Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Lost Sheep and Coin

Chapter 9

Luke 15:1-10

Decent people avoided associating with tax collectors and sinners at the time of Jesus. Tax collectors were considered traitors because they were working for their occupiers, the Romans. They were also hated because they lined their pockets with money they "earned" by forcing people to pay more taxes than was required by Roman law. The reaction of the people when Jesus went to the home of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector was, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner" (Luke 19:7). (Zacchaeus, you remember, confessed to the sin of avarice when he promised to give back fourfold to all those he had defrauded.) "Sinners" was a comprehensive term that included tax collectors and other immoral persons who did not keep the law or engaged in one of the proscribed trades such as prostitution. People then as now assumed that a person was "known" by the company he keeps.

But Jesus freely associated with tax collectors and sinners. One of his disciples was a publican. It was because of Jesus' reputation for receiving the outcasts of respectable society that Zacchaeus made special effort to see Jesus. And so we find the Pharisees and scribes criticizing and complaining against Jesus, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." What this implies is that Jesus himself is one of them. Jesus does not deny the accusation, but denies the implication. He receives sinners and eats with them not because he is one of them but because they have requested his help. He reasons gently with the Pharisees implying that he is only doing what they themselves would do. "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?" "Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?" In the parable of the prodigal son, he carries the issue to his critics and shows them up for what they are in the portrayal of the Elder Brother. In this chapter, however, it is the Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin that we will consider.

The charge against Jesus was that he received sinners and ate with them. Eating had and still has important symbolic significance. It physically acts out the notion of acceptance, trust, goodwill, and brotherhood. Jesus doesn't simply invite us to his table; he eats with us. He accepts us fully. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).

In his defense of his actions, Jesus told the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. There are so many similarities between the two that they are considered twin parables. In the Old Testament it was a common metaphor to refer to Israel's leaders as shepherds and the people as sheep. David was a shepherd, and he portrayed God in the Twenty-third Psalm as the divine shepherd who looks after the best interests of his flock, providing them with food, refreshment, security, and protection. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd who knew his flock by name and was willing to lay down his life for them. Ironically though, shepherds at the time of Jesus did not have a good reputation. They were among those who were called sinners because of their occupation and their reputation of lawlessness and dishonesty.

Consequently, Kenneth Bailey believes that Jesus would have shown deference to the Pharisees by beginning the parable this way: "Which man of you owning a hundred sheep, if he heard that the hired shepherd had lost one, would he not summon the shepherd and demand that the sheep be found under threat of fine." Bailey refers to the fact that in Palestine anyone wealthy enough to own a hundred sheep would not shepherd them himself but would hire someone to do it for him. The average herd was about five to fifteen sheep but an owner might shepherd up to about forty by himself. At times a group of families would get together to hire shepherds. Usually two or three shepherds would have been hired to attend a flock of a hundred sheep. If a sheep was lost, one would go looking for it while the other or others would look after the flock. 1

As we look at these two parables, there are four things of significance. First, and perhaps the most important, is the fact that the shepherd and the woman expend effort. The shepherd even risks his life. In the case of the sheep the proportion is one in one hundred; in the case of the coins, one in ten. What is stressed in these parables is not only that it is proper for Jesus to associate with publicans and sinners, every one of them is precious. One alone is worth his effort. Ellen White mentions that Jesus would have given his life if only one person could be saved. "So if there had been but one lost soul, Christ would have died for that one." 2 Paul writes in Romans 9:32, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?"

C. S. Lewis observing a slug in his garden one day wondered whether he would be willing to become a slug if that was necessary to save the slugs. Even though the slug is a lowly creature, Lewis too was a creature. He might consider himself of a much higher order than a slug, but the relationship would still be that of a finite creature to a finite creature. But in the case of Jesus, we have an infinite being becoming a finite being to save finite beings. In this context, each human life must have extraordinary value! Doesn't it follow then that we should value others and ourselves as God values us?

The second thing that the parable teaches us is that God loves us not because we are more valuable than the rest; he loves us even if we were the least valuable. While the Gospel of Thomas provides a different motive for the search i.e. that sheep was the largest and most valuable, Jeremias disagrees.

. . . the expression used by Matthew (v. 14), `one of the least'. . . and the setting of the parable in Luke, with v. 5, tend to show that it is more likely that the lost sheep was thought of as a specially weak one. It was not the high value of the animal that caused the shepherd to set out on his search, but simply the fact that it belonged to him, and without his help it could not find its way back to the flock. 3

The third thing that the parable tells us is that the shepherd left the ninety-nine and went after the one that was lost. God is pictured throughout the Bible as the one who takes the initiative in making contact with human beings. In the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve had sinned, God came to look for them. "Where are you?" he asked. When Cain had murdered his brother, God asked him, "Where is Abel your brother?" God doesn't stand aloof from us unconcerned. Jesus said he came to seek and to save the lost (Mathew 18:11; Luke 19:10). Paul comments that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He also says that while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Romans 5:8,10). In Ephesians 2, Paul writes,

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

And John writes, "We love, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). The initiative has always been God's. He comes looking for us.

Many years ago I read a touching story in the old Youth's Instructor. 4 Mary was a young woman who decided to help a community in one of the provinces of a Central American country. Her friends thought her preparation for mission work was strange. She practiced writing guided by a ruler with her eyes tightly closed. She was asked if she had trouble with her eyes. No, her eyes were all right. Then she mentioned that she was preparing to go to a particular Indian community.

After Mary had spent several years in Central America, her roommate, Louise, came to visit her. She wanted to visit Mary at her mission, but Mary arranged for the visit to take place at the hotel in town. When Louise met Mary, she discovered that she was completely blind. Mary explained that she had been blind for four years. She said that while at college she was preparing to come to a community where an insect burrowed into the eyes and caused blindness. It was then that she decided to go there not just as a missionary but also to capture the insect and send it to scientists in New York so that a way might be found to prevent the blindness. After reporting her success to Louise, she said, "If the disease can eventually be stamped out, one pair of eyes is a small price to pay for the sight of unborn generations. Like her Master, she took the initiative.

The fourth point the parable makes is that the shepherd and the woman search until they find. Christ's searching and seeking for us is not a half-hearted, indifferent, impassive, unconcerned activity. We can never be lost from God because he will never give up his search until he finds us. At the end we might not want to return with him to his fold, but it is not because he has not found us. And because God is determined to find us, we cannot hide. No matter where or how far we try to flee God will find us. Jonah was on his way to Spain, Elijah to an isolated cave in the desert, but God sought them out. In the words of the Psalmist,

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psalms 139:7-10).

It is as if Christ should tell us today, "Which person of you, if you should lose a daughter in the forest, would give up looking for her after one hour? No, you would search until you found her." So it is with Christ, the good shepherd.

The fifth thing both parables tell us is that when that which is lost is found, heaven and its angels will rejoice. Ellen White writes: "The rabbis had a saying that there is rejoicing in heaven when one who has sinned against God is destroyed; but Jesus taught that to God the work of destruction is a strange work. That in which all heaven delights is the restoration of God's own image in the souls whom He has made." 5 The Pharisees and scribes were criticizing Jesus and complaining because sinners were attracted to him. He shows in contrast what God's attitude is to what he is doing. While they sneered and criticized, God and all heaven rejoiced. How do we respond when the outcasts of society join us in Christian fellowship?

I was traveling once in Europe. I was leaving Switzerland for Germany and had taken the last car in the train from Geneva. As we came to the border in the town of Schaffhausen, I had taken out my packet to have my passport ready. As the train stopped, I discovered that the car I was on was being disconnected from the rest of the train. I grabbed hold of my luggage and rushed to the forward car. When I got there I remembered that I had left all my documents behind--my passport, my Eurail pass, my return air tickets, and my traveler's checks.

I left my luggage and rushed back to retrieve my documents. When I arrived at my seat, I found nothing. The car had been disconnected and was already moving. I had to act quickly since my luggage was in the other car, and the train was about ready to leave. So even though the car was moving, I jumped out, tumbling over in the process. I did not even know whether I was hurt or not. I quickly picked myself up and rushed to the forward car to get my luggage. I got back just as the train was beginning to move. Fortunately, my luggage was still where I had left it.

Now what was I to do? I had no passport, no Eurail pass, no money, no return airfare. My German was very elementary, but I found out where the lost items could be reported. Distraught, distressed, numb from shock, I grabbed my luggage, jumped off the train, and went down the steps to the station office. I was attempting to explain my plight to the manager when in came one of the train workers carrying my packet in his hand. God said that heaven and the angels rejoiced over finding the lost sheep and the lost coin. Let me tell you I rejoiced over finding my lost passport, tickets, and money. If we rejoice when we find lost things, how much more when lost people are found spiritually.

What we find first in these parables is what God is like. He gladly associated with sinners. He is the loving shepherd who, of his own volition, undertook a tremendous risk to save humankind. This is the God who rejoices when one sinner changes the course of his or her life.

In these parables, Jesus is telling us that we too must strive to take the initiative in seeking out the lost. We must be willing to take serious risks and search diligently and without ceasing until the lost are found. And we should celebrate the salvation of each soul.

1. Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke (combined ed., Grand Rapids: William B. Eermans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 147.

2. White, p. 187.

3. Jeremias, p. 134.

4. Lora E. Clement, "Let's Talk It Over," Youth's Instructor, August 30, 1949, p. 2.

5. White, p. 190.

No comments: