My friend Elizabeth is a true bookworm. So it’s utterly fitting that one of her responsibilities as a senior editor at the Christian Century magazine is to keep track of all the new books being published in religion and a wide variety of other adjacent subjects. I enjoy subscribing to the weekly e newsletter Elizabeth publishes, “Books Worth Reading.”
As I studied today’s parables, I came across a review Elizabeth wrote of the children’s book Who Counts? She writes:
There’s no shortage of picture books based on Luke’s account of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son. But Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s may be the first one to include a note to parents warning against the subtle anti-Jewish messages that often attend allegorical readings of these parables.
The interpretation Levine and Sasso set forth is, as Elizabeth puts it,
an expansive vision in which everybody counts. From sheep to coins to human beings, the message is that it’s worth searching for those who are lost. After carrying the exhausted lost sheep home on his shoulders, the man smiles and comments, “One sheep makes a difference. Without her, something is missing. Now my flock is complete.”
I am excited about our approach to reading Luke’s Gospel this fall. Members of the congregation are creating scripture introductions that, like Mary’s piece this morning, offer a personal response. What do you love or hate about the scripture? What are you curious or confused about? These reactions will guide me as I write my sermons. And then, after the sermon, we’ll open up the floor for some more dialogue.
Mary, I appreciate your questions about missing details. Was the shepherd actually the owner of the flock? Who was part of the woman’s household? What was her station in life? Is it possible that memory problems caused her to misplace the coin? These questions help us enter the world of the parables. And yet they seem to skillfully avoid the pitfall of imposing too much of our own cultural context on these stories.
And, Mary, when you puzzle over the framing Luke gives the parables, you’re in good company. Amy Jill Levine (One of the authors of Who Counts?) is a scholar of the New Testament. In her book Short Stories by Jesus, she argues that Jesus didn’t intend for these parables to be about sin and repentance. That’s simply Luke’s interpretation. Levine is bothered by the same inconsistencies you are, such as the idea that 99% of folks anywhere would need no repentance. As you put it so well, “aren’t we all just people who could do better?” She also agrees with you that
the allegory fails to match the parable. There was no repenting in the story; there was no sin. The sheep did not “come to itself” and find its way home. It was the owner who lost the sheep, and if this losing were sinful, he’s not seen repenting. (pp. 40-41)
These stories, Levine says, would have spoken to Jesus’ first hearers about the importance of noticing and seeking what is lost. And yet Jesus’ parables always have an edge. They always challenge our thinking and expand our horizons. Most smart shepherds in fact would not endanger 99 sheep to seek one that had strayed. This shepherd, however, believes that with even one sheep missing, his flock is incomplete. It seems to me that these parables express Jesus’ vision of community. Everyone counts. Everyone is valuable. Everyone belongs. We can only be whole together. This is a simple message but of course it has real world implications that are radical. If everyone counts, truly counts, then we need alternatives to our present economy that, driven by scarcity and fear, centers profit and consumption, rather than the wellness of all beings. If everyone counts, then healthcare systems must prioritize the health of patients and employees. If everyone counts, let’s invest in education, housing and transitioning away from fossil fuels. If everyone counts, then (with no personal offense intended to the royal family or those who love them) we it is time to set aside every last trapping of empire and to decolonize every institution, every corner of our minds and hearts.
The striving and seeking of the shepherd and the woman, their pursuit of what has been lost, remind me of some words of John O’ Donahue, the Celtic poet, writer, and priest. In Walking in Wonder, he says this:
I think that absence is the sister of presence; the opposite of presence is not absence, but vacancy. Vacancy is neutral, indifferent, inane, blank kind of space, whereas absence has real energy; it has vitality in it, and it is infused with longing. . . . When you open yourself to the activity and sacrament of friendship with someone, you create a unique and particular kind of space with them; a special space that you share in the same way with no one else. And when the friend departs—when a relationship breaks or when you lose someone in that final severance we call death—absence haunts your heart and makes your belonging sore and painful. . . . Everyone that leaves your life leaves a subtle trail of connection with you; and when you think of them, and miss them and desire them, your heart journeys out again along that trail towards them in the elsewhere that they now find themselves. (pp. 70-71)
As we grieve the loss of Jim Scoville this week, I’m thinking about how the inclusive and expansive community Jesus imagines in the world of his parables holds space for both absence and presence. In Judith and Jim’s community of Becketwood, when someone dies, members of the community come to the apartment to perform a ritual of farewell and then accompany their body from the building. On the day Jim was to depart, I sat with Judith and their son Nate. As we waited for the ceremony to begin, they remembered family adventures in the wilderness. We laughed about Jim’s thrifty nature, about Nate’s antics riding in cars with holes in the floor. And Judith spoke of Jim’s important contributions as a scholar of economics and his tireless advocacy for gender equity in his field. Meanwhile, the Becketwood choir lined the hallway outside the door, singing hymns in four parts. It was truly a beautiful and sacred experience.
In Jesus’ parables, the joy that accompanies the finding, the reunion, the restoration is shockingly excessive. The woman swept the corners of her house to find a missing coin, only to turn around and spend her precious savings to throw a party for her friends and neighbors. This spirit of gratitude, joy, abundance, and welcome is at the heart of our Creator, the one who inspired Jesus to craft and share his puzzling, controversial, transformational stories. And this same spirit is at the heart of the community Jesus calls us to build and inhabit—a community in which everyone counts, a community motivated by the fierce and tireless love of the divine, love that relentlessly seeks the well-being of all.