Pursuing the One Who is Lost

      Comments Off on Pursuing the One Who is Lost

Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

In the cartoon world of The Simpsons, Bart Simpson lives next door to the church-going, Bible-toting Flanders family. 

One day the two Flanders boys hop out of their car following a trip.  Bart asks, “Hey, where have you guys been?”  The kids answer, “We’ve been to church camp, to learn how to be more judgmental.”  That, in a nutshell, is mainstream America’s perception of the church – a place where decent people are turned into religious people, which makes them truly scary people.

Those who open the Bible for the first time are often surprised to learn that Jesus consistently goes out of his way to offend religious people.  You would think that rules-keeping, line-drawing, morality-enforcing men and women would be Jesus’ natural allies. 

But it’s not so. The three parables that make up Luke chapter 15 blow that perception out of the water.  These stories concern lost things – a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost child. 

Luke 15 begins: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him [Jesus, that is].  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law [the most respected religious people of Jesus’ time] muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” 

Jesus welcomes sinners.  Not only that, he eats with spiritually bankrupt people.  To this day, in the Middle East, sharing a meal with someone is a sacramental act signifying acceptance.  Sitting down together assigns dignity and respect to one’s guests.  Therefore the Pharisees are convinced that Jesus must be a bad man.  He’s having dinners with sinners.  Someone who knows the heart of God could not even contemplate such a thing.

In response Jesus seems to say, “Do you really want to know about the heart of God?  Let me tell you a story.” 

He begins in verse four:  “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.  Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” 

Kenneth Bailey, who spent almost all his life in the Middle East delving into the richness of Bible backgrounds, suggests that the Pharisees probably expected Jesus to ask a different question – perhaps this one:  “Which of you, owning a hundred sheep, if a report came to you that one was lost, would not send a servant to the shepherd responsible and threaten him with a heavy fine if he didn’t find the sheep?”  In other words, if something is lost, somebody else is going to have to pay.  But Jesus says, “No, think again.  You are responsible.  You own a hundred sheep and you lose one of them.”

Looking for a lost sheep in Palestine was (and still is) no walk in the park.

The land is extremely dry.  Bailey remarks that more than once he witnessed a Holy Land tourist leave his bus, wander off the path with a camera and a bottle of water, only to be brought back two hours later on a stretcher.

Most shepherds who are alone in such conditions will think to themselves:  “I hope I find the sheep…and I pray that it’s already dead.” That way the shepherd can bring back an ear or a foot and say, “Here it is.  I found it.  Job over.  We don’t have to do anything else.”

But that’s not what happens in Jesus’ parable:  “And when he finds it [very much alive], he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.”

I grew up in a church where there was a beautiful painting of Jesus with a sheep draped around his neck.  It never occurred to me to wonder what that must feel like.  Imagine walking on a wilderness path with an awkward, heavy animal – its four feet bound together – wrapped like a pretzel around your shoulders.

Restoring the one who is lost – whether the stranger who is hurting, or the man who is disillusioned by organized religion, or the woman who’s been rejected by friends and family, or the teenager ready to give up on life – almost always requires significant commitment.  There may be a high price to pay.  But the shepherd who has on his or her heart what the Good Shepherd has on his heart is willing to search, find, and restore.

The parable ends with this interesting twist:  The shepherd “calls his friends and neighbors and says, ‘Rejoice with me.’” 

Imagine telephoning the people on your street and announcing, “You’ll never believe it, but I finally found my weed eater.  It was right behind my snow shovel the whole time!  How about coming over for some burgers this evening to celebrate?” 

It turns out that in Palestine at least 10 to 20 families would jointly own a flock of sheep.  So if one sheep became lost, it was everyone’s loss.  And if that sheep were found, it became everybody’s reason to rejoice.

Jesus is saying that God’s heart always goes out to the one who is most in need of help, most in trouble, or most neglected.  And the closer we ourselves draw to God, the more we will feel a stab of happiness when something wonderful happens to someone else – even if we don’t get any special credit or attention.  

Tim Laniak, a seminary professor who has spent much of his life exploring Middle Eastern shepherding, tells the story of the Aref family in the nation of Jordan. 

Family members say, with a smile and a wink, that Mrs. Aref loves her animals as much as – and maybe more than – her own children.  In his book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Laniak writes, “She knew the animals quite intimately and was greatly affected by their needs… One day, to her immense distress, Mrs. Aref lost track of one of her ewes.  Because sheep regularly mingle with other flocks at common pastures during the day, she checked with her neighbors that night to see if the ewe had gone home with someone else.  But none of them had seen the missing creature. 

“She inquired among more distant neighbors over the next week, but no one had noticed a stray or found unidentified remains.  Weeks turned into months without a sign of the missing ewe.

“Then one day, two months later, a large flock came through the village led by a hired shepherd.  As was still her habit, Mrs. Aref asked the young man if he had come across a lost sheep.  As the words passed her lips, one of the ewes in the solid pack of passing sheep lifted her head, immediately recognizing the sound of her owner’s voice.  Mrs. Aref screamed with delight and rushed through the startled mass to embrace her lost sheep.  It didn’t take long before the whole village heard the commotion and shared in the reunion.” 

Jesus says in verse seven: “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.” 

In the kingdom of God, after all, everybody counts.

And we always count by ones.