Queen Elizabeth II, may she rest in peace and rise in glory, came to the throne on the death of her father in February 1952. One of her early royal duties was seeing off the British North Greenland expedition. This was a 2-year scientific survey of the northern Greenland Ice sheet.
Most of the people who live in Greenland are Inuit and I read somewhere that when the first Christian missionaries to the Inuit people attempted to translate the Bible, they apparently had a problem with the word ‘joy’. Whilst the Inuit have apparently over 50 different words for snow, it seems there was no direct translation for ‘joy’.
But then someone pointed out that the Inuit dogs were always full of joy at the end of a hard day of pulling sledges. Consequently, the sentence at the end of our first parable became: ‘there will be more tail wagging in heaven over one sinner that repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance!’
I don’t know if you’ve ever had to give a talk in front of a really tough audience. I mean even tougher than you. Well today Jesus has them all. Tax-collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes.
Tax-collectors weren’t the benign, charming, lovely, people that work for the Inland Revenue today (and will be checking my self-assessment form sometime soon). They were little better than thugs who extorted money from the people on behalf of the Roman occupying forces. And here the Pharisees and scribes were having a good grumble about the company that Jesus kept and his allegedly unholy practices at mealtimes.
It’s into this situation that Jesus tells not just these two parables but the third one as well, the one with the prodigal and his father and his brother.
And quite honestly the conclusions to both parables this week are a little odd. They both finish with joy, or tail wagging, about a sinner repenting. But as far as I know the lost sheep didn’t repent and neither did the lost coin.
It’s only at the end of the prodigal parable that talk of repentance makes any kind of sense. And you might have your doubts about whether the younger son really did repent of what he did. But our two parables today do help to set up the third.
We have a shepherd losing one of a hundred sheep and a woman losing one of ten coins – before the father loses one or possibly two sons. And instead of calling our stories ‘the parable of the lost sheep’ and ‘the parable of the lost coin’, maybe we would be better calling them ‘the parables of the shepherd who lost a sheep and the woman who lost a coin’.
Because the short stories that Jesus tells are actually more about the absolute commitment of the shepherd and the woman to find what was lost. Look at the verbs, the doing words in these stories. The shepherd leaves, goes after, finds, lays on his shoulder, rejoices, comes home and calls his friends. You can do the same with the story of the woman.
The emphasis is on the finding – and on the one doing the finding – rather than on what was lost. That comes with the Prodigal story. And remember Jesus is responding to people grumbling about the sinners that he spends his time with. He’s sharing, with his audience, the heart of God. He’s revealing a divine perspective: that seeking and finding matter.
In search of man
That’s not unique to Christianity. Rabbi Abraham Heschel said that the whole of scripture, by which he meant the Hebrew Scripture, our OT, is the story of God in search of man. God has been seeking and finding us from the beginning of time. In Jesus, God was continuing his work of visiting the rejected of Israel – which were all those that the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling about.
We learn from these stories that repentance doesn’t just depend on us. Underneath it all there is a divine mercy that keeps on searching. And it searches for us in all the strangest places. In the thickets and in the wilderness, in the sock draw and down the back of the sofa.
And notice too that the shepherd noticed that one sheep out of a hundred was missing. One out of two sons should be easy, one in ten coins a little harder. But one out of a hundred sheep? That’s impressive. We learn that even 1% is important to God. If we had a larger congregation, how good would we be at noticing who wasn’t here – and then going out of our way to do something about it?
But it somehow feels reckless doesn’t it, if you’re convinced that you’re one of the 99 rather than the one missing? The shepherd abandons the rest of his sheep in the wilderness to seek out the one that is lost. It’s almost as though Jesus is saying that the sheep that are not lost can be legitimately exposed to risk for the sake of securing the one that has gone astray. If he’s not careful the shepherd will finish the day with just one sheep, because the other 99 have gone walkabout in the meantime.
This is a challenge for any congregation who believe that at some level the church exists for those who are outside its doors. A ministry focussed on anyone in the parish who doesn’t come to church, may well invite opposition from those who do come to church and who believe that they do not deserve to be abandoned. It’s where you have to hope that both the shepherd and the vicar have helpers to watch the rest of the flock, the 99 who haven’t wandered off yet.
And I say ‘yet’ because being lost isn’t the exclusive privilege of non-Christians or people who’ve stopped coming to church. It can be us too. We can each get lost over and over again – and God goes out of his way to find us over and over again. It’s all part of the life of faith. We can lose our sense of belonging, our ability to trust, our sense of God’s presence, or our desire to persevere.
All sorts of things can be a trigger for being lost. The death of our Queen, the death of a family member, a failing marriage, children breaking our heart, addiction, apathy… You can write your own list. And, when that happens, we might still come to church and no-one else be any the wiser. But inside, Scripture to us is dead on the page, our prayers are like dust (if they happen at all) and well-intentioned sermons like this one suck the very life from out of us.
But these parables depict the extent of God’s concern for all of God’s people and reveal just how far God will go to search out and restore a relationship with those whom God loves. They tell us that God is where the lost things are. God is out there in the wilderness and in the remote corners of the house. And when the thing that was lost has been found, God makes a fuss, calls the friends round and throws a party… You just have to hope that lamb cutlets aren’t on the menu!
The shepherd realized that one of a hundred was missing. He went to great lengths to make the flock complete again. Perhaps this time of national reflection is also a good time to take stock within our own congregation. What effort will we make to find and return any that are missing?
But what of those who aren’t missing but are lost just the same. When did we last take stock of ourselves? Perhaps we need to recognize our own lostness – and then consent to be found. And that can be hard because we have to believe that we’re worth looking for and that God hasn’t given up on us, even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
And there’s a subtle shift from the first parable to the second. The shepherd does not claim responsibility for losing the sheep. It’s just lost. The woman however does claim responsibility: ‘I found the coin that I had lost,’ she says. We can rightly celebrate when what we have lost is found, but do we take responsibility for the losing in the first place?
Finally, I want you to consider something else – and it’s about the parable that follows. The one about the prodigal. Perhaps read it again when you get home.
In our two parables today, the shepherd and the woman remarkably spot that something is missing from amongst their possessions and then diligently search. The father in the third parable, the one with only two sons, has a problem counting, however. He thinks he’s lost just one son. In fact, he’s really lost two. And the father doesn’t go and search for the younger son who went to a distant country. The son he searches for ends up being the elder one who stayed. The first two parables end with a party and rejoicing. The third parable finishes with a party being abandoned and two men in a field arguing. And were left to wonder whether the ending is happy-ever-after or not…
A father had 2 sons, a woman had 10 coins, a shepherd had 100 sheep. We need to take count of those in our families and in our congregations – and of ourselves. And once we do, with God’s help, we need to act, to work, to bring them – to bring us – back together for community and for wholeness and for celebration… and for lots of tail wagging. Amen
- Levine, A-J. (2015). Short stories by J.