Proper 19 Year C
(1 Timothy 1, 12-17; Luke 15, 1-10)
When the M25 was first completed, there were several stories of people getting lost on it. One man, 84 year old grandfather William Allen, drove himself to exhaustion, having circled the motorway for two days, looking for the right exit for his daughter’s home; and George Tilbury, aged 49, also spent two days driving round on his motorbike until he was rescued by traffic police. The AA said such incidents were far from unusual, and they were regularly called out by people who kept driving till they ran out of petrol! And they believe there are others who get lost but are too embarrassed to call for help.
The problem is that we grown ups are not supposed to get lost! We are supposed to be able to read maps, plan our routes, follow directions or set the sat nav, and end up where we set out to go. If we do get lost, we feel as frightened as a lost child, but twice as silly!
Can you, I wonder, think of a time when you were lost and remember what it felt like. I can. Once, when my children were small, I took one of them away with me on a parish youth group weekend to a big house in Sussex. We arrived by coach in the dark. On Saturday, when we had some free time, I borrowed a car from one of the other leaders and went off to visit some relatives who lived nearby. I found my way easily via a couple of lanes and a main road, as I had been to their house before and the town was well sign-posted. It was on the way back that I ran into problems. I took a wrong turn off the main road, and went down a lane that turned out to be a dead end, so I had to back out. I retraced my route, but when I drove through Battle for the third time, I knew I was hopelessly lost. It was before the days of mobile phones, I had no local map in the car, it was getting dark, and all the shops where I could have asked for directions were now closed. My small son in the back of the car was beginning to panic, and so was I!
Then I looked in my handbag, and among the clutter was the letter we had sent out to the parents, with the phone number of the house on it. I found some money in my purse and a phone box which worked, rang the warden of the house, got directions, and within 20 minutes I was driving through the grounds towards light, shelter, food and friends.
I was lucky. When I was lost, there was someone I could contact who could put me on the right path, and with their help, I could find my way again. But we can all think of others who get lost in circumstances where they can’t contact anyone: people who lose their way on mountains or in rain forests, or at sea, out of the reach of mobile phone networks. They just have to sit tight, hoping someone will realise they are missing and send out the search parties.
Our readings today are both talking about being lost – not in the physical sense, but spiritually. They are talking about people who cannot find satisfaction in their lives, people who can’t find internal peace; people who have mistaken ideas about God. Anyone who has been in that condition will tell you it can leave you feeling just as empty, just as angry, just as panic-stricken as you would feel if you were lost in the middle of a desert or an ocean.
The reading from the first letter to Timothy recalls how Paul was once lost in his own conviction that Jesus was dangerous and blasphemous, lost in his own self-righteousness. It sums up his position as ‘ignorant in unbelief’. In that conviction he held that his pious purpose (the eradication of those he considered unbelievers) justified any violent means.
Nowadays, we are only too well aware what damage that sort of belief can cause!
Yet, God responded to Paul’s persecution of his Messiah with mercy, grace, faith, love and patience. God sought him out on the Damascus road, led him to Ananaias, who helped him, and showed him through personal experience that the heart of the gospel was forgiveness and love, and changed his life. From an extreme persecutor Paul changed into the most ardent missionary. The response to this insight is a shout of praise: “To the eternal King, immortal and invisible, the only God – to him be glory and praise for ever and ever”. (v 17)
Rejoicing over the finding of what is lost is also at the heart of the two parables in today’s gospel reading – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Unlike Paul, and the prodigal son in the parable which follows, neither the sheep nor the coin could be held responsible for being lost. Neither of them contributes anything to their recovery. The parable is telling us that salvation is absolutely unconditional – we don’t even have to turn towards God and ask for help.
Yet the parables record just how much effort is expended in recovering what is lost: the shepherd searches tirelessly, then carries the heavy, smelly sheep on his shoulders to get it home. The woman lights a lamp, using up expensive oil during daylight hours, and sweeps the entire house until the one small coin is found. And when they succeed, both shepherd and housewife share their joy with their neighbours and friends.
These stories are told by Jesus to the Pharisees, the righteous religious people of his time. Are we the righteous religious people of our time? Do we still hear the parables with the same force as they did?
We don’t share the cultural background against which the stories were told. We don’t think of shepherds as dirty and dishonest. We don’t think women are inferior and of no importance. So, a little background may help us feel their impact a bit more.
Jesus begins the first parable, “Which of you having a hundred sheep and loses one of them……”. Now, no Pharisee would have looked after sheep. It was designated an unclean occupation in the writings of the rabbis, because a shepherd came into contact with blood and excrement. Village shepherds were regarded as dishonest, because they grazed their sheep on other people’s land. Although some of the greatest heroes of the Jewish faith, like Moses and David, had been shepherds, by the first century a religious person would have regarded it as an insult to be asked to imagine himself as a shepherd; and equally, as a woman. Both shepherds and women would have automatically come into that category of ‘the unrighteous’ whom Jesus was criticised for welcoming into his house and eating with.
In the ancient Middle East inviting a person to dine with you was a great honour. It was an offer of peace, trust, fellowship and forgiveness. This was why Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners so offended those who considered themselves righteousness. It was giving honour to those who didn’t deserve it – and bringing dishonour on the person who offered it. But in Jesus’ view, his meals with sinners were an expression of the love of God, and of the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, when even sinners, the ‘lost sheep’ of the house of Israel, were restored to the fold.
The parables reflect this inclusiveness. There is a parable about a man, and the public world of work, followed immediately by a parable about a woman, and the private, domestic world she inhabited.
The parables also emphasise that the rejoicing over the recovery of what was lost is a community event. The shepherd would not have owned all the hundred sheep (if he was rich enough to do so, he would have hired another shepherd to look after them). Some of them would have belonged to his family and neighbours, and he would have had other shepherds to share the care of them. If he lost one of them, it was a community loss, for the sheep represented its wealth and its food supply. Its loss would brand him an unreliable shepherd.
When he went off to search for the lost sheep, others would have taken care of the 99, and waited anxiously for news, both of the sheep and of the shepherd. The shepherd rejoiced when he found the sheep, and the rejoicing was shared by the whole community, for both their friend and their property had come safely home.
The coin was probably worn by the woman on a necklace. To lose one was to mar the effect of the complete necklace. Again, one out of ten represented a large part of her household’s wealth. It was not a cash economy; most trade was carried out by barter, but you needed coins for some things and especially to pay taxes. In a windowless house, with a dirt floor or a stone floor covered by rushes, a small coin would be difficult to find; but until it was, normal social interaction could not continue, since anyone who came into the house could be suspected of stealing it. Hence the use of valuable oil and physical effort to find it. Hence the rejoicing among the women when it was found.
With both sheep and coin, finding them restored something – the flock and the necklace – to wholeness. When this happened the whole community rejoiced.
I have read* that in the original Aramaic of these parables there is a word play. The words for ‘one’ and ‘rejoice’ sound very similar, emphasising again that the loss of just one is a tragedy, and its finding an occasion for rejoicing. We may not be able to hear that in English, but we can appreciate the repetition of lost and found, and the climaxes of rejoicing in these two poetic parables.
The point of these parables is the wholeness of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is not complete if even one soul is missing, however undeserving. Every sheep back in the flock, every coin back on the necklace are signs of the Kingdom. Through these stories, Jesus is providing us with a new map of the route to the Kingdom, a map with which no-one can get lost.
He is not saying it is easy. He emphasises the cost and the effort that will be needed to achieve it. And he is challenging us, as he challenged the Pharisees to whom the parables were originally told: how much effort are we prepared to find the lost; and are we a community which rejoices together when the lost sheep and the lost coins of our community are found and restored to their place in the whole?
We have many opportunities in these coming weeks: through Back to Church Sunday, through the Foundations Course, through Play and Praise and the Tuesday Group, through Harvest services and helping at the Food Banks, and through our normal day to day interactions with those with whom we live and work, to meet people who may be lost, and need help to find their way to God. Will we be part of God’s map for them?