“Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep that was lost.”

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19), Year C.

Track I

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Luke 15:1-10

Like all the parables Jesus gives us, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin start off easy. On first reading the message seems quite clear: God loves everyone so much that He’s like a shepherd who abandons His whole flock for the sake of saving one. God loves everyone so much that like a woman who lost a coin, He will diligently search until they are found. Yes, God loves even you, you wicked miserable sinner.

Yet for as straightforward as these parables seem, the more you look at them, the more complicated they become. What kind of shepherd leaves 99 sheep alone in the hostile wilderness to track down the one lost one? How is that responsible? What does it say about God if He seems so willing to abandon the flock in a dangerous place for the sake of one? Who calls their neighbors over and throws a party just because they found a silver coin that they had so carelessly lost in the first place? What connection is there between these stories, besides that a silver coin would have been about the price of sheep? Most importantly of all, how is it fair that there would be more rejoicing in heaven over the return of one lost sinner than for 99 righteous who had not lost their way?

In the strangeness of the stories, we are quick to forget the audience Jesus tells them to: the Pharisees. Though the Gospels portray the Pharisees as petty curmudgeons who antagonize Jesus at every turn, by the standards of their day, and even by many of our standards, they were generally considered a righteous group. They were a group who tried to live honestly and seriously by the law of the Torah, often advocating for education, care for the poor, and resistance to the blatant corruption that was rampant in the Temple authorities and others who collaborated with the Roman state. Though they often disagreed with Jesus, it’s notable that Jesus eats in their houses, speaks with them regularly, and appears to have a more complicated relationship with them than the Gospel writers would care to admit. And in the case of our story, we often forget that the Pharisees are making a good point to Jesus.

Those tax collectors He was eating with, they were by no means generous or admirable people. They were known as “tax farmers” and collaborated with the Roman state in a brutal system of exploiting their own neighbors. The way taxes were collected in the early Roman Empire was by these tax farmers making a bid to the state and buying the right to collect taxes in their area. They would pay the Empire up front whatever their bid was and that would be the state revenue. Then, it was up to them to extract their initial bid from the population. Whatever money they collected over what they paid to the state they got to keep as profit. It was a system rife with corruption, built on brutal exploitation of the poor and working classes. All this is to say, that the Pharisees’ criticism of a Holy Man spending time with people who have ruthlessly betrayed their own people, instead of those who have tried to live honest and righteous lives, is not a petty legalistic complaint.

Yet Jesus responds to them with these parables. When we look at the parables, our focus tends to be on the lost sheep, coin, or perhaps the shepherd or searching woman. Given His audience, perhaps the focus should turn toward the 99 sheep and the 9 coins left behind, or perhaps even more importantly, the rejoicing of all when the lost are restored.

Parables are often more about the questions they force us to ask than the initial “obvious” answers they give. The stories are an opportunity to examine our feelings and reactions to a teaching, and hopefully, even if puzzling, help us understand the radical nature of the Gospel hidden in our everyday life.

In that same spirit, I invite you to consider this story, hopefully put together in the same spirit as the lost sheep and the lost coin:

Once there was a theater teacher hired to be a professor. It was a position at a well-known university and all parties involved were overjoyed at the match. For the young teacher, this was the kind of break that could set him on a stable career in a famously insecure industry. For the rest of the department, in addition to the young teacher’s impeccable qualifications and passion for the craft, he was a member of two minority groups, being a person of color and gay. Though it was his qualifications and interview that set him apart from the other candidates, looking at their own ranks in the department, made entirely of aging white men, they were glad to have an opportunity to welcome a fresh perspective and perhaps breath some new life into the department. In the interview, they told the young teacher that they saw promise in him, and that as a department, they recognized that they needed to embrace change and fresh perspectives to stay relevant with the students. The young teacher agreed, promising that if he were hired, he would certainly give a fresh perspective. With the contract signed, and the possibility of tenure to follow, the old guard of the department congratulated themselves not only on the promising young teacher, but on their open-mindedness and active embracing of diversity.

When the year began the young professor quickly showed his dedication to the craft of theater. From the first day, he showed how committed he was to raising the standards of the whole department. For being so fresh and new, he challenged his students in ways the other professors had not expected. In stark contrast to the easy-going and informal culture that had been the reputation of the department for decades, the young teacher expected his students to act as professionals. The old guard found it curious, even a little concerning. But they remembered being young and feeling the need to prove themselves, they were sure that his zealousness would be tempered after the first semester, after all, the students would not tolerate being held to such a high standard. The students always found ways to cut corners and do the least amount of work possible, it was only theater to them after all.

As the semester wore on the old guard were surprised to find that the young teacher’s zealousness was directed not only toward the students but to them as well. He proved to not be shy in sharing his opinion in department meetings. In controversial matters, he seemed to be unfazed by the experience and reputation of his peers. He often complained about the slowness of their communication, and the inefficiency in managing the technical parts of shows. They were surprised, but again, they remembered being young and zealous, they knew he would come around in due time.

In the next semester the old guard were baffled by the young teacher’s choices in plays for his classes to study and perform. Far from settling into the department as they expected, he seemed to push harder up against the institution they were so familiar with. The plays chose were not simply experimental and new, being experimental and new was a revered tradition within the department, yet to the old guard his choices were incomprehensible, covering topics and themes they had scarcely heard of. These plays were quite challenging, and as the semester progressed the old guard were worried that the students wouldn’t be able to handle them, both emotionally and technically. They tried to dissuade him, gently and respectfully of course, “think of the students”, they would say, “do you really believe they’re ready for this?” Yet he would not be deterred. The plays proved to have mixed success. Some were complete flops, while others, much to the bafflement of the old guard, were hailed by the students and community as stunning successes. The old guard was even more surprised when the student reviews came in at the end of the year. The young teacher had pushed his students so hard, they expected him to be at best a divisive figure in the students’ opinions. Yet to their surprise, the students loved him. There were the occasional freshmen or disgruntled senior who were disappointed to find his classes were not an easy “A”, yet even the detractors respected his devotion to teaching.

Though the young teacher had not yet fallen into line as they had expected, the old guard were pleased to see his success. When it came time to discuss renewing the young teacher’s contract for the following year, and to discuss the possibility of a tenure track, the old guard were completely surprised when the young teacher declined.

They were stunned. “No” was not the response they had envisioned. How could he say “no”? They had brought him out of nothing, did he not realize the prestige and security he was turning down? What could have gone wrong? He for the most part got everything he wanted, teaching in his own style, choosing his own shows. Unlike him, they were easy-going, they practiced open-mindedness and embraced diversity. They worked hard to not be the stifling old perfectionists like the professors they had to work under when they were new teachers. When they asked, they were even more amazed to find that didn’t even have another job already lined up, and he was still turning them down. Who did this young teacher think he is?

At the exit interview, the old guard asked him what had gone wrong and why he was leaving. To that question, the young teacher cryptically replied, “I did what I promised when you first interviewed me. As the year went on, I learned that this department didn’t really want what you said it wanted.”

The young teacher left, and by the end of the summer had found a new position at a rival university. The young teacher seemed to do well there, eventually receiving tenure and embracing the rival university that embraced him. The old guard remained baffled, still wondering what had gone so wrong. They assured themselves that it must have been something beyond their control, after all they had been so open-minded in taking a chance on him. While they never understood why he left, at least the department went back to functioning just as it always had.

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One thought on ““Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep that was lost.”

  1. I often have wondered why the shepherd would leave 99 sheep to search for the one lost. Gradually I have found the rightness of it, seeing that the 99 were experienced sheep, but the one needed help, and love, and teaching, and medical care, was both young, stubborn, careless. By finding the lost sheep love was given that touched its heart, and it became one of the most loyal followers of the shepherd. The other 99, if they continued in the path, would be promoted to teachers and shepherds of the lost amongst them.
    So it is with us people. The more spiritually advanced amongst us are especially drawn to the lost sheep. We have the patience, knowledge, touch, and warmth to win it over. That is the message: by giving and helping the lost sheep we will complete our own path to wholeness, through many life times, to become suitable companions to Father God.

    Like

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