Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 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
In talking with folks, one of the strange effects of this extended period of isolation is a feeling of lostness when it comes to what day it is. I remember getting tickled when my dad was in the hospital after experiencing what was first diagnosed as a stroke. It seemed that the nurses came by every thirty minutes or so and asked, “Mr. Massar, do you know what day it is and where you are?” After several of these episodes, my dad had had it. To the next nurse that came in with the questions, my dad said, “Jane, it’s Wednesday and we’re in Houston. Are you girls at the nursing station confused? Maybe you should write it on one of your whiteboards!” Fortunately, the nurse had a great sense of humor, and we all had a good laugh about it. But now, when I get up each morning and head to my study, I have to think what day it is. Maybe I should get a whiteboard with a calendar. And heaven forbid if my cellphone battery should die!
Of course, Jesus’ parables for today deal with more than mere disorientation. They address a much deeper sense of lostness, a tragedy he witnessed often in his relationships with society’s outcasts. It took an inordinate amount of courage to persevere in his calling to serve the disenfranchised in the face of constant criticism. A modern-day parable has recently brought this home to me in a personal way. Some of you may be aware of Pulitzer-prize nominee Albert Woodfox, whose 2019 memoir Solitary… My Story of Transformation and Hope chronicles his four decades of solitary confinement in a notorious Louisiana prison and his ultimate release, thanks in part to the efforts of Jim Brady, a federal judge who was a member of our Baton Rouge church and a dear friend. The story is a difficult one to hear, and it still elicits much emotion in Louisiana. Lisa and I watched Jim in awe as he endured severe criticism and numerous setbacks during the years that he advocated for fairness in the treatment of Mr. Woodfox. All during that time, Jim continued to maintain, “I’m just doing what a judge is supposed to do.” He knew what it meant to stand up for society’s lost, even when it wasn’t easy.
Serving the lost was personal for Jesus; we see that in his use of not one, but two clear and emotion-filled illustrations. The setting for the parables is one where many people were coming to hear Jesus, and a number of the listeners were classified as tax-collectors and sinners in the minds of a group of Jesus’ critics, the Scribes and Pharisees. As they observed Jesus, they were put off by the make-up of His congregation: “This man welcomes sinners. He even eats with them!” Now, it is important to note that the Scribes and Pharisees were religious zealots, the fundamentalists of their day and time, and they would have found it offensive to associate with any of those who were labeled “sinners.”
William Barclay tells us that the Pharisees gave these people a specific name, “The People of the Land,” and sought to keep a healthy barrier between them and themselves. For instance, some of their philosophy and practice would state that to marry a daughter to one of the “people of the land” was like exposing her, bound and helpless, to a lion. One of the Pharisaic regulations put it this way, “When a man is one of the ‘people of the land,’ entrust no money to him, take no testimony from him, trust him with no secret, do not appoint him guardian of an orphan, do not make him custodian of charitable funds, and do not accompany him on a journey.” A Pharisee was forbidden to be the guest of any such man, or to have him as his guest. Quite simply, they were to avoid these sinners at all costs. Obviously they were shocked at the ways Jesus interacted with these “people of the land,” who were not just outsiders, but considered sinners. Furthermore, we will understand the revolutionary implications here if we remember that the strict Pharisees said, not “There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” but rather, “There is joy in heaven over one sinnerwho is obliterated before God.” So, it was quite a convoluted assortment of people in this crowd being addressed by Jesus.
In response to the harsh criticism, Jesus tells a couple of stories, both of which have as their main characters people who would not have been held in high esteem by the religious leaders of that day and time. If these characters were not “people of the land,” they were extremely close. The shepherd was a character we might compare to today’s cowboy. In days gone by cowboys and their stories had a romantic place in our hearts. But now, while we may not look down on cowboys, society does not grant them grand kudos, does it? A shepherd suffered from the same kind of situation. In the old days of Israel’s history, shepherds had been held with high regard. (King David, the former shepherd boy, is a good example.) However, by the time of the coming of Christ, shepherds were relegated to their fields and were ostracized by the city folk, certainly looked down upon by the religious fanatics. Thus, this story of the shepherd and lost sheep must have made those sophisticated Scribes and Pharisees turn up their cosmopolitan noses.
Then, to make matters worse, Jesus tells a story about a woman. Due to more recent exposure to the role of women in the Middle East, we can now more easily comprehend how a woman would have been looked down upon by the religious elite, being considered little more than property. Both stories deal with valuable commodities being lost or misplaced. The call for followers of Jesus is to intentionally look and find the lost.
John Buchanan, the former pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and Editor of The Christian Century give a marvelous example about how we might look to find the lost. He wrote several years back: “Ten years ago last February, Chicago police, on a drug investigation, discovered nineteen children, without an adult present, living in a two-room apartment. It was the most unsettling, disturbing incidence of child neglect and abuse you could imagine. The conditions in the two-room apartment were squalid beyond description: the stench of soiled diapers, rotting food, mounds of filthy clothes, clogged toilet. One little boy was trying to create a semblance of order by moving the rubble with a broken shovel. It was a decade ago, but I was never able to forget those children and never stopped wondering whatever became of them. And so I was delighted one day last February, on the tenth anniversary of the event, to retrieve the morning paper, sit down with the first cup of coffee of the day, and see in the middle of the front page a picture of three beautiful children in blue caps and gowns, graduating from elementary school in Kankakee county, the handsome boy in the middle, Anthony Melton, one of the nineteen neglected children discovered by the police ten years before. It’s not often these days that the news on the front page of the paper brings tears to my eyes. The follow-up story told about five of the nineteen, brothers, who had been taken in by Claudine Christian who lives in Hopkins Park. DCFS officials were concerned about keeping the brothers together while their mother served a jail term—each had a different father, none of whom were in the picture at all—so Claudine Christian agreed to take the five for three months. That was ten years ago. When they arrived, ages two, five, six, eight, and nine, in her neat bungalow in rural Hopkins Park, the boys didn’t know what mealtime was and were accustomed to foraging for food, didn’t know about utensils and ate with their fingers. Claudine Christian purchased new bunk beds for them, but they wouldn’t get in them, instead slept on the floor, in a huddle, covered by a blanket. The boys fought, destroyed household items. Claudine Christian’s husband, already unhappy, gave her a choice: the boys or him. She chose the boys. She set some boundaries, assigned simple chores, set expectations. The boys started to go to school. There were plenty of challenges and setbacks. Claudine Christian persisted. She took the boys to her church. One by one they were baptized. The academic and behavioral challenges continue, but the boys are making it, participating in extracurricular activities, singing in the choir; several are junior deacons at church. At the end of the remarkable account, Claudine Christian recalled those first harrowing weeks when the five little boys slept together in the center of their bedroom floor, despite the new bunk beds, in a jumbled pile of bodies under a comforter. Sleep was fitful, broken by nightmares. She remembers, ‘They would wake up in the middle of the night, and I would run into the room and I would gather two or three at a time and just hold them and rock them until they could sleep again. I would say, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ Just say it until it sticks. You can’t play with these words when it comes to the hearts of children.’ Just say it until it sticks.”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Have you ever lost something or someone? Can you remember the panicked feelings of that moment? Can you remember the relief when the lost was found?
Have you ever felt lost? How were you found? Thank God for the comforting memory.
Who are the lost for us, as exemplified in Jesus’ teaching? What might we do to bring to them the peace of being found?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: George MacDonald’s “Lost and Found”
I missed him when the sun began to bend; I found him not when I had lost his rim; With many tears I went in search of him, Climbing high mountains which did still ascend, And gave me echoes when I called my friend; Through cities vast and charnel-houses grim, And high cathedrals where the light was dim, Through books and arts and works without an end, But found him not–the friend whom I had lost. And yet I found him–as I found the lark, A sound in fields I heard but could not mark; I found him nearest when I missed him most; I found him in my heart, a life in frost, A light I knew not till my soul was dark.