The parable of the Lost Sheep is one of the more familiar of the little stories that Jesus told his audiences. At the start of this one, Jesus poses a seemingly simple question, Which one of you, who had a flock of onehundred sheep, one of which is lost, wouldn’t leave your ninety–nine other sheep behind in the wilderness andsearch for the one that you lost until it is found?
Huh . . . Leave the ninety-nine exposed out in the wilderness until we can find the one that was lost? What sort of choice is that? Exactly how any one of us might have responded to that question would vary, I imagine, depending on our circumstances, our capabilities, and our priorities. We might go after that one lost sheep if we felt the vast majority left behind would likely survive our absence; or, we might hesitate so quickly to abandon the rest of the flock until we’ve taken action to preserve their safety while we’re over that hill and out of sight.
We have three versions of this little story that have come down to us in the gospel tradition. In Luke, as we’ve just heard, Jesus is on his guard. His stock rivals and opponents in these narratives, Pharisees, and scribes, complain once again that he spends way too much of his free time with the unsavory of their society, people summed up as “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus is viewed by his rivals with disdain and disbelief, as an unauthorized teacher, merely a self-taught authority on the will and purposes of God, who makes a point of eating, drinking, and conversing with people the more respectable would want to avoid.
The Pharisees and scribes take exception to this habit of Jesus, to his promiscuous openness to the marginal and the discarded and the simply disliked. This introduction by Luke to three parables of something lost, then something found, namely, a sheep, a coin, and a son, sets us up to equate the sheep that’s gone astray with a sinner whose repentance—and thus their return to the flock—is grounds for extravagant celebration. Luke’s gospel revels in these scenes of banquets and parties, with Jesus often right at their center.
The connection of a lost sheep with community members gone astray is even clearer in Matthew’s version of the parable, told in that gospel as part of a series of instructions for proper leadership of the ekklesia, the infant church (Matthew 18). No party, extravagant or otherwise, follows the discovery and reclamation of Matthew’s lost sheep, styled one of God’s “little ones.” And finally, in the Gospel of Thomas, another ancient text, though a gospel left out of the New Testament scriptures, we see attention paid the emotions of the bereft shepherd. Once he’s recovered his lost sheep, he looks right into its face (its sheepish face?) and declares, I love you more than allthe rest (Thomas 107). Maybe, just maybe, the shepherd in Thomas is the most self-aware and conscious of his own part in the drama, his own responsibility.
The way the author of Luke’s gospel frames the stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin puts emphasis on how the shepherd with his flock, and then the woman who owns her own home, quickly turn sharply away from all their other tasks and responsibilities to recover their property. The animal and the piece of money symbolize for this author the sorts of wayward people (Luke calls them sinners) that need to be sought out and drawn back into community. Do these lost souls need to come to recognize their faults and express repentance to be welcomed back home? Maybe they do. That seems to be Luke’s point of view, at least. But notice how diligently the shepherd and the homeowner search for them. When those who are lost return to the fold, we are invited to join the shepherd and homeowner to express our joy with extravagant celebrations, no matter what the cost.
Given the way Luke presents these stories, theologians will often identify the shepherd and the woman as pictures of a loving God. Their actions of search and recovery certainly do represent the intentional, the persistent, and indeed the extravagant love that God expresses through Jesus, and perhaps, at times, that God could also express through us, if we so choose. Let me repeat that: in times of crisis and uncertainty—even in our own lives, when we face the dilemma of something or someone lost to us, perhaps we too can choose to express that intentional, that persistent, that extravagant love of God.
The parables that Jesus tells are polyvalent—that is, their meaning can shift and alter depending on the needs and circumstances of the audience. Perhaps the theologians are right that the shepherd and the woman stand in for God; such a correlation could make some sense. But I suspect there is more depth and complication to these little stories. As we listen to Jesus, we might feel some sympathy and recognize some shared experience with the dilemmas of the shepherd and the female householder. These are people who put great value on their possession of the sheep and the coin. From their point of view, it is their loss when the sheep wanders off, and the coin plays hide and seek. They are determined to regain what is theirs.
But our response could be more complicated. We might see whether there’s more than one side to the story. We might notice that we hear nothing of how the sheep or the coin might feel about the situation. The third story of something lost that is somehow recovered, which follows here in Luke 15, the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son, raises questions about the frame of mind of the one gone missing. That wayward man only returns to his father’s house when he has sunk to the very lowest state of depression, regret, and hunger. But why did that son leave his family home in the first place? Was it the shepherd, or the householder, or the father who were at fault somehow? Why and how did they lose track of what they saw as properly within their own control? We are not told. We simply don’t know.
This summer, in a class on the Gospels at United Seminary, we’ve been reading these “short stories of a controversial Rabbi,” alongside a book with that title written by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. The class has wondered, along with Professor Levine, how exactly a wandering sheep or a coin dropped somewhere behind the couch or lying hidden in a dark and dusty corner would be capable of feeling “repentance,” as Luke tries to have us interpret the symbolism. Neither the sheep nor the coin has had a “come to Jesus” moment, a change of heart to hurry back to the man’s sheepfold or leap right back into the woman’s purse.
Still, this is more or less what Luke tells us happened in the case of the Prodigal Son, who is driven by hunger and some measure of regret back to his father’s house. Instead, the rhythm of the sheep and coin stories is on the actions—and, crucially, also on the inactions—of the human characters, who could still at times to stand in for God, for Jesus, and perhaps also for us. Whether to be found, or to have the ability to recover what’s gone lost, a measure of self-awareness seems critical.
Let me pose my own question. How many of us, here in our First Church community, how many people, let’s say, who have one hundred friends—even if they’re only “Facebook friends”—would abandon all the rest of them to try to recover a lost or damaged friendship? Maybe we would, maybe I would make that drastic decision. Maybe I would, if that had been, until a recent and seemingly sudden silence, one of my most precious friendships. Maybe I would strive to recover a relationship that had sustained me in the downtimes, with a person who celebrated right along with me in times of joy, and shared my sorrows with a full and loving heart.
I have felt that loss of vital friendship once or twice. Initial puzzlement and feelings of abandonment might have led me, at first, to blame the friend who went missing. That might have been my calculation, or hers. The loss of my friend, of our friend, was felt as our loss, as something we’ve lost, not the painful result of our losing track. But as we continue to wonder about how all that happened, perhaps we should consider more deeply how much of that rift must have grown ever wider due to our own drifting away from our friends and their needs, while we’ve been too preoccupied, perhaps, with our own activities and priorities.
We might make the choice to value recovery and recuperation of a lost connection, even at the cost of putting our other relationships on hold, and leave those other sheep of ours—our other commitments and priorities—potentially at risk out in the open fields. We might make such a choice all the more once we sense that our own actions, attitudes, and behavior have caused much of the rupture, have snapped the chain.
That is to say, our lost friend may not be a little lamb that scooted away from our fold simply due to some mysterious want and needs of its own. Maybe they are instead someone who only drifted away, perhaps “ghosted” us, because we lost track or we dropped connection, due to our own failure to pay attention and exhibit our loving care. When that one sheep gets away from the flock, isn’t the shepherd the one more responsible for that escape than is the animal? After all, the sheep may rightly suspect that the grass is rather greener on the other side of the hill.
Thinking with the sheep, or with the coin, that is, with attention to the person that has been lost, we might feel resonance with their feelings of being ignored, or put off, abandoned, even betrayed. Many of us, I would imagine, have at one time or another, perhaps many times, felt less like the hapless shepherd and more like that sheep headed off to greener pastures. Or, we might feel more like that coin—all scrunched up, emotionally speaking, hiding behind the couch or beneath the bed, feeling lost and doubting that we’ll ever be found and brought home. We might find ourselves thinking it’s our own fault, that we’re the ones to blame, that our loss and abandonment and isolation are justified by our own weaknesses and unworthiness.
And yet, as poet David Wagoner puts it,
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
The person feeling lost in the forest, at odds with themselves and others, might be us, or our former friend, or perhaps an estranged family member.
Yet further applications of the parables open up when we move away from these personal stories of our own losses. We need to look about and recognize we’ve too often remained oblivious to the hurts and needs of others in our world, including those less clearly connected to us by ties of friendship or family. In that case, what these little stories of Jesus suggest to us, and may even demand of us, is that we turn about and take on the part of a newly energized shepherd or homeowner, with our more than ample resources, to seek out the ones we see sitting alone in that corner, or wandering unhoused and hungry on our streets.
Could we try to emulate that promiscuous openness to the marginalized, the discarded, and the disliked that Jesus practiced so vividly? We need first to look within ourselves, to recognize, acknowledge and repair our own lack of attention, our indifference, or our more self-directed priorities. We should ask to what extent our own attitudes, actions, and inactions, as individuals, as a congregation, as a city, a state, a society, bear responsibility for the troubles and harm experienced by those treated as “lost” by us, and by our culture of contented and complacent self-interest.
Rather than wait for or demand some sort of gesture of “repentance” from the wayward sheep or lost coin, maybe we should take that step of recovery ourselves. “Physician, heal thyself,” goes the proverb. Could we try to channel that intentional, that persistent, that extravagant love of God for all creation, human and beyond? Those of us in a position to help need to do the work of searching, of finding, and, ultimately, I pray, sharing the joys of restoration, recovery, and renewal.