the ones with whom he would be spending time.
In response to these complaints, Jesus tells two parables, introducing each with a question that invites the listener to enter into the story: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Now, contemplate the absurdity of that question.
Which one of you would do that? None of us would. We would do a cost/benefit analysis and cut our losses, leaving the one to die while making sure the 99 were safe.
Or the second parable: The parable describes in great detail the woman’s actions, she lights a lamp, sweeps the floor. The narrative almost stops for a moment, heightening tension, so that the discovery becomes even more dramatic. But then what happens? She throws a party, invites her friends, spends what, as much or double the worth of the coin she had lost? We can see ourselves searching for something, but throwing a party, and throwing what we found away in rejoicing? Who of us would do that?
Two people behaving completely unexpectedly, in ways that make utterly no sense by any rational analysis. They were so overjoyed by the finding that it’s almost as if they lost their bearings. Nothing else mattered but that joy, and offering others the opportunity to share in that joy.
It’s clear that Luke wants us to see the point of the story to be God’s extravagant joy in welcoming a repentant sinner. So be it. No doubt it fills us with love and gratitude toward God to imagine ourselves welcomed in such a way. So we should think about it in light of the final sentence in the passage: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Joy over one sinner who repents.
As important as that is, there is another aspect of the behavior on display in these two parables that might be key to our understanding of God’s nature and disposition toward us. The shepherd abandoned 99 sheep to look for the one lost one. The woman did everything in her power and persisted until she found the lost coin. What if God acts that way toward sinners? What if God does everything in God’s power, obsesses if you will, certainly persists, until finding that lost sinner—until we are once again safely in God’s protective arms? What does that say about our sin and the power and persistence of God’s grace and mercy?
We don’t like that word, sin, although it’s all over our readings today. We heard about the sin of the Israelites, who abandoned their faith in God to worship a golden calf in the wilderness. We heard Psalm 51, that great psalm of sin and repentance. Many of us may have bristled at its language: “
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.
Even if the Christian tradition has emphasized human sin, we don’t like to think about it. When we go about revising the liturgy as we did in 1979 and are in the beginning stages of doing again, one of the first things we look to remove from our Eucharistic prayers is an over-emphasis on sin; we may even do it with the confession of sin.
But at the same time, in our heart of hearts, we know our sin and brokenness. We know all of the ways that we have fallen short of our best intentions, and fallen short of being and becoming the human beings God is calling us to be.
Confession of sin is the first step. Acknowledging our faults, looking at ourselves with clear eyes, with honesty, and recognizing who we are and what we have done. But of course, it doesn’t end there. That’s only the beginning. The next step is repentance, to ask God’s forgiveness of our sins.
Sometimes, I think we are reluctant to acknowledge our sins and sinfulness because we don’t think God will forgive us. But that’s not the case. True confession, true repentance open us up to receive the grace of God’s forgiveness, God’s overwhelming and abundant mercy.
And that’s where the parables teach us about God as well as about ourselves. The joy expressed by the shepherd and the woman are not just like the joy we might experience when we find something we’ve lost; they are describing the joy that God experiences when we confess our sins and ask God’s forgiveness.
That joy, experienced by God when we approach him as the psalmist did when he confessed his sins and asked God:
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
That’s the joy we experience, the joy of repentance and forgiveness, a response to our experience of God’s abundant grace flowing in us, remaking us in God’s image, and restoring us to right relationship with God and with our fellow humans. God doesn’t abandon us; God doesn’t give up the search, even when we don’t know we’re lost or we don’t want to be found. God is here, searching for us and the joy we experience when we repent of our sins and are forgiven is nothing compared to the joy God experiences when we are embraced in God’s mercy and grace.